by Leslie Chang
My mother and my grandmother returning
to China are ravenous, as if poised
on a threshold: October markets
glimpsed from the taxi entice them,
stalls with melons and persimmons, a Kodachrome
from childhood. They make a request
to stop at the stand selling hot milk in wooden bowls.
My grandmother sniffs air thick with coal smoke
for the scent of burnt sugar; she will follow her nose
into a labyrinthine hutong, forsaking us.
For my mother, it’s the dried watermelon seeds
she used to crack and eat compulsively, leaving a trail
in a dark wood. But nothing they buy on our way back
from the Temple of Heaven tastes as they remember it.
At the mouth of a lane snaking beyond
the concourse, a river of bicycles swallowed me.
I was lost among crowded stalls, the air
bruised with coal smoke, at some border between
despair and wanting to be lost.
I hadn’t yet eaten the seeds that would
keep me there, though the place
was what I hungered for: a forgotten past,
the same iron weights and measures,
old men in a willow’s filigreed shade
playing dominoes, their companions finches
and canaries in bamboo cages, tiny souls
flickering like taillights on the bicycles
I followed, hoping to be led back out into light and air.
Leslie Chang’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Nation and Literary Imagination. She lives in New York City and is at work on her first collection of poems. (10/2005)