Friday, October 24, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 3

LinkPosting this a day earlier than usual, because I'm heading to Philadelphia for the ALSC conference.

1. The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity
2. The Scholar-Minister Gives Career Advice

3. The Emperor’s Male Favorite Waits Up for Him

Holding the mirror, I study my plucked eyebrows,
xxxxxxworry my fringecurl,
xxxxxxxxxxxxtouch my lips with rouge.

He gave me this mirror. On its back, twin dragons
xxxxxxbraid their jadescaled
xxxxxxxxxxxxbodies into sinew.

The Peach Terrace glints under the autumn moon,
xxxxxxpink as skin seen
xxxxxxxxxxxxthrough red silk gauze.

Are the lights in the Audience Hall still burning
xxxxxxor has he removed Heaven
xxxxxxxxxxxxto some other room?

I asked Eunuch Shu earlier for the Emperor’s mood.
xxxxxxThe army has pushed back
xxxxxxxxxxxxthe barbarians, he said,

and recouped the loss of ten frontier towns
xxxxxxthey took from us
xxxxxxxxxxxxa month ago.

A victory then. Another change. The wine has turned cold.
xxxxxxOn the old coverlet,
xxxxxxxxxxxxthe kingfisher molts.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 2

1. The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity

2. The Scholar Minister Gives Career Advice

He has come to display his respect and so court my support,
this young scholar who topped the imperial examination,
xxxxxlike so many before him year after year.

Already he follows the fashion of snipping a sleeve.
Already he wears a fine powder to whiten his face,
xxxxxaccentuate his swallow brows.

He refreshes this ashen room like spring rain. A young bamboo
at once strong and supple, he flowers but yearns to buckle
xxxxxhis body in a public robe.

In my hands The Sayings—the graying calligraphy,
the bamboo ribs bound by a belt of twine and worn
xxxxxby age and use. The sage’s words

are imperial edicts engraved on the heart’s bronze urn.
He’s repeating his question. I answer, Virtue is forged
xxxxxthrough loyal service to the court.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 1

The new book opens with a sequence of persona poems called "Hungry Ghosts." The speakers are Chinese, and are fictional where they are not historical. The inspiration for the sequence came from a Chinese history and fiction course I took with Ellen Neskar at Sarah Lawrence College.

1. The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity

Dear Heart, you hear the gossip Lord Hu circulates
about how I begged the Emperor to castrate me
instead of quaffing down the poisoned cup, how base
I am to return a remnant of the blade to my father.

The slander passes in winecups around the court
once every year. More often if the border’s quiet.
My name’s divulged to new officials as a joke
or else a warning not to defame the Son of Heaven.

Defame! Because I spoke up for General Li
who fought the Xiongnu brutes until he was brought down.
Each day my bowels twist nine times. The nights! So wrote
Zhouyang: Accumulated slander destroys bone.

Sweat springs from my cold hands and runs into the ink.
I have completed writing Records—all one hundred
and thirty chapters—from the earliest sage-kings
down to the present reign—more than two thousand years.

To the fragments gathered by my father for the work
he dreamt about but did not start, I added flesh
and bones, stitched them together into history.
The Master edited one Spring and Autumn Annals

which Records extends—Essays, Chronological Tables,
Hereditary Houses. Lord Hu’s father preens
in Chapter Forty-Nine, embroidered with such true
colors that his son’s balls, in his rich robe, will shrink.

In my Biographies, kings are threaded with assassins,
male favorites, butchers, turtle-shell diviners, women,
whose names are commonly lost unless they cling like fleas
to a warhorse tail flying over bamboo strips.

My work will live and penetrate every house,
village, city, district, province, court and state.
The written word is sharper than the word of mouth.
It will scratch out my shame in Silkworm Hall. It will

revise my name. In Hell my father will have his book
though not his son. I chose, my Heart, a higher duty
when I begged him for my mutilated life. Burn
this letter in a cup of wine and drink to me. Qian.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Poem: Little Men

When I was a child, my parents would shop regularly in Chinatown, in Singapore. Yes, even in this country with a Chinese majority, there is a Chinatown. It goes back to our colonial past, when the powers-to-be decided to cut up separate neighborhoods for the different races. The strategy not only divided and conquered, but also co-opted communal leaders to govern their ethnic communities. And so, besides Chinatown, we now have Geylang Serai (a traditionally Malay neighborhood) and Little India.

Chinatown, back when I was little, in the 1970's, was a mishmash of the old and the new. Among derelict shophouses bloomed modern shopping malls, or at least they felt very modern at that time. My parents would shop in the fancy departmental store, OG (with escalators!), and, since I hated shopping, would deposit me in the tiny books section, and collect me when they were through.

In that corner of the store, I discovered the picture book series, Little Men. The books were far too easy for me, but I loved the solid colors of the characters. I loved the pattern that governs the series, and the variations of that pattern. I loved the idea of serial development. And while my parents brought OG shopping bags home, I carried off with me, like a prize, another Little Man.

Little Men

They behaved just like their names. Mr. Happy
was always happy despite the cloud in the story.
Mr. Tickle learned when not to tickle but tickled
every other time. And when friends righted him,
Mr. Topsyturvy turned wrong side up again.

Chinese names, unlike Mr. Lazy’s, aim
too high. Yang Yang plays for glorious glory.
Swallow Peace, my sister, flies her temper.
And mine raises the stakes: Jee Leong
shoots for (don’t laugh) universal goodness.

What disappointments Chinese children are! What
a hoot to find out adults are like old cartoons.
There slinks Mrs. Divorce. Here comes Mr. Knife
in the back smiling. And at her father’s funeral,
radiant Miss Sun dries her eyes on the flowers.