Karen Llagas


           We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans
           who will do our part for our country in this time of need.
           —Andrew Yang, April 2020

A politician says we’re all in this together. Asian Americans?
We only need to be, more than ever, the best Americans.

Hard-headed parents became a meme: mine casino-hopped
and did as they pleased, like real Americans.

For whom streets are swept safe, from whom slurs fall like sparks
on my masked sisters in the ER tending to Americans,

while coyotes roam San Francisco at night, stunned by new silences:
imagine these lands unpeopled, emptied of Americans.

Back east a man throws acid to an Asian woman’s face, as if to erase
how our collective body freezes: trauma by history, Americans.

Undocumented farmers, food workers, now the most essential:
a country separates you from exceptional Americans,

armed in their pursuit to be happy, to be released back
to their money, who want to shop, who want to be good Americans.

If I say we’re microbial-linked, our inhales braided to their exhales,
this infinite selves in infinite others, is this un-American?

Invisible virus, how we rapture and rage, how you rupture us whole.
My name has wounds and I live in contradictions, while American.


In our upside down, I will seek the ghosts first

and when they come I will build a house
so I can live with them. If instructed

to stay in the present I’ll say I do, but my present
extends ten years forward,

twenty years back. The one who asked will nod
in complete understanding.

Time is a line, yes, and also a swirl?

We will laugh. We will measure time not in squares
but in viscosity, not something to spend,

but something to thicken and taste.

What is this year but a boot camp to learn how to leave
things unfinished, how to let the invisible take a turn.

I’m sorry it’s not boot camp, I mean we’re in a church.
I’m assigned to cut the carrots,

the forward momentum of my hands marching
to slice them into thick, orange coins.

You want to make a difference? Do nothing,
as peaceably as you can. If you love your neighbors,

stand their silence.

In our upside down, let’s you and I
create a language

beyond saying we’ve nailed it, to mean
we’ve succeeded. If you start the conversation (I wrote

conversion) I promise I will follow. I admit I still
want to finish cutting the vegetables, my want

as big as violence. I want them
all on a pile, counted, measured, maimed:

normal has been pursuing us all our lives,

in our old right side up.


I go to the ocean to learn about distance

this morning, at the edge of the Pacific,
crashing to the delight of dogs for whom
waves mean lightness, play.

They jump the way the virus now jumps
across bodies, the morning buses all over
the world near empty. Must I always feel

abandoned? The questions are always
questions of belonging. These days we must
reach for our own answers—I claim

clan with the canine who had cut a swath
on the bed, espresso-colored and ocean-salted,
curled into a bean, seeking warmth from

my nearby body. How far is everyone else
now, or should be. In the California1AX bus,
before distance was something to fret over,

we were near and far at once. I would count
the faces bowed over altars of flickering lights,
the accounting becoming wonder: to look

was the only prayer I could offer. Dear God
I know now I must have belonged to them too.
I am out of words at the beginning of

our new world, having used them up to trick
my fears, so please help us is my morning prayer
thrown to the waves, words of a lapsed Catholic,

a faltering Buddhist, pawing at language,
and doesn’t water always try to answer back?
The ocean calms me like a mother,

let me exhale one more minute: she is a woman
taking the time she needs, letting the ungracious
children scramble among us ourselves.

0-17KAREN LLAGAS holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers and a BA in Economics from Ateneo de Manila. A recipient of a Hedgebrook residency and a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, she divides her time between San Francisco and Los Angeles. She works as a Tagalog translator and a lecturer in Filipino in UC Berkeley. Archipelago Dust is her debut collection and it won the Filamore Tabios, Sr. Memorial Poetry Prize.

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