Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Kien Lam





Reverse Howl

I didn’t know what to make of my mother
when she cried. I kept the door closed.

I turned up my television. I built
up white noise between our silence

the way God sometimes places storm
clouds between Earth and heaven.

I have absorbed so much of my environment.
I am a good little American boy, and boys

don’t cry. They don’t cry wolf
when they are supposed to be the shepherd—

behind them a flock of lambs.
Even they can tell the difference

between thunder and lightning, a sob
versus silence. I have not inherited

any sort of motherness. I don’t know
which one to be more afraid of: the wolf

who bares its fangs and growls, or the one
who watches me quietly from the forest—

which one can swallow the sky
and which one can spit it back out.



The Jungle Book


I want the language of wolves
each howl planted in the ground

becomes a cave a lonely jungle
the holes made to hold

wolves not foxes not shrapnel
not boxes of firearms or arms

there are so many other things
to place in holes so many

ways to fill the air with sound
I grew older as I listened

to waves crash inside my mother
the amniotic fluid I swallowed

by the mouthful then floated when
I was born the wolves descended

said god bless you said it’s
a boy said what’s its name said it’s

so beautiful I am paraphrasing
the memory imagine my own birth

the first language I heard
it’s one thing to be raised by wolves

and another to be raised among them
I am just trying to grow

my fangs say my family is wolf
let us be wolf the ones

who lurk in the dark and sing
to the moon I know better

I know the silhouette
is just one shade of wolf

the shadow becomes a tree
a cliff disappears I know smaller

creatures must hold their songs
must not sing to the light



how r you son

how is u job

how u been


are u have gf now

everything is ok for u

did u see u dad

how r u son

just take care good over there

don’t work to much take care u health

are u feel better honey

no sick no more

how r u son

mom good son everything is ok for u

u don’t want to answer my question

it ok love u



I am the fragment of the land Mom
was born on a small island and she

shipwrecked in a bottle
that holds a message says

you can make money in America
says nothing about resentment

the war over
there are only survivors

a grudge just a thing smeared to the sea
floor there is a limit to how long

a body can float one time I watched
a documentary saw a whale’s body

saw fish swim between its bones
a whole city built from the end

of its beautiful life this is how
I prefer to imagine the drowned

the boat people how the bodies wail
host that which must go on

which lives it has been thirty years
since my parents left Vietnam

they have not been back have not seen
the new cities built atop their ruin

have seen only me lay new bricks
atop my body how

I’ve become a foreign town
they recognize a little less each day



after Jenny Xie

A hangover is a kind of prayer in which your last drink is the blood of the Lord, which is you, which is not a sustainable method of consumption. A cow can’t drink from its own utter. The body doesn’t move by itself.

If I didn’t like eating something, I hid it between my cheeks and waited to spit it out in the bathroom. Regurgitation, I guess. My father hated seeing food left in the bowl. Hated how picky I was.

Sometimes I wonder if veganism is only for the privileged. Sometimes I try to be better.

For brief moments at the farmer’s market, I am cured of my colorblindness. The bell peppers’ songs. The oranges unhooked from their stems. All of it so far removed from the soil. What difference does it make if this one is a little less green than that one. If this eye is darker. Or lighter. I see so much better when I focus on shapes.

What color is this? I was born in Michigan. Where are you really from? There was so much snow.

In Wuhan, I watched some men fishing at a green river beneath the highway. I don’t even like fish. Gutted or de-boned or fried or wriggling on the hook. But I didn’t look away. I can’t even swim.

The tour guide said the Great Wall is also the largest cemetery in the world. She told us about her life. One brick at a time.

There are dogs on meat hooks in some markets. We find such cruel ways to draw the line between what is fine to eat and what is not. What is smart and what is not. It’s like watching bombers fly over a city. What a dumb kind of luck.

It’s not enough to just be against something. You have to be for something, too. This a black and white dichotomy. I can’t see everything.

A falcon can see a mouse twitch from hundreds of meters in the sky. That doesn’t seem very fair to the mouse. Imagine if you had to stand still or you’d be plucked from the ground like a fruit. Imagine how bare our orchards would be. Or already are.

All our lives we build walls, and then we add windows and think we know what’s out there.

A bowl of green grapes. A knife parting a mango. Tomatoes boiling in a soup, the bubbles red like daybreak. A bottle of aspirin. My mother at rest. The door locked.

I worked at the school cafeteria in college. Each night we threw out hundreds of pounds of food. I wondered what kind of creature might find it later. How such waste might bloat the earth’s stomach and tear its lining down to rock.

I’ve never grazed the land, but how great is it that cattle can turn grass into milk.

A white woman said “farm people” instead of “farmer.” Like farm animal instead of animal. Or livestock instead of animal. The label does so much work. I say people. And someone else says foreigner. 

Today I will walk to a market and buy some food. I won’t think much of the urban fishermen I saw in China. Or some burned gardens. A war’s rubble. I won’t think about my father sucking a bone. The fat wedging itself between his teeth.

Kien Lam is a Kundiman Fellow, 2017 Best New Poet, and Indiana University MFA alumni. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming from the American Poetry Review, The Nation, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles where he writes about e-sports. For more, follow him on Twitter @meanmisterkien. More from this author →