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Kafka’s Axe & Michael’s Vest — Chen Chen

on August 19 | in Poetry | by | with No Comments

for Michael Burkard

Still winter. Snowing, still. Can it even be called action, this patience
in the form of gravity overdressed in grey? & how should we respond to
this world, with passive-aggressive silence or aggressive-aggressive speech?
Perhaps think of how each could be an axe, smashing through the frozen sea,
as Kafka calls for. An unexpected smashing, a sometimes unwelcome
opening. Though it could also be a shattering, a severing that leads to closing.
Think of peace & how the Buddhists say it is found through silence.
Think of silence & how Audre Lorde says it will not protect you.
Think of silence as a violence, when silence means being made a frozen sea,
being evicted from meaningfully being. Think of speaking as a violence,
when speaking is a house that dresses your life in the tidiest wallpaper.
It makes your grief sit down, this house. It makes you chairs when you need
justice. It keeps your rage room temperature. I’ve been thinking about
how the world is actually unbearable. About all those moments of silence
we’re supposed to take. Each year, more moments, less life, & perhaps
the most monastic of monks are right to take vows of silence that last a decade.
I’ve been thinking of the master’s tools & how they build the house of silence
as well as the house of speaking, though Audre Lorde says, better to speak,
to call out the unbearable in order to unthink, undo. Though someone else
(probably French) says our speaking was never ours; our thoughts & selves
housed by history, rooms we did not choose, but must live in.
Think of Paul Celan, writing in the language of his oppressors. & by writing,
I mean speaking. & by speaking, I mean singing. What does it mean
to sing in the language of those who have killed your mother, & would
kill her again? Does meaning unravel completely, leaving behind
the barest moan? When I read Celan’s singing, I hear an unbearable hurt.
But to hear it, doesn’t that mean I’m already bearing it, somehow?
This English, I bear it, a master’s axe, yet so is every language—
every tongue red with both singing & killing. Are we even built
for peace? If I were to hear every pang, the piercing call of everyday
non-peace, I would not be able to say anything, to breathe.
I think of breath & my teacher, Michael, one of the least masterly,
most peaceful people I have ever met, & Kafka’s number one fan.
I think of the blue vest Michael wears when his breaths turn white,
the puffy vest that inspired my own blue & puffy vest.
Even when I’m doing my best to think axes & walls, brave monks
& unbearable houses, the thought of Michael in his bit-too-big
deep blue vest leaks in. I think, I’m pretty sure I know a constant,
uncompromising grief would be unbearable, but what’s a truer response
to an unbearable world? Still, I don’t think I will ever stop
trying to sneak into casual conversation the word ululation. If only
all language could be ululation in blue vests. If silence could always be
as quiet as Michael, sitting with his coffee & his book, rereading.
nn, headshot, chen chen, 11019548_10153308097483395_1205934577744737908_nChen Chen is the author of the chapbooks, Set the Garden on Fire (Porkbelly Press, 2015) and Kissing the Sphinx (Two of Cups Press, 2016). A Kundiman Fellow, his poems have appeared/are forthcoming in Poetry, Narrative, Drunken Boat, Ostrich Review, The Best American Poetry 2015, among others. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and is currently a PhD candidate in English & Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. Visit him at

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