The Poem That Still Speaks: An Essay on the Poetics of Political Exile — Ming Holden
I got to Ulaanbaatar knowing it would be cold. Knowing the face of Myangaa, The Asia Foundation’s driver, his tall boots, his hearty embrace. Knowing the drive into the metallic air of Ulaanbaatar. Knowing the puke and the used condoms on the street outside the new apartment block in which I stay in a spare room. The knobby cot and set of drawers that’s already breaking like the ones I got last fall at IKEA in Brooklyn and had to keep fixing with CVS superglue. (I used CVS superglue on my boots. I was that broke.) I wake up knowing the annoying song of the gas trucks, the mountain on the south side of the city past Jargalan Town with a white outline of Genghis Khan’s face.
Where a flat-sided steep frowns over the present world,
My elbows rest in sea-gaps
Of orbic tendencies to shape and shape and shape
The body lurking there within thy body,
Carrying even her moonsails.
Thus begins a poem I cobbled together out of lines of text for Professor Weinstein’s Civilization and Its Discontents Course at Brown three years ago. The semester I came home early and did my finals in the waiting room at the UCLA hospital. Weinstein, bless him, let students do creative finals and all I did those long hours during the heart surgery vigil was read over the assignments, from Sophocles to Blake to Adrienne Rich, and cobble together the lines that spoke to me. It was all I could do. The found poem ended up having 12 sections, and I called it “The Human Act”. For three years the poem slept and now, here, in Mongolia, the lines surface and course inside of me. Perie Longo said it can take decades to write a poem. I also think it can take decades to read one, that as context shifts and whirlpools the lines brighten and come alive in new forms, resonant and cyclical and informative.
The sea is not a question of power.
Those clarities detached us, gave us form.
I walk down the stairs of the apartment building in Ulaanbaatar, passing the garbage chute on each landing. About my return this is unexpected: it’s the off-the-record moments I remember from my year here, not the glowing achievements or abject failures. The time when I found myself farther west than I usually go on foot, and it was windy and icy and February and I had to go to an ATM but didn’t know the lay of the concrete, black-slicked land. When I vomited mutton dumplings into a cafe toilet in hot September and Will made me rice. The time a loud screech and crash in the dead of an otherwise silent night had us both wide awake, though neither knew the other was awake so the bed remained quiet.
Hungry clouds swag on the deep,
The chief inlets of soul in this age.
The driver asked us where he was to go.
‘To the end of the world!’ I cried.
Tumen is waiting for me with Yoshimoto. I exit the building talking into my little camcorder about why what we (me and my camcorder) are about to go do is important. Mongolian youths stare and snicker at the blondie talking to no one. I live about 100 feet from where I did last year, and briefly consider tracking down my landlady and trying to wrestle the 200 bucks out of her that she conned me out of. That building is a rust-red magnet. A ghost used to whisper to me through thousands of miles of telephone wires in there. I head into the door above which a yellow sign says “London Pub”, holding the camcorder in front of me all the while so we can both see his face when we come in the door.
When I came home, on the abyss of the five senses,
The placenta of the real, boundless as a nether sky
Into the deep, down falling, even to eternity down falling,
And he stands up, looking as young as ever though he’s 50 now, delighted even though he is still in his own personal hell in Ulaanbaatar, without his friends and family, without his dialect, without his daughter, without his wife, and nothing has moved, nothing has changed since he got his UNHCR Refugee status a year ago except the man who worked there and knew him left, and he got a year older, and his arthritis is worse and his blood pressure too low,
The hoary element roaring–I have to learn alone
To turn my body without force in the deep element
His friend Natsagdorj translates for Tumen at dinner a few days later, after they’ve had shots of vodka and I’ve toasted with wine and we’ve all eaten the cow tongue salad, “He says he realizes now after all this, after three years in Ulaanbaatar without his family, to all of these international organizations, that to them, we are nothing to them--“
With that inward listening deliberation
The thirst-perishing man might feel
Who knows the well to which he has crept is poisoned
Tumen is learning English. He goes three times a week. He has a bright pink workbook and is halfway through the exercises. I realize how difficult it must be to distinguish between British and American English; in the intersection at the navy-glassed, slant-topped Ulaanbaatar Bank, he tries to say “turn left” and I realize his British teacher says “turn” quite differently than I do. His Chinese enables him to embrace the hard “r” in the American version. The two workbooks have twenty lessons units in all, and, he explains in Mongolian, right now his teacher is the driver of his English and he doesn’t know how to drive, but when he is done with the twenty units he will be the driver of his own English: here he mimes a steering wheel.
Lowering himself from rung to rung in onehanded swoops,
The bone hands roped with vein.
Seen in the smoke of cannon as in a vision
That the laying on of hands meant literally that.
We sit at a table. Looking at Tumen, who is in a jaunty beret, I think I have found the thing that separates people into two groups: an ability to have blinders, to not think about something, but most essentially, to stop feeling something. To shut it off, put it away, leave it behind. There are those of us who don’t have a choice. We can neither forget nor feel less the pain and joy. It makes us good empathizers. It makes us able to brighten others with our joy. (Those others are sometimes those who like how it feels to be opened and seen but only for a short amount of time.) It makes us susceptible to suicide, both fast and the slow kind with alcohol or any other abyss: we don’t have enough plexiglass. We feel too much. We think too much. We tend to die young if we don’t find a way to deal with it.
“Light!” says Tumen across the table. “You lighter. I light. You light.” He scribbles with an invisible pen.
‘Everything in life seems unreal.’
‘Except me: I am substantial enough–touch me.’
