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All the Flowers Kneeling

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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice Pick
Named a Best Book of 2022 by The New Yorker
Longlisted for the 2023 PEN Open Book Award

“Paul Tran’s debut collection of poems is indelible, this remarkable voice transforming itself as you read, eventually transforming you.” —Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

“This powerful debut marshals narrative lyrics and stark beauty to address personal and political violence.” —New York Times Book Review

A profound meditation on physical, emotional, and psychological transformation in the aftermath of imperial violence and interpersonal abuse, from a poet both “tender and unflinching” (Khadijah Queen)

Visceral and astonishing, Paul Tran's debut poetry collection All the Flowers Kneeling investigates intergenerational trauma, sexual violence, and U.S. imperialism in order to radically alter our understanding of freedom, power, and control. In poems of desire, gender, bodies, legacies, and imagined futures, Tran’s poems elucidate the complex and harrowing processes of reckoning and recovery, enhanced by innovative poetic forms that mirror the nonlinear emotional and psychological experiences of trauma survivors. At once grand and intimate, commanding and deeply vulnerable, All the Flowers Kneeling revels in rediscovering and reconfiguring the self, and ultimately becomes an essential testament to the human capacity for resilience, endurance, and love.

ISBN-13: 9780143136842

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 02-15-2022

Pages: 112

Product Dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.50(d)

Series: Penguin Poets

Paul Tran received their BA in history from Brown University and MFA in poetry from Washington University in St. Louis, where they were the chancellor’s graduate fellow and senior poetry fellow. They have been awarded a 2021 Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, Paul’s work appears in The New Yorker, Poetry, and elsewhere.

Read an Excerpt

Into the shadows I go and find you, gorgeous as your necklace of nine hundred and ninety-nine index fingers.
All of them point at me as the kill to complete your mission:
to return to your kingdom by returning to your king a thousand human sacrifices.
You chase me. You swing your sword

yet I remain beyond your reach. I’ll surrender, I tell you,
when you detach from your received idea of purpose.
So you do. You set down your weapon.
But I didn’t mean the blade in your hand.
I meant the blade in your mind.

I had a form.

The form said Name of victim. The form named me.
The form was a form of naming. Naming gave me form.
The form said Time of incident.
Time could be measured.

The Incident could be defined. Both had a form.
Both were a form of naming. The form said Age.
Age could be measured by Time.
Age could be defined by the Incident.
The Incident occurred on the night before my twenty-first birthday.
The Time was night as night became night. The Incident occurred in my room at the Time. The Time occurred to me after the Incident.
The form said Race or ethnicity.
Both were constructs. Both marked me.
Both had a form.
Both were a form of naming.
Naming was marking.

I marked the form.
(Asian. Bottom. 4 Now.)
I was a construct.

(Looking 4 Fun. No Strings Attached.)
I was unremarkable.

The form said Sex.
The form listed my options.
I had no option.

I went along with the Sex. The Sex had a Name.
(I won’t say the Name.)
Both marked me.

The form said Affiliation. Everything started out fine. The form said Residence.
I unlocked the door.

I misread Affiliation as Affliction. The Name entered.
I misread Residence as Residual. The Name kissed me.
The form said Alcohol or drugs used at the time of incident.
I was having a good time.

The form said Relationship with the assailant prior to incident. I did the thing I was good at.
The form said Type of coercion or force involved.

The Name hit me.
The form said Please specify. The Name choked me.
The form said Ability to consent was inhibited by. The Name pressed a white towel against my face.
The form said Please specify. The towel smelled like sugar. Please specify.
An ice cream truck drove by.

I heard the song.

Waking again to the spartan furnishing—brass knobs and coat hooks, curtain moth-gnawed and yellowing, plastic mattress atop a twin frame, photograph of me and my mother turned away, book from a class on empire and literature that told the story of a story-
teller who evades the end awaiting her each morning by giving the king not her body but her imagination each night for a thousand and one nights—what humiliated me as I relived my death in that room without sunrise wasn’t my desire for light but my desire for more darkness.

Except for the glow of distant ships nothing could be seen.
My mother, staring into the dark, waiting for the light as she waited years ago for another ship to take her from her life, adjusted her glasses.
The past came into view:
line of women. Line of soldiers.
Red sand beach. Sand red with blood. Waves racing in.
A soldier. His rifle. My mother on her knees. Waves retreating.
Once upon a time, she began.

In a version of the story there’s no ocean. No waves racing in. No waves retreating. Their behavior neither the behavior of memory nor the past. In a version of the story there’s no soldier. No rifle. No bullet wound marking skull after skull like a period at the end of a sentence. No final thought for each prisoner. In a version of the story there’s no sand. No beach. No adjective to modify or justify the washed-away blood. No propaganda for beauty. No grotesque agenda. In a version of the story there’s no line of women robbed of their womanhood. No prayers. No answering bodhisattva. No means to know if no answer is the answer. In a version of the story there’s no ship. No going forward. No getting back. No inner compass or magnetic field or spinning needle or stars to tell my mother where she is. In a version of the story there’s no story. No sleepless dawn. No twilight. Nothing happened. My mother disappears whatever blights her the way she now makes her living: altering and tailoring the story as though the truth were trousers to be hemmed. She changes and is changed by how she tells her story. There is no truth. Only a version. Aversion. A verge. A vengeance.

