Ben Jackson

Letter to Mom (Unsent)

Like Grandpa in West Palm, his system,
you say, turning septic, the coral in Koh Lanta
is dying slowly. Mollusks, polyp blossoms,
and crabs come out when the tide peels back,
and the local Muslims lounge, owl-eyed
in emaciated shade, watching my skin burn.
O there is nothing in the air to protect me.
No birds except the flightless inland breed
singing ominous melodies; no planes dragging
Corona banners; no flags. Clouds do sometimes
exist, but too often as haze or buried behind
monsoon rain. And there are no jetties.
Nowhere to walk and look back and think
about you, or about Dad: how he practiced
longing at his chosen distance until it stood
for love, stood for a bird’s flight, which never
meant freedom, only duty. Sometimes I try
to make out a word (promise, promise)
in the one voice you invented, and that you will
always provide. I think of fishermen flinging
their nets at the horizon, utterly hopeful,
and long wood poles marking the harbor
as the tide comes in.
                               And just this morning
I felt alive and well at the Tonlé Sap market
reeking of fish cheese and intestines caked in flies.
Mine victims held out their palms and sang
while I leaned against a house stilt for a photo
in the rain, forcing a smile in the flat
wasted light because one night you looked
hard at my class picture and asked, “But how
could you not be smiling?” And you cried.
How could I have known then you’d be lunging
for Dad in our Christmas photo, that he’d eye
the lens forever with a vacuous grin?
From a hill I watched lake water flood
the horizon, the rice fields surrendering
each year to that antediluvian plan,
including a floating Vietnamese village—
its turquoise schoolhouse and caged basketball court,
its metallurgical hut and flower market—
and a man in a thimble-like vessel bobbing
at the edge of it all. My thoughts,
as I write this letter, keep going out
to him drifting on the water, not to you.

Ben Jackson’s poems have appeared in New England Review, Hudson Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He has received residency awards from Vermont Studio Center, Jentel Artist Residency Program, and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. He currently teaches at the University of San Francisco.
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