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Daily Commute, Beijing

December 15, 2010 1 comment

by Sarah Menkedick

The pusher-men laughed. They wore the faded wing-tip shoes and raggedy suits of worn-down migrants, but their hair betrayed their youth. Cut in zigzagged anime styles or gelled into the form of a surprised porcupine, it made them look slightly edgy.

When the train came, though, their mouths firmed into lines. They shoved and shouted things, the constant monosyllabic imperatives of Chinese. The language still sounded like one firm, inscrutable black character after another to me.

I let them push and closed my eyes a little. They threw their weight into their shoulders and hurled themselves against the last frontier of people on the naked edge of the car, as if nudging a particularly stubborn bookcase. Passengers further in rustled around a little with some barely audible grunting and sighing. Miniscule pockets of space opened up for hands, knees. I sunk an inch or two further into the car, enough for the doors to close and the train to whisk us off.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Beijing subway!” intoned the friendly-voiced young woman, probably cherry-lipped and university-educated like most Chinese women chosen for these jobs, on the intercom. “The next stop is Andingmen station.”

The voice had a stilted rise and fall that mimicked the tones of Mandarin; it must be hard to shake those sharp ups, downs, and stops, especially when they carry so much meaning. Traces of them linger in English, making the intercom voice both touchingly flawed and robotic.

As the train pulsed through those dark silent tunnels, people gathered themselves into their own self-shaped bubbles of space, concentrating on some interior concern — the new baby, the silence where there should’ve been a phone call — while letting the rest of their beings be subsumed into the crowd. There seemed to be the thinnest wisp of air above everyone’s head, as if we were a bunch of floating suspended fish with our bubble-mouths poised on the ocean’s surface. People’s faces curved up. Five or six bodies were pressed to mine; five or six pairs of shoes pointed in different directions on the car floor like compasses gone awry. Briefcases, bags, sweaters on arms, were rendered still and immobile by the crush. For that moment in time, we were a mass, a mass of a thousand similar parts and one collective held breath.

At first on these rides I’d close my eyes and imagine what I’d do if there was a fire, a terrorist attack, an earthquake. I’d position myself close to a pole and tell myself to let go of everything else and hang onto it with the single-mindedness of a barnacle. Everyone and everything would swirl around me in great devastating rushes of chaos, and when it was all over I’d open my eyes, still clinging to the pole, and pick my way out. The whole scenario — earthquake, chaos, pole plan in action, diminishing panic, and eventual release — lasted me all the way from Dongzhimen station to Guomao, when the thousands upon thousands of people in the train pored out and streamed through the tunnels of the city’s busiest station, shaking off the confinement of the crowd with purposeful haste.

But one day, maybe when I was particularly tired or more open than usual, I submitted to the crush of bodies, let it carry and contain me. It was winter; everyone had to shrug off coats and scarves as quickly as possible so as not to shed five pounds of water weight during the journey to the Central Business District. My face was chapped from Beijing’s winter wind. Warm bodies pressed in on all sides — I could feel the curve of a torso, the rounded toughness of a thigh. It verged on the sexual, but the comfortingly sexual, the mutual arcs of spooning bodies, the ceding of one part to another. There was a total, obligatory submissiveness, everyone giving way to everyone else because there was no other option, and I suddenly found relief in that. So much of daily life in China is ducking or fighting or easing one’s way through crowds, at the supermarket, at the train station, in the bike lanes. For me, for many people that have grown up in resolutely individualist countries, this was an act of constant resistance. Trying to separate or save oneself from the masses. But in the train I gave in, for once relaxed into the mass instead of bristling at it, and it felt good. My head lolled back and forth, sometimes accidentally bumping the fake fur collars of the Chinese office girls’ coats.

When the train stopped at Chongwenmen and Jianguomen for transfers I went with the flood of people, taking one careful step at a time because at that moment in Beijing, when the subway price had been reduced to 2 yuan, millions and millions of Chinese were taking the underground trains for the first time. There was a calming ritual about those measured, timed steps, limited by the heel of the person in front of me and the tips of the toes of the person behind me, in tune with the slow, inevitable forward motion of the masses. There was a liberating humility in it — without the option of scurrying through the tunnels, my flats padding anxiously on the slick tiled floors, Stereolab pounding on the iPod, I stepped slowly and in tune with thousands of other steps.

