Shanghai, 1990 & Two Other Poems

by Clara Changxin Fang

Shanghai, 1990

The year we sold our books to beggars
and tore up our address, grandmother
stacked under the stairs.

The year the city slept
on wheels, uprooted with its
kitchen gardens & bonsai trees,
children shelved into high rises.

We found our way by the smell
of dim sum in the streets, their names
lost in the shifting wreckage.
Rickshaws ferried furniture
& blue-eyed foreigners, cigarette
paper littered the pavement where
migrant workers slept on sidewalks,
pissed against walls and piles of rubble,
rural dialects popping like bullets.

Loneliness scoured our insides
with steel wool, the pavement
a stone we ground our hearts on.
Vicious with boredom, I fried
ants under the magnifying glass,
wrote letters stamped with blood,
the paper pressed to my chapped lips
like orange petals,
missives that no one answered;

While Dad drove Chinese takeout
through the gun-infested neighborhoods
of Washington, DC, in a 1980
Pontiac he bought for a hundred dollars
and Mom worked as a live-in nanny
while her baby lived abroad.

All that year, I watched smoke
rise from burning mattresses,
ancestors consigned to flames
with their belongs, the straightening
of labyrinth alleys into broad highways,
its street life ascending into towers.
On the balcony, I read
English books in Chinese translations,
learned to say, “yellow,” “hello,”
preparing for a departure so permanent
it could only be called erasure,
waiting for childhood to expire.
In old Shanghai, we flew
on bicycles and ate grief like fire.

 

First Christmas

First Christmas I drew
your tree. We hung paper
snowflakes, rubber gloves,
& candy canes from the branches
like a magpie hoarding bits of metal
among the holly; The presents
were things we owned
which we unwrapped as if
they were new.

( )

The first taste
of snow on the tongue,
shadows of moths
dancing like smoke
in the courtyard,
how soundly I slept
in the aftermath of
the New Year feast,
the blood still on
the butchering block,
the trout gutted and simmered
in a bed of ginger and scallions.
In the night, the echoing
boom of gunpowder
chasing away the moon.
( )

Winter solstice:
the earth tilts its axis
towards maximum
darkness, like a fetus
turning its head
down in the pelvis,
readying for birth.

The stories
were non-sequitors,
an infant in a manger,
an old man in a sled,
a reindeer with a tumorous nose,
what did it have to do with us

who had never seen
a barn, never ridden
in a sled, whose only
experience with deer
was a fur torn lump
on the side of the road?

The Christmas tree
is made from fir.
All that we had to celebrate
was on the plate:
Uncles and aunts
gathered around the table,
recalling

how to cull fish,
how to pull feathers,
the tenderness of their father
in a time of hunger,
the wish for their children
to venture farther.

 

Night Crossing over the Pacific

The plane was not a time machine
      Yet time was what disappeared
          hurtling towards dawn above the Pacific,  
       clouds passing like memories—

                   bicycle wheels blurred by rain, 
                               hands waving goodbye, 
                                           the sound of running water	
        like hair loosening on the balcony,  
                     the all night cry of cicadas like the tree’s dreaming—

This night: 
            the stillness of traveling at 500 miles per hour, 
                         the ocean a sky absent of stars. 

Once my father took me on a long journey 
             during the years when the moon traveled 
                         with us like a knapsack among branches. 
             We stood on the packed bus  
                        jossled like pinballs in a candy machine,  
                                    smoky with cigarettes and diesel exhaust 
             until seasick with exhaustion, I collapsed 
                          into a pool of vomit. It felt like 

                                      a crossing. 	The body emptied
                                                  of resistance, tilted away from the sun 
                                                              like the winter solstice—
		
The years were kilometers stretched between two worlds. 

Trays put away, seats adjusted uncomfortably upright,
 	    The New World lurched closer and closer like the mouth 
                        of a volcano issuing rivulets of light 
                                    and we were headed straight for the center of that fire. 

Seized with nausea, my stomach 
            expelled all the contents of my half-digested 
                       American breakfast.

Welcome to America. 
	
           The difference between one self and the next
                       is but a night and a day.

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