By Neil Shepard
Featured Image: Old Sarum by David Lucas
For Robinson Jeffers
We had come to the Great Wall’s end
in the desert of Jiaguyuan. Our tempers flared
across the crumbled battlements, out into the red heat.
There were weeds, thorns, a few hard-
shelled bugs. Love reduced to a black
carapace, under which a stinger,
a biting mouth, a reflex, a poison.
Heat withered our patience. Our bowels,
stung by a virus, made us say words we’d regret—
peevish, pernicious—wo yao, wo yao,
I want, I want, and nothing else.
We both stormed off—“stormed”
could have brought some moisture
to this desert, but no, this storm
was a hot wind, stinging sand
in the face, chipped sandstone
from the last outpost, that would cut
and bury us. Wei guoren. Barbarian.
Stripped of camouflage, of greenery, fluidity,
we showed every tic and flaw.
I could not stand one more day of mei you—
Not have. Not possible. Not ever.
I could not stand in one more ticket line,
elbowed, elbowing for a hard-sleeper berth
out of the heat. Come back tomorrow.
Tomorrow and tomorrow . . . stretching away
like the Great Wall disappearing into red dust.
There was a Hami melon, the best
melon in the desert, it was said,
pale green rind, and inside
a thick, luscious yellow.
Mei you to melons, to Hami, to anything
but a few dry husks in the streets
where others had stood, ticketless, for days.
I could have spit in any traveler’s face.
I could have spit in her face, and she in mine.
I could have spit in the wind and hit myself and liked it.
I could have tasted black bile in every phlegmy word launched against the
Down beneath the desert in a crypt, I saw
an ancient face, preserved in this dry heat, shrunk
to a withered visage, devoid of the good
wetness that waters our lips with thanks,
its lips turned down in an arid scowl
for four thousand years.
Neil Shepard’s latest book, How It Is: Selected Poems, was published in 2018 by Salmon Poetry (Ireland); he edited the anthology Vermont Poets and Their Craft in 2019 (Green Writers Press, VT). His ninth collection, The Book of Failures, is due from Salmon Poetry in 2022. He founded and edited for a quarter century the Green Mountains Review. He currently splits his time between Vermont and New York City, where he teaches poetry workshops at Poets House.
Originally appeared in NOR 4