national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2011
Poetry Prize Winner

Icarus

Ting Gou  • 
Princeton University

I.

I stored the wings in the garage because your body

catapulted away so suddenly I was almost sucked in, too.

 

II.

In that story with the Greek boy and the ocean as crisp

as lapis lazuli (the correct word is azure, but you never

knew that color, being content with the generic), the

pictures were so beautiful no one could think seriously

about dying. Icarus with skin like teeth, sandwiched

between Mediterranean pigments. Clean sweat

sutured the air to his flesh.

 

In this story, you are painting me. The last of a dozen

times, the first being my birth when your daughter

lent me to you for ten seconds. In your hands,

I developed consciousness, for my body must have

grazed the blanket and felt, even then, that this great

immense world is no bigger than what I could touch.

I bring you water; you look outside and my eyes follow

like sheep. A thousand birds lift from snow-covered

earth beyond the city. The images I’ve stashed away

of you might last me through the winter.

 

III.

I almost went to war, you said,

but I became an engineer instead.

I imagine you, bent over a blueprint,

the year 1955, sketching to a parade

of bombs. A Daedalus in the

Mao regime, hated and needed,

trained like a rabid dog. You

survived because you were starving.

 

IV.

On lonely nights in Fuzhou, the air draped with organza stars

so thin you’re not sure if they or you had substance (what is

substance but tea poured straight from the kettle, resin evaporating

from amber mats and the littered halves of sunflower seeds)

you build those wings again and again. Feathers from geese in

Guangzhou, saplings from a yard not yet yours, twine

from braids of children and grandchildren, tokens asking

for your love. You worked diligently from your bed,

until hundreds of these wings lived in the room, leaning against

walls and shuddering on the floor, some large, some small,

some feathered in radiant hues, some dark enough to eat light,

some leathered like dragon wings, some made entirely of dew and mist,

some strung with double wings, some with hidden knives,

some open, some folded, some indented like ears, some with

distinctly human forms.

 

In the hospital room,

I wonder if it’s you or they I’m seeing.

 

V.

Ma ma is straightforward in Chinese.

Ba ba, father, a permutation

of lips. Ye ye.

 

As Icarus fell, Daedalus saw through his son’s eyes,

those slices of laurel branches opened wide.

Burgundy roofs revealed their intricate definition.

 

My tongue quivered against the roof

of my mouth. Ye ye, I said.

Grandfather. Words like salt.

 

VI.

I dab your mouth with a wet rag the texture of

shaved lichen. This is where the metaphor breaks down.

You who wheeled me on tricycles, read to me

in thunderstorms, are watching me watch you die.

A kilometer or so from here is a thermos you haven’t washed,

a tub of pickled radishes soaking for the New Year.

That boy on the street

is buying some gum.

He couldn’t be older

than I was when I

lived here, ye ye.

You kept a garden in your apartment, urns with assorted plants.

You believed that three-leaf clovers were lucky because

I had told you so.

His bicycle is red,

like mine was. When it

was new, it must have

glistened.

 

No story translates into this, the protagonist

seeing himself through his child’s eyes,

falling away from the body he had held

and the wings on it. Icarus, grandfather,

reclined in a plotless room with windows,

dreaming of Canton or Fuzhou

or his thermos, green and surprisingly heavy.

His dreams do not need to be translated.

He is my translation.