The Peregrine Muse

On Technological Advancement and Other Social Issues

that Are Pressing of Our Time

Someone the other day invented a left-handed screwdriver

Poem, January 5, 2010

My head and heart are separated

by six rivers now

Six guitar strings

or six bullets in their chamber

How could I ever know
if my head is fueled by heart
or if my heart is not leading
but dragged by my head instead

How could I ever know
if mental illness infects not the heart
or if my heart cries “foul”
and infests without mercy the head

So you juggle them or call for a judge
but in all credulity it is like hammer
on sledge or they balance
as in a ledger without the fudge.

Surely I will die never knowing
the magnitudes of storms
whether they are noteworthy
or merely fleeting – as a doubt

But the fusion/fission in me you arouse
I should say are rampaging floods now.

The Odds

The odds are not good,
never were good.
Even the dishes are stacked against
me (I don’t say “you”)
and I have to wash them.

Eventually I will break a dish or two;
maybe a cup, or a saucer,
then, that may bring us closer, or
farther apart, to a common disaster.

You have been far away
you don’t remember
when or where
anymore. You came to me
as a leaf blown.
It is all right I tell you.

I too am born of chaos
when the red opposed the blue.
But at the time I found you,
I already had learned
to look upon
my small peace
with great awe.

A Smoke Break at the Nuclear Command

We multitask chop, grill, wok, and pickle.

They are fickle, can come all hours, drunk,

after sex, before meetings, during greetings;

hucksters, gangsters, no telling who wants what

stir-fried, steamed rock cod with its head and bulbous eyes.

My father at the meat block hacks spareribs, carves bone from chicken,

minces onions, six sons chow the mein, French-fry the sausages,

whip the gravy, beat the eggs until you can fool the young

into thinking that’s sperm yanked from a calf.

Smoke signals say the pork chops are burnt,

the white sauce turning yellow and the waitresses ladle the soup.

Sounds like feeding at the zoo. Chopsticks tingle from a corner booth.

On and on motors start and stop, door open and shut, ice water

set down as menus are tossed. You need a minute? Mom is helping the girls to wash

glasses and tea pots. It would be sinful to run out of hot mustard during the rush.

My father drinks my coffee and I smoke his Marlboro,

Two cowboys in cattle drive fending off rustlers, and damn!

The waitress says that the women’s toilet has overflowed!

We are going to go fishing as soon as our mental breakdowns are over with.

And we are going to take a smoke break from the nuclear command.

Just then a party of 12 comes in – well, put two tables together,

like a man joining a woman, the yin and yang, and kids with yo-yo’s.

We are family doing family business, money for school books,

Mom’s dentures.

In Water Buffalo time

The water buffalo is a black boulder around which white

Butterflies flit, controlling the image of my village.

It is four pillars holding up a shrine topped by Attila's head.

Slapping its paintbrush tail, sure-footed, it advances

Slowly, not impressed by dynastic inventions of paper, compass,

and gunpowder,

Not by imperial vassals intoxicating concubines with plum wine.

This working philosophic benign beast of the East, a prince

Meditating on plum blossoms while the kingdom is overrun

By brigands no different than soldiers.

It sinks its head into the grass on the perimeter of the village

Pond where daggers of carp and dace rip his shadow on the water,

Where black shrimp and loaches scout the bottom

And snails cling to slate banks.

In earliest mornings, I woke to the village dialect jostling
In my head like cauliflowers sizzling in sesame oil
In the wok, like chatty sparrows in the yung tree,
Like cicadas in bamboo groves, like buckets splashing
Into the village well. I heard the drinking song of the men
In the village yard the night before. With bamboo pipes
And a bucket of rice wine, they had sung.

"Heavy, heavy, the dew lies over the clovers.
Bring, bring out flasks of silver.
Merry, merry under a dome of stars.
But soon, too soon this night will be over..."

Voices taut, frog drums deep as rice paddies.
But I dreamt a deeper voice, my father's pales in comparison.
It's hinted by gungfu drums, bellow of water buffalo, a racine fissure.
It was as proclaimed by Lu Hsun, "In the stillness of mountains,
Hear the peal of thunder." But when I woke, the dew was gone.
A shaft of sunlight fell on my childhood slate.

My sister renews the Ming vase with fresh pussywillows.
Grandmother steams rice, and the chicken sits on a new egg.
I drink tea from the sput while my sister redoes my shoelaces.
Off to school 3 li away, trotting on village pond banks
And collecting schoolmates in the morning haze.
When I see a water snake swimming on the lotus pond,
I déjà vu Narcissus lost his life. His gifts came early
And ours not at all. We are the contingent of zodiac animals
Off to seek Buddha: the horse, the rabbit, the tiger, the rooster...
The ox trots out first, faithful, steadfast, but when he
Arrives, the rat on his back jumps off
And gets to Buddha first.

I often meditate at the pond near the school,
Watching the soft, thin legs of the praying mantis
Subdue a bug in fll armor, seeing it as the monks did
In Shaolin Temple 500 years before. Other masters studied
The movements of cranes, eagles, and birds fighting with snakes.
Li Po, our legendary poet, in 700 A.D., perfected
The Drunkard's Style of gungfu, which bewilders
The opponent with fluid but erratic movements.

