Gray streets and dim staircases.
We slid down the banister:
often one of us,
in dream or in memory, fell.
I couldn’t find much about this poem, or the collection whence it comes, so I was worried. Turns out, I found a great deal in it, not in a “this is what the poem means” sort of way (and I wonder if any poem that can be summed up as such is a poem at all) but in a “oh, I see what happened here (I think)” way.
One of the approaches I use when I’m not sure what to do is comparison of the beginning and ending of a poem. That doesn’t always help, but here it was marvelous. Whereas the first stanza above gives a glimpse into a hazily remembered childhood and is painted in gray and dim, the last stanza shows a new direction:
That winter, a boy
came riding beside me,
my big coat a dark corner.
We rode past the sweet potato vendor and his stove;
they stood in every winter
like a small lighthouse.
We rode past Chairman Mao
in front of the Mining Machine Factory
his marble arm waving at us.
Black flags of smoke blew above our heads.
We rode toward the huge
suddenly blooming setting sun.
The dimness is still there, but there is also the promise of blooming, a setting sun ending one phase of life, the speaker beginning another, of adolescence and youth in spite of what hangs over them. And I’m charmed by the imagery of the sweet potato vendor’s stove as a small lighthouse: a light so that the ship won’t founder on an unexpected shore.
Throughout the poem, I particularly noticed the transitions between the numbered sections. Section 1 above ends with an isolated “fell”, and section 2 starts with “I fell ill”, a completely different sense of the word. That double use prompted me to check for similar transitions, and I found them. Section 2 ends with smoke from the factories, and section 3 begins with the history of burning in this town, from the tragic to the trivial:
New dynasty burned houses of the old.
Red Guards burned 55,884 rolls of sutras at the White Horse Temple.
Twenty factories burned the sky blind.
Families of the dead burned paper horses.
Crematoria burned the dead.
My father burned another fall’s leaves.
I burned my diary.
There’s such a layering of history in this stanza in particular, from the speaker’s lifetime back to old Dynasties. I found a few references to the practice of making a paper horse and carriage for a funeral, then burning them in an echo of ancient custom of burying items with the dead. I can’t find a historical reference to burning of Buddhist scripture at the White Horse Temple; 55,884 is such a specific number, I’d love to have more information.
Section 3 ends with a reference to burning ourselves, and the next one observes Luoyang’s cross made by a factory smokestack, a somewhat attenuated transition on the notion of sacrifice. Four ends with distance, and five begins with parents being sent to the city “to build a new nation”, presumably in the era of the Red Guards. Sacrifice underpins every parent’s life, some more than others. Section 5 ends with spit and 6 begins with a dry river. The transition from 6 to 7 is possibly all self-constructed: from peach flowers to a new friendship, a new adolescence, and the literal riding off into the sunset.
So I ended up with a memoir of a place since left, with time whistling around my ears throughout the poem. Quite lovely. I’m almost glad I couldn’t find any other analysis, because it gave me the freedom to create my own.