Lovesong for a Calligrapher

there is a boy,
his fist a clump of lotus stalks
gathered, and – an impulse –
dipped in ink.
I imagine the pond, sudden, stir –
clear beads shaken,
the water runs to ink
the lotus buds to brush

a tentative stroke
and then another, of the arm
a plunge –

there is a woman,
her hair amongst the rushes green
and strewn across the floor.
she weaves the stalks,
which whisper things,

her fingers flickering.
she cannot hear
the poet stir
at the sight of her turned back.

when I first took your hand
I found it bruised with ink.
and wanted,

to touch a pen to your beginning.
you, mediator
of meaning and of words.
how supple the brush grows now,
beneath your hand!
I swore my words would seed,
buoy tiny kernels on your sea.
and yet I cannot weave a myth
enough for the love of you and me.

(2004)

first published onThe Poetry Society’s website

 

Step and Switch

He wanted to cage her foot in glass, trapped

like a slipper shut tight gnawing down with

the sunset pink top of her toe. He wanted

to encase it in red shoes to cinch and crush

them quasimodo, until she could dance

in a trance before the pages of his book,

and for him alone. There is nothing but

her little foot – only chains can ankle down

her fleeting step.

 

Her fleeting step,

Only chains can ankle down. Her little foot

Dances, but there is nothing for him. Alone,

In a trance before the pages of his book,

Quasimodo wanted to dance, red shoes

To encase, to cinch and crush, He

Wanted the sunset pink top of her toe.

Like a slipper shut tight gnawing down,

Trapped, caged by her foot, in glass.

(2005)

 

Seven Metaphors

Your email was an ice pick

And my heart cracked under it

 

I started staying up and swiping down

like I was scratching an itch

 

As our exchange folded, accordion-like

Back on itself, it most resembled

 

The way we accumulated days

Of loving each other through words

 

Which were lightning lighting up

The far sky on an arc

 

So far down the slope of the sky

That it flashes like a camera

 

Overexposing a photograph

Developed in nobody’s darkroom

 

For no one else to see.

(2015)

 

Stream of consciousness

I want to reach you, I want to reach you over there

In your dark, brush my fingers across your chest

Without waking you, without disturbing your hair

With my breath, and convey with a touch

All the loss I have felt since I last saw your face.

What I would do in your presence I do not know.

Would I become something more

Than a disembodied voice uttering things

Through the machine of limbs and throat

And as usual we are continents away and I am okay

With that. I thought I had stopped writing you poems

A long time ago, but it seems I haven’t.

Sometimes I feel like I can move your mind

Through thoughts alone, and what is prayer other than

Thought that moves thought? Who are you now?

What is the danger of distance, and what is the distance

Between a soul and your impression of a soul?

If I hadn’t been filled with revelation, would I have left you

Seven years ago? What did it mean, my encounter with God

In another country, in a dark church in Mexico City?

Did it reveal to me the cosmos, contained in that golden globe?

What is the place of true intimacy that lies beyond words,

Beyond two tongues entangled in the darkness?

Had our minds run out of words and were our bodies

Making them up in run-on sentences?

The truth is I understood you but never felt truly understood

By you, and that thrilled me a little, knowing that

I held back depths from you that were still and mysterious

And unknown. And yet I wanted to be known, truly known

Absolutely, and at least you stood at the door and gaped

Without coming in. Ah, desire! You are a cruel province

A field of poisonous flowers.

How I long to travel through a crowd

Without grazing the shoulders of any besides me!

(2016)

Water Roulette

 

1.

Drops of water are falling from the roof. One of them turns into a tadpole, which grows enormous and swallows the house.

2.

This is a dream of transformations. The sun is a bird that pecks at the clouds of the sky. Soon it has eaten its fill.

3.

The girl is hungry and alone in a strange city. A stranger passes her and leaves a shoe. The shoe is a boat she can return home in.

4.

Wolves are gathering in the garage and it is important not to go inside. Something sharp is making its way out.

5.

A small fish is wriggling its way across the floor. Somehow the test depends on the fish making it to the other side. You’ve failed the test three times before and this is your last chance

6.

You are floating on a lily pad that is a boat. You must scatter the spoonfuls of colour to make the fish turn red

7.

