“Against Beauty” by Em Dial

Poetry Pause is the League of Canadian Poets’ daily poetry dispatch. Read “Against Beauty” by Em Dial, winner of the 2023 Arts & Letters Club of Toronto Foundation Poetry Award and part of our 2024 Poem in Your Pocket Day collection!

Against Beauty

by Em Dial

I must begin by defining the word

beauty, in order to be heard in halls

so beautiful, themselves, they shake me

like a quaking aspen set against

the highway and so let’s visit the Beauty

of Loulan, as so many do, who come

to that museum in Urumqi,

seeking proof for or against the auburn

of her hair, mummified with lice and comb.

Beauty, here, meaning defying some odd

4,000 years of summer, only 3 feet

of salt as protection. Or beauty: proof

of red being a threat to itself, nightmare

to the state, alchemy against purity.

Reddened threat to myself, I’m a nightmare

of statehood, chemist against purity

and thus beauty. And yet, on the bus,

at the club, in the comment section,

they use the word again and again,

beautiful. The first time I felt it true,

my preschool friend said that I have princess

eyes. To augment my previous definition,

I felt beautiful, whereas beautiful

means watched. What an odd power it is,

flowers, shows, jobs, second looks and chances

thrown at my feet for the shape of my eyes.

But for the purposes of this study,

can an eye be beauty? Can watching be watched?

For the purposes of study, can I

be beautiful? Would the watchers watch

and measure the drool pooling under men’s tongues

on one axis, the hue of my labia

on the other. Five years before I was born,

a study found that the more faces

overlaid like veneer after veneer

the more attractive the face staring back.

Even earlier, another study

smeared faces of vegetarians and

criminals together, finding their offspring

more beautiful than their origins.

and even before that: Hypothesis: Beauty

loves the average, marks where disease isn’t.

An Ugly Hypothesis: Beauty

is as common as an unriddled body.

All of the largest apple trees I’ve seen

mark the sites of first settlements. Trees can’t

just be trees. Instead, the worms burrow,

symbols for theft. The red dripping off branches,

not at all nourishment, but where you feared

this was headed. Please, let there be a good

somewhere, in which a tree represents not

a country, a genocide, a ripe body,

but something holding up heavens

that I will never dream of understanding.

Yes, beauty I know well as a blood state.

Goodness, distant as trees comparing jewels.

Yes, I can state the word covered in blood

yet haven’t admitted whose. The trees? Jewels? Mine?

Beauty can be at once the maw, the fat

bubbling in the pan and the fire.

A case study: in Mandarin, America—

měi guó or beautiful country.

Born out of phonetic coincidence

or not. Taiwan, once called in Portuguese

Ilha Formosa, beautiful island,

then just Republic of Formosa.

My grandpa found my ama so beautiful.

They built a new island and language here.

The article headline reads: Taiwan Shrugs

Off War with China, Trusts Daddy America.

Articles shrug off the idea of war

as the tug of an island between mainlands.

I can’t be so blasé. Like so many,

I wouldn’t exist without at least three

and yet this does not endear me to bombs.

Compare the resulting cloud to a mushroom,

the resulting crater to those of the moon,

and I will do something so hideous

you’ll know the result of war to be nothing

of celestial dust and toadstool,

only bodies born of empire and bodies

lost at their expense. This is besides the point.

I don’t even want to say the word again.

You get the point: roses, diamonds, islands, war.

Let’s play a game of association:

Rose, diamond, island, war. What comes next?

A body entombed in salt, pestilence,

and desert? A nation calling her beauty?

The world, a garden of thorns and petals?

I came here to try and capture the word

that’s made me feel like sex and oddity

since I careened into this world too soon.

I’m leaving, naive and bare, as she did.

No defense against the word tacked on

to her name, nations discoursing over

the shape of her eyes, millennia later.

Here we end with beauty, borders racing

through blood like echoes down a hallway.

Em Dial is a queer, Black, Taiwanese, Japanese, and White, chronically ill poet, grower, and educator born and raised in the Bay Area of California, currently living in Toronto. They are a Kundiman Fellow and recipient of the 2020 PEN Canada New Voices Award and the 2019 Mary C. Mohr Poetry Award.

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