Then on the Hudson, the lower west side
of Manhattan, we sailed a slow sail,
the sun half an hour high,
the water glassy, then dead, and then
though we hadn’t once thought of her
suddenly she appeared
floating filthy on the water,
the lit woman, an immigrant herself,
fire of the crowd who built
effigies in her name, paraded her
at Tiananmen, and when the dying came
burned with her like papier-mâché.
I had never yearned to see that fire,
never ferried out in a crowded boat
to touch the skirt of desire itself,
but then I found myself that evening,
for pleasure only, on a small sailboat:
Except for me we were all Chinese:
Gold Mountain they still call it
though what has it meant more
than a wilderness named New York,
the sight of such a mythic beauty
rising suddenly into view,
the harbor arcing toward Ellis,
the sun half an hour high?
Then ferried over the darkened water
only to find that heaven, suddenly,
pulled up stakes and moved
on down the road,
always to the next and next
western town. Until they let it go,
came to call one world home.
So close, so far, they could still,
in their dreams, smell the sea,
but landlocked in memory
burning with the fire
of a hand rising out of winter water.
Gold Mountain. Boston. Quetzalcoatl.
Miami Beach. Venus will never rise
on a half shell in New York Harbor.
But when Liberty herself slips into view
and a woman, light years away
from her father’s grave,
leans the luxuriance of her dark hair
over your left shoulder
and crosses with you
the chained bay waters, the spun
space between two worlds, the distance
of continents buoying you up?
You take her home, a place
you once knew, and shed
your clothes, and in the ten-year drift
of an evening, grow toward the sheer promise
of silk alley, the merchants stamping
their feet to keep off the cold,
the hawked lust of a good deal,
silk and leather and down,
clouding the air.
The woman, your wife by then,
once waited there.
Outside the American Embassy
on a pre-dawn January morning
she brought you once to see:
Tail in its mouth,
the line snaked all the way around
the block. Then the light broke
on Beijing, then they were already
whispering her name: Gold Mountain
we almost heard them say
though she is made of stone.
Who would be so quick
to doubt the worth of it?
Drifting, drifting, already gone,
they waited there, as if they had
a prayer, as if the idea of it
were lasting and true
though they were ever casting off
further and further from the known world.
My first week in Beijing, no fever,
my sinuses pounding: The campus doctor
figures my addiction’s aspirin.
OK, I take a lot of them.
I ask for two. Suddenly
it’s group therapy, it’s Bastille Day
at the People’s University.
Students from the hallway
elbow in. True to our bred natures,
each of us curious,
I’m the bearded lady, the big nose;
they are the green chorus,
the canned laughter at this show.
Then my wife concurs.
It is a serious disease.
Whatever song they’re singing
it’s in unison and sways
her. She speaks for me.
Eight years away she’s come home
a Beijing girl, a woman of her word.
If only it were singular!
I have had enough when she agrees
there must be bloodâ€“mineâ€“
two vials to measure
the effects of such a potent drug.
No problem, the doctor tells me,
he’ll take care of everything:
the needle’s sterile, if not
disposable. No worry, No worry.
I turn to walk away: OK, he says
OK, and gives me two, and a cup
of boiled water, all to the silent
leer of the crowd. Then says
he wouldn’t touch me now,
I couldn’t pay. He’d have to throw
away the needle. He’s afraid of AIDS,
the wild veins that have branched across
the sea, and for all he knows
sit before him now.
Two aspirin won’t do it now,
the water so hot I must sip.
I swallow. My wife glares.
The tablets aren’t coated and stick.