February 23, 2020

Anthony Tao

CORONAVIRUS IN CHINA

I. Coronavirus in the Neighborhood

We smiled through facemasks,
said hello with our brows,
held open doors

to remind each other
we were still here. Miss Chen the grocer
was gone, back to her hometown.

Old Li the barber was gone,
along with his radio. Zhou the locksmith
only left a phone number, Min absconded

with her cherished regrets, and
the Zhang family, who made flatbread,
never returned: Gone

for the new year, the sign
on their door read.
Those of us still here

nodded knowingly, sidestepped
couriers zipping down our alleys
on our way to Tang’s noodle shop.

The sky is nice, we grunted. The air clean.
We were surrounded by kindness that barely
seemed real. Our throats itched for coal

and tar. Whatever else we craved,
of insurrection or speaking truth
to bureaucracy, whatever small

bonuses we desired for ourselves
or ailments we nursed, of anger
or temperatures, we did it indoors.

We pulled our curtains and waited
until the kettle screeched, then said
exactly what we had always wanted.

 

II. Coronavirus in the Streets

The viruses had first and last names
until there were too many to count.
We grafted masks onto their faces

and by that point, what did names
matter? We locked them in
boxes, sealed those boxes within

larger boxes built in ten days. But
still they leaked out into the streets,
confused, bumping randomly

into people who could not see.
Watch for them, we whispered,
but to us they all looked

the same. We practiced saying
plague, a fun word, and some of us
wished for it, because why not. Alas,

it was hard to overcome our hardwiring,
animal instinct to survive even
if we knew we were doomed.

We stalked the side alleys with déjà vu
feeling we’d done this before, back
in another lifetime—spying

on neighbors, reporting family,
mantis arms and wheels of history,
misery enforced as baseline.

In a way, we are all the same disease.
To survive humans, you have to give up
humanity—so says the tyrant within.

Our lungs cracked like sheet ice. Breath
whistled through our veins like steam. We searched
for sickness, but there was only sharpness, like guilt.

 

III. Coronavirus in the Bedroom

The virus watched, nose pressed
against the window, but the lovers
didn’t notice, they rolled like bonobos, shaking

the bed. We heard through our walls,
which means they could hear us, too,
shaking in ways animals can,

forgetting—forgiving—our limbs, our
organs, all the ways our rococo parts
can thrash, can work toward climax, can spoil,

omphalos of all the worlds where we
exist, our vigor omnidirectional.
On the other side, our other neighbor

pounded on the wall. Damn
him, we thought, could he not
take it up with the virus, out there?

Of course, we knew we were being
unfair. The virus was here to stay.
We could sense it even now, lonely

virus shivering in the cold,
eyes alit upon the ecstasy unfolding,
time and everything stopped, its breath

fogging up our window, trying to leave
a reminder, its mouth curled in an O,
shouting Ooh-la-la. And, Bravo!

 

IV. Coronavirus in the Imperial Garden

The virus is an enemy that fights without rules
but it lacks resolve. It lacks country.
We speak this way inside the Imperial Garden

in the Office of Epidemic Prevention
and Control to remind the people
who is in control—of who has not

abandoned them, who can lift fog,
move mountains and rivers.
What would you sacrifice for your home,

which is your country? We will discipline failures
on a pillar of shame. We will stay upbeat.
We spared a thought for the city besieged

in the province of one thousand lakes;
we heard a man leapt off Simen Gate bridge,
but truth is what we say. The poet says

truth is what’s proclaimed before judgment,
but what does it matter? The good doctor
died despite believing. We do not believe—

we know how the system works, how numbers
are reported, what newscasters mean when they
stipulate faith in the Ultimate Arbiter.

“Do you understand?” is a rhetorical question.
Would you choose People over people,
country over self, Party over family?

We tore down mahjong parlors, demanded
whereabouts, asked others to set an example,
maintain distance, sleep in separate beds.

