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Lee Roripaugh


Lee Ann Roripaugh is the poet laureate of South Dakota, and her most recent book is called Dandarians. Her second volume, Year of the Snake, was named winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award in Poetry/Prose, and Beyond Heart Mountain was a winner of the National Poetry Series.  She has received the Archibald Bush Foundation Individual Artist Fellowship, the Prairie Schooner Strousse Award, and the Randall Jarrell International Poetry Prize. Her short stories have been shortlisted in the Pushcart Prize anthologies, and her essays have been shortlisted for the Best American Essays anthology. Roripaugh is currently a Professor of English at the University of South Dakota, where she serves as Director of Creative Writing and Editor-in-Chief of South Dakota Review.


Snake Song

I was born in the year of the snake
and maybe this is why
I speak with a forked tongue. I’ve followed

the vague sibilant thread
of the voice in my head curling
into a tangled snarl

of roots, grass, stems and leaves, so that when
I open my mouth to talk,
a strange song, not mine, comes tumbling out.

Ai-noko, half-caste, I tilt
my head in the mirror first this way
then that–Horikoshi

cheekbones, Caucasian nose, my ojii-san’s
serious eyebrows
feathering like ink strokes over eyes

not quite green, not quite brown,
in the tranquil white moon of my face.
My blood runs hot and cold.

Slit me open, let me pare away
my body’s tourniquet
rind. Itch, twist and tug, I know the lust

for heavy glistening
coul wrapping itself around reborn
coil. I know the dangers

of the in-between. And so I keep
my skins as transient
as the inner tissue-paper wings

the ladybugs conceal
beneath the spotted shields of their bright
metallic shells. And then

I shed them, one after another,
like the discarded husks
of mayflies clinging in tenacious

rows to my window screens
in the summer, their hollowed sheaths

paned scales and two silver wisps of tail.
And when wind’s warm breath comes
to unlock this instinctive gripping

my ghost selves are carried
up like tiny dragon kites spiraling
higher, higher…higher.

Dream Carp

People traveled from miles away to see
my paintings of fish—
the jeweled armor of their scales, the beadlike

set of their eyes in
rubbery socket rings, the glimmering
swish of fin and tail

so real it seemed that you could almost dip
a net deep into
the paper and pull up the arching wet

weight of a golden carp,
a shiny trout, or the dark muscular
heft of a bass with

its mouth stretched into the surprised, wiry
“oh” of a child’s wind
sock. I captured my models from the sea,

lake, and goldfish pond
in the back garden, so careful not to
let their mouths be torn

by the hook, their scales chipped, or the silky
tissue of their tails
ripped by a clumsy hand. I kept them in

large glass bowls, fed them
mosquito wings or dry silkworm pupas
offered from chopsticks,

and when I was finished making sketches,
I quickly took them
back and set them free again. Every

night I dream I swim
with these fish as a golden carp—black spots
on cloisonné scales,

pulled to the surface by the deceptive
creamy luster of
the moon or the sizzle of firefly lights

across the water.
And every night I am tempted once
again by the smell

of the baited hook, by my predictable
hunger for earthly
things, and each time I am surprised again

by the stinging hook
in my lip that pulls me mercilessly
into the bright air,

setting my gills on fire, the sharp, silver
pain of the knife that
slits me open so easily from tail

to throat to reveal
the scarlet elastic of my raw gills,
the translucent film

of my air sac, the milky rise of my
stomach, and the gray
marbled coil of my intestines. I rise

late each day, and work
in brighter light. When I die, I will
have my paintings brought

down to the lake and slipped into the water.
First the edges of
ink will blur, and then there will be a great

flurry as the fins,
tails, and bodies begin blossoming in-
to life again, each

fish detaching from its canvas of silk
or rice paper—a
swirl of color, motion, swimming away.

Happy Hour

I always forget the name,
even though it was the flower

the hummingbirds
loved best. They came in pairs—sleek,

heads, the clockwork machinery
of their blurred wings
thrumming swift, menacing engines.

They slipped their beaks.
as if they were swizzle sticks, deep
into the blue

throat of delphinium and sucked
dry the nectar-
chilled hearts like goblets full of sweet,

frozen daiquiri.
I liked to sit on the back porch
in the evenings,

watching them and eating Spanish
peanuts, rolling
each nut between thumb and forefinger

to rub away
the red salty skin like brittle
tissue paper,

until the meat emerged gleaming,
yellow like old
ivory, smooth as polished bone.

And late August,
after exclamations of gold
flowers, tiny

and bitter, the caragana
trees let down their
beans to ripen, dry, and rupture—

at first there was
the soft drum of popcorn, slick with oil,
puttering some-

where in between seed, heat, and cloud.
Then sharp cracks like cap
gun or diminutive fireworks,

peas catapulting skyward like
pellet missiles.

Sometimes a meadowlark would lace
the night air with
its elaborate melody,

rippling and sleek
as a black satin ribbon. Some-
times there would be

a falling star. And because
this happened in
Wyoming, and because this was

my parents’ house,
and because I’m never happy
with anything,

at any time, I always wished
that I was some-
where, anywhere else, but here.


Lee Ann Roripaugh's second book explores mixed-race identity and transformation.

Lee Ann Roripaugh’s second book explores mixed-race identity and transformation.