Poem of the Week | February 24, 2012

[This text is also available online as part of our TextBox anthology.]


This week we’ve dug up a classic by Lynda Hull. This poem was first published in the Fall of 1987 in TMR 10.3. Hull was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1954. Her collections include Ghost Money (1986), recipient of the Juniper Prize; Star Ledger (1991), which won the 1991 Carl Sandburg and 1990 Edwin Ford Piper awards; and The Only World: Poems, published posthumously in 1995 and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. In 2006, Graywolf Press published her Collected Poems, edited by her husband, David Wojahn.

Counting in Chinese

Past midnight, September, and the moon dangles
mottled like a party lantern about to erupt
in smoke. The first leaves in the gutter eddy,
devilled by this wind that’s travelled years,


whole latitudes, to find me here believing
I smell the fragrance of mock orange. For weeks
sometimes, I can go without thinking of you.
Crumpled movie handbills lift then skitter


across the pavement. They advertise the one
I’ve just seen—Drunken Angel—Kurosawa’s
early film of occupied Japan, the Tokyo slums
an underworld of makeshift market stalls


and shacks where Matsu, the consumptive gangster,
dances in a zoot suit to a nightclub’s swing band.
The singer mimes a parody of Cab Calloway
in Japanese. And later, as Matsu leans coughing


in a dance-hall girl’s rented room, her painted
cardboard puppet etches shadows on the wall
that predict his rival’s swift razor
and the death scene’s slow unfurling, how


he falls endlessly it seems through a set
of doors into a heaven of laundry: sheets
on the line, the obis and kimonos stirring
with his passage. And all of this equals


a stark arithmetic of choices, his fate
the final sum. Why must it take so long
to value what’s surrendered so casually?
I see you clearly now, the way you’d wait


for me, flashy beneath the Orpheum’s
rococo marquee in your Hong Kong hoodlum’s
suit, that tough-guy way you’d flick
your cigarette when I was late. You’d consult


the platinum watch, the one you’d lose
that year to poker. I could find again our room
above the Lucky Life Café, the cast iron district
of sweat-shop lofts. But now the square’s deserted


in this small midwestern town, sidewalks
washed in the vague irreal glow of shopwindows,
my face translucent in the plate glass.
I remember this the way I’d remember a knife


against my throat: that night, after
the overdose, you told me to count, to calm
myself. You put together the rice paper lantern
and when the bulb heated the frame it spun


shadows — dragon, phoenix, dragon and phoenix
tumbling across the walls where the clothes
you’d washed at the sink hung drying on
a nailed cord. The mock orange on the sill


blessed everything in that room
with its pungent useless scent. Forgive me.
I am cold and draw my sweater close. I discover
that I’m counting, out loud, in Chinese.