To a Distant Country
This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by David Gorin. About this poem Gorin writes: “This poem is an elegy for Liu Xiaobo, the dissident poet and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who died of cancer a year ago today as a prisoner of the Chinese government. I happened to be teaching in Shanghai when this happened, but word of his death was not easy to come by in China: the government censors blocked even the most coded memorialization of Xiaobo — including his name, his initials, references to the city of his birth, the candle emoji, and even the word for “candle.” I wrote the poem the day after I returned home from Shanghai. One of its constraints was that I had to be able to send it to my friends in China — and in particular, to its addressee — without being caught by the censors. I had to be careful not to say too much, and to make sure what wasn’t said could still be heard by those I hoped would hear it. Happily, the poem made it through the Great Firewall, and has been translated into Chinese by the very “you” to whom it is addressed. This poem is also for her.” Read Ye Ling’s translation of “To a Distant Country” in Chinese.
To a Distant Country
The night we met you cried at the table
over a man of no importance. He was in bed,
it was this summer, there were walls and a ceiling,
women in white coats holding clipboards,
a guard outside the door, cicadas
twenty floors below, then he was gone.
Maybe he leaked through the walls
or the ceiling, a pale fume bound
for a cloud. Or he returned to his wife
—she would have been at home—
in the house they once shared in a nearby city,
a house they didn’t leave for years, such was
their love. When I flew home weeks later,
I think he was seated beside me, just
beyond the window, head on an inflated
travel pillow, thin hands in his lap.
I’d never seen him before, but something told me
here was a man of no importance
who should be left alone. At such a speed
clouds feel like sandpaper. The teeth of tiny frozen fish.
When the cabin lights came on
he disappeared from view. By now for all I know
he could be writing a letter to his wife
on a grain of rice. Could be waiting in line
at a border, having his picture taken,
his laptop, his name off the internet, he could be
ashes scattered on the sea. But I imagine him
crossing a street in lower Manhattan
even now, umbrella in one hand,
phone in the other, googling the news,
no one to stop him. And somewhere on the Pacific
a pillow with his breath inside, light rain.
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