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Fricatives / Eric Yip

This poem is shortlisted by the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem in 2024. And it's got it all: sexuality, race, power, language, family, food. But it's woven into such an interesting fabric. As well as being a fabulous fricative, the word 'threshing' is key here. Separating wheat from chaff is painful. "Death is thorough" (another tricky fricative...) Listen for how certain words and sentences might be minefields for non-natives crossing over into English culture.

To speak English properly, Mrs. Lee said, you must learn

the difference between three and free. Three men

escaped from Alcatraz in a rubber raft and drowned

on their way to Angel Island. Hear the difference? Try

this: you fought your way into existence. Better. Look

at this picture. Fresh yellow grains beaten

till their seeds spill. That's threshing. That's

submission. You must learn to submit

before you can learn. You must be given

a voice before you can speak. Nobody wants to listen

to a spectacled boy with a Hong Kong accent.

You will have to leave this city, these dark furrows

stuffed full with ancestral bones. Know

that death is thorough. You will speak of bruised bodies

skinnier than yours, force the pen past batons

and blood, call it fresh material for writing. Now

they're paying attention. You're lucky enough

to care about how the tongue moves, the seven types

of fricatives, the articulatory function of teeth

sans survival. You will receive a good education

abroad and make your parents proud. You will take

a stranger's cock in your mouth in the piss-slick stall

of that dingy Cantonese restaurant you love and taste

where you came from, what you were made of all along.

Put some work into it, he growls. C'mon, give me

some bite. Your mother visits one October, tells you

how everyone speaks differently here, more proper.

You smile, nod, bring her to your favourite restaurant,

order dim sum in English. They're releasing

the students arrested five years ago. Just a tad more

soy sauce please, thank you. The television replays

yesterday on repeat. The teapots are refilled. You spoon

served rice into your mouth, this perfect rice.

Steamed, perfect, white.

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Naomi Shihab Nye is an American-Palestinian poet who lives in San Antonio. Her poetry is much garlanded and she has been Young People’s poet laureate. I was sent this poem by my friend Alice Eldridge



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No kidding. Just what I was thinking.

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