From The China Album

Beyond the wing, mountains
              etched with lightning.
For fifteen hours, we’ve flown
over people’s days,
seeing little but gangs of clouds,
the inky calligraphy of rivers,
the wind-carved dunes
of Siberian snow.
Now, in the recent dark,
we descend toward China,
hearts edgy,
as electric as the sky.


The first words I have of this ancient language,
the first I form with my own mouth mean
refusal: Bu yao.  No.  I do not want.

They are both lie and the truth.  In the harbor,
slipping on muddy, sewage-damp rocks,
I ache to give up each thing I have carried with me.

But the stick men, swarming their Chinese in my ears
–so insistent to hoist what is mine across their backs–
         have made me fierce and protective.
Bu yao, I say.  I stumble under the weight.


The last fast boat
has already left,
the Russian mosquito
that buzzes down the Yangtze
with clear Chinese priorities:
no heat source
but a Hong Kong movie.

On the wooden ferry,
that slow boat in China,
passengers in fifth class
huddle on floors,
all their worldly clothes
a sealed odor on their skin
denser than the smell
of working man’s noodles,
the convenient, floating supper.

A woman, joining her sisters
to hold up half the sky,
vows by loudpeaker
that the East is red.
In the karaoke bar,
singers break on high notes.

Men on patrol, absurdly young,
wear uniforms bought off the rack
to acquire authority, rank
for saying what is to be done,
though not about the unclean river
or the rats waiting for dark
to move in. 

A rain of styrofoam
hits the Yangtze, supper dishes
sailed from railings
like white bowlers on descent
from the toss in the air
of some distant, 


This Chinese rooster
does not sing.
He sours his morning crow,
                                 quitting it
in a half-hearted glissando,
depressed in the brown air.

And this–this I have put in a story.
This brown scent I gave to a watching,
                                          made up child,
although it was my children
I held to me, finding
the scent of bus exhaust, 
        manure in their hair.
This is the scent of a country;
                         it is almost this.


Stickmen © Robert Meier

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