Encyclopaedia Brittanica

— Vuong Vu

One summer I read an entire volume
of Encyclopedia Britannica
I found in the back of my brother’s car.
I read about tetanus and feared
for my life, the hours I’d spent rummaging
through my father’s rusty tools for coins
to collect. I read about an explosion
over Tunguska in Russia,1908,
entire forests were leveled to the ground,
but the cause of that blast—meteorite
or ufo crash—I never learned.
I learned about testosterone and thought
how awesome when I become a man,
how to be a man is to be a warrior,
a victor, like the Roman Emperor Tiberius
marching into the barbaric heart
of Europe with sword and shield,
but I also loved flowers and read and reread
about tulips and toad lilies and trillium,
which blooms with three petals,
like the three stripes of the French Tricolore.
In pictures, I saw the French kept lovely cities—
Tours, Toulouse, and Toulon—but lost
a city in Vietnam they had named Tourane.
My family had also lost a city in Vietnam,
a place so distant now it is terra incognita
on a map. But what did I know about loss
back then? It was years later that I lost
my brother. We were in our thirties,
and had barely spoken. And what did I know,
little boy I was, what did I know about love?
Tachycardia, I thought, was the worst
that could happen to a human heart.
When I was alone I’d repeat to myself
new words I learned: tetanus, tinnitus, Tantalus,
tetanus, tinnitus, Tantalus…
How I love those metallic sounds!
I whispered to myself those words all day.
I don’t think, as a child, I was ever lonely.

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