Nights of Tokhang

By Iris Orpi


Like a blunt knife falling,

the way uncertainty is torture

and torture is death

suspended from a string,

the layers that stand

between the heart and the blade,


night falls again on those uncertain streets.

Spirits crouch in fear with strained ears

where they had taught themselves

to fall asleep on empty stomachs.


These nights they listen for sounds of the end,

ominous gap in the arid hush,

the brief commotion of a will ensnared

like a helpless bird in the span

of a final intake of breath,

the screech of tires and the spending of bullets

ripping open the telling silence,


having brushed against the possibility of it

so many times they’d recognize the air

in its lungs as it starts dropping names

in the dead of night.


These nights they toss and turn on beds

of the nails intended for their own coffins

with cold palms pressed against the grimy walls

wondering how many hours they have left,

touching the inert limbs of their children

to check if they are still breathing.


Too late to dream, too late now

to hold the stillborn promise of change.

Too futile to change.


And in the mornings they rise

on nerves with burnt off edges

and inhale from the stench the tattered stories

of those who have been purged the night before.

An ounce of weeping, quickly drowned out

by too many empty words. A sustained

cacophony of secondhand rage.


Tell themselves it’s just ulcer from hunger.

And death will come anyway, one way or another.


(The streets have never been safer.)




Iris Orpi is an immigrant from the Philippines to the USA, currently living in Chicago, Illinois with her husband and toddler son. Her poems have appeared on dozens of online and print publications around Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa. In 2014 she was an Honorable Mention for the American Poetry Prize, given annually by Chicago Poetry Press. She is the author of the novel The Espresso Effect and the book of compiled poems Cognac for the Soul. She misses her native country and often draws inspiration from her journey towards calling the Midwest home.