Kafka’s Axe & Michael’s Vest

                                 for Michael Burkard

Still winter. Snowing, still. Can it even be called action, this patience
in the form of gravity overdressed in gray?

Days like this, the right silence can be an action, an axe,
right through the frozen sea, as Kafka calls for. A necessary smashing,
opening. Though silence can also be a shattering, closing.

Think of peace & how the Buddhists say it is found through silence.
Think of silence & how Audre Lorde says it will not protect you.

Think of silence as a violence, when silence means being made
a frozen sea. Think of speaking as a violence, when speaking is a house
that dresses your life in the tidiest wallpaper. It makes your grief

sit down, this house. It makes you chairs when you need
justice. It keeps your rage room temperature. I’ve been thinking

about how the world is actually unbearable.
About all those moments of silence we’re supposed to take.
Each year, more moments, less life, & perhaps

the most monastic of monks are right to take vows
of silence that last a decade.

Though someone else (probably French) says our speaking
was never ours; our thoughts & selves housed
by history, rooms we did not choose, but must live in.

Think of Paul Celan, living
in the bone-rooms of German. Living, singing.

What does it mean, to sing in the language of those
who have killed your mother,
would kill her again? Does meaning shatter, leaving

behind the barest moan? This English, I bear it, a master’s
axe, yet so is every tongue—red with singing & killing.

Are we even built for peace? I think of breath & my teacher,
Michael, one of the least masterly, most peaceful people I know,
& Kafka’s number one fan. I think of the puffy blue vest Michael wears

when his breaths turn white. Even when I’m doing my best
think axes & walls, brave monks & unbearable houses,

the thought of Michael in his bit-too-big deep blue vest
leaks in. & I don’t think I will ever stop trying to sneak
into casual conversation the word “ululation.” If only all language

could be ululation in blue vests. If silence could always be
as quiet as Michael, sitting with his coffee & his book, rereading. 

More by Chen Chen

I am reminded via email to resubmit my preferences for the schedule

But really
I would prefer
to sit, drink water,
reread some Russians
a while longer 
—a luxury
perhaps, but why
should I, anyone,
call it that, why
should reading
what I want,
in a well-hydrated fashion,
always be what I’m
planning to finally
do, like hiking      
or biking, & now
that I think of it, reading
should make me, anyone,
breathe harder, then
easier, reach for cold,
cold water, & I
prefer my reading
that way, I prefer
Ivan Turgenev,
who makes me work for
not quite pleasure
no, some truer 
sweatier thing,
Turgenev,
who is just now, 
in my small room 
in West Texas, 
getting to the good part,
the very Russian part,
the last few pages   
of “The Singers” 
when the story
should be over,
Yakov the Turk
has sung with fervor,
meaning true
Russian spirit,
meaning he’s won
a kind of 19th century
Idol in the village
tavern, The End, but
Turgenev goes
on, the narrator walks
out, down a hill,
into a dark
enveloping mist, 
& he hears
from misty far away
some little boy 
calling out for
Antropka!
calling hoarsely,
darkly, 
Antropka-a-a!
& it’s that voice that stops
then opens my breath
that voice
& all Monday-Wednesday-Fridays
all Tuesday-Thursdays    
are gone
I have arrived
in the village of
no day   none
& I am sitting
with the villagers  
who are each at once
young   old  
who have the coldest
water to give me  
& songs
I think I have sung   before
they sing
their underground
tree-root syllables
they give me silences
from their long
long   hair

First Light

I like to say we left at first light
        with Chairman Mao himself chasing us in a police car,
my father fighting him off with firecrackers,
        even though Mao was already over a decade
dead, & my mother says all my father did
        during the Cultural Revolution was teach math,
which he was not qualified to teach, & swim & sunbathe
        around Piano Island, a place I never read about
in my American textbooks, a place everybody in the family
        says they took me to, & that I loved.
What is it, to remember nothing, of what one loved?
        To have forgotten the faces one first kissed?
They ask if I remember them, the aunts, the uncles,
        & I say Yes it’s coming back, I say Of course,
when it’s No not at all, because when I last saw them
        I was three, & the China of my first three years
is largely make-believe, my vast invented country,
        my dream before I knew the word “dream,”
my father’s martial arts films plus a teaspoon-taste 
        of history. I like to say we left at first light,
we had to, my parents had been unmasked as the famous
        kung fu crime-fighting couple of the Southern provinces,
& the Hong Kong mafia was after us. I like to say
        we were helped by a handsome mysterious Northerner,
who turned out himself to be a kung fu master.
        I don’t like to say, I don’t remember crying.
No embracing in the airport, sobbing. I don’t remember
        feeling bad, leaving China.
I like to say we left at first light, we snuck off
        on some secret adventure, while the others were
still sleeping, still blanketed, warm
        in their memories of us.
What do I remember of crying? When my mother slapped me
        for being dirty, diseased, led astray by Western devils,
a dirty, bad son, I cried, thirteen, already too old,
        too male for crying. When my father said Get out,
never come back,
I cried & ran, threw myself into night.
        Then returned, at first light, I don’t remember exactly
why, or what exactly came next. One memory claims
        my mother rushed into the pink dawn bright
to see what had happened, reaching toward me with her hands,
        & I wanted to say No. Don’t touch me.
Another memory insists the front door had simply been left
        unlocked, & I slipped right through, found my room,
my bed, which felt somehow smaller, & fell asleep, for hours,
        before my mother (anybody) seemed to notice.
I’m not certain which is the correct version, but what stays with me
        is the leaving, the cry, the country splintering.
It’s been another five years since my mother has seen her sisters,
        her own mother, who recently had a stroke, who has                          trouble
recalling who, why. I feel awful, my mother says,
        not going back at once to see her. But too much is                              happening here.
Here, she says, as though it’s the most difficult,
        least forgivable English word. 
What would my mother say, if she were the one writing?
        How would her voice sound? Which is really to ask, what is
my best guess, my invented, translated (Chinese-to-English,
        English-to-English) mother’s voice? She might say:
We left at first light, we had to, the flight was early,
        in early spring. Go, my mother urged, what are you doing,
waving at me, crying? Get on that plane before it leaves without you.
        It was spring & I could smell it, despite the sterile glass
& metal of the airport—scent of my mother’s just-washed hair,
        of the just-born flowers of fields we passed on the car ride                over,
how I did not know those flowers were already
        memory, how I thought I could smell them, boarding the                  plane,
the strange tunnel full of their aroma, their names
        I once knew, & my mother’s long black hair—so impossible              now.
Why did I never consider how different spring could smell,              feel,
        elsewhere? First light, last scent, lost
country. First & deepest severance that should have
        prepared me for all others. 

Night Falls Like a Button

from your grandmother’s coat. You worry with your thumb the stranger’s page. Aging spine of the black sky, night-burps of the sleeping computer. Don’t listen to the judgment of your scraped knees. Night anchors in your belly button, your pubic hair. Stars snore safely, for years. Your smile in the early dark is a paraphrase of Mars. Your smile in the deep dark is an anagram of Jupiter. My worst simile is that I’m fancy like a piece of salami wearing a tuxedo. Waiting with a cone of gelato. Your smile in the dreaming dark is an umbrella for all the going, gone, & yet to come. Orioles come for the oranges you’ve placed in the arms of the architect. Which birds will you pull into orbit tomorrow? You try to sew the night onto your own coat, but it won’t stay. Too much memory weather, werewolf migration. You itch for the window’s shore. You row, the growing light rearranging your voice, the rain your lunatic photographer.