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Falling

I was thinking, how, despite years of dogged

practice, English is still the slick

winged serpent the dull flute of my tongue

has failed to charm: cracked syllables slithering

past a rein of pink muscle

into audible exoticness that marks me as alien

on this side of the planet. How I envy you native

speakers—your minds falling

into the language like agile skinny-dippers diving

straight through water, your mind-bodies unimpeded

by the gravity of syntax.

When you mean to say you’re in or out of love

the verb is almost always fall, not plunge or parachute,

never bellyflop. How I wanted

to invent my own physics of English! Still, at school,

I fell prey to shame like a day-old lamb caught

in a lion’s mouth. Wishing

all my vowels would be rinsed clean of their knotted

foreignness, I whip-trained my wild tongue until it fell

in line with every phonetic rule.

When the boy I’d loved in bashful secrecy finally touched

me & touched me & touched me until my body

was a high bright whistle, I thought

This must be what it means, in English, to fall—eyes closed,

trusting the air to hold you as if it were your own

flesh. Not the way Icarus fell—mid

-flight, mouth agape, betrayed by sun’s searing heat

as wax-tipped feathers streamed from his back

like jet plane contrails. But the way

dusk once fell across pebbled path, shaded by curlicues

of azalea blooms, as I walked home each afternoon years

ago, repeating out loud the day’s lesson:

The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain, so I could dream

at night of freefalling off my tongue’s steep cliffthrough

perfect English & still, each morning,

I’d rise faithfully from death.

Gavin Yuan Gao is a genderqueer immigrant poet. Their work has appeared in New England Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Journal, Waxwing, Michigan Quarterly Review and elsewhere. Their debut poetry collection, At the Altar of Touch, is forthcoming from the University of Queensland Press in 2022. English is their second language.