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01-14-2019

Mia Ayumi Malhotra


Self-Portrait as Sparrows and Blood

For the price of a tooth, you can buy two from the boy with no legs. One to keep, the other to let. As in ancient times, the first slit over a bowl of fresh water, the second dipped into the blood of its twin. Water beading on the sheath of its beak. As a child, I observed the talons’ delicate architecture. How bent, the weighted tendons snapped shut, clamping the toes in place. Even in sleep, a bird does not lose its perch. A sparrow found on the front steps sputters like a guttering flame when fed from an eyedropper. The tiny body is limp in my hand, cold in the ground where I lay it. So tiny you could crush its skull between two fingers. The crunch of wing bones as the pitted struts collapse. On the sidewalk, a bloodied wing, opened as if in flight. The rest of the bird, incomplete, hovering overhead. The curve of bone like a feathered cuff. None of us escapes unscathed. None of us is free. It’s true what they say, that airborne, a bird’s bones fill with flight. Set free in an open field, the bird thinking why not me. Blood smeared across keeled breastbone, bright against its throat. Each wingbeat a scarlet flash. The pressed-together parts mirrored in the bottom of the bowl. Halves opening outward like sky.

Isako’s Rules to Remember


You will be sent for by mail and arrive by ship. Shocking pink is a fine color to wear. To travel in style is the only way. A daughter-in-law is like a servant without a wage. Your mother will arrive by plane with feet swollen in her new shoes. The daughter you bear will neither speak your language nor understand your customs. Your granddaughter: even worse. Monday. Wednesday. Tuesday. How are you. Go away from here. You will help your mother copy these phrases into a small black notebook and one day you will find her marching in a parade at the county fair. With this you will learn there is more than one way to make a way.

Isako Like Ash Your Sister Drifts Back to You


During the war Isako you tell me your sister her daughters half-Japanese turned the neighbors cold this memory Isako a thicket that cannot be breached how it rises to block the sky nights Isako you tell me you darkened the windows readied a pot of uncooked rice for the pit in your front yard deep as a grave Isako out of the wanderings of history you have emerged Isako on this white couch all the body fallen from your bones to hear you speak Isako of war rations potatoes one week yellow onions the next mother riddled with stomach pains is like hearing you speak of another life Isako stumbling through streets bolts of silk clutched to your chest begging for handfuls of rice Isako your uncle whispers something about the city bombed like ash your sister and her two girls drift back to you on the wind your brother soon follows overhead a haze of memory so many lifetimes Isako together we stand mist breaking into little tendrils and drifting away Isako the world so bright and buzzing with activity it is difficult Isako to remember you at the center an obliterated city explosions of light buildings immediately flattened above the thicket Isako smoke rises from another life Isako the wail of air raid sirens the life you lead Isako not so distant as you may think

-from Isako, Isako, Alice James Books 2018, selected by POW Spring 2019 Guest Editor, Vandana Khanna

PROMPT: As in Mia Malhorta's "Self-Portrait as Sparrows and Blood," write a self portrait in which you examine the self via a particular animal or, if you prefer, some other element of the non-human world. Use the palette offered by this non-human thing to paint a vivid and telling picture of the self, use as many active verbs as possible, and surprise the reader with imagery and assosications not often drawn between the self and this "non-human" thing. Check out these "self portrait as" poems for additional approaches and inspiration for your self portrait. 

BIO: Mia Ayumi Malhotra is the author of Isako Isako, winner of the 2017 Alice James Award. She received her MFA from the University of Washington and is a Kundiman and VONA/Voices Fellow. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology, and her poems have appeared in Poetry Northwest, The Yale Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. Read more at: miamalhotra.com