For Mama Tet
my grandmother taught me how to slit
the milky belly of my favorite fish. to scrape
at filmy scales with a knife, snip the stiff fins
behind each gill. I watched as her hands,
cracked and mapped with grease scars,
lifted the flap of its stomach under running
water: green viscera awash in vermillion,
streaming down the drain. slashed body–ready
for the pan, for salted skin to spark in oil.
it was dark in our kitchen, a single window
above the sink, and I didn’t understand
what perishable meant. once, at school
we were tasked with gathering canned goods
for people displaced by typhoon.
beans, instant coffee, tins filled with rice.
I wanted to send them bananas. eggs, butter,
sayote. milkfish, what I knew of sustenance.
but grandmother let me be. I packed the dying
treasures in a cardboard box–took them
to class the next day. everyone laughed.
in shame I cracked the eggs behind a bookshelf
to sulfur the hall in the weeks to come. I knew
that much–that breaking can mean release.
what I didn’t know was that the fish
under the faucet wasn’t alive, even as
I’d watched grandmother hook her finger
into its cavity and pull from the wound.
at dinner, I poked at cooked flesh with my fork,
a million bones fine as whiskers threatening
to prick my gums. why didn’t you tell me.
grandmother didn’t answer. instead she pried
spine from remaining half, picked the meat clean
of tines–scooped it soft into my mouth.
Ina Cariño holds an MFA in creative writing from North Carolina State University. Their poetry appears or is forthcoming in POETRY, The Paris Review Daily, Apogee, Waxwing, New England Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Ina is a Kundiman fellow, a Best of the Net finalist, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a recipient of a fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. They are the winner of the 2021 Alice James Award for their manuscript Feast, forthcoming from Alice James Books in March 2023. Most recently, Ina was selected as one of four winners of the 2021 92Y Discovery Poetry Prize.