He gossips like my grandmother, this man with my face, and I could stand amused all afternoon in the Hon Kee Grocery, amid hanging meats he chops: roast pork cut from a hog hung by nose and shoulders, her entire skin burnt crisp, flesh I know to be sweet, her shining face grinning up at ducks dangling single file, each pierced by black hooks through breast, bill, and steaming from a hole stitched shut at the ass, I step to the counter, recite, and he, without even slightly varying the rhythm of his current confession or harangue, scribbles my order on a greasy receipt, and chops it up quick. Such a sorrowful Chinese face, nomad, Gobi, Northern in its boniness clear from the high warlike forehead to the sheer edge of the jaw. He could be my brother, but finer, and, except for his left forearm, which is engorged, sinewy from his daily grip and wield of a two-pound tool, he's delicate, narrow- waisted, his frame so slight a lover, some rough other might break it down its smooth, oily length. In his light-handed calligraphy on receipts and in his moodiness, he is a Southerner from a river-province; suited for scholarship, his face poised above an open book, he'd mumble his favorite passages. He could be my grandfather; come to America to get a Western education in 1917, but too homesick to study, he sits in the park all day, reading poems and writing letters to his mother. He lops the head off, chops the neck of the duck into six, slits the body open, groin to breast, and drains the scalding juices, then quarters the carcass with two fast hacks of the cleaver, old blade that has worn into the surface of the round foot-thick chop-block a scoop that cradles precisely the curved steel. The head, flung from the body, opens down the middle where the butcher cleanly halved it between the eyes, and I see, foetal-crouched inside the skull, the homunculus, gray brain grainy to eat. Did this animal, after all, at the moment its neck broke, image the way his executioner shrinks from his own death? Is this how I, too, recoil from my day? See how this shape hordes itself, see how little it is. See its grease on the blade. Is this how I'll be found when judgement is passed, when names are called, when crimes are tallied? This is also how I looked before I tore my mother open. Is this how I presided over my century, is this how I regarded the murders? This is also how I prayed. Was it me in the Other I prayed to when I prayed? This too was how I slept, clutching my wife. Was it me in the other I loved when I loved another? The butcher sees me eye this delicacy. With a finger, he picks it out of the skull-cradle and offers it to me. I take it gingerly between my fingers and suck it down. I eat my man. The noise the body makes when the body meets the soul over the soul's ocean and penumbra is the old sound of up-and-down, in-and-out, a lump of muscle chug-chugging blood into the ear; a lover's heart-shaped tongue; flesh rocking flesh until flesh comes; the butcher working at his block and blade to marry their shapes by violence and time; an engine crossing, re-crossing salt water, hauling immigrants and the junk of the poor. These are the faces I love, the bodies and scents of bodies for which I long in various ways, at various times, thirteen gathered around the redwood, happy, talkative, voracious at day's end, eager to eat four kinds of meat prepared four different ways, numerous plates and bowls of rice and vegetables, each made by distinct affections and brought to table by many hands. Brothers and sisters by blood and design, who sit in separate bodies of varied shapes, we constitute a many-membered body of love. In a world of shapes of my desires, each one here is a shape of one of my desires, and each is known to me and dear by virtue of each one's unique corruption of those texts, the face, the body: that jut jaw to gnash tendon; that wide nose to meet the blows a face like that invites; those long eyes closing on the seen; those thick lips to suck the meat of animals or recite 300 poems of the T'ang; these teeth to bite my monosyllables; these cheekbones to make those syllables sing the soul. Puffed or sunken according to the life, dark or light according to the birth, straight or humped, whole, manqué, quasi, each pleases, verging on utter grotesquery. All are beautiful by variety. The soul too is a debasement of a text, but, thus, it acquires salience, although a human salience, but inimitable, and, hence, memorable. God is the text. The soul is a corruption and a mnemonic. A bright moment, I hold up an old head from the sea and admire the haughty down-curved mouth that seems to disdain all the eyes are blind to, including me, the eater. Whole unto itself, complete