Ellen Zhang

The First Time My Father Made Molasses

After harvest, the firsts are memories of home. 
Before that, sugar canes ready themselves horizontally
like the clean horizon of dawn after monsoons.
Joints unhinging, stalks thickening into leaves, 
attuning of phototropism, awaiting both autumn
& fall. For the sharp swing of machete, 
smooth slice of kitchen knife, stripping to share.

Chew to suckle the juice of sugar, taste
of your childhood. The sweetest thing from
Guangzhou is untainted. My brother tests
his new molars. Declares it better than Trader Joe’s 
maple syrup. Hands reaching for seconds & thirds. 
Spit out soggy fiber, brown remnants, seeping 
wetness into coupon clippings & Sunday cartoons. 

For the first, boil time to lightness & sweetness. 
The first time trying Coca-Cola, thrumming of more than
carbon dioxide against throat. Calculating the time
difference with every glance at the clock. First time 
seeing New York skyline. Understanding pollution for
the first time. Meeting my mother’s eyes as bright
as highway lights from the airport. The first reunion. 

With heat & pressure, fullness & robust.
Feel kicking & stretching, possibilities gentle
where three pulses tangent. With cookies softening, 
a new dress, bread rising, first job promotion. With 
morning coffees, expectation of cheese. Without 
chili pepper, numbing oil. Without bilingualism, 
strict tonations, craftsmanship of calligraphy. 

Charmed time, ironically, darkening into blackstrap. 
The purest form retained, receding into bitterness. 
Years turn over on themselves, these memories leave
this aftertaste. The first time, in a decade, being called
son again—you are their only one. The first time hating 
sharp edges of your tongue. The first time being called 
chink, not understanding its meaning until too late. 

The aroma of molasses presses against these four walls. 
Maybe this is the fragrance of leaving, the scent
of redefining home. Distill each memory to 
the core. Doesn’t it all come down to this? 
Extraction of syrup, overwhelming sweetness,
solid bitterness. Isn’t this how it happens? 
Extraction of culture, overwhelming homogeneity. 

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Ellen Zhang is a student at Harvard Medical School who has studied under Pulitzer Prize winner Jorie Graham and poet Josh Bell. She has been recognized by the 2022 DeBakey Poetry Prize, 2022 Dibase Poetry Contest, and as 2019 National Student Poet Semifinalist. Ellen’s works appear in Boxcar Poetry Review, Asian Literary Review, Hektoen International, and elsewhere.