Henry J. Hughes (M.A., Purdue U) is a professor of English at Bei Wai, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China. His poems and essays have recently appeared in Antioch Review, Japan Quarterly, and Harvard Review.
At Dawn in Beijing
A dirty glass dawn,
balconies full of bottles, mops,
busted fans and torn shirts.
Just throw that shit out, I think
for a second, lighting a cigarette.
Someone is playing a flute—really—
and that changes things. A silver reveille
for this stacked grey army.
beams across a kitchen and a woman
with long black hair and a carelessly open robe
brushes her teeth. Maybe she's got some decent teeth, I think,
cracking a blue duck egg on the counter.
There are noises coming on—truck engines, hammering,
yelling, a taxi driver leaning on his horn for 30 seconds.
The flute is gone. And this is a little sad.
Nothing will change.
The armies die for an ugly world.
New Year's At Bei Dai He, North China
There are always soldiers
and old people who stare. And some who say,
Who is he? How much does he pay?"
Dusky squid light in the tide market,
opalescent rings. They see my hands like
starfish on your white thighs—a monster with money.
But we're just in love,
washing down clams and boiled cod with a bottle
of baijiu, hard sorghum spirits. "They sure laugh a lot,"
the waitress tells the cook
as she opens the door to a frozen night of stars.
From dark army mansions
German shepherds bark at our "Auld Lang Syne"
in English and Chinese,
and we stare at glowing, sea-crazed rocks,
and again, those stars—
you have to believe this—heavens
packed with light over a dark sea.
In the small fallen hotel
where they let us bed together
for a little extra, you light candles planted
in wobbly shells and pour tea.
I lay out blankets and put music
through our speakered walkman. The bed drifts
out to sea
in this sealed cabin we are unstobbaple lovers, finding no reason to pause for the new year.
A faraway bell bouy is locked in ice,
and still it rings.
Waiting Through Summer, Beijing
freshly painted on a park bench
half-dried in the shadow
of the Forbidden City Wall.
To be ancient seems so hopeless. A vast army
has been trucked in to plant trees
along the moat. Lunching on steamed bread
and soup, they politely watch willowy women
that might be wives
in another light. At the ancient observatory
I remember everything I wanted to be,
an inventor, so advanced at age ten
my work is already forgotten.
Welded into position, the armillary sphere
marks four students talking
in the park, and more soldiers
planting trees along the highway,
hidden slogans in horse
drawn traffic. A greasy fax
in a dark room, whispers. More soldiers arrive
everywhere. How a country fills its time
with fear to save itself.