___________ 

No. 6

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Winifred Hughes 
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ďI INHABIT MY ABSENCEĒ

                                óTu Fu (712-770)
 

So much stronger than presence, 
more spacious ó I have not 

plumbed all its shadowy depths
nor climbed its remoter peaks

No wind in the leaf-lorn boughs,
no voice calling my other name

houseboat anchorless, adrift,
my only lantern a new moon
 
Inhabit? ó I haunt it, wear out
the rough-hewn planks, midnight 

pacing ó it is the only place 
where I might have found you
 

CEDAR CHEST

Iíve forgotten what else is locked inside the cedar 
chest from Singapore besides the prong-shaped key. 

On the outside in carved relief, scenes of reunion 
or farewell ó a doorway, an archway, a wooden arm 

extended from the huddled group of figures to the one 
standing alone, garments flowing stiffly, branches 

and fronds of leaves bending into a rigid wind. Towers 
and a bridge define distance. On the end panels, 

a solitary vigil ó  face at a porthole, moongate or window, 
staring out into curving lanes, stairways, half-formed 

Chinese characters, mystic symbols. No locksmith 
could yet unbolt their story, dismantle this brass fastening

to find what might be stored inside ó creased linens,
crockery, read letters ó our alibis for all thatís passed.
 

IN THE CHINESE LIBRARY

i

These shapes confound:
small lattices pulled
shut, their frames

delicately barbed, pavilions
with pointed rooftops
like sheathed knives,

half-moons among jigsaws
of tangled branches, stray
filaments of bamboo.

Looked at, they rise up 
like flames, fling 
antic arms overhead

as they climb the bindings. 
I donít wonder they are called 
characters: they spring 

to unauthorized life 
even for me, the illiterate one, 
the misinterpreter

for whom they spark
no synapses, bore no 
pathways through the brain.
 

ii

A Ming painting
celebrates the lofty scholar
high-minded

at his second-storey 
window, while his wife 
pounds grain

in the courtyard below.
Every morning he rises
in the dark, to write

a thousand characters
before the dawn 
unscrolls itself. 

Stroke by unhurried 
stroke, he reinvents
the lapsed world,

brushes it 
into its thousand shapes
and reinscribes it

in the ancient text 
of memory, the rice paper
worn, frayed

in a thousand places, 
the scholar aged
and undeterred.
 
 

iii
 

How shall I construe
these word-shapes: the mindís
papercuts.

A snip here or there
unfolds
a forest of black trees in snow.
 
I will read them 
as the ancient ones
read cloud or spoor.

I watch as you
scan them casually,
then look up a word:

I will translate you 
by reading mostly
what is cut away.
 

iv

This room beggars me.
I know the peasantís
hunger, sidelong glances
 
of the scholarís wife
as I confront 
this spatial language,

each ideograph a box
like the carved 
cedar chest from Singapore,

its pronged key
locked inside
the unseen cavity.

No skeleton to pick
this mystery, no cipherís
master code, nothing

but labor grueling 
as the peasantís
or the wifeís, numbering

each separate brushstroke,
prying open
each sealed door.
 

v

The hand that first
inked these dark
markings, strokes 

of fortune, luck 
or paralysis, midnight
lightening, genius,

was perhaps a loverís.
Away from his beloved, 
he thought in shapes
 
of moonlight, moon gate,
a ginkgo tree stark
in an empty field.

He let his brush glide 
along the flowing scroll,
a boat without oarsman.
 

__________

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