Three months before my birth,
my grandfathers stand beside each other
for a photograph: some city,
China. Center foreground, white
margin cutting their ankles,
date stamped on the right corner
in rose ink. My grandfathers: laoye
on the left in a button-down, the soft
goldfish gums of his smile.
Yeye’s hair still black, coat hanging
to his knees. Do you know
what this is before? Crescent tiles
like small whirlpools, soft falls
of leather shoes. There is a crowd
behind my grandfathers, and beyond, white
building supported by construction crane.
Pine branches arabesque like dancers.
And the crowd. Their backs all turned.
What do they look at, for? There
is a fountain in the photograph’s center
that spouts behind yeye’s head and falls
into cascades. The sky dismal
like a white blanket, red pagoda on a hill.
There are many red pagodas
in this world. Do you know
what this is before? Two years before
laoye dies of pancreas cancer, a decade
before yeye’s mind recedes. Three months
before my birth. My grandmothers
are in the past somewhere, out of sight,
but laolao wears a white wrap
around her head and smiles, the roses
on her sweater red like pagodas.
Maybe it’s just an arch.
They could be in a city, any city.
Do crowds swell here? Do vendors
stand here? It must be
early winter. How does water sound
in the crack of cold air? Once, I read
a plaque translation before a stone
fountain: Please keep off of The Grass!
But it was a fountain so of course
there was no grass. I listened to water
splatter against stone. What kind of city
in this photograph? I called the translation
imperfect. I said I wanted to meet them. I did
my best to lift the second of this photograph.
Something still fogs the viewing.