Luke Bloomfield on "White Sky"
White Sky1. The curtains above the bed have balloons with snippets of the alphabet on them. The headboard is cheap bent metal with a laminated boogie-board strapped in the middle. The bed itself is just a frame, wooden board, Japanese sleeping mat. The view on a clear day is of the northern mountains. The view on a white day is of a fluke-severed whale tale. White canvases lie around the spare room like bored courtesans. The farm in the media kingdom where the television once reigned: The Age of Repressed Psychological Trauma Mitigated by Man's Savage Toddlerhood The small pink bamboo towel has arrived. Tomorrow or the next day there will be a jailbreak. 2. Across the garden a man in a blue jumpsuit sits in a small dark room periodically shutting off the internet. Alternative title to this poem: Karaoke Fever. Plates of fruit carved to look like tropical feathers sit in nests of dry ice. We arrange ourselves on tiny plastic stools in the cold pulling cartilage into our mouths with our teeth. We pound our exercises out on chipped tiles. We synchronize with hundreds of others. We self-flagellate and measure our smacks. Our inner fire is literal. We tame it with pinches and pills made out of plants. You say it like this wahng-jing. Take me to wahng-jing, you must! But they do. Not. Must.
ON "WHITE SKY"
I got obsessed with China. I used to live in Beijing, population 21 million. When I arrived I didn't speak Chinese, didn't understand it, and the city was alarmingly, indigestibly verbal. If not for a small group of expats who welcomed me into their world and gave me some sense of regularity I wouldn't have lasted long.
I committed myself to a rigorous study of Mandarin to establish a foothold on my surroundings. Many foreigners come to Beijing to do business in English. They live in huge expat enclaves with Starbucks and Subway, pesto, western toilets, access to all the English anyone needs. I lived in an old part of the city, all-native, no English. In the beginning most days I fought off nervous breakdowns.
I couldn't tolerate being dumb to the details of daily life. The details were infinite and I was an infant bewildered and drawn to everything. Why was every atm machine on my block
out of cash by the end of the first day of every month? Why did there appear overnight the ashy remnants of tiny fires dotting the sidewalks? What do you do when your colleague is catatonically wasted before the sun has set? I gradually acquired language and knowledge. My consciousness acclimatized. The layers peeled away, piece by piece bringing coherence to my infancy.
But my frustration to comprehend never lifted. The more I learned the more convoluted everything became. The more truths untangled the greater the entanglement. Does knowledge beget clarity, really? My knowledge only revealed the monumental complexity and inherent LACK of clarity that defines modern China from an uninitiated Westerner's perspective.
Immense cognitive disturbances assaulted my ability to function like a normal person. One time an atm swallowed my debit card. A frenzied wtf! moment. Cash gets you food in China not credit cards. With help I learned there was a number on the machine to call. I was directed to an indeterminate space where my card had been brought for keeping. The whole affair was confusing, stressful, vaguely humiliating. From that experience and many others I learned that in order to get along I needed to pay more attention. This called for a new kind of discipline (ocd) I was not accustomed to exerting on myself. My ocd manifested in small tasks, like preparing food, which I chopped and ordered according to color and size. Mise-en-place became my coping mechanism.
A notion of precision crept into my poetry. For over a year I fed my poems with a persnickety attitude for tighter lines and crisper images. I wrote the poem "White Sky" after moving to a new district called Wangjing, which was farther from the center of the city and the small community in which I had become comfortable. I was deeply lonely, isolations mounted on isolations; the distance from friends and the places that had become familiar to me compounded with the constant struggle with language and culture, solitude from living as far as possible from my original home in western Massachusetts, rejection after breaking up with my girlfriend of six years, and the ultimate, universal isolation of human existence that I hide from / confront by writing poetry. In this solitude I turned to my appropriation of precision, a translation of my need for greater control in life.
There's a poem in Michael Earl Craig's new book Talkativeness called "Sleepwalking Through The Mekong" that first appeared in his FHP chapbook Jombang Jet, a copy of which I smuggled back to China after a brief visit to the U.S. It begins
I have my hands out in front of me.
I'm lightly patting down everything
I come across. I somehow know the
beef dumpling when I touch it.
I can see myself from above.
As if on a video monitor.
I travel slowly down every alley,
across every rice paddy,
into and through every bedroom,
into and through every closet.
I am asleep and yet I am polite.
I haven't asked MEC if he's travelled through Asia (I don't think it particularly matters for the poem to work), but the accuracy with which he captures the experience of moving through a strange world resonated uncannily for me at the time, and still does. Whenever I stepped outside, walked into a restaurant, etc. I became hyper-self-conscious, as if I had stumbled into a place I didn't belong, which was kind of true—I didn't belong in China. This is not to say anyone paid me any attention. A white guy in Beijing is not unique. Nonetheless I felt conspicuous. There was me, and there was the teeming them with a void between us.
The themes in "White Sky" are very straight-forward "China" themes: pollution, weird architecture ("whale tale"), technology, censorship, etc. I wanted to present them with a cultivated precision while conveying the disjointedness with which I experienced them. "Mitigated by man's savage toddlerhood" is a reference to my experience working in a bilingual preschool. The kids at this school were the only good things in my life. And as "things" they amazed and entertained me. I found the casual brutality tiny people inflict on each other to be really endearing. Each day I counted on their teeth and nails to draw me away from self-pity.
The last thing I'll say about this poem is that grilled cartilage on little wooden skewers is common street-food, but that doesn't mean it's edible.