‘You, sir, are the most phantom-like of all: you are a mere dream.’
He held out his hand, laughing. ‘Is that a dream?’ said he, placing it close to my eyes.
That first night, in the pub with Yoshimoto, he and Tumen ask if I have a boyfriend. Of course, the first visit with a Mongolian, even a refugee who needs your help, will not be about business. I sigh. “No.”
They refuse to leave it at that. I wasn’t going to talk about this. I was here to do work, regardless of how hollow my waking moments were. But this refugee so dear to me and his friend want to talk about my heart. I want to tell them, I do what immature people do with pain! I make myself the tragic hero! I don’t want to write another story like that! I’d rather be quiet! I tell them as simply as I can: I don’t have the right kind of heart.
Tumen speaks rapidly and traces a heart on his stomach and we laugh. He meant the chest.
Yoshimoto translates, “You are an honest girl with a good and kind heart. It makes easy to break your heart. You are too honest and good and kind. You have to learn to be a little bit bad person from Mongolia.”–he gestures wryly around.
“–Tenger tinkher!” adds Tumen.
“Because the heaven–“
“Blue sky. Tenger medne.” Tumen points up.
“The sky knows.”
“The sky knows that before happiness comes difficulty.”
The waitress in her white shirt and black corset sweeps, shuts off the front room lights. We sit, looking into our amber beers.
I have heard of day-dreams-is she in a day-dream now?
Her eyes are fixed on the floor, but I am sure
They do not see it—her sight seems turned in,
Gone down into her heart: she is looking
At what she can remember, I believe;
Not at what is really present.
It’s two days after Yoshimoto goes back to Japan that Tumen and I arrive at the restaurant my old boss took me and Will to that warm September after picking us up from the apartment a half-block away. One has to go through a Santa Barbara-architecture style white arch to get into the courtyard for those apartments, north of Sukhbaatar Square and the airline ticketing office.
While we wait for the cow tongue salad and Natsagdorj to arrive, Tumen brings out of his briefcase a sheet of paper and scissors. On the top half of the paper are sentences written in Chinese; the bottom, translated into English. He cuts the first strip of English and hands it to me:
“I do thank you for all the.”
Zugeer, I tell him, Bi bag zereg khiisen. I didn’t do much. I could have done more. I wrote one article about him for InTheFray that ended in how Freedom to Write at PEN and I collaborated to get Tumen UNHCR Refugee status, and he got it! And it was a happy ending! And I got to bill myself as a Young White Girl Who Came To Developing Nations, Improving Things! Then, in New York, I found out during a phone call the last week of my five months there that the one with the gentle whisper on the telephone was indeed a ghost: that the particular self presented to me, the one I loved, had been real, but had died and been dead for long time. I’d kept looking for my dead friend in the husk, though, and the husk had been hermit-crabbed by a complete and nasty stranger. Meanwhile I was doing nothing of the Improving sort, just reeling around in narcissism and narrative, applying to graduate schools I can’t afford and selling books for cash. I was not Improving Anyone’s Life, especially my own. I was not doing all I could for Tumen. Even worse than a tragic hero is a hero, of any sort.
And on the bleached bones
You listened to the sobbing wind.
Watch out for her; she can give you dreams.
Whatever place she run from ain’t going to be a whole lot
Different or worse than the place she is at:
Red dust in which the steady
Feet of the mules move dreamlike.
Tumen says he got the translations from the internet, but the writing is his, and the English is clear and legible. I commend him. He cuts off the next strip of paper:
“I plan to write a book to the refugees from the memoirs of wrier. Entitled “the search for freedom”, subheading is: dedicated to Ming.
Should be able to be translated into English, Japanese, and Chinese.”
I look at Tumen, his face unblemished by the darkness I know is in his heart, the shadow where his loneliness and hopelessness looms in his body like another body, where the smog gets so thick in the -40 wintertime that everyone coughs outside. Khereggui, I tell him. You don’t need to. Thank you but you don’t need to. I have not done enough.
We dream—it is good we are dreaming-
It would hurt us-were we awake.
In spite of last Saturday’s snow this May is warmer than last May in Ulaanbaatar, regularly in the 70s and 80s. The exchange rate has gone from roughly 1,200 Mongolian tugriks per dollar to 1,600, so now the “all boots for 5000t” booth near the Central Post Office on Sukhbaatar Square reads “all boots 6000-8000t”. Some things are the same. Across from the Flower Center is the 24 hour (Lies! They mean midnight! This I learned the hard way when it was very cold) mini store with a front room still filled with pastel-colored teddy bears.
A year ago, Tumen would text regularly. I am cleaning my clothes! He’d say. His Mongolian was from Inner Mongolia, so the sounds were different. I’ve cleaned my house today, he’d text.
A year ago Tumen insisted on buying me a train ticket to Hohhot, the capital city of China’s Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia, to visit his wife and see the home he could never return to.
That son grew to manhood among phantoms,
And side by side with a ghost, puddled his clear spirit,
Then leaped into the void between saturn and the fixed stars–
That silence wherein more deep than starlight this home is foundered
One revolution round the sun ago, a windy day in early May. Tumen took me to the railway station and bought my ticket. I, for mysterious and totally awesome reasons, was outfitted with not only a Mongolian visa for my Luce year but a Chinese visa–a year long, multi-entry visa. Gold! And it was easy: just buy a train ticket, get on a train, go to China, and do there what would almost certainly have barred me from ever acquiring a visa had the Chinese authorities known what I was using it for: to visit the home and family of an exiled Chinese dissident.
Behold him, part wakened, fallen among field flowers shallow
But undisclosed, withdraw. Time had stopped there and then for the seed
And nothing had happened in time since, not even him.