without me, yet its shape complements the shape of my mind. I take it as text and evidence of the world's love for me, and I feel urged to utterance, urged to read the body of the world, urged to say it in human terms, my reading a kind of eating, my eating a kind of reading, my saying a diminishment, my noise a love-in-answer. What is it in me would devour the world to utter it? What is it in me will not let the world be, would eat not just this fish, but the one who killed it, the butcher who cleaned it. I would eat the way he squats, the way he reaches into the plastic tubs and pulls out a fish, clubs it, takes it to the sink, guts it, drops it on the weighing pan. I would eat that thrash and plunge of the watery body in the water, that liquid violence between the man's hands, I would eat the gutless twitching on the scales, three pounds of dumb nerve and pulse, I would eat it all to utter it. The deaths at the sinks, those bodies prepared for eating, I would eat, and the standing deaths at the counters, in the aisles, the walking deaths in the streets, the death-far-from-home, the death- in-a-strange-land, these Chinatown deaths, these American deaths. I would devour this race to sing it, this race that according to Emerson managed to preserve to a hair for three or four thousand years the ugliest features in the world. I would eat these features, eat the last three or four thousand years, every hair. And I would eat Emerson, his transparent soul, his soporific transcendence. I would eat this head, glazed in pepper-speckled sauce, the cooked eyes opaque in their sockets. I bring it to my mouth and-- the way I was taught, the way I've watched others before me do-- with a stiff tongue lick out the cheek-meat and the meat over the armored jaw, my eating, its sensual, salient nowness, punctuating the void from which such hunger springs and to which it proceeds. And what is this I excavate with my mouth? What is this plated, ribbed, hinged architecture, this carp head, but one more articulation of a single nothing severally manifested? What is my eating, rapt as it is, but another shape of going, my immaculate expiration? O, nothing is so steadfast it won't go the way the body goes. The body goes. The body's grave, so serious in its dying, arduous as martyrs in that task and as glorious. It goes empty always and announces its going by spasms and groans, farts and sweats. What I thought were the arms aching cleave, were the knees trembling leave. What I thought were the muscles insisting resist, persist, exist, were the pores hissing mist and waste. What I thought was the body humming reside, reside, was the body sighing revise, revise. O, the murderous deletions, the keening down to nothing, the cleaving. All of the body's revisions end in death. All of the body's revisions end. Bodies eating bodies, heads eating heads, we are nothing eating nothing, and though we feast, are filled, overfilled, we go famished. We gang the doors of death. That is, out deaths are fed that we may continue our daily dying, our bodies going down, while the plates-soon-empty are passed around, that true direction of our true prayers, while the butcher spells his message, manifold, in the mortal air. He coaxes, cleaves, brings change before our very eyes, and at every moment of our being. As we eat we're eaten. Else what is this violence, this salt, this passion, this heaven? I thought the soul an airy thing. I did not know the soul is cleaved so that the soul might be restored. Live wood hewn, its sap springs from a sticky wound. No seed, no egg has he whose business calls for an axe. In the trade of my soul's shaping, he traffics in hews and hacks. No easy thing, violence. One of its names? Change. Change resides in the embrace of the effaced and the effacer, in the covenant of the opened and the opener; the axe accomplishes it on the soul's axis. What then may I do but cleave to what cleaves me. I kiss the blade and eat my meat. I thank the wielder and receive, while terror spirits my change, sorrow also. The terror the butcher scripts in the unhealed air, the sorrow of his Shang dynasty face, African face with slit eyes. He is my sister, this beautiful Bedouin, this Shulamite, keeper of sabbaths, diviner of holy texts, this dark dancer, this Jew, this Asian, this one with the Cambodian face, Vietnamese face, this Chinese I daily face, this immigrant, this man with my own face.
Copyright © 1990 by Li-Young Lee. Reprinted from The City in Which I Love You, by Li-Young Lee, with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.
Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents.
Date Published: 1990-01-01
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/cleaving