In her new poems, Tina Chang steps from the terrain of history and loss navigated in her gorgeous first collection, Half-Lit Houses, toward the various places where one can sense the weight and the tug of public and private danger. Here, speakers move with quicksilver fluidity between the surreal or imagined and the grave realities of the worlds that contain them.—Tracy K. Smith
You are reading a book at a table on the stage
of a small theater. The theater will be closing
in two months. There are books by Freud, Nietzsche,
and Foucault on the table. You are seven, face
beautifully framed by thick glasses, having read
since four with just one candle. There is nothing
on stage except you, the candle, the books.
The curtain falls. You are crushed between the purple velvet.
Act II, Scene I
Open, A girl in a garden.
She is picking azaleas, placing them into a metal can,
swelling. The bees and the dragonflies won’t leave
her. She swats at them with a small shovel.
The background changes and she is ten years older,
in the army with a rifle. The rifle is always the main character.
Two years later, times have changed. She’s performing
in a sequined number, face covered with pancake and blush,
just a few people in the audience as she sings her final number,
a couple of steps and her stockings fall to her ankles.
Act II, Scene II
The spotlight is focused on someone new. A hustler
with a purple fedora, a cigar, a fat gold cane.
He dances, sidesteps the woman. He is the predator
and she should’ve seen it coming but she had
her childhood glasses on. She is tough and wrestles
the hustler. She has him head-locked under her arm,
the props are falling, they are tumbling down
a hole left of stage.
Act III, Scene I
The hustler is gone. All she has left of him
is his plumage. She is hungry and indicates so
by holding her stomach and grimacing.
She wants to go home.
There is a paper boat that can take her back
to New York but she is not sure it can hold her
weight. The paper boat gondolier pushes her
onto the boat. People wave from the other side.
They wanted her to leave all along, her presence
needed off stage, in the minutes elsewhere.
The journey was under the bright lights,
a floor functioning like an emergency
room in a hospital, gurney and urgency.
She exits and exits again, until she’s
on the street, in a parking lot. How those
faces still light up. She walks through the lot,
as if blindly feeling. She knows them now
in her waking life. They inhabit her, shaking her
down in daylight. The moon never did any good
but light the way to those pale faces.
This is a story about a girl who ran,
all night she ran after the wolf, aimed
at its hind legs, then stood above it,
and shot it between the eyes, skinned
it until the soul of the animal departed
from this world. Then the meat stopped
pulsing, then it shined with all its delicate
This is the story of the girl who stalked
the forest with nothing but a shotgun
and compass, due North, hollowed
the animal under moonlight, desire
dripping like blood into a tin pan,
the stars leaking a tonic into her cup.
Her appetite was the forest she traveled.
Though lost, she dragged the wolf
with her like a past surrendering
to a new life. The sun emerging
over the mountain like a heart flayed
open with a light in the middle.
The animal must be shot. You must
be hungry enough to skin it without
flinching, must be willing to cook it,
still trembling over the watchful eye
of the fire. You must also be willing
to track yourself down, see the will
of the god who made all beasts fear
for their lives. The rabbit quivers in its
white coat, raises its ears and takes off,
the boar nothing but an exotic pest
roaming the hillsides. You eat, grateful
for the skin that keeps this life in tact,
under the roof beams of your long life,
under a bridge that is a heaven of deer bones.
You are a more wonderful animal
than you could ever imagine: Great flying
loon, foxes coupling in the dark brush.
Dream blood, dream red, dream.
The r and then the ea and the dm.
Let the letters ride there, then subtract it.
The roof of a shelter, the grandeur
of smoke, a sun print on a rocket.
I have come to the border town.
Take away the I and put it in a shelter dream,
now fill it up with bullets, now dream
bull. Now take the b out of it which is
the engine that makes it go.
There’s a baby in a basket. There’s a burning
basket lullabye. You know the words.
The words are mixed with the soil when
the soil is lifted with a shovel.
Place the soil on top of the wooden boxes
whose bodies dream oo’s and ah’s,
of fireworks branching out in the sky
on holiday, pots and pans clanging,
children playing by dawn, a dream
nailed down to a box.
Tina Chang, author of Half-Lit Houses, has been published in anthologies and journals which include McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, and Quarterly West. She has received awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Poets & Writers, and the Van Lier Foundation among many others. She is co-editor of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008). She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and Hunter College.