after Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”
The truth is, let’s say, that the tin soldier did not fall in love
with the paper-doll ballerina. He fell in love with his missing limb.
Let’s hold love in suspension. In a fictive afternoon like this,
the world is almost what it seems—outside stood small trees around
a little mirror that was meant to look like a lake. Honesty is this winter,
stripped bare. The mailboys quell their blue wings. The written deer
steps beyond the written water. Evident thirst. Evident is the missing
limb of this poem—the very world it ventures to transform
isn’t there. There, for example, in an evening, Tadzio at the edge
of a sea, divided from his companions by proud caprice, like a lone god,
an apprentice of indifference, severing the water with his feet.
His hair flares into threads of sunset. He is practicing tragedy,
which in ancient Greek means goat-song. Tragedy is that a goat
doesn’t sing. While its luxurious torso dissolves upon the machinery
of our tongues—Tadzio is, so to speak, conceptually handsome
and theoretically detached from this lush world, where the fleshy petals
in dawn cold and nectarines in June gold don’t belong to any of us.
But how can one blame those who hold such a belief—perhaps
in springtime when the absent space is replaced with azaleas
tossing their enormous, ropy genitals—that the concept of being
soft in this world of firmness is at last possible. What it is isn’t entirely
what it seems—the missing limb, at last, is the thing we always
carry inside us. That the nothing we lug without knowing, heavier
than anything, is at last our everything. The tin soldier fell in love
with his missing limb, Mann with his Tadzio, whose nonexistence,
whose evanescent-effeminate entity made of the very effervescence
of seawater, whose sleek skin cut of glass, form a silhouette like a kernel
of an almond, more bitter than Paul Celan’s Spätwort: late-word.
The purity of language enters when words no longer resemble
their things. Make me bitter. Count me among the almonds. What’s remarkable
about Celan is that instead of searching—in his last poems—he
becomes the missing limb. Words shatter like dropped fruits as he exits
this almost world while a well of wounded water closes behind him.
The moon will rise soon. Not too soon to make a vision, but soon enough
it perches in our imagination. So it may not be a bad idea to open
the window, pour a quarter glass of wine, finish the Mediterranean salad
and ambrosia for want of fried chicken, and think—We were Danes
in Denmark all day long. Think—salad, from salata in Latin, means salty.
Thirst is the salt is a metonym of desire, which in its severed past—
de sidere—from the star. Perhaps that is how all tragedies should have
ended. Perhaps this poem should have started with Stevens, whose lines
are twilight flossing pines, a practice of pantomime. Not to pretend
in hand there is a blossom, but to forget there isn’t one. When the salad
is finished, the waste plate glares against the stark, nocturnal table
as a porcelain moon, a gallery of nakedness, emaciated as any self-
portrait. The plate makes an effort to resemble something, like a word,
except the something it resembles isn’t there. Has never been there.
About his disfigured soldier, Andersen wrote, not despite, but with
his missing limb, he is the one who turned out to be remarkable.
Displaced Distance as a Red Berry
Inkstone is there. Unfolded envelope is there.
Kitchen is there, drenched with the smell of chicken soup.
Red berry is there, so is the lovesickness it causes.
Luna moths are there. They mistake the lantern for a palanquin.
Evening-old chrysanthemums are there, tossing their lion-shaped faces,
untainted by brutality.
Akhmatova’s missing hero is there, somewhere
bargaining with a taxi driver, “50 rubles to St. Petersburg.”
Married martyr is there, cupping a cloud of hydrangeas
as a hydrogen bomb, so the mortals in the bar stay far from him.
Loquat is there, its succulence the enactment of the season.
Tomas Tranströmer is there, though he claims I’m not here
he is there. He is there, where waking up is a parachute jump from dreams,
where the grass is greener than the color of grass.
Lovers are touching not talking by a lake. Soon they will just be friends.
Poets are dreaming not writing, so are the beetles in the lazy air.
Princess is there, whose lilac hands rinse the reflection of moon
bestrewn like a dress for the princess’s
stepmother, whose body is a dagger.
Stepmother is there, enticing my father with her defeated breastbone.
Father is chasing after her symphonic hair like a long note, a fermata
in Chopin’s piano sonata. Chopin is sick and unnoticed,
playing his heroic ballade only as the background music.
Red berries, according to Chinese legend,
are the blood-tears of a wife, whose husband died in a war.
War is there, each pale soldier with torn limb an Icarus,
each hospital a white dream, and each body smoothed
like a wing, not of an angel, but of a flying animal.
Angels, though today they’re just winged animals, are there.
Red berries are there. That is why I am writing you this letter.
Rain, and the stairs are washed white.
Windows opened, so the wind might be present.
Dark noise of cars is there, people leaving somewhere
for somewhere else, which they will leave again.
I imagine when you read this letter my rain will not wet
your socks, my mind will not flutter your collar.
I won’t be here, where curtains shift like sea
without me, where lamplight shines for nobody.
For in this failed letter, what lives without me
is a fragment of what I am to you.
Stars are there, unnamed. We give them names knowing
they will never turn back for our calling.
Cat-furred lamplight is there, laced with the ice-feathered
moonlight, making here more desolate.
Bed is there. I’ll only sleep on the left side, where you once slept,
leaving the right empty, pretending
I am not there.
But whatever is not there is there in red berries,
in the widow’s bloodred tears, strewn for the missing—you
are here—more real than the lamp and ink and moonlight,
the way I am there—home, late from work, soaked in rain.
There—tell me to stop writing this letter, hand me the armful
of chrysanthemums you’ve been picking for the whole afternoon.
READ “TENDER VOIDS: A CONVERSATION WITH SHANGYANG FANG” ON GR2