THE MASTER CALLIGRAPHER’S SCHOOL OF X’IAN
After dusk I left the Muslim quarter,
alleyways of truth in living — passionate and narrow,
where bored men brace the walls with their backs.
Their breath filled with shouted questions from doorways,
and all doors uses a strange language, for a stranger.
I am going nowhere and embracing confusion faster.
The shadows in the winding lanes made a locust sound,
made silence surround the clack of footsteps.
I’m out of one ghetto and into another, between
the vats of small red peppers and the brushmakers.
Dried bats on a table and plastic ladles,
the evening sky full of laundry like surrendering flags.
I’m lost. I’ve been lost for years.
No direction but everywhere. Is everywhere a direction?
A man appears at my side, flashing small teeth
and a big grin.He takes my sleeve, offering the hope
of pigeons fying home to the temple.
Suddenly, it’s cool, shady, and narrow.
Ceramic lion-gods defend the corridors.
Now I am totally lost, and I know he could kill me.
And I think if I die… I die.
Then I’m in a room, a scholar’s sanctuary
so silent in the enormous city
it could be a grassy valley beneath blue
razor peaks, a lost dream kingdom,
mysterious within the ancient capital of X’ian.
The walls are filled with leaping horses.
Green dragons, blue waterfalls, yellow carp.
Facing a table as wide as ten coffins, he places
his hand on mine, offering a gift from the kingdom of terror.
Back out in the street,
I cradle a scroll, brush-stroked in the aristocratic style.
Paid for with an unmurdered gratitude.
It’s a poem by the master — Li Po
who died falling into the river of life.
They say the moon’s invitation took him, a fever
in a reflection, like this one today,
the fever of the city spawning people in a labyrinth,
the fever of absolute existence,
the yellow moon shining above the dark streets of X’ian.
X’ian, China, May 2000