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In “Empty Ballad (Traditional),” poet Warren Liu writes: “You are something obscured / on my tongue.” Liu’s poems are in rolling motion, in search for something. They are looking for a lost “you,” a memory, a sound. Lines and phrases repeat, circle around, chase one another, like “the ocean lapping the seawall.” They sing. For this week’s Poetry Tuesday, we bring you three poems by Warren Liu.

 

 

 

Proem

 

How you were entranced by our bedroom, so blue,
its tiny square window
facing the clouds
and the woods, how you were entranced by that bedroom,

so blue, and how closely you read our several maps,
and plotted our lines,
this red trail, that
green, how closely you read those rumpled maps, like mazes

those maps, you read them and listened to Pablo Casals,
his round, stringed moan
invading the room,
a bow in the room of Pablo Casals, while you read, near sleep,

and how slowly you rose from those maps, and gathered
your hair, one wet curl
tracing the ear’s
hollow, as slowly you folded first this map, then that—

and how strange that sheets whisper, under your hands,
a bedsprings’ faint
tickle, a plain
sheets’ slight whisper, smoothed under your hands.

 

 

 

 

 

Our Man in Pondicherry

 

Though there was light coming through, though the light drew the room slowly
to—in truth—a murky but welcome distinction, even from the floor of the
bathroom, cheek against the filthy dark blue tiles, as the forms above continued to
pulsate, lines against coherence, convergence. It might be that the eyes are
connected to the stomach, in which case the eyes ran all night counter-clockwise
down the drain.

*

All night the eyes simplified the room from four to two dimensions, perhaps stuck
between two and one—fish bones in the gutter. To crawl a line between toilet and bed
without need of either walls or ceiling, much less time, which unable to measure
tread or slump to Point A, squat or kneel, the same tread, same slump to Point B,
resides snuggled with the book about Lisbon unread, flat on the undistressed
pillow. From where I lay it seemed that book a taunt, the bed a huff, but with the
cold tiles shifting about enough—or is it the cheekbone’s sliding wetness that
causes the room’s shimmer? Either way the bed is way past recapture.

*

To occupy the time: lift the head just enough so that the cheek nearly separates
from the tile, then flatten it apace, lift again, flatten again apace, slick wet cheek,
chuff, use the mouth as carburetion, teeth percussive, the soft suction almost
overwhelms the groin, overwhelmed as it always is. From where I lay anyhow the
groin being equally past recapture. Slick-k-k-ick. Sli-

*

When it began I knew: mutton, mutton, mutton. Mutton, the rhythm of the first slow
curling threat, mutton, a lozenge caught in the throat or even the head as it curls
further in to crawl along the newly-born mutton-line, threaded mutton-line,
mutton-sink, mutton-toilet. It began as that which bade me crawl, that which
speeded the hapless escape of all my dearest fluids. At first it was a battle, but as
the evening progressed I simply stopped tying my lungi. Stretched out on the
mutton-line, waiting.

*

At first the waiting and lying conjured in me a romance: A visitor in a foreign land, a
mysterious illness, darkness falls
…at first amidst such pleasantries one might even
fantasize a moment of micro-parasitic balance, the pink globules rounding some
dark intestinal corner, a cartoon of jocular invasion… A visitor, draped in linen, a
mysterious illness, a quaff of quinine in hand as the land falls asunder, asunder; earlier that
evening the lightning a-thundered…

*

Later on, the lozenge in the throat, fishbones, gutter, the unhappy return to all of
it. As light solidifies the outline of empty water bottles, a return to the water shat
or vomited, the gecko’s shadow cast across the ceiling, a return to the ocean
lapping the seawall, its stones draped with dead rats—all of it a feather pinned to
the brim of morning’s jaunty yellow hat.

 

 

 

 

 

Empty Ballad (Traditional)

 

Though the scenery is mean,
it wavers—discordant, unstrung
by some thing less material
than the newly-green hillsides
fringed with cows, something
whispered in your whisper
as the wires undulate past:

smoked out, bent in escape.
Do those grids of cherry trees
only snap to their axes for you?

The interstate ushers us along,
the sun a point ever receding,
the tires rhythmic stutter tickling
your hands, spread on the dash.

If these are ghosts, trace them
in the dismal notes of the gutter,
the window’s drumming murmur,
the wind that matters softly
through the flutings of your skirt.
The road wants what the gutter
wants, what I want: to be less far

from those rumpled mountains,
stripped of all but thing-ness,
to be not haunting your upset
cowlick with my phantom touch.
You are something obscured
on my tongue. It’s not sand,
pebbles, or grit—they quit me

halfway between occupancy
and delirium—not cloud, grass,
or mountain that mouth back
to me your words. It’s not even
the what of it, but the way you
say it—or the way you said it—
I don’t remember which.

 

 

 

Warren Liu received his MFA from the University of Iowa and a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. He is an Associate Professor of English at Scripps College, where he teaches courses in American literature and creative writing.

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