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I kept returning to these poems. They don’t beg for a reader. I could see no way to extract one, to rearrange this sequence. I asked myself “Why these poems?” the same way I might ask “Why do I prefer certain fingers on the piano?” These have a light touch, flexible but precise.
—Ladan Osman, 2019 Boston Review Annual Poetry Contest judge
My whisper goes to the piano bench,
the piano of bodies. Maybe what follows
is forgiveness, the error
of a fallen fingertip. You teach yourself to feel it
with repetition, like foreign language.
How to love this body.
How to love in this body.
Like touching, the work that’s done
to tell time. On the other side
of the bed, what we’d call now, I felt a word
like eléctrico, électrique, diàndòng and rain. The death
of your mother entered our conversation with that idea
of the volta. So, I held your dead hand
and we bobbed behind her black hearse like ponies
in the old country, until each pulse dissolved into pianissimo.
The rest of that story is Italian, which I never learned,
all that time under lemon trees and parting. What dismembers
is only la nube, as nuvens, and memory like camellias
falling off their stems, like single hairs asking
how close one can get to the meaning
with exactly this much life to flatten
onto a page. My first ten thousand words
were Mandarin like ducks or oranges, were snow.
I say them slow as they grow forgotten, returned to noise,
molded and wang le. In the crystal vase, arranging
the spores and nouns of loss,
that infinite field of characters,
I feel the undersides of quiet growing.
I watch memories
spider into memories.
Turning towards you, again
I am listening for the one hot sound
to strike where the pain is most beautiful.
The shadow in the bed wasn’t your shadow.
Her hands still haunt you.
The record skips on a rendition of Chopin
in the CD-ROM where 季云迪 makes
fast-moving romance of mustangs and Polish rain.
What did your body sound like?
In another language, we were making fast copies
of such fresh pain it seemed
to be a copy of your voice—
instinctively, you hate how it sounds
maybe because it was yours yours
full of loneliness,
full of you.
Tulip fields wave repeat flags.
In a melodic arrangement of the timeline,
yesterday a man is asking me
why Chinese kids all seem
to play the piano and I could only say
something like the sound a machine
makes when we call it music,
the string we brush and call a lifetime.
In the branches, a hooting tells me
about free will and terror.
This, I call regret.
We call it wood
when it’s done with being a tree.
There are times this long search for beauty
feels like the breath passing through a harmonica.
You are trying to tell a piece of mahogany about
holding your skull in the bathroom mirror,
the nights it collapsed like a heartbeat.
You know vibrations through cold air will not save you.
Unthread the fog
and glimpse the mast going down.
Into the fairy tale, growing ever smaller,
she trades her voice for legs. Desire, how it leaves you
alone with the instrument of the body.
From France, I call my mother
to listen to her frail heart tell me. A thin stethoscope
branches, strangles through air, and the doctor’s voicemails
say the mountaintops operate on subjective time. I journey
to the far left of a painting arrayed with lawn chairs, dappled
by a bath of sky. Lemon trees shade in
a slow poem about greenery
and promise. Briefly,
everything beautiful sits
outside the body. Every day, talking
on the phone beneath les orangeries,
studying the anguish deposited in each Rodin and cloud,
I consider the mistakes a pen makes out of landscapes,
our confrontation with Death in Romanic language
and the totality of raw stems for the dying:
Proto-Germanic and Saxon. Or Old English.
Parisian rain, umbra, constant theaters
for weeping. What I felt those days, I can only describe
in verbiage beyond my family’s understanding,
another gallery of nothing. What was it
Barthes guessed about la mort, c’est
qu’il me faut perdre un langage.
In the sky’s throat, the same
clockworks of mourning.
Every dusk, sitting silently
as available light gathered sadly
at the edges of that foreign country,
how we culled death or fate
as a tiny secret kept between us. Like a bud
or quark, unspoken and fundamental. Inside of time, how
there is no leafage too far away or broken.
At the end of a string, how you would say
anything to be heard.
Hua Xi is a poet and artist. She won the 2019 Boston Review Annual Poetry Contest and was previously a finalist for the Norman Mailer Award in Poetry. She has been published in Narrative, Boulevard, and Electric Lit.
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