Pop’s Birthday, Cake Baking

A small woman with an apron
around her wide hips smashes eggs on
the edge of a porcelain bowl, stirring

yolk and butter with the fury of a king
while her husband sits in a wicker chair growing
forgetful as the day slips through

oaken fingers, his spittle-
mottled lips turned into a slack-jawed
half smile, his glazed eyes on the irritable

budgie. The one that would not be tamed
eventually learns to live
with the lock on the cage.

My grandmother makes
her cage out of bread and butter.
The fermentation of fifty years –

the sleepless nights, the weekly
fights – trickles down in sweat to trace
the coastlines on her forehead.

When ache spreads its fingers across her
taut temple, tells her to hush, she could’ve stormed
out with the plates all shattered.

I’m thinking about the murderous lover
who mops up blood with white
linen sheets in a made-for-TV movie

and Rapunzel with her golden locks longer
than any bungee cord I know of. (Why doesn’t
she use them to escape the witch’s tower?)

But mostly I think of my grandma’s
secrets stowed away like her cupboard full
of china dolls. What should I say

to her when I call besides, hello Nan
good luck with the cake you’re baking
and make sure Pop’s happy?

Does she ever think of escaping?
She must’ve dreamed lately
about the black snow falling

upon the grave of the boy
she once loved.
The quiet, ruddy-faced boy

whose love she’d spurned at first
who fought a war for her
died a hero, unsung and…

No, not tonight, not
when she’s fretting about
the birthday party, not

when the cake is rising in the oven.


Who were these women, mysterious in emerald
blouses, bending over their laundry

by the river? With primroses aglow in their sun
-kissed cheeks they scrubbed blue

cotton on crooked rocks. Pink ankles in
water that billowed like a sash. Water

that flashed its silver fish scales and
wove its muted fire through the summer

air until the woods turned quiet as a
mirror. And on the arched stone

bridge over the same river, there
stood my grandmother in her

bridal dress. Bright as a damp pearl
she walked across the bridge

of her thin suffering with her baby –
unborn – a crewel needle

nestling in her belly.


Gavin Gao is a senior majoring in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. He loves plum jam and clothbound poetry books. He is currently finishing up his senior creative writing thesis. Gavin hopes to continue writing after graduation and to one day travel around the African continent in an air balloon.