Salvatore Attardo’s “Workers Disturb My Sleep in Beijing” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #14 of Cha)
(Before you begin, please read my previous discussion of the poem.)
You’re looking nice, son. You have become, in your way, like the pictures of Lennon in Rishikesh – sadness in the right eye and anger in the left – and still at an age when your hair looks practicable, more than practicable, in the morning. Well done.
Your other enclosure, the poem. Yesterday, I placed it in your sister’s hand. I thought it might be the dock leaf she needed, asleep or half asleep for five days, only soup on her lips, and spoonfuls at that, no showers, no conversation. I placed it first on her sighing sweater and she breathed it away, so I tried her hand and she closed her fingers around it. When I came back from a walk, your sister’s eyes were open and her lips moving. I stood over her and she didn’t notice me. But I could hear your poem, clear, on her breath, just the first line, over and over and over:
“I hear the workers chattering late…”
Last week she could still speak quickly, a mouthful of pickled eggs – ‘Everyone in Beijing has been moved, Father,’ she told me, ‘the buildings are broken down and thrown back up and I was touching the glass walls of the town and the water rang with blackness from god knows where. Chesterton was right…’ Since her return, she has talked about Beijing often. But by the next morning, she became so ill; she was frowning, mouthing nothing, dryly crying.
“I hear the workers chattering late right near / my window.”
Last night, your mother and I spent the evening online, trying to understand your sister’s ‘Chesterton’ reference, with no luck. A way, I suppose, of diverting our helplessness, but nothing. Your mother then chattered herself to sleep while your sister drummed at the walls with her soundlessness:
“I hear the workers chattering late, right near / my window.”
But you, Salvatore, you cause your mother and me no distress. Hair like licorice, shirt like a marshmallow saved by a child for its fondest friend. Forget Lennon, you are Sherlock Holmes, leaning forward and smiling, telling young Gilchrist it is human, quite human, to cheat for the prize, to steal into your tutor’s room to find the answer and later, discovered, to kneel before it, lean your arms across it and weep. Your picture says everything we could hope to hear and your poem is at this moment cupped in your sister’s hand like a bird, its heart racing.
“[F]inding sleep with China outside, / teeming with land and people.”
‘Teeming with land…’ your sister is now saying. At least she is saying something. The art soothes the artist, surely.
Perhaps you are Picasso. Picasso, leaping from the car and telling Marie-Therese she is hurting your soul with her beauty, that you are Picasso, that you want to paint her, that artists are merely ambulance chasers and practised drunks, but you will do great things together, and then you are sleeping together within a fortnight, Salvatore. A fortnight.
“In the morning, I realise. In the morning, I realise…”
Your mother told me this morning that I’d grown another handsome inch since I hit sixty-three (just as you turned twenty-five). ‘Long and lovely’ was her phrase. She said she could imagine a teenage girl, too young for me, pointed my way on the train and giggled to her friend and blushed. Another, anorexic she said, brushed my leg and apologised four times. Four. Maybe your mother pities me, or is embarrassed of me even. Maybe I’m a disease, a scuff on the female lens, on the smooth concourse of human symmetry and sympathy, and by extension of this unlikely thought, on wonder itself, on your sister, on her wide eyes and clear voice as she faces me now at the breakfast table:
“[T]hey had been planting a tree.”
‘I want to see that tree, Father,’ your sister is saying. They had been planting a tree. They had been planting a tree. Say ni hao to Beijing for us three.
All my love,
Salvatore Attardo‘s poetry and translations have appeared in several magazines, including Limestone, Jet Fuel Review, Marco Polo Quarterly and the delinquent. He has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is currently at work on a book titled Complex Manifolds and Other Riemann Surfaces: Love Poems.