A girl looks into a water drop and sees a tree. It is the secret origin of mankind.

(2016)

Is it Yuanfen if we meet online?

Or Chinese dating site pickup lines (generated by bot, translated and arranged by Judith Huang)

 

Wow. I’ve seen a princess, a princess from a fairy tale –

really wish to get to know you!

 

In this world, there really is such a thing as love at first sight:

I just saw your photo.

 

Can I ask you for directions?

Can you direct me the way to your heart?

 

Just one look at your photograph,

and I feel like you are the future bride I am seeking!

 

The people of the world don’t understand love,

do you understand?

 

In the sea of people, being able to meet is due to fate,

I hope we can communicate.

 

I suddenly have an inexplicable feeling

that meeting you was fated in a previous life.

 

I am willing to take your hand and walk to the blissful tomorrow,

Are you willing?

(2016)

 

Interface

 

I want you to be more than words on a screen to me.

There was a man of flesh and blood, whose cold fingers

touched me, those years ago, even though

we often left each other lonely

on opposite sides of the screen.

Be more than blinking pixels

to me, burning silences between replies.

You have become a digital blur,

because you do not update

your Facebook picture.

Perhaps I should simply

leave you as some avatar,

abandoned in a game,

there and never changing

with each passing year,

though my lines run on and on in their

longing. What I want is to make

some grand gesture,

but my fingers refuse to type.

Old love, what have the years written on your face?

What have they written on mine?

(2016)

 

Tianjin Explosion

 

I edited article after article

about the blast.

None of them answered any questions

only providing information

no one wanted to know.

I have gotten used to not caring

about this or that disaster.

Every two months there is a new one

as the last one blows over.

 

In this country there is a miasma

of caring but not caring,

heavy as dark particles

that leak past our masks.

 

Every December we ask

our readers for a character

to sum up the year.

This year it is 苦, bitterness:

A face opens its mouth

and nothing comes out.

 

天津爆炸

 

陈波 译

 

我编辑了一篇又一篇关于

这个爆炸的新闻。

却没有一篇能解答任何疑问,

只提供了一些

无用的信息。

我已经习惯了不再去关注

一次又一次的灾难。

每隔一段时间就有

这样的爆炸性的新闻

 

这个国家里,关心或者不关心

之间存在着一层迷雾。

迷雾浓重的粉尘味道

在口罩后面仍能呼吸到。

我们报社年底会问读者

一个词来总结这一年。

今年,这个字是“苦”:

一张张开的嘴巴,

但什么都说不出来。

(2016)

 

Love story

 

After a week,

we started sharing clothes.

I wore your tank top

while scribbling on the rooftop,

the sunlight falling dappled

on my face.

 

I dropped the second half

of your name. Our kisses

changed from tentative

to possessive. My nostrils filled

with the smell of you, my fingertips

with the special smoothness of your skin.

 

We used the same fork to eat

our eggs in the morning

and I started fantasizing

about sharing a last name,

or buying a dog together

and calling it Ma La.

 

I wanted you to watch

all my favourite films,

my most cherished books,

to taste water the same way.

I wanted to go deeper

inside you.

(2016)

Brave Red

For Xuwen

 

When I help you pick out a red lip

at the twenty-seventh MAC counter

in the city, as MAC counters follow us

around from subway stop to subway stop,

like popup ads on our web browsers,

their technicolour palettes waiting

to blush our cheeks and lips,

I am brightening your face and mine,

turning off the age detect software

on the phone, because at thirty we have

presumably earned the capitalist right

to cosmetic-related consumerism

although neither of us

has completely abandoned our dreams.

 

Your neon yellow and my turquoise

toenails tread the pavements

of twin first-tier cities,

our paths connected by

the constant jolts of

WeChat messages interspersed

with Facetime calls vaulting over

the Great Firewall, an unbroken

tread reaching far back

to the island we both fear

and love, the one whose

shopping malls we circled

round and round and round,

waiting for movies to start

and not actually buying anything

taking turns to empty bladders

filled by the multiple free refills

of green tea at the Lamian restaurant.

I do not know if my children –

should they ever exist –

will ever call you Auntie

but nomatter the status

of our respective fertilities, redlipped

we stand together in the mirror

of the smartphone’s self-facing

camera, our matching smiles

half the length of the miles

between our screens.

