Saturday, November 29, 2008

Poem: Swimming Lesson

Swimming Lesson

Like shiny well fed seals, two squealing boys
fought, over nothing, arm thrashing against
gold arm, spending their health extravagantly.
One dunked the other, held him down, arms tensed.

Their swimming coach, a man in his late fifties,
rose up beside them, water sluicing down
his sedimental torso. When he yelled
for them to stop and rapped one on the crown,

the rebel stuck out his tongue like a finger,
the other dived and slapped his own backside.
The coach threatened to tell their dads—they laughed—
and not continue teaching them, he lied.

They’d not have mocked him in those sunstreaked days
spent crawling long, interminable laps
under the watchful eye of champion trainers;
those breathless mornings when the colored caps

are stretched so taut they seemed ready to leap
off the block; the gunshots. He shook his head.
Squinting into the sun, he saw the glare
of light, the air, and something, somewhere, dead.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 7

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
4. The Taoist Magician's Last Address
5. He Bids His Brotherly Lover Farewell
6. The Connoisseur Inspects the Boys

7. Hungry Ghosts

My father took me picnicking in Hell
in Tiger Balm Gardens when I turned five.
Horseface and Oxhead flanked the door to quell

tourists, returning ghosts, recaptured live.
Small spectator of retribution’s drama,
I shuffled through the dark; I’d rather dive

in and out but the crowd before King Yama
passed as if shackled by the chains of crime.
Father explained to me the law of Karma

while a mirror screened a whole lifetime
in a flash. Jostled into Court One, I balked
at heads and arms and legs, in bloody mime,

stuck out from under giant slabs of rock,
impossible to tell which limb belonged
to which gory head on the granite block

(Father said, Unfilial boys, they wronged
their parents who gave them everything);
into Court Two where sinners had their tongues

pierced by long knives for lifelong gossiping;
in Three, the greedy were handcuffed and whipped;
the tax evaders, in Court Four, drowning;

one body blurred into another, stripped
of eyes or bowel, heart torn out with a hook,
and on a hill of swords a traitor was flipped.

It wasn’t me. It wouldn’t be. I shook
as if my bones, and not that man’s, were scraped
by sharpeners, for writing a dirty book,

my butt, and not his, by a spear tip raped.
Expecting the worst horror in Court Ten,
I imagined punishments nightmare shaped.

A blue wheel, painted on the back of the den,
displayed the paths for the purged souls’ rebirth
as insects, fish, birds, animals or men

depending on each individual’s worth.
The worst are born as hungry ghosts, Father said
and strode ahead of me out from the earth.

Under a raintree’s shade, he laid out bread,
ham, apple juice. I still didn’t feel well.
Eat. Don’t waste food, Father said. We fed.


I’m turning thirtyfive today at Soul
Mountain, Connecticut, USA,
a Writing Resident on foreign dole.

Winston is coming up for my birthday.
I’m walking with a black dyke poet called
Venus, along the river’s snowpacked way.

I tell her, smiling, I must have been installed
as an emperor’s favorite boy in a past life
after I schemed to pleasure those blue balled.

I was a Taoist priest who left his wife
for Mount Tai to achieve immortal fire.
Such hunger turns fruit to flame, nuts to knives.

I tell her my book rises on dammed desire,
a book my father would have called dirty.
Last summer, tired of being damned a liar,

I stopped Father from switching on the TV
and announced to my parents I am gay.
I talked too much. He didn’t look at me.

When I wound down, he mumbled, It’s okay,
and flicked the TV switch. In bed, that night,
he consoled Mother that every family prays

a secret sutra that is hard to recite—
a crippled son, retard or murderer.
Mother repeated to me his insight.

He treated Winston to a satay dinner
at Lau Pa Sat and tried to make small talk.
He has not asked me about him ever.

The air nips us. Venus cuts short her walk
and retreats indoors to make a late breakfast.
I’m left standing beside the golden stalks

of cattails tall as I am, gazing across
the river to trees branching spears and barbs.
A deer noses the brown scrub. Then a burst

of knocking, from the thicket, the smart stabs
of a woodpecker tapping in a bowl
of bark. I should go. Winston’s coming up.

