Cognates for a Floodplain

I do not know the word for “pilgrim” in my grandfather’s language,
yet I stand on the riverbank a pilgrim.

On this riverbank, the fishermen call out prices like the ringing of church bells.
Their fish are the size of infants on the verge of speech.
Only—the air, which the fishermen hurl out from their wide-open throats,
has silenced them.

From this riverbank, the boats take flight over the sediment as it laps
against the bank—the same bank which has risen and receded a hundred times
and shifted its weight across half a country.
Each repetition laid down a blanket of silt which, even in the heart of the desert,
never dries.

Beneath this riverbank lie the testimonies of men who marched
nine thousand kilometers over loess and floodwater and starved,
with only blood from their own lips to quench their thirst.
Here, they buried their fear, and the river knows better than to wash away
the footprints they left to mark the grave.

Along this riverbank floated the bodies of poets, their faces as placid
as the clouds, and the boats sent out with sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves
to lure the fish away from those bodies—the fish who, amid the sand
and the salt, forgot the difference between flesh
and seed, man and river-grass.

Beside this riverbank float the shells of turtles, not trailed by torn skin
or unlain eggs but bearing the same water, tinted like the dusk,
in etchings of a language still undefined.

Some villager upstream set these shells in the sand to dry
or hoped they would wash away in the tide which, even now, reaches farther inland
than I, the pilgrim, will ever go.
Some villager set these shells in the sand and called out the divinations
as clear as the prices of fish.

Maggie Wang


Maggie Wang is an undergraduate at the University of Oxford. Her writing has appeared or will appear in K’in, Ruminate, Shards, The Literary Nest, and Rigorous, among others. She has also won awards from the Poetry Society and the Folger Shakespeare Library. When not writing, she enjoys playing the piano and exploring nature.

© 2020