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James Thurgood

inside the Forbidden City

by James Thurgood

         this Ming nightmare:  hordes
tromping imperial courtyards,
                             barbarians mugging
                   for posterity
                      from royal balconies

we squeeze, shove shoulders
                                              to metal rails
                  stretch, strain, crane
        raise cameras to faces, over heads
              for shadowed glimpses
of satin cushions long-faded under
   kowtowing courtiers and concubines
      – pushy crowds with earned entry
               to sheds of crumbling treasure
hope for a shimmer of silk
clack of fan
                    in regal hand
– we press the bars and gawk
           like peasants brought to witness
the jailed Last First Wife
         – who warned her Emperor
   the Japanese despise your Ching Dynasty
                                     demand towels, water
                             clean linen
             of ghost servants,
       her own body risen against her
                 for starving it of opium

                                                   back home
                 we will tell our neighbours
                    but bending to work
     wish, some of us
                           guards had
                                        barred the gates

letter from Donghai

  wake up, Father, till I tell you
             how you’d like it, this pier
     where beat-up wooden boats herd five-six deep
black and blue hulls splintered, faded
     red flag jolly aloft each main-mast
          decks grey with ground sea-grime
                white with tromped and broken shells
burly boys toting tubs abrim
       with rubber tentacles and finned legs
             shell and scale all iridescence
                    all purples, yellows, silvers, pinks
                 murk-greens – bristles, claws
       horns and webs – feelers, fangs
– where sun-browned girls in scarves
     squat back of sea-snail vats
          and starfish trays
wind-burned women kerchiefed
               grin at a lau-wei out-of-water
leathern fishermen bare-headed, all rubber boots
     all haggle and bark
       as tip-toeing townsfolk
                                skirt slime puddles
               start from horny vans –
     here fishwives by scores
                         secret in workcoats, gloves
             and peaked bonnets battened down with scarves
                   sort nets like other Fates
             untangling lives –
  briny breeze, seafolk
       wheeling-dealing, lusty youth
     plain work – just like the wharf in Arichat
                                               circa 1928

          then the market-proper:
               rows of stalls bright-caparisoned
  – each fresh live sea-beast of the pier
      dried, hung, drawn and quartered
             piled where those are pearls
that were eyes, are necklaces,
                            shells wind-chimes

      we could sit by Moon Bay, Father
in Bohai’s breeze
          savor some sea-dish
      watch livings earned – you foretelling
            gain or loss, might suggest
half in fun and all in earnest
                                     my next thousand-li step

                               I write, Father
     since you are so distant
          and I can’t wait to tell you
                                                    if only you’d wake
                     from that dreamless sleep

Notes: 1) lau-wei: foreigner (literally, ‘Mister Foreigner’); 2) Arichat: in Cape Breton; 3) Bohai: sea or gulf adjoining Yellow Sea; 4) li: measure of distance; figurative equivalent of a mile

er-hu player

              after the restaurant
     – upstairs room
                 a good twelve dishes,
toasts enough to health and long life
                   to reduce the chance of either –
          three couples arm in arm, we hear yearning
     through new concrete apartment blocks
               strains of er-hu
                                       – find on a bench
   an old man, smiling wife
                                 folded wheelchair

          may we listen
                this fresh evening

            he turns on a radio

       too shy I’m told
                 hasn’t played for so long
                                – he offers the instrument
                          to the lao-wei musician
                                                     in the old fiddlers’ way:
          do you know enough to appreciate
                but not to out-do

     bu, bu; sie-sie I decline

                  radio again

           soon on warmer nights
musicians gather
     come back he tells us

          but I’ll be gone
will only picture them summer evenings
     five or six old men
          another er-hu, a wooden flute
    lute, zither, gourd-pipe
               ancient music

     setting off, we hear once more,
          are followed by
his fading tones

     looking back, I make out
the wife turned to watch us
                    her face a waning moon

exotic travel

          the shower:
open corner
      in a small cell

       I turn the tap overhead
and chest-height valve
     – nothing from shower-head
 – turn more, a cold spray
                         around valve
     which with more turns
          targets bare flesh
as shower-head looks on, dry-eyed

                                         another turn –
                 valve shoots to palm
fire-hose torrent blasts chest,
             rebounds all directions

the valve – surprise –
      does not screw back –
   but a firm hand behind
              holds back the flood

                    what now

 extend right leg –
          Monkey Fist toes grab underwear –
     crook leg to Hissing Snake
          retrieve underwear with free hand
                    pass foot through hole

lower foot to floor
    holding valve in place,
             underwear half up

insert left leg in left-hole

with hula swivel
      hoist underwear to waist

assume Floating Crane –
          stretch left leg to door handle,
Monkey Fist toes turn handle

door is locked

gently kick

call hey ni-hao hey!
    kick till Elder Brother appears
               wavering through frosted glass

sliver by sliver door unlocked opens

             head peeks round
                                         – upstage
     a chorus of Chinese women
             tragic and comic

 Elder Brother shuts water
               – scuttle to bedroom

                              from the kitchen
                     women laughing

leaving Longkou

                      remember at Penglai
                                                    the fortress
              that warning-sign:  say no
                         to feudal superstitions

                    sea-fog sneaks
                              on dragon feet
               paved street
                                   under lights
                          where I stroll
           my last evening  –
                             from a clutch of teenaged ghosts
            a girl’s jade voice:
                   welcome to Longkou

yelling, clapping, pebble-tossing
                                              to the window
     – Elder Brother, drink in hand, looks
             and turns back inward

             the road to Yantai:

       old man in blue
            pushing a bicycle up a dirt hill
  pestered by six white goats

             among roadside vendors
     a farmer, arms outstretched
         hawks five-feet of writhing snake

                         lonely highway –
                                  on the median
                    a shrub in flames


James Thurgood was born in Nova Scotia, grew up in Windsor, Ontario, and now lives in Calgary, Alberta. He has been a general labourer, musician, and teacher – not necessarily in that order. His poems have appeared in various journals, anthologies, and in a collection (Icemen/Stoneghosts, Penumbra Press).