The World Below

by James Ellenberger
                 after the earthquake in Sichuan, spring 2008 

Take off your shoes as the bricks cool with rain. 
Think of walking towards a country house. 
If you want, imagine the bricks bright with leaves, 
whatever’s needed to stay and look 
at the sun resting behind crags of black smoke 
while soldiers half-mast the flag at Tiananmen. 
Don’t fret the characters: [天安门]. 
“天” is the sky: imagine it as clotheslines in rain, 
a mother shuffling about. If you must, have a smoke 
and think of your mother shuffling about the house. 
One woman (女) under a roof (安)—alone, looking 
after her child—means peace. But if you leave, 
know that the gates (门) won’t fret your leaving: 
you’re retracing another’s steps at Tiananmen. 
Your steps, too, will be scoured by gray-looking 
men and women assigned the erosive job of rain. 
Don’t mourn those who walked here: They housed 
their spirits in the way chimneys house smoke. 
Today, the red flag unfurls like smoke 
bright as blood in creek water, bright as oak leaves. 
The same images bloom behind your house 
perennially. How can you forget Tiananmen? 
Let it strike hard as rain, 
what’s unsaid among the crowd. You came looking 
for what brought you around the world. So look. 
Men who appear half chimney—hooks of smoke 
hooking from their noses—shoulder the rain 
like statues; they long gave up the pretense of leaving. 
The workers mourn at Tiananmen. 
The sky darkens like the windows of an unlit house. 
You can either leave or search, top to bottom, the house 
you’ve boarded up for fear of looking 
in its cellar, where the phantasms of Tiananmen 
linger like a grandfather’s Cutty Sark smoke. 
Save regret for letters home. Even if you leave, 
the ache, a rheumatism, will worsen with the rain. 

Pennsylvania's black clouds loom like Tiananmen’s. 
August rainstorms pummel white oaks of their leaves. 
The sky darkens with the smoke of houses 
you, by chance, weren’t born in.