Ruthless

Winner, New Ohio Review Poetry Contest: selected by Ada Limón

By Emily Lee Luan

Featured Art: The Dance by George Grey Barnard

My friend lowers his foot into the stony
runoff from the mountain, lets out a burst
of frantic laughter. This, I think, is a happiness.

When I don’t feel pain, is it joy that pours
in? A hollow vessel glows to be filled.
無 , my father taught me, is tangible—

an emptiness held. It means nothing, or to not have,
which implies there was something to be had
in the first place. It negates other characters:

無心 , “without heart”;
無情 , “without feeling”;
heartless, ruthless, pitiless.

Is the vacant heart so ruthless?

The ancient pictogram for 無 shows a person
with something dangling in each hand. Nothingness
the image of yourself with what you once had,

what you could have. And the figure is dancing,
as if to say nothingness is a feeling, maybe even
a happiness—dancing with what is gone from you.

When I ask myself what am I missing? I think
of how much I loved to dance, arms awash
with air, the outline of loss leaping on the wall.


Emily Lee Luan is a Taiwanese American poet and essayist. She is the author of I Watch the Boughs (2021), selected by Gabrielle Calvocoressi for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. A 2020 Margins Fellow at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Poetry (2021), Best New Poets (2019), The Offing, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Rutgers University-Newark.

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