signature poems

lao lao

✰ of all things

it was the smell

distinct, nostalgic, heavy 

with past lives mixed into

skeletons of crushed cigarettes

puffs of motorcycle fumes, and 

a slight southern sea wind

with lingering traces of sweet and sour

a delicate balance of blooming peonies and human sweat


in this foreign land i call home

i am a stranger tracing back my roots

through venerable palaces and endless family trees

as we climb out of the taxi, 

the hot air and its mistress of scent

greet us eagerly; they guide us to our destination

under the blazing path of the round yolk sun

dripping into the silky white sky 

a burning egg omelette - ji dan bing

i taste it in my mouth and in my bones


the lotus green building shows sign of wear

but its ancient tile walls remain 

untouched by human flesh and hearts alike

they swell towards the heat

and as we walk in, they 

bow to us in deference 

i stumble as we walk up the stairs

and almost give in to the fall but

in this ghost town, no one notices

kuai yi dian she says, and i keep going

when we finally reach the door

i can smell her hesitancy as her hand

softly grips the bitter door handle 

as if asking for permission

that’s how they used to do it

90 years later, have things really changed?

my mom greets my grandmother

and i stand there in between

years of history love sacrifice joy hardship 

my naivety crumbles completely

it spills over and out

like the tea leaves brewed into junshan cha

that fall apart when burned, disintegrating onto the

rusted linoleum floor, etching itself

between the tiles worn in by the slow,

steady footsteps of my grandmother


the silent killer they say, the one that 

eats away at your brain but not your soul

still, when my mother caresses her mother’s 

face and asks her who she is

yong na, yong gang, yong jie

she finds her daughter from the pile of scorched names

blessed to live and die, born in a generation of 

poverty, determined to rise to anything

but; when my mother sees her forget,

i know she too is crumbling inside


my mother grips her hand tightly

as if holding on to her will keep her there forever

roles reversed, she takes her mother into the bathroom

and gently sits her down like a fragile child

when she begins to wash her flossy hair

i know my mother is letting the water run down her face 

so the tears can flow freely and soak themselves 

into her mother’s wrinkled, timeless skin


i turn away out of respect

there is nothing more i can do

in this land of strangers who look like me,

of food which tastes so unfamiliarly nostalgic,

of language that stifles my native tongue,

a grandmother who doesn’t know my name


but at least i know hers

lao lao.


But there were days less sweet - 

If she opened the glass jar and the sweet aroma did not envelope her,

She knew it was because his appetite for her had gone sour, 

And yet she still dipped her shiny butter knife into the sea of jam

With her pinky held limp she let it fall messily, 

She let juice splash everywhere, all over her hair and her vanilla sweater

And she let it stain her white countertops with splatters of desperation

The knife, coated in ripe jam, would still scoop and smear

But the once shiny, reflective utensil had borne its wear

Scraping the pumpernickel toast as she layered it in glutinous jam 

She fell into its self-destructively sweet aroma 

Even though its taste, heart-wrenchingly bitter, held her back

No longer would she fervently lick the jam off her butter knife 

Still, she let her hopeful naivety reign

As she pressed the knife and its helpless lover against her cheek

Hoping the peach would melt into her skin, so that

At least if she couldn’t have him

✰ His words were like grandma’s jam - 

Sweet, orange peach simmering in golden sunlight

Echoes of an endless time that had yet to come

On certain mornings, while the robin trilled a rose melody,

She would dip her shiny butter knife into the ripe jam

And let the preserved fruit coat her heart with its fragrance

With her pinky held high, she would spread the warm jam 

Onto a slice of brown pumpernickel bread

Releasing her breath only after she had smeared all of it on

She would lick the knife to taste all of the potent jam

So as not to waste any, right? Or to fully immerse herself in him,

She claimed it was irresistible to swirl her tongue in the fruity jam

As it danced against the metallic silver of her butter knife

But she shouldn’t be so greedy, mama said

Spread it out, let it melt, savor the taste forever

On those days, it was sweet and it sank comfortably into the dough

When she ate it, her eyes watered and she would devour it whole


winter sunrise

✰ soon the sun will trace its way back to its hiding place

and suffocate in the grasps of winter’s tendrils

the earth will cease to spin in the absence of her lover,

and weep into her axis crooked

shone down on with sunshine pity


the winter will come, unforgiving and hard,

like the stiff sole of a polished shoe

pressing its cold breath against the warm flesh

of the soft and delicate earth

hardening her into his bequeathed throne

but – for now, the winter is a sheep’s breath away

and the earth and sun are suspended in an endless tango

their orbits hopelessly, incalculably entangled

she sweeps her gauzy sundress across her latitude,

brushing it against his rays as they swing and sway in

the breathless haze of spring, each into the other


and – for now, she dreams of him tenderly

every day, when she picks her sweet sunflowers,

her fingers intrinsically twist them into a crown

for him only to bear; when she discovers a

careless ladybug, she caresses it in her bosom

for him only to touch, for what more

than to watch him beam in surprise,

wastefully absorbing his deluxe radiance


soon – his splendid rays will cease to shine on her face

her sunflowers will wither solemnly, the

ladybugs will turn on their spotted backs, she

will learn that her core is made from solid

soon – she will face the frigid reality

she was destined to suffer winter’s desecration


but – for now, the earth and sun titillate magically

in the sultry spring air, their eyes closed in pure bliss,

unseeing the oncoming slaughter of winter.

 poems that shatter

✰ just that a whole town was poisoned

and it’s hard to shove everyone into one graveyard

especially with all the children and elders and

whose labor will they use now?


it’s not a genocide because here in 

America we don’t kill our own citizens —

we die to protect them.


watch their frail bodies buckle into two 

draw a red line around their overrun corpses

imprint each cutoff point onto a flag

always beneath the white  

you must choke them until they stand up


at their funerals we bury the

bodies together in the same graveyard and shovel away the

skeletons of segregation, child by child

ask the coroner how it came to be

she will sit you down in a dark rusted room 

but you already know


that black and brown are more easily stained

by lead 

corrosion in color


© 2019 by Caterina Dong. Proudly created with

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