Tumen was waiting in a suit to walk me to his young lawyer friend’s car.
His wife was strip-searched at the border.
No, wrong order.
He gave me toothpaste and wine for her.
He caused the inside of the cave to be infinite.
Or is it that in starry places we see things we long to see?
Let me die by inches.
As with every time we met on any business, we went to eat after he bought me the ticket. I ordered borscht and Tumen ordered us both tall yellow beers. He was haggard and hungover and missed his wife and child. He meant to leave Ulaanbaatar. He meant to go write somewhere where he could live with his family, out from the reach of the Chinese government. “I just want to be together with them; it’s not right to be apart,” he said in Mongolian. “And I want to leave here, leave anywhere near China”. China, where he lived before the police raided his house and office because of the books he’d written about Chinese government and its corrosion of Inner Mongolian cultural heritage and rights. Where his wife still lives, and, he says, is eager to have me.
The sword was suspended above our heads by a single thread which was about to snap.
Lift her head from the depths, the red waves of death
As though it were a ghost traveling a half mile ahead of its own shape.
I have wept through nights, you must know that,
Groping laboring over many paths of thought.
Tumen always noticed when I did not have makeup on and said it looked good. He always noticed my face; when I returned from Hohhot with a rash from some wet-wipe tissue from the train he asked about it and whether I had medicine.
A year ago Tumen had a bare apartment. He’d just moved into it. He’d get beer especially for me. He knew I did not like the usual vodka. The famous and young (Outer) Mongolian writer B would later say matter-of-factly that what Tumen spent hours emotionally telling me about how Inner Mongolians are misunderstood by Outer Mongolians (and both Tumen and Yoshimodo have said this about Buryat Mongolians as well as Inner Mongolians) is not true. B admits he is no history expert, but he is very sure of this.
The water is brilliant and nervy,
Breaking up by her entrance
the fiery mosaic I had been piecing together.
Lest the Phantasm-prove the Mistake–that you can fully appreciate all the circumstances of our ruin
I must elucidate its cause:
A furious angel nailed to the ground by his wings.
Tumen said his daughter was one of the 10,000 out of 200,000 students to test into the best university in China, so she does not want to leave if he is resettled; will she be able to study somewhere good if he gets a teaching post in the western world?
Into my milky tea Tumen put barley. Which made sense to me, it was like breakfast cereal. The mutton dumplings in his milky tea looked a little like brains. What to do with questions of politics, a system (symptom?) of organization for which brains are responsible, when politics makes off with a body, or forces its flight? The body politic and the bodies therein, shunted and kept apart.
That day Tumen said, I don’t like to eat alone. There’s no point to making food if you’re alone, no fun in it.
That called body is a portion of soul
Which cast the metals into the expanse
To gaze at anagrams of light.
The day of my departure to China: an unbelievable rose globe looming above the pregnant building on Sukhbaatar Square.
An incomparable globe.
Those things never happened.
The imaginary whistle blows
Out on this stony planet that we farm
In the land of never happened, on the train to China, I shared a train compartment with three men in jackets. One of them brought a crate of beer. The other two didn’t know each other either. The first two talked across from each other when I entered the compartment with Tumen’s friend, the young lawyer who loosened his tie in traffic on the way here and who wanted to be sure I got my seat. The third one held my book-heavy pack upright while the last passenger lay down, hands braided like praying.
making the familiar faces of men appear strange, and every One unbared a Nerve: the wondrous fivewindowed nerve and core. The fat gold fly who sang and botched against a bright pane within.
Amerik okhin! he said. So we have an American girl on board with us. The lights shut off, shut back on, then dimmed. The grime came off my hands as I adjusted my curtains, curled them in on themselves to see the hanging rose globe.
She opens the grass.
There’s no lack of void.
The sweetness of your face is just another threat.
I don’t know who we thought we were.
The backpack helping praying one, the first to bed, barefoot, is the one to peer at my page. Boroo gar, meaning left-handed, apparently, sounds like rain hand, mistake hand, or both.
The train yawned along, looping like two people taking it slow. Treat yourself gently, came a text message from a friend. Dusky marsh, trees up geometric land formations.
But did that ever happen to us?
The economic downturn has not hit Mongolia–and the streets of Ulaanbaatar–the way the rise in gas prices did in 2008. There is no discernible rise in crime, and there are several new tourist-oriented places opening up, like the veranda’d Amsterdam Cafe on Peace Street where westerners and wealthy young Mongolians can drink and be seen. Comely Mongolian women with insect-like sunglasses and trendy handbags loiter outside of the new shopping center in the parisian-style building on the east side of the ubiquitous State Department Store.
I first met Tumen in front of the State Department store after an exiled Inner Mongolian in Queens who had read Tumen’s books wrote to me, just arrived in Mongolia for my Luce year, to find him.
The chasm between the concept of destiny and the horrid lot doled out by social inequalities isn’t a new one. Tumen does not feel as though he’s meant to be in suspended here in Ulaanbaatar, between the country whose government oppressed him and wherever he will be (we hope, with less and less faith) resettled with his family. I would not argue to those displaced with murdered families, either, that this is part of a larger plan, but I won’t, as they say, “go there”, though because those words are signifiers, metaphors, not an actual place, I have the mobility to do so (the right papers, one could argue)–there’s no “getting round” the dead metaphor we don’t hear, and it all becomes trite so quickly.
All the dead voices.
They make a noise like wings.
The train-compartment companion with the case of beer asked my name. I had by then switched with one of them so I could be a private island up top.
