POETRY by John James

Two Poems
by John James


After swallowing some water at Changsha I taste a Wuchang fish | and drown in the fetid
litter of its scent. Then strip. Then | swim across the Yangzi River that winds ten
thousand li. I see
| the whole valley lit with red flags, toy soldiers beneath | the entire
Chu sky. Wind batters me, waves hit me—I don’t
| even fathom it. Nothing about this place
smacks of reality,| better than walking lazily in the patio. Today I have a lot of
thoughts festering, dead time, things to mull over. What| master said: “what is gone
into the past is like a river flowing,”
| not unlike that line by Heraclitus, which in the West

I regret the passing, the dying, of the vague dream: my native
city in the throes of spring, orchids sick in the overweening
rain. Mauve waters and green mountains are nothing when
compared to the low rice fields of Hunan. Honey and hemp,
I see the thousand mountains gone red and rows of stained
plum trees falling off along the white shore where
the River Xiang goes north around the promontory of Orange.

Today I hardly feel the oak table right in front of me.
Below the mountain of Buzhou an anarchy of red flags
ripples through the valley like a procession of clouds.
The great river is glassy jade swarming with one hundred boats.
I revel in its stillness, watch the cherry blossoms close.

We were told what / we wanted to hear, ignored
the things we didn’t, i.e.,/ one hundred
thousand workers and peasants marching on
in perpetuity wouldn’t give a ready soldier pause.
Today at the double yang, yellow
flowers on the battlefield
/ swirl and dance, a moot
elegy for the unremembered. / We head for the foot
of the tea slope of Wuyi. Below the /
we make a fire, watch the damp
sticks ignite / and if the goddess of these
mountains is not dead she will / marvel
at our flames,/ candid with a scholar’s bright
blade and unafraid. We pointed / our guns
at the sky, fired them into its blue immensity.

***Italicized lines are excerpted from The Poems of Mao Zedong, trans. Willis Barnstone (University of California Press, 1972).

Wind in the Pig Yard

She dumps the skins of some things, heads of others, the insides of still more things—
what the restaurant cannot use and she will not—into a smoking pile at her feet. The
hogs shift and look up at the light, hooves caked in foot-ground corn husks. After work
she turns to her husband, now 40, searching the newfound wrinkles around his eyes
for something to wash the hog smell from her hands, chicken shit from the white
moon of her thumb. In his eyes she remembers a glance, a pinch: a man earlier that
night who slipped a hand into her skirt. The dumping of the hog guts reels in her mind.
Next morning she lays out chocolate bars with her husband’s lunch, napkins on the
table she was touched at, thinking: The hogs out back are waiting for feed. Thinking:
cabbage, hog fat, too-fried okra. Taking the slop bucket from the corner she swirls the
stewed rubbish until it loosens in the pail. She adds water, swirls it some more. Before
she exits the chef drops trimmings from a board into the pail, the steel she swirls just
once more before she leaves to feed the hogs. Outside, wind blows across her face,
rises from the hog pen up to open air. Clouds sputter from the smokestacks parallel
the yard. Finished—Yes, they squealed, giggled, stamped in the mud. Yes, they sang for
fat and cow gut. Yes choired until bucket empty and apron sprayed she swiveled on her
heel and locked the kitchen door
. She sprays the pail and takes a mop to tile, sees a
small something sliding on the floor. A marble, maybe. A glass piece. A lone bottle
shard. Mopping done, she bends to pick it up, drops a hand onto the tile now clean of
pig blood. And when she spreads her fingers, when she bares her hand in the dull
lamplight, there it is, she sees it: a white pig tooth cracked straight down the middle,
sleeping in the center of her flat and open palm.

John James is the author of Chthonic, winner of the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Prize. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, West Branch, Crazyhorse, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. He lives in Washington, DC, where he serves as Graduate Associate to the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University.