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Sample Poems by Stephen Haven


Willow
 
All China a green-gold row of them.
When you walk through—
delicate, skirted, light-limbed
 
and yellow, swishing their loveliness
in the wind—they brush
the whole of you.
 
The Han are awfully dark
to love such hair: one single tree
the parasol of thousands
 
of years of poetry.
It is essentially
a pastoral tradition, a light
 
gesture in a concrete sea—
this park, these willows,
these bamboo growing near,
 
as if forever curtained
beneath these trees
Li Bai still sprung
 
pure passion from a flush of wine.
And if you listen
you can almost hear him:
 
bamboo, bamboo, the green shoots
of earth, heaven when they brush
these yellow skirts!


Sun Wukong, Monkey King
 
 
I come to see him often, bike it past
Tiananmen and Mao’s mausoleum,
and the monochromatic, rectangular
 
downtown grey Soviet architecture
to where the pagodas
of the pre-Communist theater district
 
curl skyward the fandangos
of their brilliant eaves. Tonight,
it’s Sun Wukong, the Monkey King,
 
on stage. I first heard of him
in the nervous recitation
of a five-year-old girl
 
(my wife did the translation).
I know how he was hatched
from a stone womb, a monkey statue
 
until the mechanical
movement of the season
slipped five fen in the slot machine
 
of destiny and heaven (the stars
aligned, his cold eyes glowed,
two red coals). Beloved
 
of China, star
of the Beijing Opera,
he’s the self-proclaimed “Great Sage,

Equal to Heaven,” a cloud leaper
evolved out of nothing
and master of 72 transformations.

                                    ***

It isn’t especially a religious country.
Still, in every season,
the people flock to see him:
 
“Wukong and the Arhats,”
“Wukong and the Demon King.”
Little flames of black flicker up
 
from lips to cheeks to pointed ears.
Fidelity and treachery—red and white—
streak the permanent laughter of his face.
 
Then the erhu whines, the xiaoluo, those high
pitched cymbals, punctuate each wide-eyed
mischievous turning of his mind.
 
Wukong begins his eternal shenanigans,
crashing, jealous uninvited guest,
the annual heavenly peaches festival:
 
Plucking three hairs from his head,
he blows on them and three
mosquitoes bite each of the immortals.
 
They’re sleeping deeply by the time
he staggers on the stolen wine.
Then, as he somersaults out of heaven,
 
just before he offers, for longevity’s sake,
sacks of that immortal fruit
to his loyal legions of earthly primates,

two phoenixes, his cousins in vertigo,
rise above two dragons, their feathered
rainbows shimmering, their tails on fire.
 
                                    ***

It does no good to say, I would eat too
if Wukong, troubled mortal,
sick with the seed of heaven in him,
 
came down off of center stage
and reached into the foreigner’s section,
the best seats in the house,
 
and laughed and pawned that fruit of life
at a higher than reasonable price.
In the battle to defeat him,
 
the victorious Wukong
(a momentary victory), twirls
his cudgel as a majorette her baton.
 
There is no need to show—everyone knows—
how he loses in the end,
how in the one crucial moment,
 
grieving for the masses
of mortal monkeys bleeding or dead,
doubt reconnoiters him. Powerless
 
to kill him, heaven burns and buries him
for a thousand years beneath
the Buddha’s hand, Five Fingers Mountain.
 
***

Then past the touristic, miniature opera masks
and silk embroidered cushion covers,
past the overpriced, ink still lifes
 
to where my bicycle—a Phoenix,
not a Flying Pigeon or a Butterfly—
is locked outside. It is February,
 
it is five in the evening.
There are hundreds of thousands,
even millions of Phoenixes:
 
We glide, almost invariably black,
along the hutongs, our wings
spread in one mass, past the mounds
 
of coal dust, which lie untouched till spring
but still swirl up like snow
or some blown dandelion gone to seed
 
when the wind comes down off the Gobi.
I think of you, Wukong, Great Sage,
of that mountain off your back,
 
and everywhere in Beijing, across
the city, one thousand years
drift, lifeless and grey as this spent ash.
 
                        —In memory of the Tiananmen massacre


Ultrasound
To my daughter, five months before her birth
in Beijing, Spring Festival, 1991
 
 
The Chinese half of your family counts
the curled time inside the womb.
You’re four months old.

Your mother sings, not exactly to you,
on Lunar New Year’s Eve,
on the piano,

a song her father wrote
years ago (it once pleased Mao):
 Little Buddhas of peeled apples

and oranges in a bowl
and a nasal, pentatonic vibrato
echoing off the concrete walls.
 
But there’s another echo too,
some silence stuffed
down your mother’s throat

as she sings this song her father wrote.
All the other women, seventy years
between them, stop for a moment

pinching dumplings into crescents.
Only one young uncle falls asleep,
his face gone purple with grief and baijiu,

his one son lost shoveling coal
at the Beijing Duck Hotel,
then biking home, after dark, past

Tiananmen, June 4th. 
Anniversary of absences,
song of a night to be sad.
 
Someone recalls, now, on his birthday,
in prison, your mother’s father was given
one boiled goose egg.
 
The dry black husks of watermelon seeds
scatter the slab floor. And all the while,
outside the living room’s one window
 
the moon refuses to show,
masked in clouds and the earth’s shadow,
its power magnified behind a shroud.
 
Begonias of violence, man-powered stars
burst their last cartwheels
in a long rumor of dawn.
 
All night tonight, even in translation,
the musicians who betrayed him,
grieve or say nothing:
 
In the loneliness
of their lit stage, in the posthumous concert
where they rehabilitated his name,

the music ricocheted
stray bullet
shot in the dark.

***

What is the pact we make with you?
We wait for you.
Yesterday, at the Beijing Capital Hospital,

we looked in to see, five months early,
you, floating in your beginning.
The peninsular pieces of yourself

were grotesque in their separate whorls.
Your heart splashed in front of us
like mercury on glass,

your spine was a toothed grin.
And where there might have been a grin—
a mouth, something—

the faceless contours of your head
stared back as blank and knowing
as some extraterrestrial’s

wondrous descent to where we live.  
Quartered in the lilliputian monitor,
archipelago in the rising

of everything we couldn’t see,
the pure promise of a seed
and the nightmare of leprosy

were unfolding there
as they will here
but gently now, I promise you,

in unison, in the open air.