Skip to content
Banner image by Glyn Lowe

Two or Three Things from the Past


So hot then
red trucks loaded with burning tongues
forward forward again disappearing deep down inside escaped students rolling toward hometown
Ah the summer of the era schools closed
theaters closed weeds in parks
loudspeakers over the basketball courts a revolution full blast in Mandarin
only teenagers on the bank of an ancient river
felt the call they opened their pants
took hold of that little thing that had always brought them
pleasure like cavemen drilling on a piece of wood
till it sparked a yellow flame

We must visit the exhibition
we must stand in line
with a serious attitude past
the portraits of those villains each of them
in line all wearing
the same prison uniform confessing their crimes
their sins come
from somewhere else it's as
if our obedience becomes a boring crime
with great attitude we walk in single file
our heads turn in unison from the left wall to the right like products
being inspected from different
sides their serious attitudes
the same as if their crimes are walking out from the wall
seriously into our bodies

These people stand in my parents' bedroom
as if standing in a trench, serious expressions
only for
those who are furthering the grandest cause
a little nothing for my mother's face a box with soap
stamped under the heel of a Liberation sneaker
cracked open
the green soap
popped out
like a plant's eyeball

He stood on the side watching everyone play
as lonely as a shepherd
at twelve grapes growing in his eyes
at twelve he understood the whisper
of the little dwarfs at twelve
a loyal younger brother but all the children
turned their backs forbade him to touch their
spinning tops or to curse his father was
a counterrevolutionary thus he grew into
an adult

Spring 1967 his cousin suffered from schizophrenia
day and night he suspected
someone was persecuting him
You're only a worker
Who will come to arrest you? Wouldn't listen
asked the monkeys at the zoo
Are you coming to arrest me?
His work unit decided to commit him
cousin refused to leave like a rock
he pressed against the bed
sleeping with all his might
as if glued to his bed forever
at the end of their wits
his co-workers squatted
lifted him and the bed like lifting a car
and carried him to the madhouse

For twenty years at 1:10 A.M.
he rode his bike past the square
at the end of Nanping Street like a
thief who had just stolen something
from the state warehouse
for twenty years under the moonlight
in a thunderstorm
when lightning lit up this skinny night worker
and the bronze statue
in the square neither
had a raincoat on
for twenty years when it was time
the broken bike wheels started clanking punctually
he was always afraid of what
he had no idea he was a lathe turner
in a factory forever felt like a criminal
forever worried about someone watching behind his back
till one day
he fell from his bike
his empty lunch box
rolled away broke apart
only once in his life he had a heart attack
in the middle of the square after a quick dance
he dropped died
on Nanping Street Square
at 1:10 A.M.
only one immortal figure
stood fearlessly

7 Winter 1966
two grown-ups arrived at our home they
were not cops but revolutionary comrades
from my dad's work unit they wanted me to expose
my father what he had written in his diary
he had counterrevolutionary thoughts had been hiding
in our army said his old comrades
whom I'd been calling uncles
on the stairs on a spring day they handed me
a big handful of milk candies
smiling like two trustworthy cows
even touched my head that was growing bigger every day
suddenly the grassland collapsed exposing
the iron hooves that'd been hiding in the grass
I kept quiet looking at my father's hands
his stubborn left-handedness
that year I'd just started writing
just learned how to imagine my country
as a golden grassland but I
hadn't learned from my father
a more sophisticated way to imagine
such as linking the finger calloused
from writing to a wiggling

The beautiful woman lived above us
the beautiful woman worked in the propaganda department
she played the only piano
summer became beautiful roses beautiful
my teen years beautiful
the beautiful woman looked at the blue sky beautifully
the beautiful woman gave me an apple
the beautiful woman reached out her featherlike finger
to touch my face ah that summer
my life flew out of my homework
she was a woman I was a boy
I wanted to say something like a man
didn't know how I was still in grade school
I tried for a whole year from the summer
of 1965 to the summer of 1966
when I was finally ready to say it
her neck hung from the bloody sky
turned into a frozen scarf

On Book Forest Street there's a pagoda from the age of Nanzhao
Nanzhao, king of the ancient Yunnan
ruled his kingdom west of the Tang Dynasty territory
one day I came to the tower
the big-character poster had a crack
that revealed a black line
I pressed my head against it to peek
someone shouted What are you looking at
I was so startled that winter
popped out of my cracked back
he laughed Nothing to see
only bricks inside

Once I wrote a letter to my father far away
his name turned into a nest of fleas under my pen
the three characters had become strangers at home
he was still the only boss but on paper I rarely
wrote about Father he wasn't history but a particular
smell of sweat a very heavy
hand suspended above my homework notebook
I was used to the accent I'd learned in my mother's womb
my vernacular impossible to write down all tangled up
and in his rocking chair he mocked my scribbles
then one day I saw his name on the street
painted in bold black every stroke
regular correct within the boundary
black words on white paper crossed out in red
people couldn't help reading it out loud
that day I suddenly lost my voice at dinner
I quietly handed him his toothpick
not knowing what to call him
this so-and-so whose name was on the big poster
whom I had to eat with three times a day

April 3, 1970 Little Ding finally got hold of his father's
only property a radio
with three wave bands hidden in his greasy uniform
I followed him to the fields outside his steel factory
endless wheat not a peasant around
everyone was at meetings only Little Ding and I
our ears bright red longer and longer
his hands that stroke iron every day turned the dial
awkwardly searching for foreign devils'
short waves I looked about
staring at the wheat
for fear of the masses their bright eyes
hidden inside after a lot of fiddling around
we finally heard someone speaking Chinese
ears pressed closely
like rabbits gone nuts inside a cage
the black plastic box was talking
I confess it said nothing
counterrevolutionary only a deep voice
broadcasting a football game

Wang Xiangdong's father was a rebel
whose mother had bound feet loved millet porridge
and peaches and whose father was a calligrapher
who loved Li Yu's poems addicted all his life
To two plum trees a deep pond and new moon
at sixteen he broke away from his father's compound
his two-acre plot Wang Xiangdong's father
walked out left his hometown
feared neither hardship nor death
became a government official at twenty-three
seen on the street running
shouting waving his right arm with a red band
before him women withered as if in a drought
dimmed dried hardened
he exposed his wife bravely to his work unit
her diary hidden in a pillow
showered in cold water every day arrived at work punctually
boiled everyone's tea water hated colors hated
pleasure cursed loudly at the kids bathing
in the winter sun Too lazy to get ahead, you!
His son Wang Xiangdong head bent fled like a chicken
revolution struggle five or six battles
now he reached seventy
moved a sixth time a big apartment
allotted by his work unit the biggest
but still not as big as his father's house
under the new chandelier one leg on top of the other
sitting awkwardly on the new couch
the smell of paint a little stinky
the gray-haired revolutionary
sighed "So bright!"
then had a stroke
before his death he said:
"I'm homesick Mama"
it startled Wang Xiangdong in his sunglasses
who had been condemned as decadent all his life
the filial son sent his father's coffin
back to his native Wang Village in Hubei Province
in his old home Wang Xiangdong
who grew up in a government compound
saw for the first time
plum blossoms