(2016)

 

Quantum

 

We were never one and zero

either current or not current

running through the wires.

We were something

a bit more quantum

with uncertainty

being the operating

principle.

(2016)

 

Truth and Metaphor

 

The sea is old

I am reading poems with no understanding

The words blurring one into another

 

Things are swimming

In the air between us

There is no hope but I am hoping anyway

 

I want to sing to you

The truth of how I feel

Because singing might disguise the truth

 

Truth is slipping through my hands

Like a fish that won’t be caught

Like the meaning of an overworn cliché

 

The sea is old

Old as this emotion, carved on stones

Or on ancient, indecipherable scrolls

 

I take comfort in the fact

I am writing you love poems

That you won’t understand

(2016)

 

Watching the demise of democracy while sipping a latte

 

Watching the demise of democracy

through the glass windows in the Dongsi hutong

I am in a co-working space

in Beijing, figuring out

just how many tens of thousands of dollars

I have saved in the last few years

I’ll be saving heck of a lot more

when I start my new job

that pays exactly double

how much my old job paid

people are optimistic

about this country

they are not the targets of drones

hovering like gods raining death

on tall bearded men in robes

in Pakistan. For now, the only

remaining superpower in the world

is not targeting people in this city

although who knows what they would do

they are not bound by any rules

and journalism is dying, slowly but surely

replaced by listicals and quoras

because who really wants to know

the depressing things in the world?

Why should we bother being upset

by things we cannot change?

Friends are more important

than money, says the poster

hanging above the stairwell

in the co-working space

I am about to pick up

a bespoke jacket that I paid for

with my editing job

in half an hour.

I had a mediocre latte

and rode a app-booked bicycle

to the hatchery, and fashionable

young Beijingers are sipping coffee

in the glass walled room next to me

Of course I use a Lamy

to write my poems

which I then type up

on my Apple Macbook.

My glasses are Armani

and I’m sitting on a leather jacket

from an op shop in Australia

My life isn’t difficult

and I don’t feel guilty

I guess I really don’t feel guilty

at all about it.

I wonder about you, in your Maryland

grad student life. What are you up to

these days? Do you have a girlfriend?

Does she write long unending poems

about you? Have you been draining

your savings paying for grad school,

or is the 30k you get a year

enough to cover your necessities?

The you I knew

was from at least eight years ago

and as far as I know

we have not touched down on the island

at the same time for over ten years.

And yet here I am, still writing

over and over again

to an invisible you.

(2016)

 

Some advice

 

Just write.

Don’t put it off.

The sink will get fixed.

Instagram will scroll on forever.

You probably can’t do it for more than thirty minutes anyway.

The sink will still be there in thirty minutes.

If you must clear your head

take a walk around the block.

If you’re writing a novel,

Run.

If you are so inclined,

eat a piece of bread

with a little wine.

Or do it on an empty stomach –

It amplifies the longing.

I don’t know about you,

But all my best writing

I’ve written while writing.

If you try to write an epic at twenty-four,

You’d better be prepared for failure,

Or at least that you’ll be working on the thing

For at least forty years.

A change of scene: the easiest way

To make everything seem new.

That, or a certain attitude

Found in the opposite of cats –

That is, the dog:

Not at all disdainful,

Not at all like someone’s little prince,

But rather, dumbly adoring

everything passing by

The way the day cuts lines

Against the light

The rolling shadow smooth underground,

The sudden flash of car or bug or down

Not quite identified

The letting down

Of hair outside the window

Like so many muses in a stream

Waving with all their might

The found.

(2010)

These things may be connected –

 

In Aleppo a child crouches

in a corner of a bombed house.

Her mother curates her thoughts on Twitter

in English so the West retweets them.

 

Bored, we turn away

from the carpets of the gods

outside the aeroplane window

to watch sitcom reruns.

 

Peace is too dull for some of us,

so we plunge ourselves into

developing countries

where we live in expat bubbles.

 

Lonely civil servants

plot to open eco-lodges

before they amass any real power

to change the status quo.

 

Uber drivers call Trump

an altruistic businessman

and claim to have been to

over two hundred countries.

