It is as if I can almost still remember.
As if I once perhaps belonged here.
The mountains a deep heavy green, and
The rocky steep drop to the waters below.
The peaked roofs, the white-plastered
Brick. A clothesline in a neighbor’s yard
Made of sticks. The stone path skimming
The ridge. A ladder asleep against a house.
What is the soul allowed to keep? Every
Birth, every small gift, every ache? I know
I have knelt just here, torn apart by loss. Lazed
On this grass, counting joys like trees: cypress,
Blue fir, dogwood, cherry. Ageless, constant,
Growing down into earth and up into history.
It was a shock to be allowed in, for once
Not held back by a painted iron fence.
And to take it in with just my eyes (No Photos
Signs were discreet, yet emphatic). Coins,
Bills on a tray. Two women and then a man
Bowed before a statue to pray. Outside
Above the gates, a sprung balloon
And three kites swam east on a high fast
Current. And something about a bird
Flapping hard as it crossed my line of sight—
The bliss it seemed to make and ride without
Ever once gliding or slowing—the picture of it
Meant, suddenly, youth, and I couldn’t help it,
I had to look away.
Every chance I get, every face I see, I find myself
Searching for a glimpse of myself, my daughter and sons.
More often, I find there former students, old lovers,
Friends I knew once and had until now forgotten. My
Sisters, a Russian neighbor, a red-haired American actor.
And on and on, uncannily, as though all of us must be
Buried deep within each other.
Songzhuang Art Village (for Yilei)
You pull canvases from racks: red daisies,
Peonies in a blue vase, an urn of lilies
Like spirits flown from the dead. A self-
Portrait in a white dress, faceless but for one eye,
And all around you what could be empty
Coffins or guitar cases, or dark leaves
On a swirling sea. On a column in a black frame
Hangs a photo of your mother, a smiling
girl in an army coat. Can any of us save ourselves,
You once wrote, save another? Below her,
All beard, practically, and crevassed brow,
Tolstoy stares in the direction of what once
Must have seemed the future.
Mutianyu, Great Wall
Farther ahead, another tourist loses his footing
And grabs hold of a brick,
which comes off
In his hand, crumbles where it lands.
Tracy K. Smith’s most recent book of poems is Life on Mars, which received the Pulitzer Prize. A new collection, Wade in the Water, is forthcoming in 2018. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, was shortlisted for a National Book Award. She teaches at Princeton University and is the current United States Poet Laureate.
The Poetry Section is edited by Mark Bibbins.