In Their Own Words

Paul Tran on “Copernicus”

Paul Tran headshot


Who doesn’t know how
doubt lifts the hem of its nightgown

to reveal another inch of thigh
before the face of faith?

I once didn’t. I once thought I was
my own geometry,
my own geocentric planet

spinning like a ballerina, alone
at the center of the universe, at the command of a god
opening my music box
with his dirty mouth. He said

Let there be light
And I thought I was the light.

I was a man’s failed imagination.

Now I know what appears
as the motion of Heaven
is just the motion of Earth.

Not stars.
Not whatever I want.

Reprinted from All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin, 2022). Copyright © by Paul Tran. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

On “Copernicus”

The poems in my debut collection, All the Flowers Kneeling, emerge from a quest to discover new knowledge about my experience as a rape survivor. In “Copernicus,” the penultimate poem, I open with a question about the relationship between doubt and faith. To me, they are lovers trapped in a pattern of seduction. One undresses before the other. One watches the other undress. One is active. One is passive. One relinquishes adornments. One remains inscrutable.

To say I am a poet of discovery, of inquiry and investigation, is to say I am a poet of doubt. I doubt received ideas, commonplace values and rituals, the status quo. How else could I have outsmarted my circumstances, and avenged myself against them, to claim who I am today? If I had believed the lies about myself, about the people and places and things I love, then I would have never learned to think for myself. I would have forfeited my freedom, my imagination and my voice.

Yet, for many moons, that was precisely what I did: I believed the lie that my suffering made me special. I acted as if I was “alone / at the center of the universe”—unoriginally gluttonous, relentless, cruel—and thought that exceptionalism would make me loved, and love would redeem all that happened to me and all I was responsible for. I thought this was true because I needed it to be true, because I lacked the creativity to devise an alternative and the courage, as well as integrity, to admit I was wrong.

In “Copernicus,” I admitted I was wrong. “I was a man’s failed imagination.” And I was my own. Writing this poem made me realize I had wanted everything to revolve around me because I was spinning out of control. The poem taught me that I had to free myself of my investment in being the victim and the victor. Instead, I had to be doubt and faith. At once both lovers, I had to finally perceive myself and let myself be perceived honestly. I discovered that if I wanted the truth, I had to change what I wanted.

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