Tale of the Knife & the Heart by Chen Chen


On the balcony my mother raised her meat cleaver
to chop watermelon. I was with her for a moment,
then back into the apartment, no purpose but summer
& speed. & so my head met a desk corner.
& so the sharp echo of the meat cleaver, the gleaming
cry of the watermelon—my senses wanted to fly
out my head, but gritting my teeth, I kept them in.

My mother chopped everything with her meat cleaver.
Except, over the years, meat. I’m becoming such a vegetarian,
she said, like she needed an intervention.
In fact she was trying to intervene with her high cholesterol,
high blood pressure, stress. You’re making my heart bad, she said
when I did bad things. Stop running around, or one day
you’re going to have an extra hole in that head.

The meat clever had a hole in its head, so you could hang it up
in the kitchen. To me it was also an eye. Keeping watch.

Entering dreams: my mother walking the hallway
to my room, her feet loud with intent, her hands with
the glinting knife. She’d brought both of us
all the way from China, but unlike me, it
stayed Chinese.

She was getting closer. I could almost feel
the meat cleaver’s eye. No. Look
I’m writing the characters for broccoli. No. Don’t

It always ended as she was still approaching.
As it was. I woke in a sweat. Curled up in a ball,
like a watermelon that had been spared.

Chen Chen’s work appears/is forthcoming in Poetry, The Massachusetts Review, DIAGRAM, [PANK], and Twelfth House, among others. Recent honors include being a finalist for Narrative's 30 Below Contest and the second place winner of the Joy Harjo Poetry Award, from Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts. He is currently finishing an MFA at Syracuse University, where he is a University Fellow and a Poetry Editor for Salt Hill.

Image by W.Bagg from Jones Quain’s The viscera of the human body, 1840. Via the University of Liverpool Medical Archive.

Posts by Chen Chen.