The only island cemetery is nearly at sea level.
Sprawling, littered with frangipani flowers
and feral roosters, it gives the non-living a seat
to gaze out at the sea. When the waters finally
rise over the cliffs, the dead will be the first
to drown, we are sure of it, as we watch other islands
prepare to dredge their graves. Even still: what privilege
to have the earth remember your name. Of course the body
decays– how easily hands turn into dirt in this humidity,
release their bones and nitrogen to nourish
the stands of papaya trees. A headstone is only a home
for a name. A memory. It says, I lived once.
The Chinese men who worked the phosphate belts
had names and bodies deemed unworthy
of remembering. We call them workers. Laborers.
Named only for the days they spent brushing
precious white powder from the island’s limestone teeth.
The elaborate system of belts and carts efficiently
wheeled the phosphate down, no room left
for the worked-through bodies. Instead, they collected
in a miners’ grave. Separated from the other dead.
We know so little about them. Only enough
to say: They lived once. Thank you. It was here.
Stephanie Niu is a poet from Marietta, Georgia. Currently based in New York City, she studied symbolic systems and computer science at Stanford University. Her poems have appeared in The Southeast Review, Storm Cellar, Midway Journal, and Portland Review.
Poet’s Note: This poem closes with a variation on a line from Aracelis Girmay’s “Ars Poetica.”
Photo by Octav Cado.