All That Divides Us

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Utah State University DigitalCommons@USU Swenson Poetry Award Winners USU Press 2000 All That Divides Us Utah State University Press Follow this and additional works…
Utah State University DigitalCommons@USU Swenson Poetry Award Winners USU Press 2000 All That Divides Us Utah State University Press Follow this and additional works at: awards Part of the Creative Writing Commons Recommended Citation Utah State University Press, "All That Divides Us" (2000). Swenson Poetry Award Winners. 1. awards/1 This Book is brought to you for free and open access by the USU Press at DigitalCommons@USU. It has been accepted for inclusion in Swenson Poetry Award Winners by an authorized administrator of DigitalCommons@USU. For more information, please contact A L L T H AT D I V I D E S U S May Swenson Poetry Award Series A L L T H AT DIVIDES US poems by Elinor Benedict UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS Logan, Utah Utah State University Press Logan, Utah 84322-7800 Copyright © 2000 Elinor Benedict. Foreword copyright © 2000 Maxine Kumin. All rights reserved. Many of the poems published here have appeared in literary journals and other publications. A complete list of these is included in Acknowledgments. Typography by Wolfpack. Cover design by Barbara Yale-Read. Cover art is a detail from a scroll painting by Song Feng Guang of Jinan, China. Manufactured in the United States of America Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Benedict, Elinor, 1931– All that divides us : poems / by Elinor Benedict. p. cm. — (May Swenson Poetry Award series) ISBN 0-87421-295-2 (alk. paper) — ISBN 0-87421-406-8 (pbk. : alk. paper) — ISBN 0-87421-333-9 (e-book) I. Title. II. Series. PS3552.E53956 A79 2000 811'.54--dc21 00-009804 For the worldwide family of Grace Divine Liu CONTENTS Foreword by Maxine Kumin ONE: Begin the Ceremony Letter to Myself on My Birthday 3 A Bridge to China 7 To the Chinese People, Who See the Same Stars 8 TWO: Strangers and Kin Paper Flowers 11 Nearly 12 Meeting Our Chinese Cousins 13 Two Women Leaving Beijing 14 Immolation of a Stranger 16 Hawthorns 18 City of Dust and Water 19 The Guest Chair at Nankai University 21 Chinavision 23 Storyteller 25 THREE: In the Company of Magpies Chinese Art & Culture Tour 29 Sylvia Plath in China 34 Ghost City 35 The Truth About History 37 How to Change a Country 39 Yin and Yang 41 Mr. Yuan’s Two Joys 42 Chinese Puzzle 44 Full Moon Harvest Festival at the Spa City 45 Peace Road Kindergarten 46 Tiger Hill 48 Vision at Tai-Shan Mountain 49 [vii] FOUR: Searching for Grace Where It Hurts 53 Deep Enough to Go Home 54 Scarred Baggage 56 Found Snapshot: The Year His Sister Left 58 Remembering the Three Gorges 59 The Rope 60 Missing in China 61 For Those Who Dream of Cranes 62 Acknowledgments 64 About the Author 66 The May Swenson Poetry Award 67 [viii] FOREWORD When I undertook this brief introduction, I found myself in the refreshing position of not knowing the identity of the prize- winning poet, or where, or indeed whether, any of these poems had been previously published. Out of 728 manuscripts submitted, this one by Elinor Benedict surfaced as I read through the final com- pletely anonymous twenty-five. On several subsequent rereadings, it rose again and again to the top. Here are the facts about the poet that I learned afterward. Elinor Benedict lives in Rapid River, Michigan. Many of these poems have been previously published in journals ranging from Helicon Nine to the Hawaii Pacific Review, as well as in three chapbooks. I was drawn to the narrative thrust of the book. The poet travels to China; she makes another and another trip. She and her daughter establish contact with missing relatives. These tentative rendezvous grow in intensity, and relationships develop from them. Although the poems stand as discrete units, they accumulate, taking strength from one another as we see them in their historical, chronological order. They grow on the reader as the narrative unspools, and we see the story told from successive points of view. It’s an old story, full of poignant possibilities. “Don’t you act so biggity, Miss Priss,” Lula, the family maid, scolds. “Your aunt done married a Chinaman.” Nonetheless, an aura of romantic mystery shrouds this marriage from the poet’s girlhood onward. The now aging aunt comes home to die, but the chapter never closes. Ultimately, the poet and her grown daughter travel to China to meet their Chinese cousins. Bits of the lovers’ history, rescued from snapshots and old postcards, as well as face-to-face meetings with members of her family, spiral around. Almost every poem delivers a sidelong irony, a study in contrasts that is always overridden by the sense of common humanity shared by two disparate cultures. In a poem titled “Ghost City,” the poet is one of the tourists visiting Fengdu, a port city on the Yangtze River, where the dock is crowded with local entrepreneurs desperate to tell fortunes, or sell tangerines