Chinese Silence No. 17
After Billy Collins, “Reincarnation and You”
Reincarnation is such an outlandish idea.
It must have been invented by some elephant-headed god
beside a noisy Indian river.
But if I had to pick something
to come back as
I guess I would be Chinese.
I admire the quiet modesty of their lives.
I revere their silent consumption
of cicadas, pigeons, and household pets.
Or maybe I would come back as a waterfall
of wispy hair spilling from the chin
of a Chinese sage, the fine strands
quivering with the silent motions of his mouth.
A jade ox, I will say one day,
and the next a puddle of urine
in a rural village with unspeakable sanitation.
Or I will pick a peach of immortality
and hang there forever in the Chinese sun
laughing at Americans with their silly deaths
from heart disease and boredom
as they sit there before their television sets
with puppies in their laps.
But never mind all that,
never mind my kung-fu panda fantasies
of being a Chinese soul.
Forget that silent afterlife
with its muted desires.
Come and look into my rheumy blue eyes.
Tell me you are opening your kimono
and removing the chopsticks holding up your smooth black hair
and I will whisper in your ear
what I really want to be, come to think of it,
which is a grinning white tiger
entering the cage of your silent zoo,
tenderly mauling your almond face
as you weep with quiet pleasure,
then devouring your bamboo-thin limbs
and lying down on the couch to digest,
waiting for you to be reborn in my poem.
Chinese Silence No. 18
After Billy Collins, “Bodhidharma”
This morning the surface of the Cross Bronx Expressway
is uncommonly crowded—absolutely jammed—
which must be the reason I am thinking
of Gary, the man who brought Buddhism
to America by crossing the water standing on Ezra Pound’s head.
What an absorbing story, especially
when you compare it to Manzanar with its barbed-wire fence
or the walls of Angel Island’s barracks
that can’t decide whether to hold you in or send you back.
In every depiction, there is no mistaking
Gary, pounding away with his axe,
cruising the American lake in his powerboat,
his beard sharpened like a stone
precariously balanced beneath two Chinese checkers
as he paints mountains and rivers without end
in the pages of a New Directions paperback.
I recognized him one night in City Lights Bookstore
after the disappointment
of not meeting any Chinese girls reading silent haiku in the aisles.
His picture was hanging behind the cash register,
and when I quizzed the young cashier,
he looked back at the photo and said
he didn’t know who it was but it looked kind of like Mr. Miyagi.
Thinking of Mr. Miyagi and of Chinese girls
makes me want to do many things,
but mostly to strip off my clothes
and body surf or ride a jet ski
to the silent shores of China.
My wallet would have been left behind,
but I can think of a way to make money.
I would announce to the silent Chinese billions
that it is foolish to invest too heavily
in infrastructure and export factories,
not when they have the benefit of me
with my great pillowed thighs to remind them
of the quiet mind
that Gary borrowed from them
and that I’ll happily give them back
for only a small markup, no questions asked.
Chinese Silence No. 19
After Billy Collins, “Kathmandu”
It was sleeting in Madison, Wisconsin,
and hail was falling in Duluth,
but still, the access roads to the malls
were thick with station wagons,
all waiting for the books of the Laureate,
whose title pages had been smeared with ink
by the thumb of the poet,
to smear their words across the mild brains
of these Sunday crossword solvers.
Don’t worry, there are plenty of copies,
the kid at the cell-phone kiosk said
as he laid out headsets and Blackberries
assembled by silent Chinese fingers.
The woman at the Dead Sea minerals booth agreed,
pouring out exfoliant scrubs and mud soaps
onto the desiccated floor.
But still they waited, hunkered down
in their Subarus with windshield wipers flapping,
hoping to make a connection
the way one might hope to be connected
by a long chain of allusions
to Ezra Pound and Li Po
only without the need to read
anything dull or unpleasant.
Meanwhile the Laureate is riding
in the backseat of a New York taxi
blackening his lashes with ink
and pulling his eyes up at the corners,
demonstrating to his driver his belief
that someday we will all turn Chinese
and that we go to China when we die—
a silent realm of modest ink-drawn birds,
a middlebrow kingdom of solipsism.
The driver, the Laureate thinks, must understand this
because he is already Chinese,
and although he is not wearing a funny hat
he receives the words with an authentic silence.
The Laureate’s words smear the glass
as the driver looks out the fogged-up windows
at the obese children,
the teenagers shuffling along in their flip-flops,
ears plugged by headphones,
and in front of the bookstore, public-radio listeners
huddling together in the rain,
awaiting their Chinese afterlives.