Outside McDonald’s downtown
in Beijing, I board a bus bound
for mountains with Xiao Dai
who carries equipment, asks why
I have to be so headstrong.
I say nothing. We belong
to a climbing club. Sheer rocks.
It is better to be the head of a chicken
than the tail of an ox. Men mention
wisdom whenever I disagree
with them. I am roped in, belayed. If we
fall, we all fall. My fingers are between
a thin ridge, sideways, gripping. I lean
down to tell Xiao Dai it’s better to be
neither chicken nor ox. He can’t hear me.
The rope swings, flicking sparks off cliffs.
Translation is insurance. With just
enough to cover what we must,
we speak only where there’s overlap, conserve
our syllables, expressions, every move.
The restaurant in Beijing called “Bitterness
and Happiness” has two menus: first excess,
second, scarcity. We order grass
from one and from the other, flesh.
The Chinese language has
77,000 characters Xiao Dai regards as
evidence. When I ask of what, he is putting
roots on my plate. Love, he says. My footing
gets rocky around these matters of fact.
A word for each affair? The waiter is back.
(first published in Ploughshares)