Breaking the Alabaster Jar

China, 2014

by Melissa (Mei An) Reed

For all the street dancers who move between Swing, Folk, Jazz and the Cowboy song,
“It’s been a long hard ride home.”


Unhelmeted electric-motor bikers swarm

Nanjing streets, bike paths, sidewalks, swoop

soundlessly from behind pedestrians, graze

human calves with passing shoe leather racing

relentlessly to work. Their mission? Forced

to workplaces on time or lose their jobs (despite

unmanaged high volume traffic) they freely choose

to support clean air. Only wei guo ren * need remember:

pedestrians sharing that mission lack right of way.

Safe awhile inside the stationary shop, you view

the frenzy of fast development storming by, destroying

the lives of people it aims to serve,

view the unfolding drama as Eros and

Thanatos write it, as Chinese view it —

the past always before them, a rewinding film.

You count the mounted Venuses whose broad-brimmed

hats challenge the promised, never delivered

safety, their colorful silk scarves floating

behind them where their futures wait in blind spots,

where Isadora Duncan’s death by hanging

replays as you imagine another scarf

catching in a turning wheel. Chinese art,

once shaping subjects to make beautiful

the space around them, holds no value now,

yet you must admit these Venuses have not lost

their power to touch and transport. Inside

their world of bright Suminagashi inks

that marble and mingle with dark traffic,

you sense beauty, truth and passion coalesce — except

there is no uncertainty, mystery, doubt.

Nearly trampled under foot by others going green,

all to board the bus on Saturdays, wei guo ren ask,

Is forging ahead only what matters?

You disembark the exit door where

a mother and child force entry, pushing

you from steps into boulevard shrubbery.

Recovering from the ground up, you notice

how robot-like Nationals are, remarked

only for hard work and efficiency,

you observe their lost body-awareness, lost

intrinsic self-worth (that kind never having

been recognized) you feel their brazen courage.

Courage sans care rams grocery carts into waiting

wei guo ren — steals sans reproach their checkout

line places. Whilst Nationals count coups, you caress

your bruised thigh and read on the exit wall,

“Keep calm and carry on,” the British mantra now

The People’s.

Forbidden expressed pain or compassion’s anger,

you regard the irony of government goals:

“Safety and Efficiency” under the charcoal haze

hazardously painting the sun silver,

numbing wounds of family and community bonds

first disrupted by Mao’s informing regime.

You understand why people continue

to lie, continue to believe that their lies protect

them, continue to disrupt social bonds:

When fast is the way, nothing new can be learned.

Broken hearts and obstructed lungs lose biophilia.

Lost vigor, mindfulness and ennui turn

into a second mantra, Mei ban fa —

Nothing to be done. ** From whom has contempt

for vulnerability been learned?

Kwan Yin devotees had protected and nurtured

crickets, praying mantis, grasshoppers, ladybugs —

all tiniest members of the life force.

She walks toward you in afternoon sun,

the strange cyan sky accents

her incarnadine face.

From the wood pole across her shoulders hang

two baskets brimming

white, black and golden feathered chickens.

You read and share her hidden pain,

read in her eyes the sacrificial task,

read each bird’s incommensurable value,

how for them she had lavished —

still lavishes

her devotion, each feather a divine poem

bearing on the Breath of Life

the intricate, inextricable love

of Creator for Creature.

A smile unbidden rises from you,

brims

just for her,

her black and rosy beauty, the light shining

from her as she walks, fascinating, transforming

the space around her.

Surprised, she feels your understanding, your awe, and accepts

and returns the smile that bonds you,

both of you become two feathers liberated

by an infinitely gentle, still good Hand writing

a new heaven

and a new earth. ***

* Wei guo ren is Chinese for ‘foreigner’.
** The same refrain that Samuel Beckett satirizes bitterly in his tragic-comedy, Waiting for Godot.
*** Reference to Revelations 21:1: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,/ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.


Journal, Volume 3 Issue 4