Nomads on the Silk Road & One Other Poem

by Honey Novick

Nomads on the Silk Road

for Bai Li

Nomads on the Silk Road
slog onward
in a spring teeming with colour
en garde for every unforeseen danger
“Courage, Vision, Strength”, their mantra.
Their aspirations tinted by a kinder pink
signal a change not readily welcomed.
 
Nomads on the Silk Road
sit under
the blossoming cherry tree.
Petals canopy each delicate dream
kiss a tenderness
conquer the fears of the unknowable
while maintaining balance
between bravado and hope.
 
Down the way sits a blind man with real vision
Over there paces a man with a full belly
in constant hunger
Over that way a mute with a voice
hidden in pantomime
There lounges a deaf man
who hears only what he chooses
Here stands a kind man who doesn’t know
where to go nor what decisions to make
 
Nomads on the Silk Road
hold fast each others hands
walk together
lean on one another
obliterate the futility of despair
don the lion’s spirit
infuse the sun’s courage
vanquish the moment’s desolation.
 

On Display at the Richmond Culture Centre, Life Celebration of Bai Li,
Richmond, B.C. 2010

 

A Whimsical Yet True Tale of Two-Gun Cohen ~ (1887 – 1970)

Let me tell you the story of a Polish, Jewish, British, Canadian, Chinese,
again Canadian, again British, con man named Morris Abraham Cohen.
Pull up a chair, don’t go anywhere because
this is the legend of Two-Gun Cohen,
a true story that is not well-known.
Maybe it’s a tale you once heard
warbled in the wind by a friendly little bird.

Just a baby when brought to England from Poland,
Moishe Avrum Cohen
grew up scrappy in London’s East End
fighting and scuffling to find which way trends.
By the time he was twelve, he could box and deal.
Being a pickpocket was his way to a meal.

At the fin de siècle, in 1898,
M A. Cohen was edgy, so he stayed out late.
At eleven years old, he amassed a police record;
something he did of his own accord,
prompting his family to send this boy
to a reform school where there was no joy.

Upon his release, he travelled far, far west
to Saskatchewan, Canada and history will attest
that he worked on a farm near a First Nations reservation;
but quickly got bored and so, with some determination
he set out on a career as a carnival barker.
But he was really a con man. Everyone around was his marker.

He got arrested again and did more time in jail.
There was no one out there to post his bail.
During his time on Canada’s prairie,
Mr. Cohen encountered Chinese culinary.
He did his best to understand their philosophy and enjoy the food.
This was a life education that made him feel good.
One day while out looking for Chinese cuisine,
he walked into a restaurant during a robbery scene.
Cohen beat up the perpetrator.
He hadn’t yet learned to be a negotiator.
The Chinese embraced him as one of their own.
The seeds of a friendship were just being sown.

He picked up basic Chinese along with some yuan.
In time, Mr. Cohen joined the political regime of Sun Yat Sen,
the adored builder of China, considered Father of the Nation.
Sun was beloved by both, the People’s Republic and Taiwan.
Mr. Cohen fund-raised money and helped procure arms.
He was fearless, had foresight; used all of his charms.
He became a Canadian soldier in World War One,
then went off to China thinking railways would be fun.
Instead, he got a job writing for an English language paper.
Working for Sun Yat Sen was his new caper.
Together they fought against Japanese occupation.
Mr. Cohen embarked on a brand new destination.

By 1922, this veteran of World War One
moved to Shanghai with the allure of the steam rail run.
The Chinese called him Ma Kun, “clenched fist”.
It’s close to saying Morris Cohen. You get the gist.
In the 1920’s, working for a warlord of Canton,
he procured arms invisibly, like a phantom.

Next he became adviser to Canton Police Chief Wu Tiecheng,
who became the future mayor of Shanghai.
Mr. Cohen gained a reputation in Sun’s guard force,
which helped him change history, in time, of course.
He eventually climbed his way to the top and was able to groom it,
commanding the 250-man presidential bodyguard unit.

Always armed, Cohen defended Sun from more than one assassination attempt
and for this lifestyle he would have to leave no “hair unkempt”.
(He needed to be careful.)
While driving off one group of assassins, he was wounded in the hand.
Cohen didn’t balk nor give up his command.
He started carrying a second pistol begetting the name “Two-Gun” Cohen,
a moniker he proudly carried and for which he is known.
Two-Gun Cohen became head of the Chinese secret service,
cool under pressure, not even nervous.

