Poetry / December 2013 (Issue 22)

Daniel Defoe to His Dead Mistress (ca. 1704)

by Stuart Christie

dedicated to the memory of 張佩瑤

Now, as all Men know the Chineses are an Ancient, Wise, Polite, and most Ingenious People; so the Muscovites begun to reap the Benefit of this open Trade; and not only to grow exceeding Rich by the bartering for all the Wealth of those Eastern Countries; but to polish and refine their Customs and Manners, as much on that side as they have from their European Improvements on this.
The astronomers told me you were gone sotto voce, pulling out pixelated charts and casting subtly-hued references. Their fingers emerged cautiously from sumptuous amethyst sleeves, digital shadows climbing delicately like spiders along a wall whose latticed lines measure the azimuth in all weathers and degrees.

It is mid-autumn. They murmured kè xīng (客星)—the guest star—nodding sagely and turning away. You departed unerringly, the lagging sage said, the way a moon transits earth, backlit, and then disappears. I didn’t catch your escape. My scope addled, disoriented and reversed, staring at the suspended motes in my own clouded inner atmosphere. My confining airs, swirling thick around me. I would not see, dust and colloids intervening.

You dispersed.

Together we sought the New Jerusalem. But you will find it sooner than I.

And as the Chineses have many sorts of Learning which these Parts of the World never heard of, so all those useful Inventions which we admire ourselves so much for, are vulgar and common with them, and were in use long before our Parts of the World were Inhabited.

The moon does not say goodbye and neither did you. It simply rounds the earth, forever, for an evening. Toxins coursing through your tissues, you fled, eclipsed by the same vulgar science the music of your spheres, your inner harmonies, kept at bay. Interstellar, foreign wolves consumed your point of light, your magic, by night. I imagined you sleeping through the yelps, the snarls, the commotion. A reclining saint, now smiling, as her lunar transit bled red.

Gun-powder, Printing, and the use of the Magnet and Compass, which we call Modern Inventions, are not only far from being Inventions, but fall so far short of the Perfection of Art they have attained to.

A perfectly departed truth, you cannot now be invented except as a lie. You are a dead planet, cold and defunct, with a vibrant history. Violent and powerful, torrents of crystal and ice carved spaces of emptiness and quiet, ancient seas—lunar maria—staring coolly back at your old dissipating uncle, Terrestre, and his dense and all-powerful mistress.

(Love will be her undoing.)
She, a brilliant flashy beginning, a flaring hot-house whore, desiring and massive, trailing eight other lovers in her wake. They, too, hiding cyclical lovers in secret orbits. Private moons and moons of moons.

Some say there are more planets, and suns, and stars. (You smiled when you heard this.) These are dreams of a future, the occultists dead-panned, that we cannot imagine. Days without books, nights without fire.

This memorable part of History shall be a faithful Abridgement of Ibra chizra-le-peglizar, Historiaegrapher-Royal to the Emperor of China, who wrote Anno Mundi 114. his Volumes extant, in the Publick Library at Tonquin, Printed in Leaves of Vitrify'd Diamond, by an admirable Dexterity, struck all at an oblique Motion, the Engine remaining entire, and still fit for use, in the Chamber of the Emperor's Rarities.

My engine sputters. Emptiness. Unseeing. Moon dust, the blinding residue of sharp vitrified diamond. So many bodies—rarities—under the knife. My eyes thus clouded, the sage tapped at my skull like a sentry on his round. Serrating bone, the flange of the occipital nerve, scooping blood as he turned. My cataracted eye begging for light to see you by.

And now you are gone, gall spreading through you like a molten wish.

Suddenly, this blindfold of memory is all I have to gather you to me. A veil. I feel only the notch where the reliquary for your heart once leaned. (Thieving sages stole it from the glass box.) Your love was—what? (Already I am slipping.) Yes, it returns. Your love was a novum, oblique in its orbit, yet worthy of measuring life by. My life.

So many glimmering faces, turning joyfully toward the moon.

Now it is dark. I hear the mortar and pestle pulverizing a mask for you, powdered and white, lying in state. My state. The moon underfoot, the way your dying (every twelve or so hours) becomes a kind of living, an art, a delight in the night. You promised me your death would be a new beginning.

I am told, in some Parts of China, they had arriv'd to such a Perfection of Knowledge, as to understand one another’s Thoughts; and that it was found to be an excellent Preservative to humane Society, against all sorts of Frauds, Cheats, Sharping, and many Thousand European Inventions of that Nature, at which only we can be said to out-do those Nations.

To arrive at—what?—even proximally, to your perfect orbit: the attendant dream of an unborn man or woman or beast or flower or stone, the hope of millennia. Loyalty. To know, forever, what you will always think. Have always thought. Never to be remembered, never to be forgotten. Sweet silence—humanity’s chatter, drowning out what every sea knows. The sculpted planetary soil, the mottled designs of depths which, becoming heights, dissolve. Only the contour tells when, once, concavity and convexity were something else. One. But whose? There are only entrances and exits.

I had hoped to grow old with you, my love, as it written in the chronicles of Ibra chizra-le-peglizar in the publick library at Tonquin. But, in China, the sages say, there is no publick, or library, to house love in. Only a million million privacies: persons, the flickering dreams of fireflies who, passing each other along imperial boulevards, wait for the moon stone-faced, spark brilliantly, only to settle on the surface of a carp’s eye.

It would be needless to Transcribe the Chinese Character, or to put their Alphabet into our Letters, because the Words would be both Unintelligible, and very hard to Pronounce; and therefore, to avoid hard Words, and Hyroglyphicks, I'll translate them as well as I can.

To measure your distance from me, now, my own lunar culmination. Measuring the distance from you, to me, to the departed moon. Their relation to absence—untranslatable and untranslated. The Chinese sages have no formula for this—a concatenation, the moon breaking free. Your gravity has broken the astronomers’ promise—or was it the one you made to me?—to make a heaven of our transit, to make it together.

I slump in the chair, a waning mooncake in my pocket. Your last bite.
Making vigil, my cold fingers clasping the perspicillum waiting for your transit, waiting for an arc, a sign.

They will put you in the ground, in a wooden box made sacrosanct by a heliocentric god. I asked, instead, for your dust: to hurl it into the night air, spreading in the wind like mist, like atmosphere, like Chinese gunpowder, and these lines. To wear you like a mask. To taste you one last time.
They called me a monster.
So I dream of the fury of paradise, of syzygy. Only once, the Chinese astronomers have noted, were the sun, the earth, the moon in true alignment. On 12 Septem. 1170, the day ten heavenly stems and twelve earthly branches arched over the sky and stars and

I reach into the sky.
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