When my little friends mocked me for my seriousness,
Our teacher, under the shade of the yung tree bursting with berries,
Told us Meng-Tse had dreamed he was a butterfly
Dreaming it was a man. I was confused, in a house
Of mirrors, and thought existence is mutual illusion.
Would I cease to exist if I didn't think of my dog
Who thinks of me? My little friends made faces at me.

New Year comes to the village banging a gong
And exploding demon-chasing firecrackers. And lucky money.
But the village recedes away like the galaxies. In these
Thirty years what will not change in form or utility
Except art for its own sake?
Heraclitus says I can't cross the same river twice.
Einstein says if I must I can go to the future, but never to the past.
But surely as long as one water buffalo is fanned by
The evening breeze, the village is there like the smile of the Cheshire Cat
And exists in the Platonic world; all else is an approximation.

Sunflowers, yellow and white chrysanthemums, lychees,
Girls' red cheeks, dew-moist wintermelon little buddhas
In the gardens. Robins, beetles, and cicadas sing my way
To my uncle's village. He rises and his wife burns incense.
He clears the abacus with one motion and teaches me the rhymes
One chants to enable the fingers to go faster than the brain.

He is a wine merchant steeped in Confucius.
Where would a woman wash her husband's clothes
If not at the river by the ancestral shrine?
What part of the chicken to give to the nephew if not the drumstick?
And how else to measure but by exact yards and inches?
He has many children but there is no unnecessary noise.

I forage the pine hills behind his house as a bandit.
The turpentine from the virgin pines makes me dizzy.
The wood is kept as furniture for newlyweds.
I play until I fear real bandits will come
When the sky is devout with thousands of incense tips.

But surely memory is selective. I don't remember not having
My mother's milk, only the quarrels with village women
My mother's age. I don't remember three generations of a family
Taken by dysentary, just the bitter cod liver oil
My grandmother spooned me.
I don't remember my cold little toe except that cloth was allotted
Only once a year, and only in black or blue.
I don't remember famines, just the human chain formed
To relay water to the stricken rice paddies,
Where the leeches had dehydrated.

Still, village girls marry as soon as the dew evaporates
From the corn. The mulberry was for jumping into the village pond.
What China had, we had. And when it was all quiet,
The sunflowers so turned. The papayas got fat and golden,
And peasants trotted out with hoes and straw hats.
It is quiet in the garden where I fish in the pond.
Peas incubate in pods, the lettuce full and clean,
And ladybugs monitor the gardens
To make sure this is the order of things
Before the invention of mail delivery.

In the semi-tropical evening, pink clouds race and diffuse
Like the colors and textures of my jade bracelet.
The water buffalo is led into the dusty village yard,
Mud-caked on its loins, distracted by my dog cutting
Across its path. He collects his primeval motions into shape,
Shakes his Hegelian head, exhales, slaps his paintbrush tail,
Lapses into a revery, and goes into internal monologue:

O beast I am, humble beast.
Some man, he must have been an emperor,
Or the son of such an emperor, said, "The Original Son
Is the mother of the universe, the sword that divines light
From chaos, the mother of all things..."

The sun atop the tree is East.
The mountains seek comfort in the hills, the hills seek
Rest in the valleys, and the valleys beget rivers.
The mountain cat descends into the lowlands
And the field mice look up for hawks
And the darkening earth looks for the moon...

And loving the grasses as I have for thirty years,
First owned by one man, then by his son,
While the mountains are unvarying,
With mud caked on my loins, trudging the maze of rice fields,
A black dot against unvarying mountains,
The soil furls, my eyebrows moisten, the bittersweet song
Of my master, himself deep in mud, the fury of work,
Calculating how many bowls of rice the harvest will give.

A beast is not able to calculate mous, catties, and grains.
Work begins when the monsoons recede. In the evening,
When I am sufficiently grazed, I sink into the village pond
And drop dung for black shrimp...

Yet a man, with all his skill on an abacus, is afraid
Of things he cannot see. The man and his family
Are afraid of dark, gloomy gods handed down to them
And buy copious amounts of incense and charms.
My mother, whose teats I suckled for only a brief while,
Gave me no such gods of thunder to fear.

I don't even fear tigers. A man is cursed with worry:
Thieves because he has too much, fires because he is careless,
And ghosts because he offends others.
But I, with the gold-pleated sky for a blanket,
Sweet-smelling rice straw for a bed, a breeze from the river,
I have recompense for my toil, with the village symphony
Of crickets, cicadas, and bullfrogs,
I shall say beasthood is as good as Buddhahood.

I conjecture a water buffalo constellation in another galaxy,
A real spirit, not a tattered array of dying stars,
A form but not only a form.
Up in heaven, my soulmate has no ring pierced
Through his elegan nose and no harness to shackle him down.
And here below, if beasts can speak, we will form quorums
And overthrow empires by a conspiracy of tails.

But alas, nature gives us no such voice or equipment
Just a reluctant compliance to serve.
Though our masters in turn fear the tax collectors,
It is we who are sold, exchanged, or placed on the chopping block.
We do not think? No!
Our lack is that our intelligence is not equal to our strength.

