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Life by Daniel

Life is a big book

on whose edges

we write down comments.

Daniel was a student of mine the summer of 2008. The night before I flew back to the States, I took Daniel and some other students—mostly from my poetry workshop—Baker, Color, Richard, Liu and Albert—out to dinner, which turned out to be very nice: shrimp hot pot, chili and squid, rabbit, beef, escarole, mushrooms, tofu, and cauliflower. Plus some cold beer of course.

I let each student pick a dish. Baker hesitated. “Order something,” I told him. “Maybe,” Baker said. I had to smile. I told him, “In America when somebody says maybe that means probably not, but in China when somebody says maybe that means yes. I know you are going to order something.” He did, a tofu dish. All of my poets were freshmen except for Albert, who would soon graduate turning 21 August 15th, the same day I turn 59. Time was marching on, but I found myself quite happy surrounded by the adoring young.

The opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games had been the night before in Beijing and I was surprised to find that none of them had liked it. Albert, in fact, had been in the library studying. “I’m not patriotic.”

“It was a show for foreigners,” Ruiqi says: “We Chinese are sick of it.”

I told them I was in the Square watching on the big screen with a lot of Wuhaners who were watching too hanging out sitting on the warm tiered seats still hot from the setting sun or spread out on the ground on picnic blankets. I thought it was marvelous, huge and well-choreographed. But one thing surprised me; when it was time to sing the national anthem most of the Chinese in the Square didn’t get up, but just continued to lounge; and nobody was singing. “I thought if people didn’t sing the national anthem, the government would come and take them away.”

Albert laughed. “You don’t know the government or the Chinese. At any event we are supposed to sing. In school once a week.”

“Chi Li Chi Li Chi Li,” I started to sing their national anthem.

“I never sing it,” Daniel said.

I continued: “Rise up! Rise up! Rise up! It’s like the French. You guys are ready to chop off heads. My national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, nobody can sing; it’s too high-pitched, and nobody knows the words after the first few lines. We only pretend to sing. But everybody stands up. Even I stand up. You should love your country. Your parents. Your culture. Your rivers. Your food. Tofu,” I told them with some gravitas, “is worth dying for.” My rebellious poets laugh out loud.

Here are some poems they wrote.

Untitled by Color

I just broke out of prison tonight.

In front of me a dark beautiful open sea.

My life is now like a little boat.

In front of me just waves, waves, waves!

And freedom as well.

Dusk by Ruiqi

Clouds fold, clouds stretch.

White deer, white cat.

Smooth red-color silk

spreads over blue mat.

Dark curtains close sky:

only blinking golden eyes.

A gust of wind by Baker

I am like a gust of wind.

When you realize that I come,

I may have already gone


The Storm by Richard

Suddenly something stabbed my heart

Blinding lightning loudly thunders

Suddenly I felt myself collapse

A gust of wind, shuddering grass

But when all the shower passed away

Insects were singing, everything in peace.


During dinner, Daniel confessed that he wanted to be just like me. “You live the life I want.” I was alarmed as much as I was charmed and told him, “Live your life. Mine has been long on its way and yours must be a brand new event.”

Baker gave me a cut out of a panda, black paper on white, beautiful though for me pandas are a little too cute, but you wouldn’t have known as I accepted it thinking, “This is the perfect gift for my sister. Loving hands will hold this.” Ruiqi gave me a fan her aunt had painted, womanly, beautiful with birds and flowers. Color gave me a Chinese knot. Small gifts to carry thank God. Their real gift was showing up and writing good poems, a difficult task considering their first language was Chinese, and that is a very different language from English.

In the workshop I had started out showing some older metered verse and then more modern abstract stuff including friends Bernadette Mayer and Bill Kushner. Bill’s Fiction had actually inspired Daniel. During a speech contest he would forget his speech, totally flustering him as he started to quote Bill’s lines:

I was born here, poor & distraught/ of a deadly combination: a pen, blank paper, & a thought.

When asked the question, “If you were stranded on a desert island, what three things would you want?” he said, “A book, a pen, and a piece of paper,” thinking about Bill’s verse, forgetting what he was thinking about. He had delivered the best speech up to that point, but during this impromptu part, where he was supposed to think on his feet, he stopped talking for an embarrassing long moment. We in the audience sat motionless waiting for Daniel to continue and free us from the silence, but he didn’t, wouldn’t, uttering absolutely nothing while we waited for what must have been a minute.

In a very real way Daniel had been triumphant. The Chinese, when they stall trying to think of something to say go, “MMMMM,” the way Americans go, “Uhhhhhh,” but Daniel would say nothing if he wasn’t going to say something, and I marveled at it inspired to write a sonnet.


In English when we pause to think we go
“Uhhh.” In Chinese they go, “Mmmm.” Both have
the same result. While we wait for the words
we want a sound not silence. My student
Daniel had to think fast in the speech
contest. He was asked, “If you were alone
on an island what three things would you want?”
“A book, pencil, and piece of paper,” he
answered remembering a poem I’d taught
by Bill Kushner: I was born here, poor and
distraught of a deadly combination:
a pen, blank paper and a thought. The poem
made him forget what he was thinking. Glum
he let us all squirm but he wouldn’t say, “Mmmm.”

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