Elegy for a City [2021 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize Featured Finalist]

Because names change meaning. Because we hear cries from next door like birdsong at dawn and stay silent. Stay silent on repeat. How unmoved we are when possessors manage their possessions. How accepting we are that there is one. It seems natural. As a noun takes a verb. An owner takes back his things. Takes them apart if he chooses. And silence taking form. The likeness to a familiar act—the relation between someone’s hand and a taken object—renders it natural. Thus it is a natural law. Another natural law describes a balloon taking air from another 

which is Laplace’s law. Pronounced: la-plass.  
It states what happens when a balloon human- 

head-sized is connected to one fist-sized. 
My mnemonic was that the statement was 

counterintuitive. But I do not remember what 
is intuitive. I know one of the two grows. 

But does the bigger balloon gulp the other
in like a bullfrog eating its own spawn  

or does the bigger one shrink like a lit pupil, 
in the light of revelation, and share its air? 

I had other mnemonics, but for characters 
such as one translating to harbor
water radical rhymed to togetherness 
floating above a curling tine— 

but mnemonics rhymed with time 
blur, and repetition becomes necessary: 
Laplace’s law the big balloon gets 
bigger the small one disappears 

Laplace’s law the big balloon gets 
bigger the small one disappears 

Laplace’s law the big balloon gets
bigger the small one disappears 

and there is only so much repetition 
before one thinks it must occur 
like the news about the big country eating 
                                 the harbor city 
                                 that bloomed 
                                 with umbrellas 
                                 before they shuttered 
                                 still it rained— 

at this point, I will mention a few characters 
that mean nothing and so I beg your pardon: 

the storyteller populating my head      I beg your pardon 

the siren with sphinx’s eyes      I beg your pardon 

the man falling falling from the twenty-fourth floor 
whose Cantopop songs I could not understand 
but memorized      I beg your pardon 

the royal court that flung itself in defiance 
or despair into this bay from boats of their 

                             (water radical rhymed to togetherness 
                             floating above a curling tine

in a pattern that must be natural must be law 
that writes into law the way a child’s jaw 
aches into adulthood 

how these patterns of what happens  
become aligned to the basic part 
of knowledge, which only knows  

how blowing a balloon is hard at first 
(when still small) when the mouth-
and-cheeks coordinate to purse like a fish 

as if readying to say the word who or  

                             (as in $ف home  
                             or 护 to protect, to defend) 

but without voicing with muteness  
with pushing the body 

resistance falling away once the balloon some-
what inflates (when it has larger radius) 

meaning it is not the larger body wanting to 
consume more air 

it is the smaller body wanting to push into 
its own heart and disappear 

it is the smaller body wanting to push into 
its own heart and disappear 

but the smaller body wanted so much to live 
and named itself by rhyming water 
with togetherness 

and I can even visit the harbor city with that name. The name has stayed. How it now means silence. As in: a radio silence. A moment of silence. A silencer. A cry like a birdsong and then silence. Whose cry—hearing—silence is part of natural law. Like the law that when I beat the wall in anger, the wall beats back. When I open my throat and let out silence, silence opens back. When I look over at the window blinds, they send blindness back. But there is another natural law that says to wait. Wait long enough, and you will get another sunrise, another flock of mourning doves, cooing like names drained of meaning. Names drained of sound. 


The word harbor is the English translation of the character 港. This forms part of the name 香港, which is transliterated from Cantonese as Hong Kong. 


Angelo Mao received his PhD in bioengineering from Harvard University. His first book of poems, Abattoir, was published by Burnside Review in 2021, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, The Yale Review, Lana Turner, and elsewhere. He has also written for Opera News and Boston Classical Review.