or finger puppets. [ix] . . . a family at the crowded dock presents their prize boy with legs twisted backward, a blind mother clamps her snot-streaked child between her knees, all stretching out their arms with trinkets. . . . The poet’s voice is clear, direct, yet artful. Many of the poems are written in nonce forms, stanzaic patterns that arise to suit the occa- sion. There’s a skillful villanelle, but formalism is not the issue here. The sensibility that pervades these poems is that of a mature woman with an inquiring mind and a strong sense of family attachments. Traveling from the airport with her half-Chinese cousin in his western suit, she begs him to explain where they are and what they are seeing. The bus inches its way down a street “choked with people waiting to buy cabbages.” . . . To just such a market he used to rush, to wait to buy pears for his mother. . . . beside me my cousin makes a low sound in his chest. Turning, I find his face drawn, white. He whispers, “In the market I saw–myself.” The final poem in the collection, “For Those Who Dream of Cranes,” in four sixteen-line, sonnet-like sequences, juxtaposes the white cranes of Jinan, China with the sandhill cranes migrating through Michigan, effortlessly playing one scenario against the other. In the final poem, the two tableaux come together: Inside the maze, you learn the language, begin the ceremony. Gray brothers, fly safely. White spirits, speak. Maxine Kumin [x] A L L T H AT D I V I D E S U S ONE Begin the Ceremony LET TER TO MYSELF ON MY B I R T H D AY 1 June 4, 1931 This is the day I was born. Summer in Tennessee, a long time ago, when people feared dust, debt, and that dry mouth feeling the voice over the radio’s crackle called fear itself. In my mother’s hot room I lay naked and yelling when my father’s sister came to say goodbye, holding a baby of her own, half-Chinese, leaving with a man who changed her country, her mind. When I was older I learned her story from snapshots, gifts from abroad, bits of gossip around the holiday table. I caught those glances between my father and my uncles, felt their red-faced silence. Lula the cook served the meal as if she didn’t see. She took care of me, knew the family secrets. How surprised I was, to learn she had two children of her own. When my mother drove Lula home downtown, two small boys darker than their mother ran up, then stared at me [3] through the closed car window. Once when I wouldn’t behave, Lula snapped, Don’t you act so biggity, Miss Priss. Your aunt done married a Chinaman. 2 February 1974 - January 1980 For years my world seemed made of papier maché, yellowed newspapers full of war stories crumpled in a ball. I lost my aunt’s face among armies and arguments, hid her name in the fears I wanted to forget. Then one day a letter rose from the mail thin as smoke, strangely marked, a phoenix among sparrows, announcing she was alive, coming back to die. When she arrived, small and gray, I was astonished she could laugh. Her stories of concubines and conquerors, noodles and murders, brought to my kitchen the underside of the earth. Talk made us sisters, remembering younger days. After her memorial in the cold Hall of Martyrs, her returned dust in China forever, my cousins took me to see [4] the sights of Beijing, a careful gift for American kin. Quietly, proudly, my cousins showed me the monument where the death of Zhou Enlai brought thousands of paper flowers, black ink verses, to mourn their loss of a father, more than voices could say. I stood among strangers in Tiananmen Square, winter all around, my aunt in ashes. 3 June 4, 1989 Today I watch Tiananmen Square from afar flickering in a box, seething in white June heat. Crowds gather once more, sons and daughters of heroes wearing faded jeans, headbands, cocking their fingers in the borrowed V. They push a plaster goddess they hope will save them. Now they shout those words we have heard so often in our own language: Freedom! Justice! Lightning nicks the air, smelling like hot metal. The screen falters, then flashes with the faces of students marching. I want to call out, Wait! Take care. Breathe deeply. But they are born [5] in front of me, slim legs walking toward the growling column of tanks. Then one small man dares a tank to crush him. A cry begins, the same cry we heard in another stone place filled with thousands of faces of all colors, bearing the eyes of brothers, sisters–Listen! The air still vibrates with the voice of that man whose dark face shone in the downcast gaze of Lincoln in his chair, the voice of a servant dreaming the end of suffering– Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last . . . With the students of Beijing I strain to hear him. His words flow over us. Thunder rolls, rain clatters, the earth shakes as if it is opening. Together, naked and yelling, we are born. [6] A BRID GE TO CH INA In memory of Liu Fu Chi and Grace Divine Liu No engineer could dream such arches, drape them over monstrous pylons, ask armies of ironworkers to hurl enough