The beast is weary, is led by a boy to a bed of straw.
Inside our house, in the kerosene lamplight,
My sister undoes her ponytail, which a while ago was a bowstring
Back from a political meeting, she says tractors will come
To our village. When electric lamps light up the village yard,
She says, ghosts will be gone.
Grandmother, with her feet bound in the last dynasty, will see
New light with her old eyes.
She gives me crackers and tea, and draws the mosquito net.
I hear a faint moan from the water buffalo.
He too will be liberated.

Though the past is solipsistic, its existence requiring
A mind to behold it, childhood writes indelibly
A million dollar check into life.
Dragonflies hover over chrysanthemums
Like helicopters over a burning forest.
Bananas and grapes bunch together like families.
Women splash buckets into the well.
I look for the faint prints of water buffalo.

The water buffalo got old and died.
It was shared by the whole village,
Lucky money for a calf conscripted.
A sad note crept into the men's drinking songs,
But not for long, with rice wine they sang
Again of subduing tigers and the various calamities
From the beginning of time.
On my childhood slate were drawings of chickens, mulberries,
And numerals from Arabia.
Then I learned how to write the characters "water buffalo."

Psychoanalysis of a room

Its only window is the eye of Cyclops on the world.

Lamplight of honey, a dusty guitar on the wall.
Many rivers merge behind the bookshelf.
A premature cry gushes like steam in the radiator.
The family screams but the typewriter clicks on.

The mirror accelerates the curvature of the unadorned wall.
Clean sheets achieve a similar effect.
The child learns the power of crayons, while more soberly,
the grown man jots the notation of infinitesimals.

The child is put to bed, his colors symmetric arcs
in the lamplight of honey, while the grown man looks
up to the ceiling and sighs,
for what is he if his principles are refuted by the night
and he is himself reduced to a microscopic groove!

No matter, he goes on with his infinitesmals,
naked, precise, and relentless.
The child sleeps
while the grown man expects a guest who never comes.
In the womb of the night,
the grown man shrinks into the child
with lamplight of honey and a dusty guitar on the wall.

The grown man goes to bed and the world pauses
just long enough for the child to get off.
The child resumes the man's work
and makes the notation of infinitesimals.

You naughty woman smiling coyly at me

With your smile curving like a sickle,
and I, a handful of wheat, I am telling you
my requirements are complex, but for now
I'll order a #3 with your smile there,
under the armpit of the waitress, across the room.

The Eskimos offer to their brothers traveling
the wide expanse of cold their wives.
It is a cold day, I am sitting here and your coy
smiles are unknown to your husband, with
the newspaper between the two of you.

My sweet-and-sour-pork is tart today.
The Chinese say vinegar is envy and jealousy.
The kitchen is a gong ensemble;
when the cooks go home in nights like bits
of shrimp in bittermelon soup,

Their wives will timidly rub their loins
against them, but they will be asleep.
I live here and the last time I went out
for roast duck with plum sauce, I dined alone.
Thank you for smiling, I am alive under the table.

An Old hotel dweller

Smoke detectors page me down these halls.
Cooking pork snouts no doubt, my arthritic bones
rickshaw me down scented rugs to the toilet stall.
Old San likes to read old papers and fart alone.
First the check is late, then mice noisily came,
and the daughter moves to another town.
Old photographs and plaster can but come down.
When Old San sneezes, he discovers he's lame
and eight flights of stairs lead down to the snow.
The women in the washroom will only say
may the Virgin Mary give us more hot water.
Old age is like this, Old San has been told.
But I am still living, though life is a bother.
I hope I won't be a putrefying mess on the next rent day.

Against the pre-dawn light

Against the pre-dawn light,
Socrates walks toward the town square.
My goldfish stops,
I measure myself
against the significant digits
of the slide rule.

The tree Socrates argues with is I.
He will not drink hemlock
for another day.
No, for the dew drops
on the grasses heavily lie,
and for their brevity,
Socrates will die.

Logic and method are useless
in arguing with the pre-dawn sadness.
Go, then, Socrates, go to the town square
and argue with the significant
and the insignificant,
though they conspire to take
your life.

I argue with my father,
his length laps my length,
his reach outspans my reach,
and his hand covers mine.
What measure am I left
in the pre-dawn light?

Socrates will die, it is already known.
My father will die, by logic
and the fact he is mortal.
I look again out the window.
Socrates moves against the pre-dawn light.
And in my room my goldfish swims again.
I live.

The slide rule is no applicable measure.

Chinatown, Seattle

When the light is with you,
the dust is behind an old gift shop.
Faded memories are displayed in the window.
Persistent footsteps have descended down these curbs
for humbow retreats. Footfall killing time.

Frayed stairs of tenements bring down bitter strength.
Through alley doors furious wokking
below Chinatown family association halls.
Pigeon feathers and other disorders
flutter down these streets. Footfall killing time.

On Weller Street roast ducks are hung,
headless, dripping fat, next to
The Proprietress of Love, and three flights of stairs
lead up to a den of poverty. Unwashed windows face
out at tarry streets. Footfall killing time.

Construction workers face-lift the train station
and the sports dome is about to be imploded.
All the discussion at dim-sum before the tea kettle whistles.
Drainage pipes complain of rust and leakage
in these back streets. Footfall killing time.

On a spring day the sun mild and modest,
tender green foliage reappears on inner city street.
Or on a fall day at sundown warm and emberly
as the ferry traverses the sound,
the maples are three or four shades of yellow and brown
when lightly you walk upon these streets,
Footfall killing time.

