Saturday, April 21, 2007

Written in Beijing

Beijing Journal: Hutoongs

I know I cannot see far
Among these alleys and their crooked, aching ways.
But step by step and veil by veil, I pick my way,
As if thru gauzy curtains; as if thru dusk and shadows.
Another dead end. I turn and brush aside another veil.
It slides across my face in whiffs of charcoal and kabob.
Beyond, I push back courser curtains of dust and fumes,
Swirling in the wake of a motorized rickshaw.

With each step I traverse a momentary universe.
This one is bordered in a frayed brocade of rubbish.
And then, behind a curtain of airy music,
A man squats on an oily stone, picking for ball bearings
From a pile of motor parts. Like a fine machine, he rolls them
Between his finger and thumb, to test if they are worn.

Now, sitting within a lacy cloud of boiling tea
Two men play a board game with ivory disks,
Thinking, slamming, sliding, then... I've passed beyond.

On a slower board, a roof tile slides.
The world thinks; it slides some more, and slams
With a muffled crash into a hidden courtyard.

Wondering, searching, I bend and peek
Around a low and narrow doorway framed in banners.
What say these hieroglyphs on crimson drapes
Fluttering around doors into a still more narrow path?
Aha! I see the broken roof tile, where it lies
Among a stack of crates, a twisted broom,
Some broken pots, a heap of coal.
So much more, but these veils close so fast...

I come to another set of doors, all patched and shrouded
With hammered plates of tin and heavy bolts.
Someone else’s hand throws askew these veils.
Inside, a wall of broken bricks, aslant to the vertical.
By art or by decay, it achieves a certain grace,
As I pass by. And that veil, too, turns once again opaque
Within this maze of glimpses and conjecture.