Min, I say, dropping the g at the end as I had grown hip to doing.
What kind of name is that? they asked in Mongolian.
I tried to tell them the story behind the name, of my brother giving me “Ming! Ming!” because he was only two and that was the character from Rikki Tikki Tavvi (Mingaling) whose name he could pronounce. On the other bunk the first to sleep was sawing logs.
After asking me for my Mongolian name and learning I didn’t have one they immediately called me “Shou Ming“–“Jijig Ming” in Mongolian–“little Ming.” How old was I? Twenty three. I have a daughter who is twenty four, said the carpenter. Or maybe he was a contractor. He’d been in Ulaanbaatar for three months working on three eighteen-story buildings.
My greatest hobby was making little chapels
Run like quicksilver wheat in the lesions of heated air
Out there where that house is burning,
The bells bruising the air above the crowded roofs.
They asked me if I would drink the beer they gave me. I came equipped with a big bottle of Tiger–though Tumen never chose Tiger if Mongolian beer was available because Tiger is Chinese beer. The guy under me held up a plastic water bottle. To clink glasses? No, to drink–vodka in there, not water. When would I ever learn.
One by one my train friends slept. I scratched in my journal: “It doesn’t make sense to me. Not talking about logic or even words, which make music out of the world at their best with enlightened language as objects present themselves, passive and aggressive by turns.”
Margaret Atwood wrote a short piece about writing as a paper tent, scribbling on the paper as the dark huge wolves and night closed in–writing does very little, was her point (I thought). Nothing so tangible as construction.
The houses are broken open like pods in the increase of the sun, and they are scattered on the wind of a day’s work, alive and separate in that bell-struck air.
‘And what is hell? Can you tell me that?’
My body was hurtling through the nightened molasses of the Gobi Desert and unlike Tumen I had the right papers, so it would not be stopped.
I was going from him to her, from where he waited, working as a translator between Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian, to where she walked, I would soon learn, around the track of the Agricultural University every day at dusk–and every time she did, she remembered walking that walk every day with him before he left two (now three) years ago.
The fading fires just showed her coming up the long, vacant room
as though out of some trivial and unimportant region beyond even distance.
Hell. Someone, in English, can be “going through” it as well as “in” it. Ulaanbaatar, again, is Tumen’s hell. This I know. He wants out as badly as I wanted out of myself when the gentle voice of the ghost that comforted me through the phone when I was mugged one night last May in Ulaanbaatar began to belong to a hissing, swearing stranger I didn’t recognize.
I think of Tumen’s journey, the one inside his mind, when he went from believing these huge international organizations would help him to realizing they wouldn’t, beyond a certain point. (Why am I only now realizing how rife English is with metaphors for physical movement?) The wells to which we crept, respectively, were poisoned. When Tumen’s UNHCR contact was replaced by a surly, suspicious newcomer. When I realized my friend had died within a body that kept breathing. When the tree under which one has repeatedly found shelter suddenly is what is toxic, what is harmful, what then? When the well is poisoned?
I was in a printing-house in Hell and saw the method with which knowledge was transmitted from generation to generation, from his cold-house secret straight to her too-thick love.
A vulgar comparison to draw. Nothing, of course, approximates the experience of human rights abuse, least of all metaphor. A few days ago, when he was cutting strips of paper in English to show me one said:
“Now my health is very bad situation and mood.”
The next one said:
“You write the articles in Inner Mongolia produced great impact.
My readers from your articles about my situation, the write E-mail sympathy and understand me.”
When Natsagdorj arrived to translate for me, I said it with difficulty: Tumen should understand that if his wish is ever granted to relocate somewhere far away, the Inner Mongolian community that is financially supporting him, that bought him his snazzy new phone and wallet, will not be replaced. He will be far more without a feeling of community and inclusion, and it is this extreme loneliness which haunts and presses down like a dark cloud upon the chests of resettled exiles. I did not want to say this but I had to.
Each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded with every breath.
The human act will make us real again.
Erlian was dusty, windy, and a little chilly. Against clouded brown air and light fixtures that looked like dandelions, the flag flew at half mast. The same woman who met my eyes like a hawk when I handed her my bedsheets on board the train then had a talking crush on me in the hallway because of my blue eyes–and then chased me out of the bathroom–passed by, her shift over for the time being. This region, the deserts of China and Mongolia, did feel to me unequivocally like the dusty, barren apocalypse, the real end of the world. During the night sometimes the man in the opposite bunk would sit cross legged in his paisley long underwear, studying me. Each time it always looked the same out–rock, sand, Gobi, pre-dawn. Now I waited in the cold gusts sitting on my bag on the side of the train station, wondering how to prepare for meeting the family and visiting the home of someone who had been exiled.
I tried to make my eyes blaze with other fires than those of love,
With corroding fires, or whistle’s echo, sinking, sunken.
Tell him…tell him you saw me and that…that you saw me.
A team of forest-green-suited police were there to greet us when the train arrived, standing between the train and log-laden cars on the next track. They shone flashlights on the floor and roof of the train hallway, felt my bed nonchalantly, asked me for an entry card I was never given, then shrugged and walked away. Now they filed into a van. Would they have taken him into that van if he had attempted to return to his wife and daughter.
You have rather the look
of another world.
We have our reasons.
How could you leave the crime uncleansed so long?
I thought I should not blink once, because I was in the land that was only a dreamscape to him: he would never come back, and as a place his body would never reside it was now, to him–to his brain in the body whose mobility was and is limited by political restraints–strictly a world of metaphor.
Look the house in its blind face.
the Film upon the eye
had the opal lightings of dark oil.