highway across a planet already curved, tense with spilled rivers, heavy with salt. Yet one woman sailed across more than an ocean to join a man who dreamed his country out of the dark. Their lives spun silk over distances, wove legends of Sian’s warriors and tales of Tennessee women, fine-tempered as steel. Now their families face each other across years of long water, pull tight between two continents the invisible threads. [7] TO THE CH INESE P EOPLE, W H O S E E T H E S A M E S TA R S Lake Michigan lies flat in the dark a black pool wide as a prairie. The sky stands perpendicular over the water’s body. Its tall onyx multiplies the harbor lights into a millennium of seeing the clockless house of the hunter the queen in her jeweled chair the two bears eating drinking, pouring the everlasting cup. [8] TWO Strangers and Kin PA P E R F L O W E R S Hall of Revolutionary Martyrs Tianjin, China, January 14, 1980 An official hands out paper flowers. We pin them on our coats, my daughter and I, following our Chinese cousins into the Hall of Martyrs. Cold flows from stone; an ocean closes behind us. Our footsteps speak the only language we know: Stop. Stop. We shouldn’t have come. * In the anteroom we sip black tea. We try to warm our hands on the cups while guests fill the table like a jury. I bow my head, feeling my daughter accuse me of mourning a woman I hardly knew. Dear girl: She was my father’s only sister. You don’t know yet, how that is. * The bald man beckons. We file into a chamber where hundreds of gray flowers clutter the walls. From a hood of black crepe her photograph gazes. I close my eyes. Last time I saw her, the wind flew her hat like a kite over the seashells, over the blue umbrella, at my father’s old house. She laughed when he caught it, my father her brother again. * Four times we bow to her ashes boxed in a vault. Men in gray suits collect all the flowers, stuff them in cardboard for the next quick blooming. I’m dry as the petals they crush, until someone touches my shoulder like a small bird perching, an ivory woman in black. She takes my daughter’s hand, reaches for mine. She says nothing, but her cheeks are wet, her eyes alive with the shock of love. [11] N E A R LY It’s nearly twilight as our bus rattles from the airport through narrow streets on the outskirts of Beijing, dodging shadowy pedestrians and scattering bicycles like mice in a gray pantry. We rub frost from the window panes with gloved fingers and beg my half-Chinese cousin, returning in his western suit, to tell us what we see. He points out courtyards smoky behind brick gates, small markets choked with people waiting to buy cabbages under yellow light. He says they hurry to get home and dinner before dark. To just such a market he used to rush, to wait, to buy pears for his mother. We nod, flutter our guidebooks and wave to children in padded coats clustered like bells beside doorways. Looking for familiar faces, they keep their hands curved in their sleeves. Workers stamp up and down in long queues puffing the air blue with cigarets and cold. At the curb a student ties green onions to his bicycle, clutches a bag of pears. He careens into traffic, trying to steady an old woman against his back. Our bus honks its way through the crowd. We press our foreheads to the windows. But beside me my cousin makes a low sound in his chest. Turning, I find his face drawn, white. He whispers, “In the market I saw–myself.” [12] MEETING OUR CHINESE COUSINS “ . . . every man heard them speak in his own tongue.” –Acts 2:16 Pressed into a bedroom of the Beijing Hotel we are strangers and kin. We bow and hug and give each other gifts of sesame sweets and tinfoil chocolate. We take each other’s pictures and compare faces. Everyone talks at once– in two languages. But I am confined to a few words like an expensive jailbird. They feed me the necessary phrases bit by bit. When they hand me the key to my room I go quietly. But all night long I sleep with my eyes open, see hundreds of faces listen for voices speaking in tongues. [13] T W O W O M E N L E AV I N G B E I J I N G We follow the evening tide that pulls us through the railway station’s halls like seawater sucked into caves. Dazed by the swell, I see myself among swarms of fish–one small neon among swirls of dark silver. They flow around me like chains, hauling their burdens from earth’s center where almost everything sleeps. We inch toward a stairwell, ooze through its narrows, fan out wide to a bay where black trains fume and sigh. At last we grow legs, walk upright, breathe. I notice a woman hurrying beside me the shape of my mother, dangling a carp in mesh, its body frozen in weather. I start to live in her clothes. My son, his wife and two little ones shiver in our upstairs room, anxious to see me thaw out the prize, stir a white batter, heat up the stove–but I can’t finish this scene without seeing my own son, tall, his jaw bearded, his blue eyes keen, grinning beside his car with a salmon hooked on his thumb. Just then [14] the woman stops, swings