Poetry / September 2010 (Issue 12)

Another City Which You Leave

by Helle Annette Slutz

"For those who pass it without entering, the city is one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by it and never leave. There is a city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return. Each deserves a different name..." -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves: Turfan, China

In a museum in western China, I saw the first sunglasses,
metal cups pierced with tiny points through which, once,
the light illuminated cedar-colored hills
closing in the oasis below, impossibly green.

Here on the hill, where heat smothers like sand,
monks and merchants who wore metal sunglasses
sought the shade of earth and heaven,
carved out a promise of protection against the scourge

of the Taklamakan sun. Here, their prayers
took form in statues, where gold leaf still clings tenaciously
to walls. I watch them unbutton, untie, de-robe
and fold emerald silks and saffron cottons into stone.

They sweat a few last drops, and start
to shed their skin, peeling away layer by layer,
tissues as fragile as rice paper. I watch their hands
dismantle their skeletons, grind their bones into pigment.

And though I know how very corporeal they must have been,
after the beginning of the journey across the Taklamakan,
the smells of dung and camels and burning wood as heavy
as bolts of satin, baskets of pearls and dates,

the strain of muscle to lift and push forwards,
through the slate-colored wastes and wizened shrubs;
while I know this city of caves also welcomed with relief
the survivors and fed them, and brought them peace,

today I watch them behind my shaded eyes, in heat
as heavy as centuries of shed skin, continually departing,
painting themselves into walls and rising from them,
dripping by repetition into a line across a textbook page.


Leili, Lost in the Forbidden City

We searched for
her behind latticed
walls spindly as leaf
skeletons on giant scale, over
tiled walls slick and royal
yellow, earthen,

her pale circle of a face
floating moonlike
over a diaphanous
rain poncho.

In the photos of
ten families
her face
half-smiles beside unknown
uncles, mothers, aunts,
siblings who asked

to capture a picture
with her golden crown
of hair.
At the exit,
she said
she had followed the signs,

past giant water urns,
large enough to hide in,
overflowing in the rain,
thick black
arrows on white, a universal
stick figure, a man


Jade Temple: Shanghai, China

Years later, in a class, I would learn the importance of five
skandhas or aggregates of self or collections of self-ness or
components of individuality, and about the anatta, the not-
self or the constantly becoming, the self that does not exist,

the not-self being my hands as they grasped the lens of my
camera to protect it as I spewed the contents of a stomach
onto the streets of Shanghai, and the street-cleaner who led
me to a hose where I could wash my face and hands as I,
ashamed, wiped no-longer-food off of my camera.

What didn’t need an explanation was the way the chanting in
the temple sounded for all the world like a swarm of cicadas,
and how absolutely still they sat, the worshippers, saffron
robes swathed around their street clothes, eyes shut, hands
collapsed in the baskets of their laps

like hollow cicada husks, filled only with the sound of chant
circulating and circulating and hinting at the voice that cycled
through my head the whole long bus ride there—it’s ok, it’s
ok, it’s ok— with each turn of the wheel until it became a
feeling caught in the hollow below my lungs

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