Physiognomy

Public Delivery: Converted grayscale

I’m the one with words on my face,
calligraphied by the steadiest hand. I cover-up
those dumb parts that cannot speak, choose not to,
instead live performance and sharp,
shining, ulcerated points
caught on my tongue.
I hide in plain sight, like a soldier in a POW camp
who pictures a meadow while his head,
beaten in, lies next to someone else’s body,
diluted and silted in a muddy yard.
Thirty times knives drove
through my chest, my jaw clamped
to a wolf that tore off
my legs.
I’m starved
to appear in public, but banned
by the government, where potency lost
cannot be regained. I cannot divine the future,
am not a fortune hunter or fortune teller. The more words
accumulate, the less they resemble
the brush-stroked characters,
the less they resemble my own character.
When sharpness communicates, my culture disappears,
blacked out completely against my skin,
and in this my migration
from China to New York
a diaspora nulled.
Ancient civilizations built walls
to delineate how each of us lives and who suffers.
How can we remember how this started
if the words blur.

About the Poem

Zhang Huang’s work, and in particular his “Family Tree” photo series from 2000, effects me deeply. Not only did I grow up with Jewish background, which includes baggage of the diaspora, but I’ve also had dialogue with my students from China who understand about covering up one’s identity in the face of political domination. In the U.S. as well, Huang’s work is important because of most of our population here consists of what are called “minorities,” who are fighting for their say and their rights. As for the performance art of the artist: I’m an ekphrastic writer, which means I frequently respond to artwork or photography with poetry, and in fact, I started a group of my own to gain an ekphrastic community and produce writing.

About the Author

Laurel Benjamin is a San Francisco Bay Area native, where she invented a secret language with her brother. She has work forthcoming or published in Lily Poetry Review, Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry, South Florida Poetry Journal, Trouvaille Review, One Art, Ekphrastic Review, The Thieving Magpie, Black Fox, among others. She runs writing groups, is affiliated with the Bay Area Women’s Poetry Salon, and the Port Townsend Writers, she holds an MFA from Mills College. She has been featured in Topical Poetry in the past.

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