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Three Poems | M. Cynthia Cheung

How to Make a Living

Darwin once predicted the existence of a giant hawkmoth solely from the fact that the orchid A. sesquipedale possesses a body the length of a person’s forearm. One hundred and forty-three years later, under infrared cameras, that prediction unwound its astonishing tongue deep into the orchid’s long, dark heart. It’s tempting to think their touch is intimate—the stroke of a petal against a furred cheek, the dust of wings and pollen spinning. But when one depends entirely upon another to survive, the dominant feeling is more likely to be fear, or hatred: if rain falls and a thousand trees are washed away, every time rain falls thereafter, a thousand trees could be washed away. How impossible, then, to believe the prophesy embodied by the revolving insect and plant, that in five billion years when the sun swells and boils oceans into the sky, and when rain has ceased, the streaming atoms of all things that have ever lived will flood deep into space.

The Mariana Trench


1. Jacques Piccard


How to describe the weight

of nine thousand meters of water 

pressed upon your head?


In 1960, it was the gunshot crack 

of Plexiglas and steel

four hours after the dark 

descent, where you sat

knee-to-knee with Don, 


a thousand meters left.



2. Hydrophone

heard by equipment lowered 10,984 meters into Challenger Deep:


an earthquake’s slow groan, stone grinding stone


a bodiless moan      like a broken cello      


   a whale 







from above


the drone of propellers 





3. Limiting Factor


People ask, what does it take 

to survive? Adaptations to the cold 

and dark, the incredible pressure?

What if your hollow organs go unfed,

and you’re crushing your eyelids shut,

do you still insist on not telling lies? 

No, say the pale beasts

on the sea floor, you have everything

you need: an unhinged

jaw. A throat full of teeth.



The hero beheaded my mother—

thus I spurted, like blood spurts when you’ve

struck artery instead of vein, straight up 

from the stump of her neck.


From above, I saw her torso fallen back 

on the tide-driven shingle, her head

lolling alone at the surf’s edge and its stem 

a ragged red bloom.


I looked her straight in the eye.

Like a person with lungs, like a raised 

hand ready to drop, she sighed:


Everyone’s unhappy. And I, aloft, hovering

in the same rhythm as a hawk in search,

watched her pupils dilate beyond all life.



What kind of person befriends 

his mother’s killer?


He was the type who wore long spurs.

I was the type who joked 

the higher we flew, who surprised

a hero into free fall.


I’ve always liked a story

spoiled by the landing.



The gods insisted: a change of scenery. 

Through the tilted sky, through the slow 

waves, I slept. And suddenly, my mother 

and I again on that strand: how she gathered 

me in, how gently she wet my mouth, 

as mothers do, when her head 

exploded into a cherry cloud of ichor

that tasted exactly like milk.

M. Cynthia Cheung is an internist who trained at the University of California, Los Angeles, and currently practices hospital medicine in Texas. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Zócalo Public Square, Hawaii Pacific Review, among others. She was previously a finalist for the Michael E. DeBakey Poetry Contest, and is on the judging panel for 2021.

Instagram: @zoologicapoetry.

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