Two poems by Esther Vincent Xueming
Flvctvat nec mergitvr
I surrender my body to an ancient art, skilled hands marking
and wounding, needles entering layers of the psyche, transforming pain
into healing. The tattoo artist’s hands rest on my right thigh as he bends
and labours over his art, my body, bringing me towards my becoming.
First, he shaves my skin, then carefully transfers the template,
tracing the black outline. For six long hours, the intermittent hum
and whirr of metal on wet flesh, lemon cake and toilet breaks.
Shading for depth and colour, which shocks and sears
my back, nerves writhing and pulling with each precise dip.
One learns to stay calm and breathe. One learns to ride the storm.
The body as a map to be written and read, navigating the shifting tides.
This is the path I have chosen, to chart a course into the open
with a purple compass, sea green anchor, frayed rope and the blessings
of two sea birds, wings outstretched, circling.
At thirty-two, I am beginning to learn
that my story is not my own,
my body a birthing of inherited sorrow.
Pointing at a woman in a faded photograph,
my mother tells me great-grandmother was a cripple.
I see the wooden stump peeking out
from light blue cotton pants, where warm flesh
should be. I ask my grandmother about her.
Grandmother speaks in the lilting tones of Cantonese,
slurring her vowels. My mother mediates
our broken speech, something about stepping
on a rusty nail, the rot and swell of gangrene.
Great-grandmother’s body maps a loss
my grandmother now inherits, both legs tethered
to a wheelchair. Once, during the Occupation,
grandmother’s legs carried her across the Causeway,
her little brother on her back. She was only seven.
Those legs would never return
to her childhood home, but take root
here, as she walked from door to door in search of work
that would leave my mother at home, alone.
Now, my mother sits with her legs stretched out
beside mine. Spider veins like purple tributaries web
her calves. Skin like parchment from neglect.
Her left foot rocking to the steady tap
and hum of her vintage Singer, pedalling
her love into the seams of my dress.
Beside her, my feet are overgrown, marked
by rivulets of green. My right foot learnt to move
to a different kind of rhythm, my heel a pivot.
The step and release on the faded brass pedals
of my second-hand K. Kawai,
my feet a muddy echo of my mothers.
Fingers trilling black and white, I turn
the page, keep time with the metronome’s steady
beat, tapping live, live, live.