modals of lost opportunity
the bright-out day, the rebellion of cicada song,
you said this is one of the only places in tokyo
where geishas still live
your renegade smile
soldiering damp camellia. this moment
singular and bracketed, against all other moments.
august was a month
we measured in thunderstorm,
peeling skin from the grapevine days.
I asked, when will we arrive?
though I knew we weren’t going anywhere, but
still believing in perfect questions.
sumida river had swelled
while we forgot to eat. asakusa,
a sheet of light, leaked molasses through the glass.
people are on their way to work when
you said, we’ll be there soon.
even though you weren’t coming.
even though we were standing on opposite sides
of the room, asking about trips we would never take,
wishing for pointless, good, weather.
the present ambers memory
into souvenir. when time argued against
merely happening, and sank deeply into shape.
bright day, cicadas, woody scent of camellia.
I thought, we are finding human ways
the corpses of ourselves as in memory.
sumida river can’t tell itself from the rain.
minutes arrived as regularly as busses.
the hour came
without sitting down. hurry and shyness precise
I don’t want to follow, I want to change things.
but the script rises to my tongue
and ignites. the seeming cascade of what can be said.
the light will go dark as the door closes. slowly,
slowly, fever, warfare, yet nothing arrests time
as love does.
in the apartment buildings of my hometown
people swam up windows, waiting for rain, and
occasionally knocked on one another’s doors
holding boxes of citrus fruits—sirens inside
sage-green paper. girls drew the linen shade
in the middle of a summer’s day to keep inside
the sweet sleep of a ripe room. the smell of plums.
cardboard flats of persimmon and lychee flowered
on the sidewalk, thick between murmuring bodies
in waterproof tarps, leaned up against each other
as if complicit in some secret we would all be
so lucky to know. and my mother looked for
my father in-between the pages of a newspaper,
her arms ceramic in the grey arch of afternoon.
we all sat around like we were waiting for someone
to stop by, shelling shrimp and watching television.
the bloom of plastic peonies on the sill made sure
it was invariably the right season. people weren’t always
coming home at the right time, and sometimes
we spoke in a language so heavy that we passed
the words around in our hands, cupped as if to
receive new, iron, tepid, water. in my hometown,
we drank black tea spun through with the thin
pink arms of chrysanthemum flowers. and when
the rains came, we looked around, bewildered and
reaching for one another, praying for it to stop.
in beijing the young writers ask me why people always want to talk about censorship
do they think we have no method of speaking
except by the languages of mourning. why do you ask me
the reasons I write despite—what do you expect
me to say? look: the concentric traffic of beijing protects
its heart. I have never, and will never throw a stone, but
there are many ways to set fires.
forbidden words have no superiority over
the words we are given.
there are more pressing things, like the price
of peaches. if quiet is such a sin where else would
we go to think. to own language is to entrap it.
no one has ever owned language.
chinese people know the frailty
of words. how it changes mouth to mouth.
there is very little time to spend thinking about
what the government is up to.
were you not given words and limits by which
to use them?
it is not fear that stops us, it’s boredom.
I have very little patience to expend on explaining to others
what it is we have lived through.
are living through.
before we learned to be ashamed
or furious we had to first learn to live.
why do they talk about us as if we were dying
when we are living and loudly at that.
Xiao Yue Shan is the poetry editor of Cicada. She is a poet and editor born in China and living in Tokyo, Japan. Her chapbook, How Often I Have Chosen Love, was published in the spring of 2019. She also works with Spittoon Literary Magazine, Tokyo Poetry Journal, and Asymptote. shellyshan.com.