THE BOOK OF POETRY (WO SHI SHIREN)
A friend, in Thailand, helping to build straw bale homes
was riding with four Buddhist monks on the back of a truck
piled high with musky bales. “I love water buffaloes,” she burst out
in broken Thai. The monks laughed. I guess that is
a strange thing to say, she thought, but insisted.
“No, really, I really love them,” trying to unfurl herself
clearly, practicing the Zen Garden of making conversation
with only a few words. “They are so beautiful, so strong.
Don’t you love them?” But the monks just kept laughing.
Every traveler in Southeast Asia has her own story
of tonal confusion: the same syllable spoken different ways
becomes four, six, seven words. In China, Ma
means mother, but also hemp, horse, scold—depending if
it is flat, rising, dipping, or falling. Sometimes context helps,
as when ordering food: No one is likely to confuse
“I want to eat” with “I demand an ugly woman,”
unless one is dining in a brothel, and even then “I want eggplant”
though mistoned “whirlpool shake concubine twins”
is likely to produce only strips of sauce-smeared nightshade.
Everyone in China wants to know what you do.
It’s not easy, even in English, for a poet to say that.
When they asked, I said first, “I write,” wo xie,
or sometimes, after I had learned the word, “I am a poet.”
Wo shi shi ren. Often, I was met by puzzlement,
strained foreheads, awkward laughter, Chinese people
glancing at each other for cues, uncertain how to react.
Not so different really from the response in America.
“A poet” I’d repeat. Wo shi shiren. Then,
“I write poetry,” trying to make the most
of my minuscule vocabulary. “I write books of poetry.”
Wo shi shi ren: literally, I am a poetry person.
Wo means I; ren means person, or man.
Near the end of my travels, someone told me
shi—which is pronounced “sure” and means poetry
in the high flat tone, as well as the verb “to be”
in the falling tone—also means shit
in yet another tone. So, all along I must have been saying
I am a shit man. I write shit. And repeating it.
A shit person. I write books of shit. Understand?
To be—poetry—shit. Something fitting in how these words
were assigned the same syllable, the same address.
Later, looking the word up, I discovered for each tone, shi
was ten or twenty words, a whole apartment complex
sharing one mailbox. Corpse, loss, world, history, time, stone,
life, to begin, to be, to die, to fail, to be addicted to,
rough silk, persimmons, raincoats, swine, long-tailed marmot,
clear water—all crowded into the same syllable—sure,
sure, sure. It was also coincidentally the word for yes.
So, perhaps I had said something else entirely
I thought of all the combinations I might have said.
I am a shit person. I write life.
I am a death person. I write being. I shit history man.
I history being person. I write time. I write books of failure,
books of corpses, books of loss, books of yes.
I am a being person. I write to be.
I am addicted to being a man.
I write books of shit, books of clear water.
I am a poet.
It seemed all the world could, even should, have one word
for everything—table scales, taxis, bicycles, stones, cities,
time and history and death and life. It was all shit.
It was all poetry. As for my friend, she found out later
water buffalo was a variation of the word for penis.
So, “I love penises” she had confided to the Buddhist monks,
the truck jostling, the potholes throwing her knees
against theirs. “I really love penises,” she had insisted,
looking into their celibate eyes. “Penises are
so beautiful, so strong. Don’t you love them?”
Since the syllable for monk is also the syllable
of my name on fire in a world of loss, I will answer. Sure,
I love penises and water buffalo and the smell
of wet hay, and vaginas and sautéed eggplant and concubine twins,
and I want to tell the Buddhist monks, and the Chinese bureaucrats,
and the official from Homeland Security
who stopped me in customs to search my computer, and my mother
the Szechwan horse: I am a shit man writing books of stone
and the clear water has failed, but I am addicted
writing yes in a city of corpses and swine and persimmons,
here at the end of history, now at the beginning of time.
Originally published at Michigan Quarterly Review.
Reprinted at Poetry International.