Tian Zhu Jiao (The Teaching of the Lord of Heaven)

by Gord Sellar

1. Sextant

Dreamt last night of Matteo Ricci.
Dreamt he was on the sunnier side
of the Great Wall, that dragon of bricks
with all those bones in its guts
eating a won-ton soup from a
gleaming porcelain bowl. Hard to believe:
I know. This Italian had strode into the Ming
Court, business as usual, probably
the same year Shaxper agonised himself
into moving that paltry distance down to Londontown.
He stood in the modern ultraviolet
sunlight, serious-faced. He kind of looked
like me, crossed with Gary Oldman.

Ultra-Jesuit, too, he wore Confucian garb,
save the shoes, a pair of dated
penny-loafers. He slurped at the last, and grinned
at me, and gestured off to the side,
out of the way of blinking flashes from
the new wave of pre-Olympic tourist
cameras. We went then secretly
into a small room in the wall, and he
showed me his sextant, leering.

“N’inquiete pas,” he suggested, and repeated
in Italian, then tried English: “We have
tons of time, my friend,” he grinned,
stroking the face of the map on the wall,
and humming softly to himself.

“Cathay will split like fruit, and we will get
at the core, brush the seeds with our own hands.”
His fingertips brushed the straits of Taiwan,
his other hand pressed against southerly Hainan.
His sextant was no good,
not even the tangent screw
could achieve anything
at that point. It was daytime.
And all the maps in the world won’t get you
anywhere near the trembling peaks of Taishan.

2. N.B.

Hsi Lien tells me her stint in Hong Kong and Kowloon
was, wait for it, dis-orienting. You can hear the trap set,
ba-dum-dum, as she raises one eyebrow
above a delicate epicanthic fold, Canton piquant.
We spent hours in shopping malls, discussing Mao Zedong
in the context of ostensible poetry, and puzzling
together definitions of democracy, and guzzling
mead, and the correlation between cognizance and doom.

We spoke of how the Chinese saw the moon,
rabbit-adorned. Strange irony, that afternoon
scrambling after the name of that Quebecois doctor,
only for her to remember it rhymed with “bathroom”.

3. Meat Rabbits

are a staple agricultural product of the region
of Guangdong; the place abounds in meat
rabbits, dead Jesuits, strange signs and sequined miracles,
I discover.

It’s weird, the things people will pay you to edit.

Guangdong sky full of shining crosses, village men
swearing they saw the ghost of Matteo Ricci wander past
the graves on Sunday morning last. Cannons, muskets,
sextants, all risen like the important dead, imported to
proselytize loudly with voices; somehow this doesn’t move me.

More moving by far, the fleeing Ming court
headed southward from Beijing, Helena
(the Emperor’s mother’s Christian name)
penning ideogrammatic prayers to Mary
and Christ for the restoration of rightness
on Earth by heaven; begging the Pope
for prayers and heavenly warriors.

More moving by far to read of Scholar Wang Zheng,
otherwise great man, unfortunate convert by words
of a Jesuit but still refused to cast his concubine
out, swearing to the Lord of Heaven, Christ, that he’d
not touch her again, but retain her with dignity,
rather than sell or murder her.

More moving by far, the imperial roll of all that weight:
the collapsing world of the Ming world smashing directly
down around Scholar Wang Zheng, snuffing out the sun
in him, whose concubine, not his wife, found the wound,
of his suicide. More moving, by far, that wrinkle
in the page, the reassuring itch of abandoned faith.

4. Taishan and the Night Bus

I’ve earned my right to talk at Taishan, on
a dozen buses like this one, coughing polite
and wondering if they think the pink bows in
their black hair is really hao kan. You can tell
a girl from the Old Country by how she picks
the colors of the ribbons tied in her hair.

I’ve sat on trains where the whispers clatter
from the skin of the windows, rattling along
through the arched hollow of the tunnel at night;
heard them asking, “Where is that one going?”

You’d think I’d have come to Taishan already,
picked my way to the top and yelled out some word
memorized from whomever else yells it first.
Climbed up, and found whatever people find there,
and then climbed straight back down, with drooping
mustaches white from age and wisdom and stuff.

But I only ever have gotten as far as Badai-ling,
gazed fished-eyed out all the rockiness and the quiet
that the wall ensealed, my arm leaning on ideogram
graffittoes, the voices of hawkers and braying camels
ready to be mounted for a photograph, you! you!
Walls are marvelous things, lasting forever,
monuments to the past. I yawn, raise my Pentax up.

– 2000-2007, Montreal; Iksan, Jeonju, & Bucheon, South Korea

This poem was published in Diet Soap #3 (2009), which may or may not still be available as a free PDF here.

February 2, 2012

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