Imagine a Jew, head of a Chinese military command.
This guy was a trend-setter in a foreign land.
Moses Schwartzberg was his side-kick, another Jew
passionate and political who wanted something to do.
He was an anti-Soviet Russian who plotted
to assassinate Lenin in 1918 without being spotted.
Schwartzberg and Cohen paired and were indignant and outraged.
They couldn’t keep their enthusiasm caged.
This is part of the scenario
of this historic imbroglio.
Even Yiddish played a role as one of three languages
the Chinese secret service used to help set them free.
The others were Mandarin and English,
therefore making the most impervious one, Yiddish.

Now we get to the part of this historical story,
where gunmen used ideology to live in glory.

Schwartzberg organized a regiment of 1,200 Jewish volunteers
to fight for the Israeli War of Independence without fear.
By now Sun Yat Sen was dead and an adroit Two-Gun Cohen
was Commander of the Chinese 19th field army, an honour “bestown”.
Cohen, the only European ever to serve as a Chinese general
even worked for Chiang Kai-shek, a position truly venerable.
Leading Nationalist troops to fight, with trepidation and unease
in charge of both communist Chinese and the angry Japanese.
Two-Gun Cohen would never be appeased
until he did what he came for and that was people’s liberties.

During the 1930s, China was invaded by the Japanese,
working for British intelligence, Cohen’s workload was increased
after Pearl Harbor was attacked
and Hong Kong was ransacked.

Two-Gun got Sun Yat Sen’s widow safely on a plane
away from the Bushido (code of the Samurai). Their loss, his gain.
She was on one of the last planes to escape the melee.
The Japanese captured Cohen in the midst of this fray.
He was thrown in Stanley Prison, beaten and mistreated.
Cohen was still hoping the enemy would be defeated.

When the war ended, finally peace came;
but this is not the end of the story nor the beginning of his fame.
In November 1947, with bated breath and high expectations,
a Jewish and an Arab state were considered by the United Nations.
The two- state idea at the time was ideal, as was the intention
to use parts of Western Palestine to build this Jewish nation.

The conundrum at the time was, where to fit the new Arab state?
How to solve this puzzle with a diplomatic, political dictate?
The hopes of the Jews rested in large part on China and its testimonial.
The Chinese were members of the five-member Security Council.
Getting China to approve the resolution before the General Assembly
was difficult because China was threatening to veto this proclivity.
Enter Two-Gun Cohen and his acumen.
He would help solve this problem. After all he once worked for Sun Yat Sen.

After serving his duty in the war,
Two-Gun moved back to Canada’s freedom shore.
He did briefly marry. It didn’t last.
Both the love and the divorce went and came very fast.

He worked in arms trade with the Zionists for the War of Independence.
He wanted Israel to become a state, and a country of some relevance.

While the battle of another kind waged at the UN,
people were praying for a peaceful way for this to end.
The hopes of the Jews rested in large part, on China’s actions
where, many hoped, would result in the best factions.

A hero of the Chinese campaign approached the Chinese delegation
and reminded all who helped them against the Japanese invasion.
This man, who approached them
had been a general and senior adviser to President Sun Yat Sen.
He was able to persuade the delegation to abstain
From taking any more accusations and not to complain,
the Security Council voted approval, and
the Partition Resolution was set to, nevermore for removal.
The General Assembly made it pass and it passed.
And lo, modern Israel came into existence.

Remember, the general who persuaded the Chinese in this resistance,
very persuasive in his insistence,
that a Jewish State must be born anew.
Yet, he himself was not Chinese, but, in fact, a Jew.

After all was said and done,
battles fought and battles won,
Two-Gun Cohen, off to Manchester, England traversed
where he and his cousins went into business and immersed
themselves in selling raincoats.
After all, precipitation was steady, so to keep themselves afloat,
two pistols and a Generalship, notwithstanding the shmatta* business was retail,
Mr. Cohen could get you a raincoat wholesale.

By the time he died in England in 1970,
he died well-heeled
financially and with respect from self and others revealed.
Even in 1970, while both Chinas were still at war with one another,
representatives at his funeral from both Chinas came to gather.
On his tombstone, words are written in English and Hebrew
and there are characters in Chinese.
This was the only thing that put everyone at ease.

The legacy of Two-Gun , his derring-do and caring,
is on a plaque in the Shanghai Synagogue with words bearing
the fact that Two-Gun Cohen was one of ten
most important Jewish women and men
in the history of China.

Today, in the Spy Museum in Washington D.C.,
Two-Gun Cohen has a very special entry.
Two books were published about his life, a story so rife
that Rob Reiner wants to film this story of a man larger than life.

*shmatta is a Yiddish word meaning clothing or rags

“I am thankful to Bunny Iskov for her astute insight and expertise in making this prose poem shine.”

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