2020 Student Poetry Award
Dai “Debby” Shi
It’s Too Early
I was born between clefts of glacier ice and numbers
on checks, scrawled in Chinese penmanship—between cucumber
slices, laid flat on white bread or against bloodshot eyes, aflame
with tiny dragons. The skin under the eye is the most delicate, better
when firm, shows your age when loose. Eye cream with a thousand
ingredients for firm under eyes that glow at night, delicate sarcoma
or milky cataracts in my grandma’s eyes. Green tea with a splash of milk.
If I pull hard enough at thin strings of beauty, her ghost floats through
my lap, a cold breeze in humid Shanghai air. The premature spring
wind will slip through my hair, the trees pink with cherry blossoms,
bouncy locks will fly into the sky, hang off walls, release the aroma of
roses and fertility. They’ll land the way they do in the salon, a cat
from a windowsill. Preferably it’ll happen in public. Validation
at the shaking of dice. Then I’ll see him. He’ll be abnormally tall,
as huggable as an ironing board. He’ll be impressed by my tight
under eyes. He’ll ask. I’ll be the cool girl. Of course I avoided
the overwhelming allure of under eye injections. My grandma
had the best genetics. Cyborg like me. I’ll kneel
before him when he asks, knees on hard ground while he reclines
on the bed that I fluffed. He’ll push my head down, hand in my hair,
it’ll hurt—but he must think that it’s soft. When I go home, my mom
will remark how pretty and flushed I look. I’ll smile in the effortless
cool, dismissive way that I do. Today, I don’t imagine I will be able to
look her in the eye. She paid so much for my wisdom
and look at all of this, this is everything I have to show for it.
Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Selected by Chen Chen
Chen Chen on Dai "Debby" Shi
After I read this poem, I just kept thinking about it, its dedication to the strange yet completely apt detail, its passion for surprise—right from the opening: “I was born between clefts of glacier ice and numbers / on checks, scrawled in Chinese penmanship.” And after reading the ending, I immediately needed to read the whole poem again. From under eye cream to a grandmother’s ghost to bouncy hair that lands just right, “like a cat from a windowsill.” Then a love interest who’s “abnormally tall, / as huggable as an ironing board.” How quotable, every couplet of this poem (and the single, standalone ending line). How I simply want to type up every line and let that be the judge’s citation.
What I can say: this is a beautiful poem. This is a poem about beauty and desire and beauty standards. This is a poem that looks at good looks, at the act of looking. A poem that recognizes that being aware of impossible beauty standards doesn’t mean you can altogether escape them, the ways they get passed down, and you inherit them, practice them, as though for you, they are just possible enough not to hurt anymore. I keep coming back to the diction of the penultimate line, those two words, “my wisdom.” The speaker’s wisdom is not some calm stock phrase, lovely in an utterly forgettable way, the type you might find affixed to a teabag. No, the wisdom here is fraught, is full of questions and an “overwhelming allure.”