Winging, swept away,
What good were eyes to me?
I waited. Pushy taxi drivers. A woman with a gauze scarf pulled over her face, smushing her features. Tumen called me on my phone, which got service there, to say to stay where I was. Tumen’s friend, who picked me up after a while, was a doctor with an office in one of the spaces of a mall sort of deserted outlet place. The other spaces in the warehouse sold all manner of things but mostly cheap clothing. There was a picture on the wall of a wolf and a Chinese emperor guy. Calendars. When I asked what kind of emch he was, he pointed to them.
You cannot explain to others because they have no conception of what is meant.
They say they are ions in the sun.
You may say it is to prevent our reason from foundering.
His wife mopped the floor. A sterile smell. Their daughter, an eight year old in a pink shirt, black pants, and clackety black flats scurried by, a white mop dog in her arms. She played jump rope with a long, rubber rope in the wide warehouse hallway with the other girls. Some of them sat and whispered on the sofa next to me, finally asking me how old I was. I slept and woke in a place that was not supposed to be surreal–not a metaphor for me–vibrating white light and girls clacking and jumping rope. The mother and daughter put on their jackets and left. The light was never direct. There was too much dust for that.
The book Tumen is writing now, he indicated through Natsagdorj when we met for dinner, chronicles his journey from China to Mongolia. I can’t wait to read it–to be able to read it in Mongolian or to read the English version, whichever comes first–because those moments in Inner Mongolia were, for me, peppered with holes in the narrative. Flickering in and out of sleep in that strange room in the storehouse mall, I wondered, was this a friend who helped him escape? Did he need help escaping, even? How much time did he have, or felt he had, to leave? How much time passed between when the police raided his house and his office, and did he know they would come? If he did not have such negative associations with the Chinese government, would he long for home? What thoughts did Tumen’s inner world churn out as he left his country of birth?
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future.
The car was taking four people to Hohhot and I was the first, which meant I got to see the bright shapes of Erlian’s buildings against the dusty air as we made the rounds to hotels to pick the others up. In the car on the way to Hohhot every red flag flew at half mast. The three men I rode with, I knew, made up the miracle of the present but I still did not want to talk to them. Dinosaur statues on the way into Hohhot, twenty of them sweeping the landscape over hundreds of yards. All is well in the world, read some meditations. Life is unfolding as it is meant to. A chorus of schoolchildren were trapped under buildings for a third day then, in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. Dust formed a globe of the sun. It always would. “Stew in the screen of the mind,” I scratched. First a flat expanse, then rows of trees thrashing, then as it grew dark the great sleeping-boar shape of a mountain.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
They dropped me off first. I said thank you to the moon, hanging full above their apartment. The first thing I noticed was how much less tired, how much happier, the face of Tumen’s wife was as I glimpsed it through the window before exiting the taxi; I had seen her once before, in Ulaanbaatar, when she had just arrived for a visit from Hohhot the previous night. Here she was happy and affectionate–why wasn’t she like this before? Was she exhausted from the train ride she had taken the day before from Hohhot to Ulaanbaatar? Was she worried? Had she been detained again? I knew the swiss-cheesed narrative, the lack of information and data and fact, influenced my experience there as one that played out in almost exclusively in subjective, emotional terms. I’m a shoddy journalist. Facts are not always mine to obtain, though; I didn’t know how to be there. I didn’t know the words to all these questions. Plus her dialect, the Inner Mongolian, as it contrasted with the Outer I learned, made even the most basic communication difficult. I didn’t know if the questions were appropriate to ask, or even if it was safe to ask them in that apartment.
She persuaded us to let the mystery go
And concentrate on what lay at our feet.
The worst of words. The original quarry, abyss itself.
You need riches, armies to bring that quarry down!
Will you swallow, will you deny them, will you lie your way home?
The walls were turquoise. She sat across from me. She worked today; it was Monday and she was a geography teacher. She mixed sweet yogurt and grain, gave me milky tea and a can of beer, cut the mutton for me from the bone when I showed myself to be incompetent. The mutton was the best thing I had ever tasted and I’d sworn I was done with mutton. I looked at her face and at her daughter’s room, where I would sleep. This is where he cannot be. This is where he cannot be.
It is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear
24 hours later, after a day of outings, she let down her hair and it framed her face.
If they were to reunite, would they fit together again? With the death of the gentle ghost’s voice that comforted me on the phone during my year in Asia, with the replacement of that self I loved by an unkind stranger, I learned it’s possible for a self one loved to die while its body, the shell, lives on and grows new selves, nothing like the ones before. What if this happened to Tumen Ulzii and his wife? When distance is chosen–or, in the case of an exile, forced–experience of an other becomes dependent on medium, which doesn’t cover everything. All sorts of changes can occur. The body lurking within a body–hope, optimism, a self–can die, and the other doesn’t always know. What of realignment, should they be allowed to reunite?
You have not wept at all!
I see a white cheek and a faded eye,
But no trace of tears. I suppose, then,
Your heart has been weeping blood?
I have always stood in the way of your pleasures. Open your eyes. Look and see who I am.
In Hohhot’s new Museum of Inner Mongolia they already had a graphic design poster with images of the Sichuan earthquake. The museum also boasted the largest complete dinosaur skeleton in the world. The guide accompanied us for it though she knew nothing about it since she was actually stationed on the floor below, and she wouldn’t shut up so I retreated until she left. I call Tumen’s wife Mother in Mongolian, Eej, and accordingly, it took me no time to become the sullen daughter. Eej alternately pushed and pulled me by the elbow and I, sleepy from the day and a half of transit to get there, felt irritated and unable to help feeling irritated. Sometimes the body is a heavy thing to lug; it was for me when I knew I was walking in the nightmare of Tumen’s memory, China, but also in the miracle of his hope, in the form of his wife. She took the day off to spend with me there in the museum, where the stuffed inanimate animal skins all looked vaguely confused.