I've told you the fragility of my love...

I’ve told you of the fragility of my love,
and yet how it endures like a leaf pressed into a book,

how the pain and how inappropriately the hate,
like the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs

left a silence whereof no man can speak…
It is this that is the fragility of my love,

knowing my awareness is pain; I leave you in my mind
the many times I think of the silence

wherein my mother’s voice should drone, but
the gentle hands released me to bed where the smell of kerosene

from the village lamp burnt past the hour of moths
when we shut the window to village crickets,

when the tender bamboo shoots, their new fragile leaves bud
in the fragility of my love for you,

as I want to travel blind with you as far into the night
until the sun rises in Japan, and I will sail my junk

into phantom waters. Yet, my love endures
like cloth flapping in the wind…


It hasn’t rained in China for a while
no rain in Guangzhou
We come upon an unnamed river
catfish at the bottom
willows bending from the banks
the breeze bringing cool autumn
Friends meet again at the tea pavilion
exchanging words, gestures
and a longing for lost lands

A drought of ideas
arises from the breast no consolation,
pathetic, pathetic is the retreating army
across the untended rice fields
The hemp at the edge of the swamp
grows thick like a wild child’s hair
no song of the hour
no cicadas at midday
and no robins in the evening

With three coins to my name
I beg to see the future
while listening to lost lore
in the music that sweeps like
November drafts
Gone are the magistrate and the blind
men who can argue
rivers swell, last leaves falling
I am bewildered by the vastness of air

Cold Stones

Would copper coins and amulets
from the Sung Dynasty
dispel these ghosts of regret!
We sat, face to face,
at a tea-house in Tien-An.

I call upon your name,
the old man from Nan-On.
Perhaps one should say:
"This tea comes from the high hills of..."
Or perhaps,
"This tea cup is an old relic..."

We reach into our pockets to find words
but only possess
cold stones.
The cups are emptied
and emptied again,
with the rapidity of
a school boy rattling off
the names of the dynasties.

We are old men, forever parting,
never joining.
This is the schism:
not by waters and not by years,
but by glances that implore
and by words that fail us.
When we reach into our pockets
for something to give --
cold stones.

Soul to soul, we had never met.
Our little wars had drawn us together.
Now there is peace over the hills.
Now peasants are rebuilding huts.
Can we now repair ourselves?
Or must we, like condemned men,
carry cold stones in our pockets?

Raw and Easy

Nightly, there is no bottom,
I wrap myself in my quilt.
With my scarred past rotten,
I abuse myself to the hilt.

My eyes report to the skull
what the dark corners bring.
My ears deliver gossip to
lead me to an early drink.

Thoughts reduce to pins;
these I insert into my bones.
Passions magnify into rivers,
two rivers against the sea.

Nightly, like blades of scissors,
my life and death meet to divide;
they argue over me like hungry
merchants, to get the lowest price.

Ships float out with the night's remnants.
I seize the orange to the sky.
I peel the minutes, anxious,
waiting for the roll of the die.

With my nakedness redeemed,
I examine all my veins.
Blood surges within the body,
dividing me into roads and lanes.

In circles, my thoughts are tongue-tied;
I pray and I utter just one sound,
Ah, I have not left land yet,
my anchor is still on the ground.

With my eyes half-open, I
lie embedded; my loins aroused
by the pristine current, I
will be worn smooth, like

a piece of jade dangling
from the ear of an exquisite
woman, hearing everything
she hears.

I am often tempted to abandon
my house and mantlepiece,
to travel raw and easy, to connect
my nerve with every eel and owl.
I am easy and lazy, my eyes
lenses in the forest, with
every fern calling my name,
I shall say I know; I know

sand and water will cut any stone.
Time, that is, is all there is.

If I die, I'll die before my bones.
This is what I know and just this.

The water keeps ebbing fast,
ebbing past, it contains many tunes.
The time I listened last,
it contained even my tune.

Windows after a rain

My window framed face peers out,
The matrix of graded streets, stratified
Urban achievements. In the alley,
Puddles connect like children holding hands.

While rain snared windows, I sat reading
A Tale of Two Cities. I was a lost thought
Among the closet's forgotten thoughts now.

The sunlight gushes in and conquers me,
A solar cell, a reluctant melon, a crow perched
On the intelligentsia of a telephone pole.

Sparrows clutch phone wires to frisk out insincere notes of lovers;
Pigeons reclaim city squares;
I take the thermometer out of my mouth;

It had garbled my speech while eloquent voices
Fought for column inches. This light,
Without which existence is not detectable, is

A universal Einstein loved so well, it conquers
The dark corners of my room as I comfort myself
With tea and the religiosity of sesame crackers.

Village Chrysanthemums

I used to know a girl named Christine
Who reminds me of village Chrysanthemums

Would French perfume smell just as sweet?
An intoxicated man is never to know

How this woman soul by soul
Charms with her good sense and heart of gold

I tell her that another man I know
Would give a leg to dangle from her arm

But Christine is never one to cast her charm
On silly willy nilly persons at night

When her heart lights mine on fire

But alas my dear pristine Christine
I am composing love poems in the trenches

I don’t know when the bullets will cease whizzing
And the time will come when I could be at peace

And watch the quiet waters flow in the Pearl River
As my heart for the land of my birth quivers

And I think of the girl named Christine
Who reminds me of village Chrysanthemums

I got off the train and suddenly

I got off the train, and it was
suddenly old age.
The preview came in ancient
caresses of grandmothers,
the death bed of a father,
the medicinal odors
of uncles, and the antiseptic
wards I myself visited.

