xu zhimo’s willow

by Lydia Wei

on the bus ride to cambridge,
        the tour guide tries to tell us about
peasant rebellions, chelsea buns, plague pits:
    the sky grew dusty with coughed prayers…
some of the younger couples pay attention:
    young professionals from beijing, i think,
they collect these kinds of stories like toy trains and
            action figures.
the grandmas stop listening, bored;
    they go back to their conversations on wechat and
            their qqmahjong games,
    fingers waltzing on the screens.
me, i’m half asleep and half awake, drifting in and out
        of words, watching as
    the flat hills roll by: when the tour guide says
the stained glass windows of king’s college chapel
        were finished in 1531,
    i imagine the sensation of light like a sudden
fainting spell.

we weave through the cobblestone streets
    until we reach the river cam: here,
        past the calm waters and the punters, is
xu zhimo’s willow.
the tour guide, oddly reflective, muses,
    who can remember the old rooms,
            dusty with regrets and lost youth,
        where we stood before our classmates
    and recited this very poem?
    german and english and french tourists pass by us unawares;
meanwhile the grandmas are taking pictures of a dream
    they never thought they’d see: each pixel of the willow
            is a revelation.
        for the young couples, i imagine the willow
as a love note, still tender,
        that they pass under the desks.
    for the middle-aged, it’s a bookmark tucked
in yellowing schoolbooks, a memory of
        scribbling poetry on wild hearts, a promise of
    the open lands. the kids are bored by the tree; they want
            to go punting. the willow quivers
        above the river’s surface, stretching to touch
its reflection. i think of the english translation
        of the poem, some untranslatable shades of green
    glinting from the wind-cut leaves—this language that was
never truly mine, faint echoes of what was lost
        rustling in the branches.

the tour guide has booked us at
    the only chinese restaurant in cambridge.
        we’ll paint the shadows of willow leaves
    on each others’ skin
over steaming bowls of egg foo yung and oxtail soup.