[poetry month] "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" by Sally Wen Mao


In Lijiang, the sign outside your hostel
glares: Ride alone, ride alone, ride
alone — it taunts you for the mileage
of your solitude, must be past

thousands, for you rode this plane
alone, this train alone, you’ll ride
this bus alone well into the summer night,
well into the next hamlet, town,

city, the next century, as the trees twitch
and the clouds wane and the tides
quiver and the galaxies tilt and the sun
spins us another lonely cycle, you’ll

wonder if this compass will ever change.
The sun doesn’t need more heat,
so why should you? The trees don’t need
to be close, so why should you?

The sea is full of jetsam tonight. A thousand
miles away, you think of shores,
arriving at the KTV bar in Lijiang, listening,
A song comes up: Jay-Z with Rihanna,
umbrella-ella-ella-eh, strangers singing
into the strange night, and it’s like home to you,
this cocktail of ashes dusting your knees.
This city is famous for yak meat, rhododendron,
and one-night stands. You wait for yours
to show up. He works at the bar, looks like Takeshi
Kaneshiro. He clutches your waist as you ask
for more songs, more wine, more fruit.
Another: Teresa Teng, whose voice is the song
you have in common. “The Moon Represents
My Heart” — but tonight the moon represents
your sorrow in the Old Town Square.
Later as you lie in the cheap hotel in the electric
New City, Takeshi tells you he has never
left this province his whole life.
His family grows a peach orchard, and the fattest
peaches ripen in September. Where can I mail
you a peach?
he asks. Tell him you’re flying
to Indonesia. He asks why you’re going
somewhere so far away. Say: in Manhattan,
there are thousands of gargoyles
that travel around the world
as everyone sleeps.
Say: in Brooklyn, there is a chance
to rebuild a life from trash —
long-stemmed roses blooming
in the dumpsters, bodegas spilling purple
dragonfruit still good to eat.
Say: one morning outside Bryant Park,
you stood watching a garbage
fire destroy a basket of rotten mangoes.
Within five minutes, firefighters
came to extinguish it. You peered inside
afterward, and the nothing you saw
was wet and dark and smoldering.
Above you, a crane lifted a tiny man higher
and higher, until light stretched
his limbs into a sheaf of minerals.
He was dust before the wrecking
ball swung.

This land promises snowfall. This land promises windfall.
This land promises the return of brief days. May this land
promise you a body, some muscle, some organ, a brain.

Some ribs made of dark tinder, their insides lit, all vesicle,
atrium. May this kindling promise you a hearth and last

past your dread, October’s sleet, past scarred trees, then winter,
then mend and on and onward and orbit so you are blank
as memory, turn into paper — crinkle, burn, and finally open.

— Sally Wen Mao, from Oculus, Graywolf Press, 2019.

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