|Anne Whitehouse is the author of five poetry collections—The Surveyor’s Hand, Blessings and Curses, Bear in Mind, One Sunday Morning, and The Refrain. Her novel, Fall Love, will be published in Spanish as Amigos y amantes in 2016. Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, she graduated from Harvard College and Columbia University and lives in New York City.
Cai Guo-Qiang speaks
In the old days in China
my father collected calligraphy,
ancient scrolls, and rare books.
We lived in Quanzhou,
across the strait from Taiwan.
We could hear artillery batteries
firing into the mist at the island
that still resisted the mainland.
My father’s calligraphy
was delicate and adept.
I used to stand at his shoulder,
careful to leave space
for his arm to move freely,
as I watched him wet the ink
to the right consistency,
select his brush, and dip it
gently and carefully, soaking
the soft hairs of the badger,
and stroke its sides
against the jar, forming a point
like no other, soft, flexible, yielding.
With an intake of breath,
he raised his hand that held the brush,
hovering above the paper,
and slowly exhaled
until he was an empty receptacle,
and then, and only then,
he touched the tip of the brush
to the fine rice paper—
the strokes flowed, deft and sensitive,
forming the ancient shapes of the words.
Then came the Cultural Revolution.
My father worried that his books,
his scrolls, and his calligraphy
were a time bomb ticking.
He buried his collection in a hole
in the earth of the cellar,
but he was still afraid, and little by little,
he began to burn it, at night, in secret,
in the hidden depths of the house.
Afterwards he was not the same.
He lost himself in a strange self-exile
and left us all, his family, behind,
finding perilous refuge
far away in the mountains
in a ruined Buddhist convent,
where an old crone of ninety,
the last remaining resident,
gave him sanctuary.
There he would take sticks
and write calligraphy once more
in puddles on the ground
that would disappear
as soon as it was written,
leaving invisible skeins of sorrow
in the changing reflections
of cloud and sky on water.
I am his son, and my calligraphy
is fireworks, my art gunpowder,
as evanescent as writing on water.
Pinyin—the Chinese word
means fire medicine, invented
by alchemists investigating immortality.
My explosions are brief dreams,
where space and time combine
in a momentary universe
of birds, fish, and animals,
the stream of the Milky Way,
energy transformed into chaos.
In my youth a shaman protected me
from the ghosts of dissatisfaction
that were haunting me,
freeing me to communicate
the invisible within the visible.
Some mysteries are meant to be discovered,
some are meant to remain heaven’s secrets.
I imagine an alternate history
where the discovery of nuclear power
was not used for making weapons.
I dream of creating a ladder of fire
far in the air above the earth,
seen from worlds beyond our own.
In memory of my father-in-law, Hugh Lord Whitehouse
For days we’d been packing—
the clothes that would fit no one
had been given away,
the rooms were full of boxes
and tagged furniture,
the walls were bare,
closets and cupboards empty.
Yet, stripped of so much,
the house still enchanted us,
enfolded and protected us.
Light through dozens of windows
played over the clean white walls
and stairs and banisters of maple wood.
At the back of the house was the view
over the watery road of the canal
and all the wildlife that lived along it.
The night before the movers came
I made a dinner of triple tail
baked with butter and lemon,
roast potatoes and asparagus,
green salad with tomato,
avocado, and goat cheese—
one last meal to add to
the memorable meals over the years.
Later that night I swam in the pool
in the warm September rain,
while my husband shot pool
in the next room.
Through the glass doors I glimpsed him
aiming the cue, heard
the clicks of balls being struck.
I dove underwater,
submerged in a sweet,
Dense night, falling rain
on warm water, the air so full
of rain it was like water.
Just before everyone left,
I discovered the bookends
interspersed between the books
that no one was taking
and recognized my father-in-law’s handiwork
in the blocks of wood four inches square,
each fastened at right angles with two screws
to a square of aluminum.
Made with care, using materials at hand,
the squares of wood sanded and stained,
and the squares of aluminum sanded, too,
so they would slide smoothly
between book and bookshelf.
Presented with the bookends,
my husband dated them from his father’s
grad student days, when short on money,
with mechanical abilities and cultivated tastes,
he made a pair of floor lamps
from salad bowls and ski poles painted black,
with tubular linen shades.
In so much of what he did,
My father-in-law exhibited a painful perfection
that was hard to live up to, hard to live with.
In their serenity and simplicity,
these beautiful objects he made
reveal nothing of his struggles.
A GIRL WHO FELL IN LOVE WITH AN ISLAND
I thought I saw the ghost of myself
as I was at the age of 27,
standing up on a bicycle, peddling uphill,
long hair streaming behind her.
She smiled as she passed me in the twilight
and wished me a good evening.
On the back of her bike was
a milk crate for hauling things,
the same as I once had.
She was wearing flip-flops
and a loose wrapped skirt.
I had seen her on the beach,
making salutations to the setting sun
over the sea in a reflected fire
of blazing gold and rose embers.
I hadn’t wanted to interrupt her,
or show her to herself thirty years older.
I was a girl who fell in love with an island.
Each time I’ve left here,
something of that quiet, introspective girl
has lingered behind and never left.
On visits when I come across her
she has never gotten any older.
In August I return in search of her,
wearing my oldest clothes, ones she wore,
worn and faded, softened by use.
Once again she and I are one
when I swim in the cove’s cold waters,
gazing up at the sea and sky
or diving underwater to watch
the dark kelps waving over the rocks.
Posted on 2015-12-07