her fish up the steps of the train as I pass on to mine. She hesitates as if I had called her and turns at the door. We look toward each other like migrant women of two different tribes, tending separate fires, clutching our skins around us, rising to see who comes. [15] I M M O L AT I O N O F A S T R A N G E R for Ellen Liu (1937-1983) It’s jade, flawed with brown flecks, rimmed with narrow gold and not quite the shape of our usual hearts, those valentines with twin scallops we send to hide and seek love. This one, cool as a lilac leaf but heavy in my hand, grows a third curve where the chain holds–an odd catch of the heart. I close my fingers around the green stone, remembering the chilly gift shop in Beijing where bored young women sold silks and bamboo off-season. They hugged themselves in the bitter air and turned their heater’s flame so high I imagined the fringe of my plaid wool scarf catching fire for buying something cheap to take home. Ellen, my cousin and companion that final day, watched me solemnly as I made my small choice, guided me with kindness through that gray city she called home, looking even then as though she were lost. Her eyes and forehead–half foreign, half family– made my face burn as I remembered how my uncles, their necks flushed, talked about their sister marrying a Chinaman, disappearing for years, only to come back at the end to make claims on them. [16] But gentle Ellen, who owned so little, claimed nothing but what I felt from wearing her mother’s face. Now three years later this thin letter from Beijing tells me how the same grim illness and death that took her mother, my second self, has finished her. I think of journeys, kin, distances, home. Foolishly I wonder what she took with her. If I could send her something, I’d say, Ellen, take this, my flawed stone heart, and keep it green. [17] H AW T H O R N S At the Temple of Heaven old men with tightened faces sell sticks of small red haw-apples, pierced by the dozen and glazed over fires. I buy them like beads with my newly-changed money, fumbling in cold, counting out coins and mixing white breath with incense of charcoal. My Chinese cousins watch as I bite the sweet skins, the tart fruit, full of seeds hard as mahogany, clinging to each other in carved families. Nini, the eldest, looks into my face as we climb the temple’s great stair and says in her soft syllables: Those were the favorite fruits of your aunt, our mother, when she was still with us. Do they grow in America where you live, where once she lived as a girl? Here, the same hawthorns bloom white in spring, and when their petals fade, the harsh yellow wind from the desert blows them over our rooftops like fine ashes that fly almost as far as the sea. [18] C I T Y O F D U S T A N D WAT E R Tianjin, China, 1980 Damaged by earthquake, 1976 1 The dry earth coughed, shrugged, dropped its load of buildings into cracks that opened with sounds of stone grinding on stone. Underground kingdoms rumbled their doors, scrawled their messages on walls. Neighborhoods broke into anthills, running with fathers searching for families, everyone turning to children in earth’s quick coming apart . . . How slowly the signs of a city’s undoing erase. The people of Tianjin do not boast, “Here is the tower that fell, the ancient cedar uprooted.” They look down, brush away dust. It settles everywhere, in hair, in eyes. Their voices squeeze out of lungs still choked with surprise. 2 Sampans toss and groan under our hotel window. At 2 a.m., my daughter and I cannot sleep together in this bed so many worlds from home: our snow-hushed rooms, warm and separate, changed to this stiff intimacy under silk. Neither of us knows the other’s skin. Hers is smooth, blue as milk; mine crinkled, scalded cream. We try not to cough or sway the ancient mattress. But I want to tell her how this dark [19] hotel’s a buried city of women like us. In this room we meet and part from our mothers, children, lovers, breath. This bed swings like a bridge over all that divides us. [20] T H E G U E S T C H A I R AT N A N K A I UNIVERSIT Y First we dine on carp, sweet and sour. After the prized fish, the old chairman slurps his soup. Hunched like a holy man, he never looks up from his bowl. But the Canadian exchange professor stares at me between spoonfuls and rubs his new beard. Over green cabbage and leeks he tells me his students of English beg him for lectures on Adam and Eve, Jesus and the fishes. He says these stories filled his childhood in Saskatchewan by the parsonage stove. Now they haunt his cold narrow room. And what does he tell them? Parables in whatever words he can find. Then the students ask if his people really believe. They write out dozens of questions on Bible-thin paper. Across the teacups choked with leaves, the professor hands me pages like white money, trembling. During the passing of pears I study the students’ small writing. Who is God? Why did he make the world? What does it mean to be saved? I t
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