Someone pulls the shade
and the inside of his house is lit.
Proust is right; I shall never know
the mind of another.
Where did I eat the last memorable
meal? Life was still worth it, then.
Now, the old house creaks
and leaks. Unread books remain unread.

Didn’t Kafka say it isn’t as bad
as one would assume ---
because, after all, one still has a palpable
forehead, for smiting oneself upon.
But old age is like this;
I have been told.
It is always easier to go somewhere,
then it is to come back.

Another Room Poem

You will find madness in the room’s disarray
or you will find a roomful of madness,
depending how you look
and how others look at you.

Poetry is supposed to be an imaginary
garden with real toads,
and here you are pacing amid a roomful of
clothes, paper, pizza crust and electrical
wiring; something has gotten loose
in the telephone headset…

Yet this is the moment that you waited for;
the moment you are finally careless
of managed growth, or speech acts,
or the toiletry of noted men.
Now you simply feel an inexplicable peace;
Something money could not buy,
but suddenly you have an ample supply of it.

Even dead flowers, withered and dry
like a token of a dehydrated field,
across the childhood long forgotten
where a body meets a body
and a body catches a body –
it is here that you dine alone and find yourself,
across the pillows that you have fled,
but flee no more…

Try as they might to purchase a roomful of air.
But you have it just for the breathing.
Thank you my friend for your generous
love, for without which, the air cannot
be supported above.
Find me here; please do, my friend,
Find me in the dead center of it.

The Question I want to ask

A command sets a thousand horses galloping
while a question merely drops a frog into a pond.
Elsewhere the required question is not the same.
Elsewhere they ask for rain, for harvests, and for newborns
to pick up the heavy plows.
Elsewhere there are infants to pick up, messages to scurry.
One nation is on fire, another in revolt, still a third one quakes.

I peer out at the pond, I am the dwarf of Socrates
looking at humanity, the midget of Isaac Newton looking
at the invisible gravity.
The frog sits on a single lotus leaf, its eyes pinhole cameras
to record its domain,
from an ill-defined mosquito to a very deliberate water snake.

It has been ten years since the frog leaped from my mouth.
At water's edge, the water lilies have transformed
from buds to jungle foliage, and every cell in my body
has been washed and replaced.
Grassy fields have turned golden, then brown.

I ask the wind if it would listen.
Elsewhere the wind sweeps a fire across a prairie.
The pond, now smooth as a bald man's head,
swallows my question but gives no answer.
But I am no longer disappointed that it is so, and
the thousand horses that went galloping
return now of their own accord.

The Memory of hands
(for my grandmother)

I. In Water Buffalo Time

Honey-auntie collects bees in her palms:
When she says Go! they fly off to sue the flowers.
And when she says Come Back! they roll their honey-
bellies in her hand.

Uncles are in rice paddies, itching where leeches suck
their legs.

I sprinkle Grandmother's garden of bokchoy, cabbages,
and wintermelons heavy like little buddhas.

Grandmother gets wood and gossip from Firewood-auntie,
and pays her a few bronze coins to light incense.
Both women's husbands died three decades ago,
leaving them the void of Confucian hands.

At dusk my grandmother trots out in her bound feet to retrieve
the drying vegetables hung on a bamboo pole like the character
jen (people).

The sun drops behind the last rice paddy
as the water buffalo sinks in the village pond,
dropping dung for black shrimps.
And at last Grandmother draws the mosquito net
in the lychee-pit night.

II. Sampan

A journey in yellow water. I am sick
and Grandmother tells me to think of not moving.
Think of a place far away like Gimshan, she says
Do not move against the river and you will be still.
Don't resist the womb's muscles to deliver you.
Your head was so big we used forceps,
and now you are a cavern
for three bowls of rice and pigs' feet stewed in rice vinegar!

Grandmother is not moving although the boat moves.
She tells me to think of lemon.

The boatman, pushing the river bottom with his long bamboo pole,
carries all the land he cares for in his sampan.
As I become better, I awe at his calves.

The river I know must have fish.
The fish must look up at the shadow that moves.
The fish move in a moving river,
but I am still because Grandmother is still.

We are leaving the village for Canton.
The chrysanthemums are in bloom just now,
and Gimshan is where I must soon go.

III. The World's Longest Alley

For a snip of cloth Grandmother took my hand
and led me through bicycle-laden streets,
past shoppers by fours, past wine and vinegar stores.
Buses overtook us.
And finally, walking as far as three rolls
of cloth would unroll,
we arrived at the entrance of the world's longest alley,
where vendors on both sides set up
painted fans, brilliantly glazed pottery,
and cloth of every color
as they haggled with shoppers,
squeezing the alley like a tourniquet on a blood vessel.

Grandmother: "The five colors blind the eye!"
But she doesn't heed Lao Tsu and slides her fingers
on the rolls of exquisite cloth.
We hear it is exported.

