Word Problem

Steven Duong


Before you came, we did not carry words for
        art      engine   husband wife      bomb

Instead, each of us bore a collective noun
for all five, a carefully enunciated revolver,
cradling, at most, six syllables.

And of the 800 million words quartered
        in our tongues—200 million homophones.

Without context, our conversations were entirely
indigestible to non-natives, and even among
our own, they tended to conclude

in gutspill—our lexicon was a jagged one,
        every throat at war
                with a hatchet
        too keen on burying itself.

Friend, we wish to thank you—our words couldn’t help
being born so misshapen, so uncivil, but you, your
words, they cook and clean in the kitchens

of our mouths as if they had always lived there,
        never cluttering that vestibule.

        Until your words filled it, our
                word for mouth meant
        the head’s rot chamber.

Your words, they put guesswork
out of business in this country. They cured us of
platitudes and taught us to traffic

in poetry. Truly, your words are a natural
        resource. With them, we now coax water

from the earth itself, no longer rising with the sun,
as we once did, to lap dew puddled thin on banana leaves.
Our word for water could once be translated as

that which gladdens the banana leaf.
        Now, it simply means water.


Steven Duong is a second-generation Vietnamese American poet based in San Diego, California and a current undergraduate student of English at Grinnell College in Iowa. His poetry has received an Academy of American Poets University and College Prize and can be found on poets.org and Pacifica Literary Review.