“OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD” by Isabella Wang, from Arc’s 2021 Shortlist


I know the love and anguish of every man
by the name of my father

who drove himself to sleep every Sunday
morning with alcohol, then drove himself

to the edge of the Yangtze River
only to teach me to swim. No, Ba Ba,

I know you. I know you never liked
the taste of alcohol, but to put a roof

over the idea of your future daughter
you chose an occupation that required you to drink

and drink as an elective. The night
pouring out of those bottles with cork tops

became the fog of morning in your head.
The stars contained in fizzling

champagne were stars punctuated your breath,
punctuated every broken syllable

you tried to conceal family in the ER.
Ba Ba, what else have you

given up for me? / How many days does he /
have to go on entertaining clients? Mother would say. /

The life of a business man is an occupational hazard
that dissolves the Ba Ba I had

in all my previous photographs of you
into postcards with foreign stamps

from Thailand, Amsterdam, places
where the stores with postcards

closed so you mailed me their airport brochures.
Mother couldn’t understand why I stole the socks

from your undergarments drawer
and slept with your dirty laundry,

mistook my missing you for her daughter growing up
and wanting to have inappropriate relations with men.

But you were the only man
I’ve ever loved as a daughter—

Once, I begged you to take me with you
on a business trip to Qufu,

woke up to the sight of you
intoxicated on a hotel room floor.

/ Quickly, you say.
Ba Ba slipped and cracked

his shin / over the toilet bowl rim. It hurts so bad.
Quickly daughter / call the concierge. / I picked up

the telephone and asked for four bandaids please,
the way a five-year old can stare upon the deepest gorge

of the human body and not be scared
for once, because she recognizes the bone

as her Ba Ba’s sacrifice, glistening under light and blood
as if to say, / one day, daughter,

I’ll have saved to buy you a future
that is shiny. / And the four bandaids

she has to offer in return for her father’s love
will be both enough and not enough, eternally.

How could I ever repay you? How could I
spare your heart of breaking? The heart

of a business man sells investments for a living,
and the heart of a writer invests through living.

But I could not tell the world of your love
otherwise—don’t be disappointed with me anymore.

I miss you, Ba Ba, and your voice
on the receiving line is nowhere to be heard.


Wang’s formally rhythmic and entrancing “Occupational Hazard” remembers the love of a distant father who chose work over closeness with family. This narrative poem undulates through memory, shifting halfway as it catches on a startling scene: the glinting bone of her intoxicated father’s leg, shiny as the future he wants for her.

Isabella Wang is the author of two poetry collections, On Forgetting a Language (Baseline Press, 2019) and Pebble Swing (Nightwood Editions, forthcoming 2021). Her poetry and prose have appeared in over thirty literary journals, including Prairie Fire, Prism, and The New Quarterly. She is the Editor for issue 44.2 of Room magazine.

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