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Scholar in a Narrow Street

ISSUE:  Spring 2004

after Tso Ssu

The pigeon on the window ledge
beat its wings against the glass.
The student in the narrow street

clasped a shadow, dragging her feet
through fallen leaves, having forgotten her book.
There was nowhere for her to go in all of Iowa

but the classroom, the empty desk in the front row.
She had composed an elegy in the style
of the ancient Chinese masters, without knowing

their language, instead of writing the paper on—
well, she couldn’t remember. O Tso Ssu!
Like your memorial, hers will be rejected.

She gasped, carp in a dried-out pond.
Her father would suggest she turn her hand
to historical fiction. O bad novels of the Bicentennial!

Mine went unwritten, for which give thanks.
For I would have failed to create a scholar
of Chinese poetry who, fleeing untranslatable terrors,

washed ashore on the banks of the Iowa River.
Did a hard inscrutable rain fall on a man
in a cape of reeds? The scholar erased a blizzard

of characters from the blackboard.
We started at dawn from the island of orchids, he sang
in his three-piece suit, his voice echoing from the chalk cliff.

Somewhere a water clock dripped. I turn my head,
an exile of the sixth century wrote, and it seems only a dream
that I ever lived in the streets of Hsien-yang.


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