for William Gass
This elderly poet, unpublished for five decades,
Said that one day in her village a young girl
Came screaming down the road,
“The red Guards are coming! The Red Guards
Are Coming!” At once the poet
Ran into her house and stuffed the manuscript
Of her poems into the stove. The only copy.
When the guards arrived they took her into the yard
For interrogation. As they spoke
The poet’s mother tried to hang herself in the kitchen.
That’s all I know about the Red Guard.
It is enough.
The elderly poet is bitter—and why not?
She earned her PH.D. at an Ivy League school
And returned to China in 1948. Bad timing.
She is bitter with me
Because I’ve chosen to transtrate a younger poet,
Young enough to be her child or mine.
The truth is, her poems are forced,
But not flowering. The good work died in the stove.
She knows this. She wants me to recompose them
From the ashes. She wants the noose
Around her mother’s neck untied by me.
She wants—oh, she wants!—to have her whole life over:
Not to leave America in 1948;
To know me when we are both young promising poets.
Her rusty English is now flawless,
My Mandarin, so long unused, is fluent.
No dictionaries needed. A perfect confidence
Flowing between us. And the Red Guard,
Except as the red sword-lilies
That invigalate the garden,
Unimagined by us both:
I, who believe the Reds are agrarian reformers,
She, who believes she will be an honored poet,
Her name known to everyone, safe in her fame.
From Carolyn Kizer Cool, Calm & Collected: Poems 1960-2000 (Copper Canyon Press, 2001) with permission of the author