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By Bao Phi

A small handle with fiber-optic cables springing like snakes from Medusa’s head. Press a button and tiny colored dots at the end of the translucent strings would light. The day after the Shrine Circus, all the kids in my class had them, waving them. My dad asked me if he’d ever broken a promise, and I said nothing—he never took me to the circus because he didn’t have the money, not because he couldn’t keep a promise. How do you say that to your father. Almost thirty years later, my daughter and I go to the circus. First time for both of us. She holds my hand and wants to run past the bouncy castles, the face painting, the pony rides—all things she loves, all things that cost money. Sitting alone in our seats, waiting, I ask her why she doesn’t want to be where everyone else is. Because I don’t know if you can afford it, she whispers, then leans her head into my chest, and I am glad she can’t see my face. Later—after the Orientals have been introduced and pretzel-thrown themselves into the thick air, the circus runners turn out the lights—over the loudspeaker some asshole will tell all the kids to lift their glowing butterfly wands, lightsabers, laser pistols into the air and wave them proudly, show them off, and tell us over and over that if we want one, if we really really want one, we can buy them from the men holding enormous bags lumbering up and down the aisles like mercenary Santas. The light-up things pulse, illuminating my daughter’s face in hyphens of light as she stares across a sea of bright things, a thousand blinking promises never asked for, a thousand flashing neon signs telling her what she doesn’t have.



Listen as Rasha Abdulhadi reads Bao Phi's poem, "Lights."

Added: Tuesday, April 23, 2019  /  From "Thousand Star Hotel," (Coffee House, 2017). Used with permission. Photo by Anna Min.
Bao Phi
Photo by Anna Min.

Bao Phi has been a spoken word poet since joining his high school's speech team in the early 90's. His two collections of poetry, Thousand Star Hotel and Sông I Sing, both of which are taught in classrooms across the country, were published by Coffee House Press. He was Minnesota Monthly's Author of the Year 2017 and City Pages' Best Author in 2018.

Other poems by this author