Poetry / December 2013 (Issue 22)

Two Poems

by Kate Rogers

Becoming a Hungry Ghost

Thin slices of coal for the brazier in my room.
I am the fifth daughter.
The magnolia drops its last leaves in the pond
when father rides north.
I sneak into his library to sit by the fire
lit to keep damp from his books.
Warm my hands on the pages.
Later, visit the Koi, which circle the pond more slowly now,
watch frogs dig themselves into mud.
When I fall into the water Third Aunt looks away.
The willow drapes its long yellow strands on the surface
and I climb out. After that my lungs never stop
trying to breathe water.

The drapes are pulled from my windows because they are silver
as nets and trap the light. I might be reborn as a fish.
Cold swallows all sound.
The aunts and cousins put powder on my face and dress me
in gauze. As they carry me into the courtyard a cloud climbs down
from the mountain and wraps me in its embrace.

Outside our wind-fire gate hang twelve streamers:
A girl of as many years has died.
In the second week at the Weighing Bridge I am not light as air:
often pulled smallest sister’s hair and smashed eight vases
the first year my feet were bound.
But my spirit scaffold is hollow as bamboo
so the demons let me pass. My corpse remains in the courtyard,
pale tofu under the winter moon. Second Aunt places cakes
in my hands so I can pass through the Village of Bad Dogs.
I also need the stick from uncle
because a beast with eight legs and broken teeth chases me
all the way to the banks of the Inevitable River.

Mother lights paper offerings--gowns and foot binding cloths,
watches them writhe and curl away.
My feet are tied with red string so I take no children.
The ancestor tablet is inscribed
with name, hour of birth and hour of passing.
Father has not returned.

Forty-nine days after my death no family gather in our hall.
My body is a pile of ash in a hillside urn,
incense weaves a braid down my invisible back.

The cock is not killed for the blood to dot my tablet.
He rules the kitchen courtyard still, raising his crimson comb,
chasing hens that peck at stray grains of rice.
Mother cannot order his death, or finish my story.
She keeps one pair of my silk shoes by her lonely bed—
the blue pair I embroidered with strands of my hair.

I linger by the gate, listening for echoes
of his horse on the cobble stones.
The streamers blew away in the typhoon.
I wait, leaning on the arm of the wind,
shredded thin.

-'hungry ghost': A hungry ghost is a spirit which has not settled after death
-'to dot my tablet': The ancestor tablet of the deceased must be dotted with rooster's blood for the spirit to find peace

Another Spring
After Tz’u poet Li Ch’ing Chao (1084-115)
Winter is someone grown
needlessly thin.
Standing by the window
as the light fades
I slide a bangle from
my bony wrist,
but I’m slow
to shed all my ornaments,
hesitate to close the shutter.
The old tree outside hums
with early, drunken bees.
Plum blossoms decorate
a withered twig.
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