If in Hankou lies a land of words
with open mouths, Auden went there
and did not.
If the East Sea a black hole, then the Yangtze
a sparrow, swooping to the night.
And the Han River, a one-winged fly?
No men. Or women. Only humans, fish, and birds.
Three primary colors blurred
as one: human-human, fish-human, bird-human.
In darkness, the Han River flickers
to the milky way
and there appears:
fish-fish, fish-bird, bird-bird, bird-fish…
some become women, some men. Some Hanzi.
From the Han River to Hanzi pass many nights.
A Mr. Hanzi walks the river. In his shoe a secret.
If his mouth remains unopen,
Auden went as if he didn’t.
Hankou 汉口is a city in central China where W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood visited during wartime in 1937. The Chinese image: small characters of Han汉 in the shape of kou口.
In Mexico City
From your eyes to mine
a bird flies—you to me—stealing
the breeze between us.
The Oriole of secret acts
smuggling—east to west, west to east—
nests in winter, croons in spring.
I stole the chirping bird years ago
to mark my page. Opening the book now,
I see its open mouth.
A bird. A point of view. A blindness.
A chain of fated links. I close my eyes
to oneness, a ringing in my ears.
I arrive in the night at the west of West.
All here, directionless. Words fly
to me from four pointed corners.
By following the Big Dipper’s
tail, one seems to face forward.
You unearth a foreign relic,
while over my shoulder,
I hear the call of Chinese Patterson.
Cars pass this morning. Horses pass.
But no one sees. A cloud, like a face, directs
the flow of traffic.
Kentucky Fried Birds fall
on Beijing streets. Papaya, mango, guava, kiwi:
an aroma of delicious noise.
Books flutter open—you rise
like a crescent moon.
Atop the Sun pyramid, Qu Yuan sits, peering
through your eyes, speaking to me,
Maya is a bird
flown from my hometown,
I stretch my words like limbs
that you might notice them.
In your eyes, mother, all words a crawl
of ink-wet ants. My ants swarm and dance, so you
will see me in these roiling insects,
but I hurt you with my outstretched hands.
And now, their daily strut and sway
is tuned in time with your mortality.
When I was ten, you told me you would die
and go to heaven; father, down to earth.
Between the two, what flies each way?
Immensity of love, a sigh of hate,
or all reversed?
Or no change in size and shape—
no difference between love and hatred—
no difference between love and love?
When the sky and earth crack open—only peace,
as in peace, lives a slivered calm.
One morning I awake half deaf, mother,
while with their violent claws,
the mute words shout.
But quiet, like a sun umbrella, one word opens out.
One Way of Looking at a Blackbird
Close your eyes, Marina says.
I see darkness, then white:
A black dot, then a bird
on radiant wire. It looks to me,
like some small god—
weak and likely wounded.
I feel Marina walking by even with my eyes
closed, as if I lived as two:
one with Marina Abramovic,
on foot or in repose,
following her words.
Or she says nothing. Another life
with one bird only.
Of my two bodies,
one is closed—I walk and face
Boy or girl? I’ve brought an umbrella, but
it doesn’t rain in London.
The sun’s rain—beams and lines—
where the blackbird’s perched,
thinking of me as a bird too,
in light. I sit
in my own shadow, follow its departure—
the curve of flight,
where it lands: my new home.
Waltzing in, body and mind,
I hear Marina far away through
space. Her voice, a cello trill.
She, a bird, in her black
dress and shoes. Out of my body now, the night
around me, I play a bird.
I sit and face a void, become the soil
beneath my feet. A tree grows
from me, rising with
the bird below. My arms and branches move—
I try to fall—I fail.
Just to fly
isn’t a blackbird. One must
I lower my body—I try—and I land
inside the bird of me.
I used to say I was
a bird, though I didn’t know
what that meant, now I flap prehistoric wings.
I rise. Out of my body, I throw the night
to the left. Out
of my body, I toss the light to my
right side. I rise. My body—a tree—splits.
When a tree grows, the true self
grows left. What’s right
is false. Wood in pair? No, trees grow alone,
even though some trees want
to become butterflies.
To be a butterfly is to have two trees
flutter to one death. I am obsessed
with my own dying—for only then
will I break from my own cocoon.
will I be one, like a phoenix:
male and female in one body.
I butter–fly. I phoe–nix.
Blackbird was black and bird,
When I’m blackbird—I butterfly.
But Marina says, Be yourself, you little goose.
So I swim-fly.
But when I swim-fly, the sky takes my body. I myself
remain in the water.
In Chinese there are hundreds of double-morpheme words, almost identical, always together, e.g. 蝴蝶 (butterfly), 玫瑰 (rose), 葡萄 (grape), 蚂蚁 (ant), 蝙蝠 (bat), 蟋蟀 (cricket). They are ancient but also in current use. Some of them have gender indication, e.g. 凤凰 (phoenix) (凤 male + 凰 female). The author is exploring the roots of these double-morpheme words, whether they all have gender indications in the ancient time, and whether the modern single-morpheme words are originated from double-morphemes.
树 tree (this is a single-morpheme word, but when split, the two sides mean “wood” and “pair”.)
鹅 goose (when splitting this single-morpheme word, the left side is “I” and the right side is “bird.”)
Mound to cloud, my mouth open
sings. I must
or you will miss what I’m missing.
a bell’s throat
through murmuring air. Past moon
and lotus—a starry belt—
the mist, and I—a new moon, barely risen—
approach the void and barren.
My fall into a square word cages me;
each word’s square mouth, calling without
tongue or tooth.
I must sing a square song—
I covet words;
the wing-squared cage,
each square-cloud-cage compels my lungs
to breathe a stricken bird.
I give birth on a water lily
a string of tunneled echoings,
my belated children’s song:
Atop the rice heap—we hear
Water lilies to many lotuses;
in each pinhole the moon falls deaf
to other ears.
This morning I see rain.
I know it’s you—or snow, snow—
I see you fall,
My aged eyes open but you —
you are still young
The images in the original Chinese poem are made using the characters below.
口 means “mouth” or “opening.” A tilted口 resembles a cloud and/or mound.
人 means “human.” When tilted, 人 resembles a bird in flight.
囚 means “encaged” or “imprisoned.” The word is made of a mouth 口 and a human 人.