Triệu Thị Trinh or The Lady General Clad in Golden Robe
Triệu Thị Trinh recalls childhood.
When I picture my mother, I press her wooden beads to my lips.
I have spent my life trying to remember her, and maybe I do.
I imagine that she told me my name is white flower,
is virgin, is untouchable, that my body could be more
than hungry and kneeling. I see the blue birthmarks we share –
drops of ocean pinned to our shoulders.
I see her pointing at clouds the shade of her ache, as she prophesised
that one day I would pearl at the centre of a storm, swallow
an entire monsoon. I believe that I lived on the măng cụt she fed me
from a sharpened bone, that I slept in the shelter of her shadow.
How else to bless a girl with no place in her nation?
Did she know how few breaths we were from separation,
that there would be no one left to call me cưng?
On her last night, I like to think she wrapped us both in yellow,
that I kept my head on her breast as it grew still.
Triệu Thị Trinh goes to war.
And then, the whole city is alight.
And though the smoke from temple worship
is not the same smoke that blinds the stars,
I cannot help exhaling a prayer.
I see it settle on the shoulders of children
who hide beneath their mothers’ dresses.
I see it slide between the fingers of a widow
stitching up her daughter’s thigh.
I see it glance off my spear, as I aim
at a man’s ribs. I see it coil around his arrows –
two between his teeth, a third pointed
at a girl’s back, as she bends to collect water.
Days ago, the first tree caught fire
and an ox threw a pregnant woman
from its back. In the screaming light,
I could barely see her tears.
The forest has still not burned itself out.
The elephants’ ears are singed,
like orchid petals in drought.
Women have begun to ask me
how to love a land that is already half gone?
Where our sisters’ bones feed the soil, and every day
we gather our own bodies like kindling?
I tell them, love with one hand in the river,
your palm against the belly of a fish.
Love with your head tilted, an ear to the sky,
as if listening for the heartbeats of the gods.
Love with the pain in your stomach,
when you breathe in the smell of a pig
with just enough flesh left to roast.
Triệu Thị Trinh delivers a baby on the battlefield.
Without a word, I carry her from the battle:
a woman who is strongest with another life in her flesh.
I give her plum tree bark to chew for the pain,
knowing it does nothing, but I cannot deny her.
I lay her down and part her thighs.
When she kicks me, I sing an old song
about two sisters who declared themselves queens
beside the Red River, killed a tiger to prove their strength.
The baby writhes at the first breath of our country
on her face. I cut the cord with a bamboo knife.
Her mother names her An, to protect her blood.
Holds a rain-wet lotus above her mouth
so she will always find her voice. As she grows,
she will replace the story of how she was fathered
with how she was birthed:
from a body shining with burns,
in the shadow of a war elephant. She will learn
that in a land where there is never enough to eat
but always so much to grieve,
all you need to exist
are the shaking hands of two women.
Triệu Thị Trinh pays tribute to the dead.
I build shrines in every village,
kneel to so many girls destined
for graceless deaths.
A man once said the grave will spit
back women like you –
and sometimes, I feel them
balancing on my eyelashes.
How long does it take to forget
the refuge of skin?
Oh, my sisters of smoke,
forgive me. I wanted something better
than what we were born into.
I wanted to see you rise from hiding,
voices echoing in every direction
like the bell in the holy city.
Would you have followed me if you knew
how easily the soul spills over?
I taught you that the body survives
beyond what it can endure,
but there are some things your prayers
cannot make whole, some battles
you cannot outcurse.
I save my mother’s shrine for last.
There is no fruit left, so I draw my knife
and with one cut I offer my braid.
I ask her to find her way back
to flesh, to tell me what it means
when I dream of snake heads,
blue floods, a măng cụt
with teeth at the core.
I want to know what she saw
the moment before she died.
I want her to tell me it was a hand
with a white flower opening at the centre.
Triệu Thị Trinh dies.
The river holds on like a past life,
finds its origins beneath my tongue.
Let me work backwards.
One hundred men chew betel nuts
until shadows crawl from their mouths.
Men who will say, she was quite beautiful once,
who will tell you they cornered me
with their nakedness, that I cowered
at the sight of bare flesh. As if
I had never ripped shirts from the backs of dead men
to swaddle the babies they fathered then left,
or to press to the wounds of their mothers.
Even now, forced back against the palms
on a cliff strewn with nutshells and red spit,
I take aim with my last arrows
before I fall. While I am still mid-air,
I swear I hear one hit.
I feel the hands of every soul
I have ever put my ear to.
I know I am safe
because the river only drowns what it can touch.
As my body sinks
the core of me will surface,
studded with salt.
Natalie Linh Bolderston is a Vietnamese-Chinese-British poet living in Greater London. Her work is often inspired by her family’s experiences as Vietnamese-Chinese refugees living in the UK, as well as the stories and beliefs that have been passed down to her. Natalie’s poetry pamphlet The Protection of Ghosts, was published in 2019 by V. Press. Her work has been published in harana, The Tangerine, Oxford Poetry, and come second place in the Timothy Corsellis Prize.