Most of the girls came to Italy wanting beautiful.
They ached for it. Starved for it.
They scraped it from the rivers and the balconies
and the big melon of the sun leaking juice into our rooms
until everything was riverbanks and railings
and rinds in the corners of our pictures.
I had a faint idea of what beautiful was.
Olives. Skin sweetened by sun and ocean.
Red wine gliding silently into glasses. Dark stubble
peppered across a jawline of architectural wonder.
Crisp white cotton shirts and a cigarette
glowing in the evening.
On a train platform by the ocean
they told me you were not beautiful.
Even so, the sick creature of my heart
only wanted you. Pale as creased paper.
Hair like a dying fire.
Navy blue sneakers with khaki laces.
I wanted to ask you where you got them,
but only to wander through the store
and think about how you must have felt
as you looked, and wanted.
On that night we stood outside the convent,
we kissed the same bottle of wine and
I patted your rough, bearded cheek when
you did not understand something I said.
Don’t worry about what I said.
What I meant was,
I don’t know how anyone could ever
want anything more beautiful
than the way you rolled your cigarettes.
Your tongue a pink slice of moon.
Your eyes always looking somewhere
I had not experienced yet.
If I were to say something, you would say
I was confused. That I am too young
to know what I really want. Yet,
when someone says beautiful,
it is you that I think of, you
in white cotton, with the sunlight
caught in your beard, your cigarette
lightly clasped between your lips,
your hand reaching out, offering
me something I can’t quite believe.
Always we speak of
Before the rust-colored rain,
when paths turned to mud underfoot
and the leaves that leaned
in the gentle way of umbrellas
had never heard the names
Before the festivals closed,
when my father was snaking
through grass aflame, his body
a shimmering length of dragon
beneath the ginger sky, and
fireworks bloomed in my mouth while
the tanggu drums were finding home
in the lining of our skin.
Before they tore down the clay ovens,
the mooncakes we made, how I ran my finger
along the rim of the bowl of red bean paste
when no one was looking, and the ayis gossiped
as they rolled out the oily skins, their hands strong
as thunder, brown as lychee seeds, these women
who buried their children long ago,
who would lift me into their laps and sing
of boys who had marched too young.
All this, before I understood –
And I watched as they swept red armbands
from the graves, burned incense with the
thick, sweet smell of star anise that rose
into eyes like steam from nuo mi ji,
the lotus leaves peeling away from
salt burning beneath.
All this, before I knew –
And we waded knee-deep into the rice fields
where I learned to float on my back and
stay still when the little silver fish
brushed by, to go with the water,
still pure, until the stars had faded
out of the corners of my eyes.
All this, before I was plucked from the tide
and sent away, all this, left behind –
the whispers of leaves, the glimmering
fish, fire-candy on my tongue, the smoke
disappearing, all this, still there –
in the Changchun of