But there are no candy vendors, though there's a man
who has taught his monkey to beg with a tipped hat.
The alley is long as a conversation with a river.
In the colorful blur, she assents to an ice-cream bar.
I am then happy for coming along,
for the first time I see
Grandmother as a maiden of sixteen,
her young eyes dazzled by the dowry of cloth.

IV. The Memory of Hands

If you fold a piece of paper once, then unfold it,
it will tend toward the folded position. That's because
the paper has "memory."

The memory of hands, of ancient vine.
My monsoon eyes, my face, tilled by fingers.
A chicken plucked gently naked.
Hands, unable to sign a legal signature,
close the fan,
and draw the mosquito net.

At the Hong Kong International Airport, I took a mental
photograph of my grandmother. A young girl wrings free of
her mother's hand and runs along, laughing.

Her index finger wrote a whorl on my back to designate an ox.
My hands, curved upward to suggest valleys of space,
would squeeze water,
would cling to ancient vine,
would throw

a marble across the river.

The loudspeaker announces, announces last call, last call.
Third-aunt says hurry, hurry, or you will miss your future.

The past folds up like an origami bird,
will not dissolve like candy.
Grapes cling to the vine, hands weave bamboo baskets,
hands supplicate and light incense,
Buddha holds her in his palm.
I fold paper for hands of ancient vine,
hands that couldn't come along.
And hands will open gates if I should return.

                        "Gimshan" is Cantonese for America, literally "Golden Mountain".


The goldfish in my bowl
turns into a carp each night.
Swimming in circles in the day,
regal, admired by emperors,
but each night, while I sleep,
it turns into silver, a dagger
cold and sharp, couched at one spot,
enough to frighten cats.

The rest of the furniture
squats in the cold and dark,
complains of being a lone man's
furnishings, and plots a revolt.
I can hear myself snore, but not
their infidelity. Sometimes I wake
with a start, silently they move back
into their places.

I have been unpopular with myself,
pacing in my small, square room,
but my uncle said, "Even in a palace,
you can but sleep in one room."
With this I became humble as a simple
preacher, saying, "I have no powers;
they emanate from God."
With this I sleep soundly,

Fish or no fish, dagger or no dagger.
When I wake, my fish is gold,
it pleases me with a trail of bubbles.
My furniture has been loyal all night,
waiting to provide me comfort.
There was no conspiracy against a poor man.
With this I consider myself a king.

Apple moment

I was a snail, I hauled my house
Equidistant from you,
A flower on an apple bough;
And through the sky kaleidoscope,
And from your checkered skirt,
The suggestion of cherry...

Now time has passed and generalized you:
The first kiss, flavored by bubble gum;
The bright red skirt of a flamenco dancer,
And as poppies on the terrace of a private home,
And finally,
As a source of light, in my rented home...

At the bus stop

A young woman peels
herself like a banana,
soft, sweet, and fragile...

Others gawk, seem pleased;
my sole reality is
the chicken I am eating;
my allowance under these political
times is a bus transfer.

She laughs while the cherry trees conspire
to bear fruits;
perhaps the worms quietly sift
soil around their roots;
perhaps the bus moves
across poorer neighborhoods...

She readies her money, zipping
herself back up, creates
a mystery I cannot designate
time or place.
She mounts the bus while I wonder
what to do with my greasy fingers.

The Woman in the next room

Has a craving for a banana
And is convinced I am a spy after her secret.

She's reading one of those paperback books where
The heroine leads a successful double life.

She works in a doctor's office
And she flies to Florida once a year to read

A book in this next hotel room
And is worried about the minimum upkeep of a spy

Which I am. I know she rinses her lettuce
Many times and she has a secret kept in a semi-

Precious gem box no one can see or open.
She is slender and naked upon the hotel bed

Just reading while the potted ferns tremble
Because someone has closed a door down the hall.

We come to this hotel once a year and live
In two adjacent hotel rooms and I pretend

I don't know her and she wants me to call her
On the telephone and talk to her about stocks and real estate.

It's all I've got, he said...

The light rain, he said, and the occasional let up's all I've got,
And walking around the block's an adventure then...

He used to write poetry, went surf fishing, my one line tossed into the ocean,
He said, is all I can do, now at night the phone cord slips like a snake
Into underworld catacombs...

I used to chop at Whitman's block of wood, he said, but I cannot gallop
Like Robert Frost, even walking in the woods you would pick up some dirt,
And since no woman would, himself he caressed and said, it's all I've got...

He used to know the seasons' birds and the afterglow of the summer sun in meadows,
Now he reads Anne Sexton and is no longer concerned if the soul survives;
The other day I looked through the peephole of a construction site,
He said, good people will no longer live in houses of wood,
High in the tower, they will try to prove the existence of dirt.

In San Francisco in my torrid hour, he said, when Hamlet's solioquy was about me,
An old poet came to see me and said, Africa's darker troubles are caused by diamonds,
Which last forever...

He said, I'm tired of talking. Can we walk around the block? Here are the dandelions
And the weeds that push their way through the cracks of the sidewalk,
A solitary dandelion sometimes showers in its yellow gold,
Its bloom many times brighter than the sun.
It's all I've got, he said...


I hopped from island to island,
hoping one would help health,
one would clear the soot and
there would be one where I found
a face that recognizes my face.

