Year of the Untranslatable Animal

A poem for the new year, by Kassy Lee



Sheep, goat, ram – what will I count on

to sleep tonight? Five silences punctuate

the fireworks blooming red-eye flight.


I can’t tell you this year’s new name.

Every twelve years, another failed

translation for animals with woolly


coats, horns. A tongue lodges in

my throat like a snake in a rabbit’s 

burrow, eating the two globular


premature babies of my pink lungs.

Breathing becomes a sideshow.  

What year is it? The apocalypse 


has happened already, twice 

since Tuesday.

My student tells 

me a story about a yongle-


which he defines as a man 

sitting alone, at night, under 

a streetlamp. Whenever 


I mention Japan, the boy draws 

mushroom clouds on his 

worksheet. You can’t spell


slaughter without laughter,

I remind him. What if there’s 

a female yongle? She’d be 


a yonglette. I tell his parents

he might get accepted 

by Yale if he continues 


to work hard. For a month 

my roommate claims 

this is the last night 


to fire fireworks in 

our alleyway. I teach 

the little boy about how 


there may be men 

on exo-planets uglier 

than ours, how often


Halloween and Christmas 

festivals are celebrated,

and how scarecrows 

were once used to scare 


crows. I’m from San Diego. 

The boy says that it sounds like

new toothpaste in Mandarin. 


I miss the abundance of 

toothpaste varieties in CVS, 

what that meant about capitalism. 


Now, I don’t care much about 

politics. The desolate solitude

of a smog-covered sun sinks 


into my pores. The sky seems 

emptied beneath the factory 

particles floating between us, 


mushroom colored clouds. 

My roommate draws a roulette 

table on the back of a cigarette 


carton with the butt of his lighter 

to teach me how to gamble 

my savings away in Macau. 


I used to save to go back 

to America. Who needs to 

see raw ugliness? Words, 


money, and burial urns

can cross borders, but my

fellow Americans can’t escape 


the dissolution. The silence 

of my flesh presses against 

the flesh of five other people 


on my evening commute. 

On the New Year’s first night, 

ash gets into my eye. I go 


to the foreigner’s hospital

for more expensive care. 

When my friend was a child 


in Qingdao, she would have 

a friend lick the ash out of 

the inside of her eyelid.


Everyone I know who would

lick the inside of my eyelid

is out of reach of their strong


muscles. Such tenderness is now 

a biological myth. Sheep, goat, 

ram – how will I sleep tonight?

Kassy Lee is a writer based in San Diego, CA

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