from SPLIT
By Cathy Linh Che:


This morning, I watched a woman shatter
the thin ice on the pavement. I made the bed,
tucked in the sheets, and in the window,
I saw reflected my mother’s face.

Men in my life walked in and out of the rooms,
tramping snow. My mother shushed me,
and my father with his powder keg hands
pulled up a pair of clean black socks.

It isn’t what you think.
My father was a soldier.
He taught me nothing about men.

They are an empty barrel.
You’re not supposed to look into
a gun you dismantle

to try and see its parts.


There are flowers on this bed, an elbow planted by an ear.
No, you cannot touch this breast. No darkness, no shatter,
and no, no pendulum. The past is a blood clot lodged inside
your lung.


In the living room, shapes move against the wall. You are
wearing a thin dress. You watch Beetlejuice while he moves
his fingers over your white underwear. You watch the screen
and see his fingers. Your brothers are in the room, but they
never seem to notice.


Behind the lens is the father. Mother offstage calls, Con gai
. On the phone, Con gai thuoi, which means, This girl. This
girl’s rotten. This girl like swollen fruit. She cuts off the
bruises. She teaches me to cut.


He rises to the surf. It detonates with a sheering crash.
Inside each wave is a barrel. In each barrel is a vacuum that can suck
you in, spin you round, snap your bones if you tumble the
wrong way.


If I say, I have been touched. If I say, by my cousin, then, a
neighbor boy and then another. If I say no, I didn’t want it
from my first boyfriend. There was blood and membrane
and he didn’t believe me. If my body can be a box. If I can
close it up. If it has to be open. Who will touch me again?


I open my chest and birds flock out.
In my mother’s garden, the roses flare
toward the sun, but I am an arrow

pointing back.
I am Persephone,
a virgin abducted.

In the Underworld,
I starve a season
while the world wilts

into the ghost
of a summer backyard.
My hunger open and raw.

I lay next to a man
who did not love me—
my body a performance,

his body a single eye,
a director watching an actress,
commanding her

to scintillate.

I was the clumsy acrobat.
When he came, I cracked open
like a pomegranate

and ate six ruddy seeds.

I was the whipping boy.
I was thorny, barbed wire
wound around a muscular heart.

Today’s poems are from Split, published by Alice James Books, copyright © 2014 by Cathy Linh Che, and appear here today with permission from the poet.

SPLIT: “Che effectively weaves the trauma of the Vietnam War into her own personal trauma, making herself a war victim—only her war is not against enemy combatants, but against her past.” —The Philadelphia Review of Books

“Cathy Linh Che’s first collection, Split, is a brave, delicate, and terrifying account of what we do to each other. Here’s a voice that has to speak. Split crosses borders, exposing truths and dreams, violations of body and mind, aligning them until the deep push-pull of silence and song become a bridge. And here we cross over into a landscape where beauty interrogates, and we encounter a voice that refuses to let us off the hook.” —Yusef Komunyakaa

Cathy Linh Che is the author of Split (Alice James, 2014), winner of the 2012 Kundiman Poetry Prize. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies from Poets & Writers, Poets House, The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Workspace Residency, and the Jerome Foundation.

Editor’s Note: Words—my words—seem ineffective here. But I was deeply moved by this poet, by this book, and so I will try. Split is a sacrifice; raw and unrelenting. It is blood and memory and gasoline. It is the truth no one wants to hear, that we all need to hear. But it is more than the phoenix choking on ash, thrashing to be free. It is lineage and heritage, truth offered up in the name of a history, a family, a self. This is a stunning book by a bold and dedicated poet, a book that dares us to look, listen, and speak up.

Want to see more from Cathy Linh Che?
Official Website
Buy Split from Alice James Books
Fireside: A Kundiman Blog


  1. ‘In the UnderWorld, I starve a season while the world wilts!’ Brilliantly said of Pomegranates and Persephone. Oh, these pieces that (k)not so subliminally ask why the women/girls are always the greatest losers in wars and weapons of man gone mad.


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