Ngoc Pham


Wedded first to heterosexuality, second
to my father, my mother cursed me

to a lifetime of uncooked vegetables.
As a child, I stood by her in the kitchen

while she beheaded fish, slid a blade
along their spines like soothing a colic,

extracted gallbladders
to stop the flesh from bittering.

You must learn this one day
to feed your husband, she said. He comes

hungry. He has his ear to the door
of the slaughterhouse. I took a vow

to master the microwave. Committed
to plain oatmeal, baby carrots, cold-brewed

grudge. If my husband came hungry
I would eat him raw. Guts and all.

The years I self-cannibalised, my mother
cleaved our house in half, scavenged

for scraps of her child. When I slept
she simmered. What she fed

I deveined from me, a red string
unseaming my cavity.

She shimmered above the stove:
chicken marrow, a garlic-bulbs-halo.

Meanwhile, I zipped myself back into her
wedding dress she wore at my age.

It sloughed off me like last season's skin.

at the hospital when my mother said your father is sick

all i wished was to have what he’s having / so i could be thin. all these years / she never says my disease aloud. its twisting latin roots. / it gives her grief / my disease. all these letters / just to spell loss. / first two syllables stuttering / into wrecks. stress placement / calcifies. she never gets the point of x, intruder / in her alphabet, how it slithers / from s to z, / self-erasing hiss / leached from windpipe. / xi & she the same sound / in her northern mouth / weaned on rice / white in october like hurried snow. / the final sound air struck / from palm into a newborn’s throat: / first thing mothers do to children / to make sure they’re breathing. / all these years she says why can’t you be normal. / bình thường. / twinned grave / accents where i excavate marrow / she planted in me. / two dấu huyền: slanted tin roofs. / she says i love you the way one plucks rice kernels, / coaxing each monosyllabic word / from its husk, / uses thương instead of yêu. / homonym for pity. / sometimes, hurt. / ư & ơ snagged in a dipthong’s twining threads. / its last two letters / spelling my name’s beginning. / some days she pities her firstborn / weighed with nothing / but dấu nặng in my name, / her dreams curdling / into my bones. / most days she hurts. / when my mother loves she loves in a language i don’t speak. / inheritance i hollowed / from our common mouth. / she loves the way an insomniac / stumbles room to room / feeling for pulse / in wall sockets. / my mother thương / when we sit at the table / where she coaxes each kernel / back into my throat, strikes / just to hear my breathing.

From the Author: “Inheritance” was written over a year after ”at the hospital when my mother said your father is sick” and only afterward did I recognise the connecting threads between the two. The common themes in these poems—familial ties, hunger, sickness—recur a lot in my poetry, and it was an interesting exercise to write about them in different forms.

Ngoc Pham is a Vietnamese poet. Their poems can be found on and The Adroit Journal, and in the anthology Dear Human at the Edge of Time. They are currently an MFA candidate in Poetry at Cornell University.