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Recorded for Poem-a-Day, December 26, 2016.
About this Poem 

“This poem was inspired by an anecdote from A Historical, Geographical, and Philosophical View of the Chinese Empire, published in 1795 by W. Winterbotham, in reference to a Hmong woman who defended a fort by herself after Chinese enemy troops killed all the soldiers, including her husband: ‘[T]hey were conducted into the fort where she had remained alone, and of which she had been the whole defense; sometimes firing her musket, at others tearing off fragments from the rock, which she rolled down on the soldiers who in vain attempted to climb it.’”
—Mai Der Vang

I Am the Whole Defense

Mid-1700s, Southwestern China

Lightning is the creature who carries a knife.

Two months now,
The rains hold watch.

Statues bury in teak
Smeared with old egret’s blood.

I feel the pulse of this inferno,
Tested by the hour to know

That even torches must not waver.

In the garrison, I teach boulders
To trickle from the cliff.

My fallen grow parchment from their hair,

Calligraphy descends
From their lips.

Infantry attack
But my musket knows.

They scale the sides
Yet I tear the rocks.

I am not wife, but my name is Widow.

Let them arrive 
To my ready door,
The earth I’ve already dug.

Copyright © 2016 by Mai Der Vang. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 26, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Copyright © 2016 by Mai Der Vang. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on December 26, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

Mai Der Vang

Mai Der Vang

Mai Der Vang's debut poetry collection, Afterland, was selected by Carolyn Forché as the winner of the 2016 Walt Whitman Award, given by the Academy of American Poets.

by this poet

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Never step back    Never a last
Scent of plumeria

When my parents left
You knew it was for good 

     It’s a herd of horses never
           To reclaim their    steppes

You became a moth hanging
Down from the sun

Old river    Calling to my mother
Kept spilling out of

2
poem

We cross under
the midnight shield
and learn that bullets

can curse the air.
A symposium
of endangered stars

evicts itself to
the water. Another
convoy leaves the kiln.

The crowded dead
turn into the earth’s
unfolded bed sheet.

We drift near banks,

poem

First, the sting
in your nose.

Then in your eyes,
a furnace flared

To hollow
your face.

Flies above
your empty sockets.

Maggots made
your split skin.

Another cow dies
from breathing

as you swallowed
from the same air.

How many days before