Is This Grief


Pichchenda Bao




My father never names

the mother he lost

when he was six years old.

I’m missing an unspeakable inventory

of tragedy from Cambodia,

like phantoms that persist

on the retina long after staring

at something too bright. Survival

echoing off cathedral walls

of pain and hunger. Out of

necessity, my father knows

how to cook.


A sharpened knife in his hands

can slice precise, even cuts

out of anything—

the cheapest meat,

tough, pungent lemongrass,

unmistakable, persistent garlic,


while hot oil waits in the pan.

Meals come together

like muscle memory.


I forget that every

mouthful is made

by absence.



When I was six years old,

my father and I stood together

at the Virginia shoreline,

submerged to my waist.

I held on tight

to his hand—


the only thing that made me

unafraid of the relentless

breaking waves.


But once,

his grip slipped

and I was swallowed

whole,  torn

off my feet.

When I emerged finally,

mouth full of sand and salt,

my father was unfazed, laughing—

as lighthearted as the sun burning up in the sky.



I am trying

to learn the proper

rites, though I still lack


the language. Gather all

those left behind,

set out


the steaming feast,

the hot tea, the row of shot glasses.

Thin trail of incense smoke wafting up in offering


to the ancestors kept

inside our chambered, reverberating hearts—

the medium through which each wave of grief must travel.