Once I was the Jack of Hearts,
luminous in my activities;
then dark rain fell
on my paper soldiers.

Artful dodge was no match
for measure by measure,
the drops between successive steps
where I faltered, the water wetted
my will, making me unwell.

Who is farther up the hill?
What good does this do me,
for he will not turn around,
and where does he spy a ship
that will part the water and plunge

Into its depth. He will go down
mark twain; his warriors into oblivion,
and he himself covered
by historical dirt.

By whoever I am, I must endure,
for the islands that contained me,
however briefly, have conquered me,
for now I am merely light,
bright for a moment before the dullest night.

At the end of the day

When sunshine tapers off and the fiery
evening is without borders; details
having been worked out, infinite sadness
descends on the sum total of his life,
where he was a shadow at the world’s
bluest place, where trees crowd
together like criminals in a penal colony,
where the closing down is anticlimactic
and eulogies are without recording.

And so it comes to this – the morning colliding
like successive rail cars into the night;
though the shadow lengthens, its tenuous
grasp grows more and more insubstantial, until
it finally vanishes into the sand.
I am also filled with infinite sadness,
I do not regret what has been,
for it was a moment in which soy and sugar cane
sprouted, and an interval during which
men and women casually entered
and left their houses.

Egg Tarts

Once talking to Maria, she's Greek, worried

About bi-cultural adaptation, asked me

If I like Chinese girl or American, told me

When she doesn't feel Greek, she'll buy baklava.

I squelch diary, querulous birds in hell &
Go to Ten Thousand Thigns Have Mothers Bakery
While Chinatown rust travels from building
To building, shop to shop.

It's a trick to feel Chinese even in Chinatown
Where tour buses inch along, the driver pointing out
Its exotic features while winos slump,
Street people, tattooed guns and knives,
Benevolent orders tight-lippedly banging

Mahjong, It'd take some articulate she-poet
To slit my bamboo frame: Opaque, hard, and abuse-
Resistant outside, but inside, a cavity,
Flip-flopping to dissonant winds, to needs.

Yellow lights of pagoda lanterns,
Unabashed verses, not wind through sparse bars,
Not winds through bamboo groves,
Papaya-ginger breath, I am not bamboo but arrows.

Now, Maria, I go for egg tarts to feel Chinese.
Little sweet buddhas behind beaded curtains
At 3 A.M., fashioned by Fushi, the god of creation,
Received by yellow bands and minds,
Belly-filling as verses translated from the Tang.

How to cook rice

Measure two handfuls for a prosperous man.
Place in pot and wash by rubbing palms together
as if you can't quite get yourself to pray, or
by squeezing it in one fist. Wash it
several times to get rid of the cloudy water;
when you are too high in Heaven looking down
at the clouds, yu can't see what's precious below.
Rinse with cold water and keep enough so that
it will barely cover your hand placed on the rice.
Don't use hot water, there are metallic diseases
colliding in it. This method of measuring water will work
regardless of the size of the pot; if the pot is large,
use both hands palms down as if to pat your own belly.
Now place on high heat without cover and cook
until water has been boiled away except in the craters
resembling those of the moon, important
in ancient times to growing rice. Now place lid on top
and reduce heat to medium, go read your newspaper
until you get to the comics, then come back and turn it down to low.
The heat has been gradually traveling from the outside
to the inside of the rice, giving it texture;
a similar thing happens with people, I suppose.
Go back to your newspaper, finish the comics, and read
the financial page. Now the rice is done, but before
you eat, consider the peasant who arcs in leech-infested
paddies and who carefully plants the rice seedlings
one by one, and this night, you are eating better than he.
If you still don't know how to cook rice, buy a Japanese
automatic rice cooker; it makes perfect rice every time

A Moment in my rented room

I sometimes think of myself as an astronaut
In my compact, rented room and look upon the bookshelf
With its deep mathematics books for deeper space
As from a voyage one cannot return.
Then multiply by several million men who cannot marry,
Men who cannot own homes, or work, or go to college.
This is almost equal to the space effort.
But why all that money? I can go to Pluto by just
Being in a bad mood.

Sometimes I think of the loneliness of deep space
In my rented room. The neighbors have busily gone off
To Epsilon Centauri or Galaxy X-2137 or to the 7 Eleven.
Sometimes I look at my 16-oz. jar of coffee; I know
What the minimum daily requirements are. Cybernetics
Steers me to avoid collisions with black holes or stars,
And my hot plate sustains me with pinto beans and bacon rinds,
And on my mini-stereo, always the Blue Danube.

It is rainy today. My room is a bastion. I am filing
The sparse bars of prison. I am building a mental atom bomb.
I am designing spaceships. Multiply this by several millions.

A Slow ox-cart hauls the sage;
his robe is opened to the wind

Such a slow journey, cats will sleep,
The Western Capitol will change hands.
Out with beggars, the sage sees red
Apples whose insides are rotting
While the outside remains fair;
The sage sees the nation as
A well-armored bug in late fall,
Who, if a wind blows him on his back,
It is the end. Going from gate to gate,
The sage knocks lightly, so as
Not to disturb the entertainment there.
When granaries deplete to feed mounted
Archers, and song and dance crescendo
Inside imperial walls, it is time for
Beggars to go begging; the slow ox-cart hauls
The sage, his robe is opened to the wind.
Ruffians intimidate the weak and the poor,
And in the dead of the night,
An arrow is shot at the emporer's door.

