Yangtze Sonnets

I wrote first drafts of these poems in early August of 2006 over a few days going through the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River with some colleagues, fellow American faculty, who’d taught American Cultural Studies (I’d covered music) at Wuhan University that July. Teaching and spending time with students had been constant and wonderfully intense intellectually and emotionally so the trip up the Yangtze, after the jam-packed month, was beautiful and relaxed, a span of time perfect for reflecting.


The sun is on the mountaintops and yet
the rain comes in drops so small I’m amazed
the page isn’t wet. The sun has refused
to stop shining on the highest green peak
that looks more than anything like the breast
of a woman with her nipple erect.
Around us the waves ripple and the wind
turns the page like an impatient hand
we people stand firm against and don’t blow
away though the flag flutters as well as
the skirt of the woman waving as she
looks down at the rising Yangtze that heaves
and moves our crowded boat just like a moored
bull moaning to break from its ropes and go.


The world is full of beautiful women
who are fertile and ready for love. Look.
Anita rests. Tara’s stretched on the deck
hands on tummy flattened breast as the gorge
opens and allows us to pass. Audrey
sits with her dark eyes looking straight ahead.
Christine with her back to what’s coming is
looking back at what has been. There’s Corliss.
Only Adelia’s falling asleep.
The sun and passing mountain seem to be
leaning on each other the way Amy
and Alyssa do just now reading books.
Sharon, let down your hair for us to see
the warm breeze blowing through it. Where’s Annie?


The rainbow’s disappearing above the
mountaintop. In the spreading darkened clouds
the sun shines down on the higher town the
centralized government has built to house
those whom the rising Yangtze will drown and
cover if they don’t move. What we see now
will soon be gone, that dock, that ridge, that town.
The surrounding children can’t understand
change. It’s the old in the crowd who can.
Is that man frowning my reflection or
one of those who’s come to spy and report?
Some are so friendly! Do they listen and
transmit what I and other teachers think?
It’s true dictators care what poets think.


As swallows swoop above the boat begins
to move although all of us people here
stay still hearing the horn announce we have
let go. The leaves of the rooted bamboo
bend and sway. Mountains go back and further
back into the clouds. The little boy’s foot’s
tapping as he plays his computer game.
He is entranced as I am watching him.
Oh to be a kid again! There are things
I’ll never know, but I can see the wind
that turns the page turns the wave as the night
begins to turn the day darkening me
and the fluttering lady next to me
turning to throw her rind in the Yangtze.


Out of the dark the steep mountains come. At
first a line and nothing more appears on
either side for a long time then there’s light
inside a house, someone asleep who woke.
I am all alone along the Yangtze
whose sides are high, pure rock. No one lives there
but singing birds awake before the sun
gives shape to where they sing. I see passing
towns put here before the waters rise to
house millions of displaced inhabitants
time will eventually cover after
all like water or the clouds covering
the mountaintops that also seem to press
us down into the present world’s contents.