Sometimes I still have a hard time sleeping. Sometimes. As I sit writing this at 4AM on a Monday morning I know that three floors below me in our unusually hot kitchen, there’s a cupboard containing five different boxes of chamomile tea. Five kinds, which is probably overdoing it. They don’t really help, but they’re better than the whiskey ever was. When I find myself staring at the ceiling at in the early hours, knowing that sleep shall evade me for a little longer, if not for the entire night, my mind drifts. These days, it normally drifts to good places – to friends, or to memories, or towards lines that might make for decent poetry if turning the light on to save them wouldn’t set sleep back further as a possibility. My mind used to drift to some pretty crappy places; I find that it doesn’t anymore.
I followed the heron into evening,
trailed its movements along the riverbank,
noted the slow strokes towards airborne, climbing
towards a setting sun still high in the sky.
All I had on my person were Tales
of Ordinary Madness and a notepad,
sat to watch the bird soar and thought
that I would not want to waste a wingspan
either. It seems that all of these old
Chinese poets and their old Chinese
poems are starting to get to me, all
composed while full of wine beneath
a willow tree. I was beside a common
alder, not having drunk in a month
which doesn’t look like long but is
the longest I’ve gone in eight years.
I am only twenty-three, started early,
and don’t belong to a dynasty, and am
certainly not a poetic prodigy but the wind
was cool as it fought my page and I decided
that I was happy all the same.
I was speaking gibberish to the moon
after the fourth ginger beer of the night,
thinking it made a change to feel
nothing. The silence I received in return
was non-tongued action, symbolic in the
starlight – poppies by the fence illuminated.
You should have seen me reading Lowell, life
studious, then translating my inferior old poem
titles into Mandarin stanzas like so:
有一天，一首 Craig David 歌曲很害羞 (2)
Ran out, worked my way through verse,
rewriting younger self in rough prose
and disguising it as smuggled progress.
Forgetting, re-forgetting, redactions
and gaps in the syntax made me sound
all the more romantic and unrecognisable.
Last lines stayed the same.
(1) Third Night in Brooklyn
(2) One Day Shy of a Craig David Song
(3) You told me I was dressed like a poet
(4) The last line remains unchanged.
Somebody had circled the word tuōlí
in the second-hand dictionary and it
may have been me when I was too
drunk to be able to recall doing so.
Elsewhere, the word for ‘regret’ was
underlined and it was definitely me
this time, filled a notebook with words
mostly hollow but that one I wanted to
remember, though cannot mispronounce,
might then be ‘meeting’ or ‘return,’
hope, and I closed the book at the thought,
went back to writing poems about words,
poems about you.
When I’d told you that
vagina translated to yīndào,
“tunnel of darkness,” you’d
laughed longer than anyone
else probably would have,
said you’d now never touch
yourself and not immediately
recall the translation.
I wondered if I had finally
put my lessons to good use,
wondered also if you would
think of me also, decided not.
I have collected a notebook’s worth
of words, self-made dictionary locked
at beginner level. I recognise certain
sounds but not the majority of symbols,
have practised only phonetics so when
I hear particular phrases I piece together
meaning slowly still, for example, hearing
“Nǐ ài wǒ ma?” I hear the word ài (love)
and then nǐ (you) and wǒ (me), realise
too late that “ma,” paired with a rising,
seeking, intonation forms a question.
But you asked in English so, no excuse,
and now when I hear the question
I see your face and the way it twisted
south when I had replied with no sound
at all, the silence easily translatable.
I was burying my head in a Chinese
dictionary trying to see myself better,
managed to lose sight of you entirely.
The art of communication is paramount
to a healthy relationship and we were
speaking different languages entirely.