"Fortune telling..."

How sometimes in graveyard hours,
In the kitchen of our Chinese American restaurant,
All lights flicked off save one naked bulb, sitting at a makeshift
table, sitting on milk crates,

How my father, in his soft green sweater,
Now softened by age and grudgingly recognized by his competitors,
Which are other Chinese American restaurants, pizza parlors,
Mexican restaurants and the like

Now it's 3 A.M. The walk-in refrigerator hums a forlorn
tune, what a hobo sometimes hears of the rails humming...
We have finished eating, after the whole town has eaten.
In the necessary fury of work, we have overlooked our simple needs.
He repeats his story: build your future on the foundation
of your forebears; that someday I am to understand; now the light
from the naked bulb is frazzled and somewhat eerie,
but there's really no need to turn on all the white lights
of the kitchen, and after all, there's only us here, and we can
talk in the dark without losing comprehension,
even without looking at each other...

How my father, his back curving more each year
From the weight of the morning air,
The ever-increasing weight of wife and eight children,
All permissable dreams and sorrows clinging on like grapes,
That in the unofficial histories of his veins,
Bombs dropped near his village, metal and body parts flew;
The naked bulb here was the same naked bulb in Angel Island,
detained there because he was an immigrant, a Chinese immigrant...

How his back would arc more,
That over forty years he bent over the wok,
The only use of his curved back now is to use it as a bow,
Like the bow of William Tell,
Take his children and grandchildren,
They are arrows,
And from his curved back,
Shoot them toward the stars....

This is a romantic story.
He died young, labored away his time rather than love.
And consequently he accumulated money.
His oldest son,
Whose mind was mended by electric currents,
Has a receptive mistress in every town,
He visits every town as a salesman.
The competitors are awed by his powers of persuasion,
And grudgingly admit his gift,
But first they isolate his history from all other histories...

How my father was buried
In the same cemetery as Bruce Lee. I am not comparing heroes.
My father was not a hero.
His grandfather was another immigrant from another century
to these same lands, when rails were young.
My father admired the blood of his precursors, going back
to the dawn of man, and their blood is in his blood,
their history his history,
And so my father tells his oldest son:
"Consider the foolish man who tells an ox to climb a tree..."

How my father lives again in the Chinese American kitchen,
In the mind of the oldest son,
Whose mind is mended by electric currents,
Who could not speak for vacant decades,
As entropic grasses grow over cemeteries,

But here is the Chinese immigrant,
A stooping figure amng the sacks of onions, vinegar and bittermelons,
A yellow lemon contained entirely by its rind,
And people, and after awhile, his own children
don't like the same rice, the same telling of those histories,

Because underneath worlds of sugar and love,
There are basic routines.
The father who told of his grandfather,
Who told of opium in China,
That for the peace it gave, a man his daughters sold..."


The Chinese Mafia

Let them sleep, and dream the dream of lobsters
I am likewise at peace in my little cottage
Trying to become Mr. Five Willows

I figure a crabapple is useful to no one but to itself
My safety depends on having no place where death can enter
And not acting on every rustling of the smallest branch

My abode is at the bank of a river, the river
Coming out of the marsh, where the river merchant's wife
Pines for her departed husband for the last 300 years

Beetles fight on a dung heap, that’s the essence of war
With axes and arrows, the superior force approaches my door
Let them knock lightly, so as not to disturb the bird

In the cage, which I am coaxing to sing
While the candle is burning to illumine the midnight lore
Whose frayed texts drive me to the brink of insanity

So, let them all sleep and dream of the God of War
Bringing them riches in the shape of gold nuggets
Only in the morning to find an empty store

So you can be in my dreams if I can be in yours
In any case let the Chinese Mafia sleep tonight
So that I can be at peace and in the morning open wide my door.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sometimes I poke my head inside our bedroom (which I think of as her room) and see
heron bed asleep with the most innocent looks like a child who’s had a rough day of pla

I begin to cry
I begin to cry
For her, for me
For the world that is not free

I remember then all the wrong things that she has told me, some wrongly told
I don’t blame myself for crying then
I begin to cry
I begin to cry
For her, for me
For all the world that is not free

Sometimes I feel she’s unwanted
Like I am unwanted
I cry for the world
That no one wants
I cry for me
I cry for her
I cry for the entire world that is not free

A friend of mine is reading this
Because he cares
Because she cares
About people who secretly cry
For he
For she
For the entire world that is not free

Koon Woon, born in China, now lives in Seattle where he studies philosophy through the University of London. His most recent collection, Water Chasing Water, published by Kaya Press (2012), is available through D.A.P. (Distributed Art Publishers). The Truth in Rented Rooms is available at Koon edits and publishes the hard copy literary quarterly, Chrysantheumum, and is the editor/publisher of Goldfish Press.. His favorite poets include Li Po, Theodore Roethke, Federico Garcia Lorca, Tu Fu, Jean Follain amd Nazim Hikmet.  He zines hereBlogs here.  Gives a  live reading here.  Please visit Goldfish Press here.

Poetry of Koon Kau Woon