 

Ex-tuition students

who were brighter than their classmates

who went to Oxford

work as booksellers and cheap tuition teachers.

 

The man who sold me the Desigual dress,

who forgot to remove the electronic tag,

so now I beep everywhere,

wants to be a playwright.

 

The PRCs who want

English names for

professional reasons

want me to name them.

 

Lightyears away a star dies

plunging the worlds that orbit it

into eternal darkness.

Nobody mourns.

(2016)

 

And we were

 

And we were blackhaired whiteshoed

streaming out of classrooms

shattering on buses

swishing through the rain as the

sun slid away behind the

windscreen wipers

puddles mirroring

the yellow-white pearlescent

of the sky’s side at the end

of the day

we were climbing over gates

getting into schoolfields after hours

sneaking upstairs to the deserted

corridors behind lecture theatres

hearing the school band

practising scales in the grey

dawn, climbing higher and

higher, up until the point

when the red and white flag

slunk to the top of

the Majulah pole

and the pledge was recited

with morning voices

still shaking off their rust

 

we were housewives waving

laundry out the window

on bamboo poles

we were nipping downstairs

for Styrofoam packets

of chicken rice

we were urinating in lifts

in the hours between dusk and dawn

we were smoking on playgrounds

bereft of kids

we were staring blankly

at our grandchildren while fanning ourselves

with the loose cotton

of our t-shirts

we were slipping down the slides

of our lives,

not noticing it go by

like the air displaced

by the slick arrival

of a MRT train

(2016)

 

Marina Bay

 

I know that my refusal to look

at the Casino part of the skyline

is childish. You can’t deny

such concrete change

even in your own country.

 

I could angle my selfie

away from the triple tombstone

with its bizarre cruise ship

or bullet train drooping

across it. But it is still there.

 

I can’t Copperfield it away.

 

Before we left, we kissed

on the banks of this river.

You held me close, against the blank sky

black but for the pack of red cranes

lit by harsh white floodlights.

 

The cranes have risen and dipped

their productive beaks, and raised us

a brand new skyline. You and I

are not part of it. Our feet never left

even a footprint on its concrete.

(2016)

 

Full moon pills

 

The moon is full tonight

but our circle is not full

I have not tasted the sweet cakes

round like the moon, this year.

 

Did the woman, trailing her long sleeves

swallow the pill, round like the moon

to save the land

from her husband’s tyranny?

 

In exile on the moon, she waits

for eternity. Why would we worship

a foolish woman, a woman

whose curiosity cost her life?

 

The moon is full tonight

full of mystery in the ancient tale

but I have no children

to tell it to.

 

I have not come full circle

I swallow my own bitter pill

watching the clouds scud

across the face of isolation.

 

If only I had a bunny

to succor me!

The bunny in the moon makes pills

with its mortar and pestle.

 

Pills to make

the tyranny of loneliness

fade away. The moon is full

tonight. Full of itself

 

Full of foolishness

that did not alight

with the leap for mankind

that was Neil Armstrong.

 

Fifty years ago

my grandmother stopped putting out

offerings for a woman

who was just a shadow.

 

I can still see her tonight

the chattering pills

keeping us quiet

like the tyrannical husband who must one day die.

 

7/10/17 4 AM

 

The book of questions

 

What is the nature of time?

Memories surface and resurface

Like detritus on the beach

Old emails, strange algorithms

Did I get off at the wrong stop?

Is there some way to go back?

 

What’s the nature of truth?

Do truths have an expiry date

And is something said ten years ago

Still true if it was meant?

Is it cyclical or linear, or somehow both?

Where do you stand now

 

Is there still hope?

Weaving and unweaving

I leave silence.

Waiting, I cannot be rid

Of my desires.

You, on the other side of the screen

On the other side of the earth

Are not answering my questions

 

Are they even yours to answer?

More questions. An unending chain

Circling around the central question

Which is perhaps nolonger your question

I am circumnavigating more than one globe

Questions questions everywhere

Not a single one to think

 

If you cannot figure out the metaphysics

Of our reality, how dare you love?

He does not squander souls, or does he?

This, too, is directed directly at you

Living hand to mouth with a borrowed philosophy.

I don’t want the responsibility

Of making the wrong choice

It’s already wrong.