When we finally came to Guomao and the crush gave way to a surge of released energies, I regained the pressure of forward motion and scampered up the steep, endless staircases towards the street. Gusts of wind rushed down the stairs and did their best to blast into Guomao station, but the crowd stopped them. The further up the stairs I got, the stronger the wind grew, until finally I was on the street and wrapping my face in a scarf, buying a tea egg for breakfast, hustling towards work, missing the safe restricted warmth of the crowd.


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Sarah Menkedick is a writer and editor who has spent the last six years living, traveling, and teaching abroad. This fall, she returned to the U.S. to start the MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the editor in chief of Glimpse.org, a contributing editor at Matador Abroad and a contributing writer at Change.org. She lets her creative nonfiction run wild at her personal website, PosaTigres.

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Parade

December 14, 2010 Comments off
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Predicament: Memorial Day

December 13, 2010 Comments off

by Sarah Busse

the song should be
slow    moody    lyrical
pounding

Robert Schuler

It should be, but
so often it’s not. Or
maybe the pounding
is right, but the rest?
It’s a diddle-dee tune, it’s Lassus
Trombone, it’s Sousa, fer cryin out,
with bright brass and those comical
goldfinches, all the leaves
shouting and waving
on a summerday, sprinklers and pop-
sickles, plastic flags flapping
No No No we say, my uncle’s
laid up, my bills are unpaid,
the gulf is dying and the cat’s
marking the family room.
Dee Dee Dee sings the piccolo.
Inexorable, it carries us, the flare
of those marching hats, the boots,
the polyester pants.


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Sarah Busse co-edits the poetry magazine Verse Wisconsin, and is the author of two chapbooks: Quiver and Given These Magics. You can find her at SarahBusse.com, or hanging out with a bunch of cool poets at bookthatpoet.com.

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Night at the Interstate Diner

December 10, 2010 5 comments

by James Brush

I ran in circles that turned into spirals leading me
back to the same crowds I hoped to escape.
These crowds gathered around holes in the ground,
at truckstops and on famous San Francisco street corners
where they offered drugs and hookups. Did you know
a straight line inscribed on a sphere is a circle?
Driving deep into the night chasing headlights
flickering with bugs, the circles became too much
and I sought crowds in muddy-tile interstate diners
offering tired-eyed cigarette and coffee warmth.
Not conversation, rather a simple acknowledgement
that we’re all of us out here, millions, a crowd
dispersed along asphalt lines and stretched so thin
we hardly seem a crowd. But at night, we’re
all in the same place. Tired alone worn out
and looking for others to remind us that we’re
not the last ones left. Out there, beyond the pooling
rest stop lights, there is nothing. Nobody
you’d want to meet. It’s warm here. Stay with us.
Listen to these whispered stories. We’ll all be moving on
come morning, a crowd stretched again to the breaking,
forgetful and perhaps just a little embarrassed
that we needed to come together in the long last night.


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James Brush lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, cat and two rescued greyhounds. He teaches English in a juvenile correctional facility. He doesn’t mind crowds if the music is good or the game is well-played. A list of publication credits and links can be found here. You can find him online at Coyote Mercury.

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Crows of Still Creek

December 9, 2010 9 comments

by Robin Susanto

Countable Stencils, by Robin Susanto
Countable stencils

Darkness falls bird by bird
As strokes of charcoal on the canvas of evening
Where light has abandoned its outline
A vision that fills in the blank in the matte of the pupils

The crows of still creek are marking the spot
Where night will open its first eyes

Where alpha meets atlantic
Avenues that have shed their names
To be no one’s ocean or alphabet
But the first furrows on night’s dark brow
Where no sun cuts shadows into countable stencils
Where the last light has bled its dye
From the ledge of twilight
Down the face of a shut warehouse
The vastness of space in pools at ground level
Where the city has broken its blocks

The crows of still creek are boarding up the night

Shutting down the stars the city’s fluorescence
The sidewalk slat by slat
Until they themselves are no longer
Feathers by the thousands
But one shadow under one roost

Night at last

But the night the crows bring down is not the night we burn
In the indoor fires by the flicker of the screen

True night is light

In the puddle of the iris
All that we have put out of sight
The garbage routes they have memorized
The blown kisses that have fallen
No longer love but crumbs that can take flight only in the guts of scavengers
In the puddle of the iris
Where our vision meets its mud
The crows have lit their light
A new city from the scraps of what we have put out of sight
(This is why we hate them)

But most of all the crows want to show us flight
A true bird to us who still give wings to the angels
Cheating as we do when we don’t take away their arms
As if the sky had a substance we could grasp
A clutch of grass to prove where love has been

But to be winged is to love armless
With no limbs to entwine
No palms to cradle a face
Or a paw to lightly rest on a breathing belly

The crows of all birds have envy in their eyes
They are black with knowledge and it drives them mad
Cawing for our sight
True darkness where we are blind
Vision one bird’s eye view at a time


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Birds are too showy/ Robin Susanto prefers to look for flight in low-lying shrubs/ where gravity climbs by its own weight/ like syrup up the capillaries of the quietly growing.

