This poem is the first-prize winner in the Golden Shovel challenge on Young Poets Network (YPN), judged by Peter Kahn. Peter said of this poem, “I selected ‘My mother’s last mid-autumn festival in Saigon, 1977’ as the first-prize winner for a variety of reasons. The title itself drew me in and did a lot of work setting the scene for the reader. The poet uses the personal to invoke the universal—a sign of a great poem. The fact that this is a Golden Shovel poem drawing inspiration from a writer of Vietnamese descent—Ocean Vuong—adds another layer of power to this piece. A line that grabbed my attention is, ‘The school monks said English nouns taste of honeysuckle.’ What gorgeous use of the word that Ocean Vuong uses in his poem—’honeysuckle.’ I also love ‘every ghost of your blood,’ which is indeed haunting phrasing. I believe many great poems appeal to the ‘head’ and the ‘heart’—they make the reader think and feel. This poet accomplishes both. The line, ‘Your father teaches you to say/sorry in five languages’ is an absolute gut punch. So is, ‘To see it, you are ready to lose everything but the language you pray in.’ In the context of current world events, this poem makes the reader think about what it’s like to be forced to emigrate. It creates empathy. This poet has accomplished so much in this poem and clearly has a bright future ahead.” A Golden Shovel poem uses a phrase from a pre-existing text to make up the end-words for each of its lines. Find out more about the Golden Shovel form here.

My mother’s last mid-autumn festival in Saigon, 1977

by Natalie Linh Bolderston

A Golden Shovel after ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong

You light candles for every ghost of your blood, bend to say
your prayers, burn joss to mask the smell of surrender.

You pile plastic fruit at the shrine and queue for rations. Remember to say
cm ơn, even in the eye of ruin. This year, the moon is a chunk of alabaster
tomb, blasted high. When you next bleed, it will be switchblade
thin. The school monks said English nouns taste of honeysuckle,
that there is a place where meadows are alight with goldenrod
instead of grenades. You plan to leave. Your father teaches you to say
sorry in five languages, so you might survive into next autumn.
Always apologise when you don’t know what else to say.

You prepare to cross the sea, to a place where autumn
means something different. Where no one pays homage to the moon, despite
its bloodless light, unfiltered by gunsmoke. Where the
crops are still safe to eat and the world will always return to green. 
To see it, you are ready to lose everything but the language you pray in.

You send a lantern into the night. Your mother says, I hid all your
names inside as a hundred flames fill your eyes.

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