Sentence—for James Baldwin

The sentence, you said, must be pared
to the bare bone. This was years after you left New York

for Paris, $40 in your pocket, with ragged duffel bag
of few clothing and early novel manuscripts

you would lose crossing the Atlantic.
You had to leave, you said, after your best friend

jumped from the George Washington Bridge.
You knew you would follow his flight,

would have gone under those dark waters.
You said, to be a black man in America

was to feel perpetual rage
that had to be creatively channeled

or it would consume others
and oneself. I have seen firsthand this rage engulfing

the most unlikely—Demby, 22, husband and father from Philadelphia,
joined a gang of fellow black soldiers, mugging,

vandalizing till turned in by undercover black brother,
sentenced to prison. Demby was my army buddy

who nicknamed me Cool Breeze
for my laidback attitude and originality.

This happened in the U.S. Army,
which I had joined with intuitive urgency:

Being the son of conscripted Hmong SGU soldier
who fought fifteen years under CIA orders, abandoned,

managed to escape across Mekong River
with pocketful of worthless kips, ragged clothing,

to start new life in America as janitor.
I was his seed thrown to foreign ground,

didn’t know how to grow, so I escaped
into the U.S. Army, pared my life to the bare bone

to find the essential, spent years among new brothers
rewriting my life word by word,

sentence by sentence, into a story
I can now understand. As I am now

beginning to understand my brother Demby;
you, Baldwin, his brother; and that wave of young Hmong American men—

my generational brothers who quietly suicided
in stuffy rooms and dusty garages,

and those who lived on
in shade-drawn rooms

or exploded with bats, knifes, guns
in narrow apartment-block alleys.

Yes, our sentences must be pared
to the bare bone.

By Soul Vang

Soul Vang is the author of To Live Here, winner of the 2014 Imaginary Friend Press Poetry Prize, and co-editor of How Do I Begin?: A Hmong American Literary Anthology (Heyday, 2011). He is a poet, teacher, and U.S. Army veteran. He received his MFA in Creative Writing with emphasis on Poetry from California State University, Fresno, and he is a member of the Hmong American Writers’ Circle (HAWC). His writing has appeared in Asian American Literary Review, Fiction Attic Press, In the Grove, The Packinghouse Review, Southeast Asia Globe, and The New York Times, among others.