With him I had an audience. Both heads at attention. Ravenous. A kind of ravishing. Tell me you like it. I told him I liked it. Tell me how bad
you want it. I told him I wanted it bad, maybe, because I did want, badly, to be remade, changed so thoroughly

at the core of my being, the corridor through which he entered like a king,
though he was far from a king, and in doing so

took me, at least part of me, with him. I was willing by then, by force, to entertain my executioner.
I stopped punching. Kicking. Resisting

what I couldn’t resist. What he wanted to hear
I told him. I made my pussy talk. I found in violence a voice.

Across the table from my mother I filled two cups with tea.
We sat in silence. We sipped in silence.
Her silence demanding mine.
Some suffering we’d rather not know so we don’t suffer knowledge calling on us in the name of love to blame ourselves and to appropriate the pain

because we think of pain and blame as objects requiring purpose and possession.
That’s not love. That has no name.
We finished our tea. We set down our cups.
What do you see? Leaves. Water.
Waves. Ships. Bodies. Bullets. No shore.

Let me be clear.

Inside this story is another story. The frame is a door.
Behind the door is another door.
Both the room and the king are literal and figurative. To use figurative language is to make an argument.
Like Scheherazade my mother and I cleave to and from our story. Like Scheherazade ours is a story of refrain.
The word refrain means not just resist but also repetition. Repetition is emphasis.
The emphasis being the purpose for repetition. My purpose is precision.
Even when I’m unclear I’m deliberate.
When I’m deliberate I’m liberated.

Night after night
I returned to the room. Windows closed. Drapes drawn.
Neither spring nor starlight to ignite the air. Only his breath lingering on the pillowcase. His face in the mirror like the image of a swan in a lake. I was the lake doubling and doubting his image. Could I understand what happened if I understood him? Could I slake my rage if I knew what the next day had planned?
To-go containers. Emails. Pills. Laundry. More laundry.
At the foot of the bed, I decided there had to be a way out. There was the way out.

Of the books he wrote about me, my favorite is the book Master had bound with my skin. De humani corporis fabrica. Am I vain?
Born poor. Illiterate. Oblivious to any life but this,
never did I expect perpetuity. Never did I expect a man to want me the way he wanted me. Master didn’t care how ugly I was. My nose flat. My thighs fat. My teeth the color of horse shit. Master dug me out from the ground. He took my corpse into his arms. He held me so close
I forgot I was a body. I became his body of work. Biology. Physiology. Anatomy. Master, doubting the Old Masters, believed doubt could draw a new map to the interior.
In his classroom at the university, Master had me undressed and laid on a table for his pupils to see. He descended from his dais with the dynamism of a god walking among his disciples. Whatever he dictated they scribbled on their slates, lapping his theories and thoughts like dogs lapping piss from a chamber pot.
Some want to be holy. Some want to be human. Some want to believe the nature of the human revealed reveals the nature of the holy.
As Master opened me—groin hard against my hips, hands in my guts—I opened him. I gave him nerve. Tendon. Muscle. Ventricle. Mandible. Sternum. Tibia. Atria. Labia.
Every aspect of myself
I hadn’t resource or reason to fathom—heft of the mind, mechanics of the heart—he dissected. Documented. Paraded before his surgical circus. His spectators and skeptics oohing and aahing. Shuffling in their seats. Fanning back the heat.
Their interest with what was found in me formed
from their interest with what could be in them . . .
I wanted to tell them that they weren’t special. They had no soul beyond their investment in the function of the soul. Their gaze not absolute. Not pure. Not empirical. Only imperial. Impure. Approximate.
I wanted to tell them that there was much they’d never know. They thought they knew what knowledge was. But knowledge was me: the edge of doubt and belief, of what persists Master after Master, reified and repudiated, preserved in a Providence library—air-conditioned, light-controlled—
touched and retouched, awaiting a new Master to approach the edge.

Too hot to rest, I toss my arms off the bed. My night-
gown wet with sweat. I feel you

—a sack of scavenged skulls on my chest

—sipping the salt from my breasts. Imp.

Incubus. Im-
pulse. You and me like a mare

that must be broken in by breaking in-

to. Tamed is how fire is by giving itself something to destroy:
it destroys it-
self. Who

can deter-
mine what’s inside another?

What is risked when we enter?
Caliper. Forceps.
Scalpel. Oculus.
Perhaps you’re the wilderness

that waits with-
in me. Perhaps an-
other mystery, I
open beneath

you. Yoked. Harnessed.

At once a-
wake and a-
sleep. I nay.

I knock

over the kerosene lamp. Light of

the rational mind snuffed. Shadow of shadows.

Because I can’t see, I sense.
Your thumb

thrumming my mouth. A
command. Arch-

angel. Vision of invasion.

Table of Contents

Orchard of Knowing 1

Incident Report 2

Scheherazade/Scheherazade 5

Scientific Method 12

The Nightmare: Oil on Canvas: Henry Fuseli: 1781 14

Bioluminescence 16

Hypothesis 17

The Cave 21

Provenance 22

Chrome 24

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart 25

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus: Oil on Canvas: Pieter Bruegel the Elder; 1560 26

The First Law of Motion 28

Scientific Method 31

Year of the Monkey 33

Endosymbiosis 37

Lipstick Elegy 39

Incantation 43

I See Not Stars but Their Light Reaching Across the Distance Between Us 45

The Cave 58

Enlightenment 61

Progress Report 62

Scientific Method 66

Galileo 68

The Santa Ana 70

Judith Slaying Holofemes: Oil on Canvas: Artemisia Gentileschi: 1620 74

Scheherazade/Scheherazade 76

Copernicus 88

Orchard of Unknowing 89

Notes 93

Acknowledgments 99