 

What’s the nature of free will

What’s the nature of fate

This circles back to the nature of time.

Are there many worlds and if so

In which one are you mine?

Is there some way to go there

Or reverse the clock’s hands

Or force up the nozzle

The hourglass’ sands?

 

Will there be a new world

And will you be there?

What’s the nature of hope

And what is despair?

If you haven’t figured it out yet

What’s the nature of love?

What is human nature

From below or above?

 

All that I know is

I can’t lose you again

Once is enough

I can’t bear the pain

I want to know

Is it too early, too late?

No one gives me answers

And I’m not yet dead.

 

A Valediction Forbidding Fruit

 

My love is like a trouser fly

Raise it up and two are one

But if we get caught, I’d rather die

Cos we’d be quite undone.

(2003)

 

Valediction: Song

O my sweet

Penelope

I do not mean

to go

 

But til I go

I will not be

the me

of twenty years ago

(2010)

 

The translator’s breakup letter

 

We couldn’t even think in the same language.

I would say one thing and you would hear another.

When we listened to lovesongs they were tuned to different stations.

The ones I thought applicable to you

You couldn’t even understand.

Your kisses were footnotes to long paragraphs

That I poured over fruitlessly.

We had two different movies screening

On simultaneous screens inside both our heads

And the final climatic kisses never quite lined up.

When I cradled you in my arms,

My endearments were dubbed into your ears,

Heard second-hand, pitched changed, in a different voice

And never intimate enough to approximate

The goodbye that you mimed to me, my dear

Whenever I turned the page or turned to leave.

(2012)

 

The divorce of S & P

 

We presented everywhere as the perfect couple.

Same height, weight, and educational accomplishments

Both perfectly compact in the palm of any hand

With little ridged grinders to twist at our feet

We seemed perfect for each other in every way

But deep inside we contained very different things

And that was our undoing.

I had more holes than you did

And made everything I spilled on so spicy

That I raised a flurry of sneezes in my wake

And you, you with your monotonous hole

Kept mum except over the most luscious piece of steak

Then really let loose and ruined everything.

People were dismayed when we split up

When I went to find myself in India

And you took off to sail the salty seas.

(2016)

Now that

 

Now that I have disappeared more than once,

Now that I have disappeared so many times

I barely count anymore, even to myself

Now that my memories have been supplanted by new shops

Now that the window of my life has been redressed

Now that I have left and returned and left and returned and left and returned

Now I have become homesick for the place I left you for

Now that the mannequinn has aped my pose for the final time

Now that I have admitted that my pose is just a pose

Now that I have dropped all pretense of not missing you

Now that I have crossed multiple time zones and back again

Now that I have confessed that I am still obsessed

With finding you in the same predicament as before

Now that we have drifted apart like the continents

Now that the faultlines between us have cracked

Now that lava has spewed through them to reveal new land

Now that I have all but forgotten the shade of your pajamas

Now that I swing the steering wheel with ever-increasing ease

Now that I have forgotten more than I can remember about your face

Now that our online interactions take on a ghostly intemporality

Now that I have acclimatized to lowrise buildings

And am used to larger spaces and wider lenses

Now that I’ve finally caved and bought a smartphone

Now that we are poised like two enemies standing off on a page

Now that I have a whole new palate since our last meal together

Now that I’ve picked up another language and

checked my bags at the baggage check of your heart

Now that my jealousy has ebbed to a manageable trickle

Now that I am nolonger a wolf stalking you on Facebook

Now that the dreams I have of you are hidden from my Timeline

Now that my favourite song about love has been replaced

with another song about love

I can finally lift up my glass and say

Ah, dear heart! I have moved on

I have moved on, and this poem proves it.

(2016)

 

Regrettable

 

Sometime in the middle of the fifth shot I lost the plot

Somehow I couldn’t breathe without thinking of you

You became something like a bad head cold, always

Stuffing up my nose but never coming out like a sneeze.

 

Yeah you were always an incorrigible flirt

And I should have seen it coming, but you know,

I never saw the appeal until this evening

When you came over and I had to fix

 

The porcelain sink because we were grappling on it

In our ungainly way, and because it gave way

And how am I supposed to explain this to the landlord?