Be patriotic. At home, our real homes, we huddled
closer than before. We feared if—when—we came
out of this, they would see clearer than ever.

 

V. Coronavirus in the Air

Masks. Wearing them,
we were more aware
of the other.

Our eyes locked more often,
for longer, searching for provocation,
gauging interest

down to conjunctiva.
We experimented with sounds,
soughing and snuffling,

and remembered the lessons
our cats and dogs had taught:
ears back, head tilted. We were polite

to those we did not care for,
widening our expressions,
softening our brows

to say we understand the feeling.
But occasionally, next to a body
we leaned toward,

we grimaced with yearning,
with agony and despair that we could not
rip off these masks and laugh

at our poor nerves aflutter. Our gazes
settled on cloudshadow and withy,
old tiles upon rooftops and dragon wings

rippling the pale blue. We saw the ways
we merge with the world, with the air,
taking into our lungs

the trees, the purslane in pavement, the rewards
for being who we are. Magic, we said
to ourselves, forgetting what we were afraid of.

 

VI. Coronavirus in the Heart

We stopped saying hello.
We infected with caprice, infected
ones we love with doubt,

those we dislike with conviction;
with memories of the gone,
which is an exacting affliction,

afflicted as we are with the same disease;
with misunderstanding,
avoidable if we weren’t simply ourselves;

with truth blasted out like a sneeze
we’d meant to keep in. We sighed
in bed, patted the outline of body next to us,

soothed by the warm hiss of the shower.
The virus was gone, and in those early days
we filled its vacuum with energy and humor;

then with our sense of what is righteous,
trying to infect others. In our purgatory
we had learned what was meant by

“human condition,” and now
we wondered what was worth celebrating.
A triumph for humanity, the news trumpeted

while we questioned if we deserved it.
We leaned away from bodies, stopped
holding doors. We dragged our feet

on office carpets, poured coffee without smelling.
We looked mockingly on those still masked,
forgetting the ways we are infectious.

We walked the streets like sorrowful ghosts.
With two fingers we rubbed our chest,
wondering what was missing.

from Poets Respond
February 23, 2020

__________

Anthony Tao: “I live in Beijing, where for the last two weeks I have been trying to write about the topic in all the headlines: the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic. In truth, I could be responding to any number of news stories I’ve read in the past month, but the one I’ll highlight is a very recent article from the New York Times: ‘To Tame Coronavirus, Mao-Style Social Control Blankets China.’ I most directly address the article’s themes of distrust and Cultural Revolution-style control in my second part, ‘Coronavirus in the Streets.’ But the New York Times only got it half right: In my experience, the people I’ve encountered—including police, neighborhood volunteers, etc.—have gone out of their way to be nicer than before, more courteous, patient, and respectful. I try to capture this sense of camaraderie in the first part, ‘Coronavirus in the Neighborhood.’ I also want to include some notes for the fourth part, ‘Coronavirus in the Imperial Garden,’ written from the perspective of someone within China’s central government (‘Imperial Garden’ is a reference to Zhongnanhai, equivalent to China’s White House). The ‘Do you understand’ line is a question Dr. Li Wenliang was asked, in the early days of the outbreak, by Wuhan police: ‘We hope that you can calm down and earnestly reflect … If you are stubborn, refuse to repent, and continue to carry out illegal activities, you will be punished by the law! Do you understand?’ All Dr. Li had done was compare this new, as-yet unidentified disease with the 2003 SARS outbreak, which remains a politically sensitive subject in China. The public was outraged after Li himself died of the coronavirus. From that same part, the lines ‘We do not believe’ and ‘truth is what’s proclaimed before judgment’ are both in reference to Bei Dao’s most famous poem, ‘The Answer,’ which became a rally cry for an entire generation of idealistic young Chinese—who remained skeptical and hopeful and good until the aftermath of the 1989 student demonstrations at Tiananmen.” (web)

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