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Seas Between Us

December 8, 2010 3 comments

by Donna Vorreyer

And seas between us broad have roared
(“Auld Lang Syne,” English tradition)

New Year’s Eve holds no charm for me, one year blending seamlessly into the next by a simple tick of the clock, all this nonsense about resolutions just a way to make excuses. But my husband loves the pageantry, especially when we are traveling, each country with its own insanities and customs he wants to experience. And so we venture out, join in — we eat twelve grapes at midnight in Madrid, buy our small son marzipan pigs in Vienna, dodge a firecracker battle in Paris, tiny sticks of gunpowder spitting sparks onto our faces, our coats, our mittened hands.

And now in London, I would much rather be wrapped in a blanket, watching the spectacle on television with a cup of tea. My son is thirteen, would rather be sleeping or listening to his mp3 player. But here we are, layering fleece and sweaters to hop on the Tube toward the Eye, to watch the cars of the ferris wheel tumble like a giant firework that refuses to leave the sky. We exit the station, and I can tell it will be bad — streets packed shoulder to shoulder, one undulating mass pulsing toward the square. Some, in a burst of British impoliteness, shove through like a snake with a poisonous head, the leader creating space, the rest slithering behind before the hole can close.

I grab my husband’s jacket, insist that he keep my son in front of him, fearing the drunken disarray looming beneath the surface of the crowd. We inch ahead, unable to see where we are going, and things get louder, uglier. People move back against the grain now, some drenched with sweat, a few with bloodied scalps, bottles thrown in irritation across the sea of heads. We decide to move sideways, escape to a cul-de-sac where we cannot see the Eye, but maybe can glimpse the fireworks. Birthed from the stream of people, I sigh until I notice my son is nowhere in sight. Not normally prone to hysteria, my whole body convulses with panic as I turn toward my husband — find him, find him now. I wait alone outside a closed coffee shop, berate myself for my lack of mothering skills, my poor judgment, my hands cupped over my face like an oxygen mask, as if I have forgotten how to breathe. When they emerge from the crowd, my son in front, I leap to hug him. Seeing my panic, he doesn’t object.

This is when I crack, turn and sob with red-faced ugly gulps into my husband’s chest. I hate this, I hate this, I mumble, over and over like a mantra that will mystically erase this feeling, this one moment where I understand, for the first time in my life, how a woman could (pockets weighted) walk into the sea, could climb high atop the Tower Bridge and throw herself willingly into the Thames.


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Donna Vorreyer lives in a house with a spacious yard and plenty of breathing space for her husband, her son, and her dog. Visit her and view her work at her website or her blog.

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Niggun for the Hand-Drum

December 7, 2010 Comments off

by Jane Rice

Taste of soil
sings in the throat

solo clarinet

chin lifts
to listen

this, then
on the alphabet
of sound
on the nature of questions

keep and remember
this tree
this meeting place

now
is now
no other

welcome
to our land

angel, clearly an angel
greeted with kisses

light in danger
of darkening

earlier with people
finishes dusk

intricacies breathe
flaxen cloth

empty street
hangs
on every word

to learn
what fails
what balances

hour that listens
hears

sun and moon
together

how golden the sky

field of barley
ripe for the scythe

counting memory
wakes lunar dream

crowd is river
blue discussions

only the angel is barefoot
arm passes under the wing

and forward loosens
my hair

living water
enters
holds

a second so fast
the world turns

shadow upon shadow

so that little lanterns
of tambourine
fan and multiply.

*

Note: Niggun in Hebrew means humming tune. It is a short, wordless melody sung in a group to invoke a prayerful state of mind. The tune is often repetitive and improvised.


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Jane Rice lives in San Francisco and pursues her interests in poetry, art and art history. Please visit Propolis Press for information about her letterpress chapbook entitled Portrait Sitters.

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