Christopher Merrill has published four collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and books of translations; and five works of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars and Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain. His latest prose book, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, chronicles his travels in Malaysia, China and Mongolia, and the Middle East in the wake of the war on terror. His writings have been translated into twenty-five languages; his journalism appears widely; his honors include a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government. He is member of the National Council on the Humanities and the U.S. national Commission for UNESCO. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, he has undertaken cultural diplomacy missions in more than thirty countries. He and his wife, violinist Lisa Gowdy-Merrill, live in Iowa City with their two daughters.
Lines in Nanjing
The sleepless runner searches for an avenue
Lined with French parasols, and finds instead a dancer
Stretching her arms around the statue of a lion
Guarding the Sacred Way to the Ming Tombs. Old men
Chant in the temple, women on Plum Blossom Hill
Perform their calisthenics, and a crowd has gathered
At the gate of the revolutionary’s mausoleum.
A bell rings on a junk setting sail from the harbor
For the last time. The dancer’s hands inscribe in the air
A gesture that the runner cannot recognize.
Nor will he translate what he thought he heard her say:
I will not leave your dream, if you will stay in mine.
Horse, unicorn, and elephant. Lions and camels.
Cohorts of bored officials and the generals
Who serve the emperor in the next life. I stop
Before each statue in the morning mist, recalling
The steps of my initiation—interviews,
Examinations of my conscience and my body,
An oath recited and regretted... A bicyclist
In a green poncho pedals past, intoning Om.
What did the strolling violinist play that evening
For the young couple quarreling in the café?
A folk song improvised upon a Chinese proverb:
There is no feast under the sun, which doesn’t end.
The bell hanging supervisor did not show up, so the crates were still unopened at dusk, when the last of the worshippers left the tower and the choir of bell ringers, recruited from the Old World, set out for the waterfront in search of the sea captain who had brought them on this God-forsaken land. They checked taverns and rooming houses, brothels and a chapel in which drunken sailors sometimes slept. The ship had not left the harbor, which was small comfort to the men renowned for the changes they could ring, standing in a circle under a belfry, pulling one rope after another in their white robes, clockwise, tick tock, tick tock, the bells swinging up and down, thousands of changes rung on the heavy air, sounding in the streets of a city they might never see again. They found the supervisor hiding in an alley, his pockets stuffed with silver, a litter of kittens mewling in the canvas bag slung over his shoulder. Sing for us, they demanded—and he did.
Start with the swing, not the rope or the oak sundered in a storm, which didn’t end until the river flooded, destroying houses and shops, a shuttered factory and a museum dedicated to the original inhabitants of the land.
Use a quill dipped in venom milked from the sea snakes slated for sacrifice to the fickle gods of trade, not to write a dirge for the wedding ring left on the windowsill, in the cup that was always running over, but to examine the nobleman’s decision to free his serfs.
Ignore the offers of the peddler at the back of the arms bazaar spreading amethyst and jade on the table belonging to the gun-runner from the interior, and the promises of the courtesan left behind by the occupying army during its retreat to the mountains overlooking the city.
Also the silence of the fishermen spaced evenly along the jetty, scanning the horizon at dusk; the flag of convenience flown by the freighter emptying its bilge into the harbor; the provenance of the diamonds unloaded on the eve of independence.
Nor should you answer the questions discovered in the desk of the jurist who was struck down by a street car during negotiations for the armistice.
Obey the teachings recorded in the logbook now in the possession of a longshoreman determined to whet your appetite for freedom.
Heed the example of the medieval bards who composed their deathbed poems when they were still in good health.
Measure warnings of conspiracy, fraud, or plague against the testimony of the land surveyor who offered to lead his employers back into their wood-lots.
Pray for the child who left off watering the salvia to find her father slumped at his desk.
Burn my notes and papers. Spread my ashes in the sea.