*First published in Boxcar Poetry Review.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 6

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
4. The Taoist Magician's Last Address
5. He Bids His Brotherly Lover Farewell

6. The Connoisseur Inspects the Boys

My source informs me you’ve acquired a catch
of boys to staff Happy Establishment.
Yes, one may find a peony in a shithole—
quite right, I have a discriminating nose.

Not for me, or my friend here, the common flower
roll in the Precious Mirror, well known boys
cultivated to sing, dance, and recite
Shakespeare to welcome, please, the foreign devils.

They are no longer Chinese in the most
vital sense of the word. Not virginal.
To be premature is to be perfect, you agree,
my friend? The wisdom of both East and West.

No locals I hope. They are like spit on the street,
everywhere. This boy from Anhui? Clean
and smooth skinned as Baiji river dolphins.
They swim apart yet surface together for air.

Observe the purple blot on the other’s neck,
the way it throws his bloom into relief.
So a defile makes a Guizhou rock sublime
and one never tires of admiring it.

Rarer still—an unspoiled Uygur just arrived
from Xinjiang. See, friend, how his thighs whipcord
as we speak of him. Centuries of horse riding
over highlands and deserts. A good mount.

You are embarrassed by my frank comments.
I will desist. See anything you fancy?
Your eyes have not strayed from that Shandong boy
since we came in. Your flush is very becoming.

Tonight I will break in that Uygur foal.
An opium pipe for you too, I presume?
Opium delays the rain for a longer sport
among the clouds, as the Chinese have learned.

Sir, open up your ports, one for the young
Singaporean ship of state, the other
for old Europe, and bill to my account
all expenses—Winkelmann, two “n”s to “man.”

*First published in Crate.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 5

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
4. The Taoist Magician's Last Address

5. He Bids His Brotherly Lover Farewell

Drained, you crawl up my flank and hear the flood
subside. This light on us is of the moon.
Again you ask me to explain love’s well spring
at Kuanyin Temple lucky for rain prayers.

When you strode to the altar, how the men stared
at your unblemished skin, your torso snared
in a much mended jacket made of goat.
The gods desired you, even the Jade Emperor.

Of all the powdered faces there, you spoke
to the plainest. Can you explain why? No?
Nor can I. Mother drank your cup of tea
and liked you, loved you like another son.

In that year, Xuanzong abdicated breath
and his son’s reign inaugurated our days
of picking pekoe leaves on rippling slopes
and nights of sipping tea. A week of years.

Don’t forget the presents for your bride.
I’ve packed and left them on the kang for you.
She’s gentle, pretty, with childbearing hips.
Your fathers must have sons to sacrifice

at the ancestral altar, offer meat
and wine, or else their ghosts get hungry.
As the dead sage dictates, a ruler should
be a ruler, a father father, a son son.

I’ve done my duty by you. I can do
no more. Oh, how pathetic that sounds!
I’m turning woman, so no more of this.
See, passion is a tide. My body’s dried.


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 4

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

4. The Taoist Magician’s Last Address

My followers, I am about to turn immortal.
After ingesting cinnabar for years,
I’ll soon become like Princely Qiao and Song.

You know the costs, I have spoken of them,
when I was stricken by the longing to live,
how longing broke and drove me out of me—

resigned from lucrative town temple posts,
slept in a different bedroom from my wife,
and even sent away the serving boy.

When lust sneaked past the bodyguards yet again,
I ran away to live in mountain caves,
ate aerial roots, blue stamens and stone ears.

The Master of the Bamboo Grove is right,
the musk deer grows fragrant from eating cedar
and so I drained my body of its swamp.

You know how many come to mock my work.
Armed with their science and senses, they joke,
“Immortals must be good at lying low!”

They see the worms on cusps of lips and think
death is the common lot. The fools! The fools!
To eke one living from the land and ache

over the scrimped allotment! So I leave
them to their fate and ready mine for change.
The thorny limebush crosses the Huai River…

et cetera. I bequeath to you my scrolls.
Practice your breathing every dawn and dusk
and rest early. Preserve your energy.

Remember: don’t nail shut my coffin lid
but fetter me in a strong crimson net.
I’ll move through it to immortality.