Witness, you ever-
burning lights above, who are so lovely fair and smellst so sweet that the sense aches at thee:
Suppose we repented.
All over Hohhot streets, taxi screeches–in the restaurant thank god I came awake though I shuvuu shig iddeg (“eat like a bird”)–only the mind and its attachments form the specters–I like this hour, I tried to tell her: the most popular Mongolian restaurant in Hohhot and we are the only customers–waiters walk by singing, and towards the back the cooks sleep with their heads in their arms–bed on the verge of breaking–futile to want the connection dreamed of, in which one does not construct oneself but one simply is–the cottonwood leaves clappered outside—-a teaset shaped like genitals in the museum–a cup of coffee in “Mike Dong,” as she said: McDonalds (and there is not one Mike Dong, KFC, or Starbucks in all of Outer Mongolia)–taxis like a school of fish outside the train station–they gave you a large faux-denim backpack in which to put your purse, then they lock it with a sensor for the duration of your stay in the bookstore–in the front of the museum a huge piece of topaz that supposedly looked like an eagle, which supposedly looked like the state of Inner Mongolia–the museum was huge, new, built in 2007, so Tumen hadn’t seen it–behind his house, the university track field, where kids run around at dusk, playing ball–fewer people in Hohhot than in Ulaanbaatar, but Hohhot worlds more developed–clean, wide streets, like a Chinese Seoul–women taxi drivers–this is one way political privilege seeps through the cultural script of literature: I could confuse the past and present tenses, I could switch voices, whereas Tumen’s past and present were starkly divided, and the violations had happened to him and his wife and will always have happened to him and his wife, not a “you” they can separate from–
Our being born? Remorse is the poison of life.
This, however, is one thing I choose to keep present whenever it rises up in me: outside, on the university field, a candlelight vigil is being held on the concrete track. On the ground the candles form the shape of a heart. It is for the earthquake victims. It is where Tumen and his wife would walk at dusk.
Give me the ocular
proof, if only to save you from freezing at the street corner all night, to comply with heat: Bells
in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchens;
After every tempest come such calms. Even then this forked plague is bated to us.
Tumen’s niece and nephew arrived during breakfast. I could see Tumen in his nephew’s eyes. The nephew was twenty according to himself, nineteen according to his sister. He put mutton in his milky tea; she put cheese in hers. She was, of course, perfect, hair in a swept side ponytail.
As a matter of decent of form rather than rebellion–
Formed a heaven of what he stole from the abyss.
I own I don’t edit my texts as well as I should before making them available, but some of the grammatical/editorial mistakes are actually intentional. Example: “Would they have taken him into that van if he had attempted to return to his wife and daughter.” The padded throne of textual space (here we go again, English and its movement) allows me this method of driving home (ditto) an emotional point (ha!). On the page, i.e. in the land of mimicry, I can mimic a question that does not turn up at the end–many languages do not turn up their questions at the end, including Mongolian. In these houses of questions and constructions of politics, pages are freedom-spaces and also very weak–hence, and bring on the metaphor (bring it: bring it from there to here)–the oft-used comparison of thin walls to paper.
Should I be surprised, then, that conversations with a tender ghost over wires during my year in Asia enabled my friend to turn into that ghost without my knowing just how dead and gone (from here to a there I can’t see) my friend was? Just how forced out of my best friend I had been, and would continue for long painful months to be. Tumen has adjusted to the idea that protection is fleeting. Should I be surprised that at physical approximation, the tree under which I took shelter, the well I used to drink from, was poisoned?
a man went into his house and leaned his hand
against the wall and the wall
When Tumen and his wife lived together, did they hurt each other? Did they fight? What does the strain of exile do. Is abstraction the worst kind of decoy. Is it more toxic to meet and cause pain where love once lived, or to leave that stone unturned and continue as the ballerina rehearsing every moment for a recital she’ll never give–in the case of Tumen and his wife, the chance to live together again in bodily proximity.
Better than any description of buildings or garments,,
The theory of a city, a poem,
With iron and stone edifices, ceaseless vehicles,
Ship and towered city are nothing,
Stripped of men alive within it, living as one.
Tumen’s niece and nephew took me back to the museum, to the 3rd floor displays of song and dance traditions and hilarious Chinese translations. A sunny day outside, a day that took forever to get started–the niece’s knock was assimilated into my dream as someone knocking on a car window–to lunch where they kept ladling food out of the hotpot and I realized I just had to say no thank you and let the food pile up, all green and the beer opening like a gunshot. The teacher who ate with us knew enough English to explain the train back to Mongolia to me: first a ten hour layover then a four or five hour one. I told them I would sleep and read during the ten hour layover rather than disturbing the doctor and his family again; they wouldn’t hear of it but I was adamant. That evening Eej fried up our leftover green beans with meat and rice.
It’s not good to eat alone, she says, exactly as Tumen had before, in another country, down to the very inflection.
On the way home from the park, T shirts hanging, people eating at barbeque stands. Tumen calls Eej while we were walking but something is wrong with the cell phones. I kept thinking of the word trick Godisnowhere. She insisted on coming to the park. I had wanted to go run alone instead of being pulled and cattled–we saw a movie and I let her pull me along after, trying to adjust for a few hours to the closeness and steering. She wanted to change my mind about the train layover. I live alone in Mongolia, I said, to which her response was that my ten hour layover would be me alone in China. The park had it all, teenagers playing ball and a group of middle aged powerwalkers. Young hip couples wrapping arms about each other, girls with mullets, all in skinny jeans. I used to come here with Tumen Ulzii, she said. We would walk for an hour together every night around this time and talk.
