Auden in China

From Watercolor Painting of a Bamboo Rake -- Brooding Heron Press, 1994

In the '30s I witnessed the depressing dazzle--
the pagodas, the squalor, Shanghai's fetid 
Pearl River, and on its banks the rag heaps 
of the starved--that stench clings to me still.
Even history reeked, so spiralled, so unwound,
time corkscrewed nowhere, moving and still.
Mao lit out for the tan Yanan Hills,
surviving on conviction and rice gruel.
Later, they called it the Long March--
6000 miles in a single year, one in ten 
survived--a retreat so far-flung and complete 
it finally won the peasants and the war.

I only came to meet Tu Fu and Li Po, 
those snickering drunks in their Tang boat,
spluttering their poems on West Lake,
drifting aimless toward dawn's mottled skin,
plum blossoms caught in their beards.
Forever an exile, I settled in America, where 
natives are aliens but hate to admit it.
We have jeweled lawns and bread lines.
Everywhere you feel the "quiet desperation";
the young country acts old, naive to its ruin.
God-fearing men plan wars to end all wars.

What became of those crazy drunks who sang
to the moon and back? Legend says they toppled
overboard, tried to cling to each other, 
drowned in a net of stars. Legends lie 
beautifully to heaven. China. America. 
Look at the world and you want to scream.

Edward Harkness