The Manhattan Review
The Manhattan Review
Established 1980

Archive > Vol. 17 no. 2


Catriona O’Reilly




It was eight hundred miles from Xi’an to Beijing
   but from the windows of the train we could see nothing, 
      the landscape (was it temples? was it mountains?) 
         absorbed by a blotter of thick brown smoke. 

We breathed through our surgical masks but the particles choked us;
   even behind glass they prickled our eyes and noses. 
      Half-finished skyscrapers loomed from the smog like nightmarish fingers
         all the way to the capital, in groups of nine or ten. 

We saw no one. We wondered where had the men who built them gone, 
   and from where the people would come, to live in them, 
      and when they would come. We’d grown accustomed to the taste of smoke;
         we’d watched it hovering over the face of the water,

the dwindled tributaries of the Yellow River. 
   Deep in the Forest of Steles we’d tried to decipher the characters
      incised in rivulets down the standing stones:
         a man is like a wishbone; a king one deft stroke less than jade. 

Dammed water harbors its force, but this smoke is unstoppable
   and gets everywhere: in the Hall of Dispelling Clouds we watched the cumulus
      done on stone unraveling in scrolls; the incense in narcotic clouds
         rise to the gold face of Buddha, carved from a single miraculous

piece of sandalwood and fifty feet high. There were dragons sinuous as smoke
   on the Nine-Dragon Screen. We crowded shoulder to shoulder
      to peer at his empty throne in the smoke-blackened chamber: 
         Pu Yi’s, last of the Qing. No chair was ever so vacant as this.  

(And we are motes, we flow through the city like smoke
   where once the swift footsteps of soft-shod retainers barely sounded.) 
      After the Dowager Empress Cixi died in her bed, the malevolent aged plotter, 
         it was as though he just stood up and wandered away, 

perhaps the supreme example of what it is to be no longer at home
   in one’s own life. Now, through that dense obscuring veil
      even the sickly, liver-spotted sun is diminished, vague in outline
         as remembered cruelty, to be gazed upon without injury.