–The You of China

Do not wear gloves.
Even if the wind is terrible,
is inside you, do not,
for you need your hands
for all the days’ work--
to plant, to carry, to cut
beets into lattices
you dry for winter food,
to hold the cold basin of water
you wash in.

Your hands will tighten
until they are purple
and twisted
into something small,
a woman’s deformities.
But do not cover them
in foolish warmth
that hides their claim
of who you are,
what you have been.

Deep, very deep in the countryside,
though not hidden from the fragrant
there are trains of buildings, factories
of brick and tile that mean once
someone was afraid.

Their red characters announce them:
Prepare for War. Prepare for Famine.
For the People

This is a hiding place. When
Chairman Mao, astride the country,
thought that China could be rife with war,
that the many sons of Chinese women
would build a living Chinese Wall,
his arsenal went here.

How very different now. No gangs
of ten or four, but groups of three:
mother, father, wonderful child.

It’s the slogan after all:
One couple, one child--
everyone is responsible
And so everywhere--on roads
with firecrackers popping off
to cry a death,
at shiny-littered temples,
at hot pot where birds’ eggs and
tripe and chicken fat are boiled in oil
and small girls dream themselves
the leggy women dancing in their
well-slit gowns--everywhere you see
the parents and their solitary child.

You’d never think the child was made
for sacrifice.

Poetry is written in the river.
For centuries on the Yangtze
ships paused for sailors to carve
the characters of dynasties
deep in stone, leaving their mark,
their words
on the White Crane Bridge.

You can touch the stones now,
walk on them.
You can clamber on boards
to a boat that rows you
out to the middle
of the river.

When you get there, when your skin
touches the poems you cannot read,
know that you are feeling
history in its passage,
that the great dam,
when it comes,
will drown all legends
in a sudden rush.
In town there’s a grey roller rink
and, on an alley, tea houses
for old men, tables of mah jongg
manned by women, and always
markets, their fleshy, sweet colors
of countless faces and raw food. You
climb mountains on the steps.

Where the alley turns,
there’s an outdoor cooking pot
for a room that is home
to all generations and
to jiaozi dumplings for guests.
There’s a closeness
in the easy-moving city and,
in the winter dust and summer heat,
a chance for money.
You’re quite right to be happy.

You make your own job.
With your back
and homemade baskets
and a length of bamboo,
smooth and tough enough
to lift any burden,
you join the army
of stick men who carry
China to itself.

Pestering gets you the job,
but chance is still part of the game,
as though it were mah jongg
and you needed a chosen tile,
the right image
of lucky sticks
to make your hand.
Friday night is a real dream.
In a week that starts
with morning exercise
and works through college
days and evenings in a chalky
classroom that you learn in
and then clean with a bucket,
it’s the only break except
for the odd picnic and
Sunday meeting exhortations
to the communist good life.

But Friday night you dance.
Outside, at the cold water tap,
you wash your hair. Your
dance clothes are the clothes
you’ve worn since six a.m.
and the charging tunnel rush
to calisthenics. But your hair
shines like the black cloud
of heads afloat the listless,
stretching bodies of the dawn.
Your shoes, in this land of dust
and mud, will also shine.

Turning in a cavernous
building of plain cement,
a disco ball threads rays
of color to the misty dark.
In a perfect fox trot, two boys
glide by to the swing of music
that is never more exotic than
“Moon River.” Girls dance,
and then rest, one in the other’s
lap. There is nothing gay
about it, but only the fluid line
of the dance, whatever quiet
longing its rhythm brings.

In the old people’s croquet court,
their arms stroking the dimming twilight,
women walk backwards
in the graveyard of day.

They are walking off time,
each dusky step erasing
the long step of light.

In the shadows,
eerie as haunts,
they summon night spirits,
but only to cow you, tame you
to a faint piano.

“The You of China” originally appeared in the 2002 Mississippi Review Prize

Questions in the Interview from Rob Schmitz and Dai Xiaohong


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