Picking out our way through verbs and ruins,
That single idle word blown from mind to mind.
Tumen called the apartment, and when I talk to Tumen on the phone my voice always goes up a register. He asks if the trip was good, if she was feeding me. No actually, it’s possible that I don’t remember what he asked, I only know what he would ask, given the small pool of words I could understand.
His blood began again, talking and talking.
Did the letters work upon his blood?
What did you talk about? I asked fifteen minutes later after I jogged the track while she walked it. His writing, she said. Literature. In the little sector of woods between the university buildings and the apartment buildings in which she lived and Tumen used to live, she wended through the trees only to turn at the curb and enter them again. I uncovered what I half-felt before, of my role is as medium, that there was no experience I had that year that was not to write about–though that’s not exactly right–god did the air smell good on that little path–
Is reform needed? Is it through you?
I did what human beings do instinctively when
They are driven to utter extremity—looked
For aid to one higher than man.
A cheerleader-style gaggle of girls, teens on the bleachers, two on the track learning to rollerblade. She walked, looking back periodically to check on me as I stretched. I asked if I could look at the vigil underway in the center of the loop of track. Fewer candles than yesterday; flags back up from half-mast.
The breastlike, floral air is
the bloody tribute we had paid that harsh, brutal singer
at the deadest hours of the night.
At each stroke blood spurts from the roots.
A girl approached shyly in fits and starts with two lit candles to where Eej and I stood at a distance. Please come, she says to me, little with big eyes.
Eyes going and going,
A swirl of it, nerves and clots,
Can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony,
Perhaps as no symphony can.
The students all looked like Williamsburg hipsters, leggings, mullets and all. They sang a Chinese nationalist song. Didn’t realize how scarce foreigners were in Hohhot. They were agricultural university students. After I joined the circle I saw that the candles set upon the ground on top of Dixie cups spelled something, but I didn’t know any Chinese besides thank you, so when the kids speaking and holding papers said something about me I didn’t know until all dark eyes turned my way. A tall boy came and stood next to me when the pixie girl couldn’t quite understand me nor I her.
“Say what you feel, about the earthquake,” he said.
“I am here to–” I began in a small voice
“–Speak to everyone,” he encouraged.
I looked up at the eyes. “I am here to honor the spirits of the dead and grieve with you,” I said.
“Thank you,” they said together.
We stood holding our candles in our dixie cups.
Whatever is neglected slips away.
You elements that clip us round about,
All sent back by the echoes:
Heaven has always chosen the time.
No message plucked from the birds, the embers.
Always a knit of identity,
The moon had opened a blue field in the sky.
The next morning the niece took me out again. In the park, crowded with people and children for whom many empty kiddie-rides trundled round and round, incredible amounts of pollen tufts fell and drifted along like piano notes. A girl sang her heart out in the very corner of the park, next to piles and piles of shingles. A little boy fished in a shallow pool. Haughty looks from those power walkers. Less than 48 hours there in Hohhot; it took longer than I spent there to train there and back, listening to the groan of wheels on track as the lines coursed through me, looped an infinite number of times.
All times mischoose.
The night I left Eej and her niece stood outside the train window, as did the families of the other three passengers in our compartment. We crowded round. One of my compartment companions looked immediately to me like a band member–the loose half open shirt, the shaggy hair longer in back–and I would feel worse about profiling him if I hadn’t turned out to be right. He was an opera singer, actually, coming to Ulaanbaatar for a show. A man with a cigarette in his mouth and similar hair and face to the opera singer came to the window, grinning.
“Your little brother?” I asked.
Somewhere in this train car was a former student of Eej’s. When she said she was a geography teacher, she explained that she teaches what people of different regions eat, wear, (here they have sheep, she gives as an example, but in Argentina they don’t, because it’s too hot). Her student came in where I was miserable in my just woke up and unable to move state–had no sense of the hour; we were in the huge warehouse where they change the bogeys on the bottom of the train at the Mongolia-China border and the clangs resounded.
The boss was dead, the mistress nervous and the cradle already split.
Where’s my voice?
Where are all these corpses from,
Scattering too some heavy
Unwelcome thoughts that were beginning to throng on my solitude?
They all slept as my body trundled along with them to Tumen and a land of relative freedom of speech. Sunrise all to myself. Had seen the pink along the horizon for a while, then the gold bar, milking around flush with the horizon. I fished in the cardboard box Eej packed with a week’s worth of food for me, hoping to find that one apple. When I looked up again the sun was a rectangle of gold light with rounded corners. I watched it detach like an egg from an ovary under a microscope as in that video kids in some countries are made to watch. Burns on my retina exact as hole puncher detritus. Realized after a while of staring at it that I could only to so because the sun-spot of burn had layered over what I stared at.
Had I written the right things down? What to absorb but impressions, since information was dependent on time (too short) and a knowledge of the habits of Chinese authority (nonexistent) and a cultural sensitivity to journalistic questioning, not to mention language barriers? I abandoned the effort; the one fact I knew was that she needed someone. Someone there in the warm flesh. By the end I leaned into her and waited to be taken along by the elbow.
What do you do
when you fall far from help? Night doesn’t fall. Left to myself I abandoned myself:
I think the sun where he was born drew all such humours from him,
For he only holds a candle in the sunshine.