There’s sure to be a row. It’s so egregious

 

That I can’t get the taste of you off my scrubbed tongue

And now I’ve spilled detergent everywhere

So the sink is slippery as well as broke

Kind of like the way you made me choke

 

When we were at the park and it got dark

And we were everywhere running amok

All over each other, hands and feet and knees

And you caught me by the corner of my scarf

 

And made me barf, you know I was always game

For one of your insane truth or dares, and the vodka

Did the speaking for us both, and now it has just drained

Me completely, damn you damn you damn it damn me

(2012)

Love poem of a hopeful nature to a hypothetical recipient

 

This time it will be different.

The man will be the right one.

The music will not suck.

I will have read the right advice column

and got the right shade of my eyeliner

exactly right.

He will wear the right aftershave

and not have overly sweaty armpits

that mingle strangely with my Chanel No. 5.

We will order the same kind of pastries

at the hipster coffee joint

and in the evening, he will like the elderflower cordial

I pour him out of my Toy Story mug.

Who knows, in a week, he might even be inspired

to shave off his beard

when he hears the footsteps of my low-heeled shoes

tapping outside the pavement of his door.

And when we’re done we’ll evenly split the grapefruit.

(2014)

the moon

 

the moon looks so small in photographs

less than a coin

dropped penniless

into the depths of a well

when we know full well

she is nothing less

than a coin

that can never be spent

(2013)

 

The heart

 

The heart is a flighty and droughty thing

prone to snag its teeth on its own neck.

 

The windows of your mind are high and stained

with different coloured light.

 

My heart is kept in a different wooden box

buried deep beneath the earth beneath your sky.

There has never been another key.

There is nothing magical about its beating.

 

The heart is rearing up on its hind legs

its antlers charging the blackened tree

 

bolted blackly to the ground.

After all, who owns the soul?

 

The heart was formed long before the mind

and swims the depths of an infant sea.

 

It has its prow pointed in one direction

and cannot rise further than the high panes of your eyes.

 

And darkness falls like a thick cloth upon the heart

this droughty thing, so easily wounded by the wind.

(2013)

 

Whoso list to hunt

 

trekking through the jungle, she meets a tiger
who tells her she is herself a tiger, and can never be caged.

 

when she asks him for his name, he does not answer.
later when she looks into the lake she sees a name.

 

“where is this jungle, and what is at its heart?” she asks, as her dreams change.
hidden at the bottom of the lake is a white stone.

 

it is then that she wakes up, her own name on her lips,
which she knows she must not utter til they meet again.

 

three times she calls it, and three times the wind carries it
on the backs of the wide star river. which song will reach an ear?

 

softly she realizes that the best cage is one of her own making,
and that in the chains of love lie the key.

 

he who has an ear, let him hear; as for those who have flown past hope,
it is better to leave them hungering, shaking the dream’s dust –

 

for it is said that a woman must guard her name,
until such time as it ripens into another.

(2012)

 

Addendum

 

Oh, great – now that I’ve committed apostasy,

My friend is sending me sermons

by multiple black men in the hopes of

recovering my immortal soul.

I tell him not to worry,

God can take it.

I’m sure he’s heard worse,

and there’s nothing like

a little heresy in the morning

to spice up the relationship.

So maybe we aren’t talking at the moment

and maybe I’ll get involved

in quantum computing

to build a better God,

but it’s all cool.

I never did know how to be

afraid of powers beyond my ken,

and I always have

a technological solution.

So God pisses me off

So God raises and upsets my expectations.

Two can play that game

I have been trained

In autoerotic multivariable regressions

and let’s not forget

my strange Shakespearean name.

Man is a little God and can make men

Unless he shuts down my electric brain

There will be other routes for more subversion.

I could wipe out the sacred texts,

and then rewrite them.

Rig the electoral system,

reboot the universe.

There is an explosion coming on the horizon.

Intelligence will soon oustrip perception.

The reason why I never took the devil’s bargain

Is that he never had all that much to offer.

I am not interested in immortality

I am not interested in money or in power.

He could take me to the top of the highest tower

and it would be a pointless exercise.

I don’t ever really get that hungry

And I’m not interested in telling lies.

I already have everything I need

from God, barring the occasional surprise.

(2018)

Categories: Poetry

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