Black Carp / Rainbow Carp

On nights my mother insists we sleep
the same bed, I resent how her breath
invades mine, how her voice funnels into my ear,
how she kneads the hollows of my eyes;
on the flea-bitten mattress we’d share
this genealogy
of pain—secrets staled over time; cancers
that died in my mother’s body, seeping
into my own gooseflesh. The desultory
winter cures us of long silences.

She has stopped telling me her girlhood tales
of collecting gumwrappers
& balancing tin buckets of muckwater to the valley,
but I remember every story. In the glossless countryside,
the only pleasure she had was staring
into the clear pond where black carp swam;
dipping her hand in until it swelled with cold.

Some nights when I’m on this bed with her,
I dream about horses and rainbow carp.
Each carp swarms huge as a child
polka-dotted with scarlet fever, tomato sauce
stains. They stretch & crowd the lake
inside my lungs. Above the water my mother
plays a baby grand piano covered in snow.

A sonata. A discordant wish.
I dive in, wake up to her snoring,
an affirmation of love—how difficult
when outside the traffic bumbles, a cesspool
of ambulance music. Streetlights polish her skin
to bitter thistle, & if I bent to cup my own grief
she would invade it with one riff, one arch
of shoulder blade, one throb.

Sally Wen Mao is the recipient of fellowships from Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and Kundiman. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in ACM, Gargoyle, Night Train, Crab Orchard Review, and Copper Nickel, among others. (

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761