Guest: First Translation

Caroline Mei-Lin Mar

do I know your shape

writing in this, my language:

my not-language:the not-knowing


the looking up: what is the sign, again


dictionary, internet, verify: my memory

my guide

words I have never known

and then the sound:

for this, even Google has no answers.


Because our language is and is not a written language.

Because the computer’s voice marbling shuǐké

in a dipping double fall-to-rise isn’t speaking

our language but its bigger, steadier, colonizer cousin.


our language less shush and more bark

our language breaks more rules


I know shuǐ is really seoi2, know the valley girl lilt

of tone two mid rising in my mouth like I know

I would have written it sui for my mother to read aloud

as I practiced my writing tests


how it sounded in my pencil

swishing water’s shape onto the page


but I have no sound for ké

could be 摔 like a hammer falling

or cyun1 like a village alone

or 街 gaai1 like a street with light shifting through it

Guest: Second Translation

Caroline Mei-Lin Mar

Months later I will ride down the wide boulevards of my city
with two strangers and a driver the age of my father same receding black hair

but lacking the milktall stance and orthodontia smile
of the American-born, thus reminding me more of the generation before.

The strangers don’t speak, staring
at their phones (as is the custom). I stare

at his name, turning its tone in my closed mouth. It could be
Chi4 or even Chi3 but who would name their child 廁

really. I won’t speak until the strangers both leave the car,
mouth careful: my father grew up in Chinatown and how long

have you lived here, Chi1? deciding to go for tone one
like an optimistic song on my tongue and he asks me

do I speak 廣 東 話 and I say 無 咁 多
and he says he thinks it’s better living in the Richmond

than crowded Chinatown and yes the Richmond is a lot like the Sunset
where I grew up which is when it occurs

maybe he can answer so at the next red light I pull up
my ghost-words and say I know 水 but I don’t know

this second one: can you help me and he says oh yes:
his silver edged bridge flashing delight at the shore of his lip:

that’s seoi2 haak3.

Means someone who travels back and forth, like
a merchant or an importer-exporter, says it a few times

for me to practice in my wobbly 克 – 黑 – 嚇 accent
until I get it right: 客.

I say it used to mean the people who carried
your letters home when no one could leave or come here

and he says sure it’s still a lot like that
they still use it for those who go back

and forth between here and there
carrying what anyone needs.

Guest: Third Translation

Caroline Mei-Lin Mar

that the guest is the only objective observer
who is a guest in my mouth
who will visit me when I am gone
(no one, no one)
whose customs can I call my own, can I crawl through
to traverse the other side
I have lost my objectivity, lost my object
of admiration, let me speak to
your manager, the customer is always
paying passage, passenger, a passing attempt
at an old goal, old ghost, older growth
I am lost in the forest for the trees
I am lost in the lake for the water, O,
there it is, then, the water:
I am arriving, I am arrived

Caroline Mei-Lin Mar headshot

Caroline Mei-Lin Mar is the author of Special Education (Texas Review Press, forthcoming October 2020). A high school health educator in San Francisco, she is doing her best to keep her gentrifying hometown queer and creative. Carrie is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, an alumna of VONA, and a member of Rabble Collective. She has been granted residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Ragdale. You can write to Carrie at P.O. Box 460491, San Francisco, CA 94114–she’ll (eventually) write back.