Before falling asleep the grandpa of the compartment asked me to sing. They’d tossed back a few, I think, this motley crew of new friends. They really were strangers at the outset of this journey, but by morning they were all getting off the train together to eat, buying each other and me tarag and water, and in Erlian, big boxes of fruit because fruit was so much cheaper there than in Ulaanbaatar. The opera singer, who refused to sing last night now was humming in headphones, looking down at sheet music. Everyone took off to eat in the sunshine. The doors to the train station were set to open at 2pm, and by 1:30pm there were mountains of canvas bags and boxes in front of the station doors and a long line of passengers waiting sensibly in the shade of the line of trees across the parking lot. Bright geometric shapes, wider roads than Ulaanbaatar, actual intersections.
Intersections, coincidentally, are one of my favorite metaphors once they make the leap from the outer world to the inner one.
I couldn’t wait to see Tumen and show him the photos I had taken of his family, couldn’t wait for him to make the leap from the inner world of my mind to the Outer world of his hell, Ulaanbaatar. I was selfish in that way, perhaps. It wasn’t my hell. My hell would take another year to darken the walls of my mind. In his lectures Professor Weinstein said with great feeling that a central message to the texts he used, the texts that buoyed me through the hell of the heart surgery waiting room vigil and which buoy me now as I do my best to bury the tender ghost I loved who disappeared–during the phone call when I realized the voice didn’t belong to my friend anymore the professor’s words came back to me–“the prison in which you live is of your own devising“–
The thing I came for: the wreck
and not the story of the wreck. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it.
And, with respect to my situation, not Tumen’s, he might be right. There is a core selfhood that should not be given out to another body, since the self within that body might disappear without its husk disappearing as well. But love dissolves the plexiglass, which is why hissing and swearing hurts more when it comes out of a body that used to house a friend–it goes right in. I crouched sobbing with my phone to my ear at the corner of 103rd and Broadway, clear in the all-clicking-into-place that around that time last year, when I went to Hohhot, my friend had died, but I’d kept thinking my friend was in there somewhere, looking for him and getting hurt every time I did, and I will always prefer to have sobbed rather than swear and hiss back at the stranger who took over the husk.
It is very late in the day to offer me your tears.
Now about setting you free: I cannot fall because there is no room to.
The trick to this burial, I think, it to recognize the presentation of self as a vessel of words into which I poured love–love that was nonetheless real. Recognize that if there weren’t something real about that which is presented with words, language may never have evolved. Of course anything dependent on language (like a correspondence over wires by two selves inside bodies separated either, as in Tumen’s case, by force, or in my case, by the choice of one) is bound by its limits. How can I grieve for my best friend when the physical subject-markers that humans use to melt plexiglass with those they trust are still there: face, eyes, hands. My related question: What is the psychology of adjustment for exiles. Did Tumen need, on some level, to bury his wife in order to move forward in his life without her, even as he knew there was a (smaller and smaller) chance they’d be together for longer than a week again?
It is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear,
To say: be kinder to yourself.
Rescue yourself, your city, rescue me—
Rescue everything infected by the dead.
“Prison”, “torture,” and “exile” are big catch-words in a vocabulary ridden with them. Power and authority are endemic to the English language, of course, but the same is true of language in general. I escaped upstairs in the train station, since I had no physical cargo besides my body, which was equipped with the right paper. A windowless, customerless duty-free shop up there, all cigarettes and booze. While the anthill subsided downstairs I talked with a friendly Australian about how my desire to learn Chinese had subsided once I realized the rote memorization necessary to learn an alphabetless language.
How can I say things that are pictures:
How could you leave the crime uncleansed so long?
We stopped in Zamin Uud and none of the Australians knew what kimchi was–this was after the dominatrix train employee ordered people off their bunks when she looked at their passports. It was the hour it grew dark, so after paying the dollar-to-use bathroom on the central square similar to one in a central Mexican town, we wandered away. Split level buildings that reminded me of my hometown in California, young people hanging out on the stoops. We found a square brown brick building with a karaoke room and a bar in the basement, a supermarket and a restaurant on the ground floor, and a kid’s playground on the second floor. When we left it was dark, 8pm, and I saw the slim silhouette of a child watching us from a second-floor window.
The earth abode of stones in the great deeps,
the only name I have for you, that, no other—ever, ever, ever!
By now my dishonesty, I hope, is obvious. Obvious that on the level that matters–as in, physical matter! metaphor, will conceptualization ever be free of you?–but anyway, obvious that on the level that matters, there are no poetics to exile. Not the exile which is not metaphorical. Discourse is shredded as easily as paper when it comes (comes. from here to there.) to these issues: there are no heroes in this text, there is no perfection, and Tumen’s story isn’t finished.
My myopia is equally as obvious, I’m sure. But I try to be kind to myself: metaphor evolved perhaps because it is inextricably intertwined with empathy. If I did not have my own admittedly small-minded story of dislocation and estrangement from a beloved other, of grief, with which to enter Tumen’s narrative through one of its many holes, I perhaps would have noticed less of what was important. I treated Eej to the ever-rare trip to a cinema. We saw the animated flick Iron Man. Her delight at going to the movies and her hand steering my elbow: that was important.
When Tumen picked me up from the train and made sure I got home, when we met up later and he said for the second time to the word exactly what his wife had said days before, in another country (that of memory, now) 5pm honey light lighting up the sun of his face: It’s not good to eat alone.
That was important.
In rooms of selfhood where we woke and lay watching
today unfold like yesterday, we had to take the world as it was given. The human rose to haunt us
everywhere, raw, flawed, and asking more than we could bear.
(How was it we were caught?)