Poem of the Month
The Tale of Dark-Face Sze

By Gillian Sze

Published on October 1, 2014

Fujian, 1400 years ago

On a hot day in Yongchun,
a girl is sent out to collect bitter leaves for dinner,
and in her chore, is suddenly graced divine.

Already blurred from the sun,
the mutation is taxing

and she discovers that
apotheosis involves a lot of sweat.

So she crosses her legs and perspires
until the ground beneath her turns to mud,
and the fiercest part of the afternoon
impales her,
and her mother comes searching.


The Chinese verb used to describe
a Buddha,

is the same verb used
to describe the producing of sweat

the same verb used
to describe the publishing of a book.


The mother discovers the sweat
dripping from the girl’s chin
and wipes her daughter’s face
with a corner of her apron.

When she pulls back,
the girl’s face has turned black
as onyx.

It is not common
to have a daughter or neighbour to worship.
It is equally uncommon to be betrothed to one.

The girl’s fiancé in a neighbouring village
begins to feud with the girl’s parents
(a spat over possession,
the entitled proprietor of gods)
and one foggy morning, the case is brought to court.

The only thing that can be seen that day is the river.
So the judge uses the same verb (to give advice)
and decides that the water will do the same,
but differently, so as to take up the matter in its own hands.

The girl would be dropped into the river
and depending on the direction of the current,
she would flow either upstream to her parents,
or downstream to her betrothed.

The instant she hits water, she splits in two.
Just cleaves at the waist.
Her upper half flows north
(one may even call it America);
her lower half flows south.

Amidst the haze, a fisherman farther along shore
would’ve mistaken her for a catfish,
an inky glint, resolute and out of reach.
He would have used the same verb
as the girl, the judge, and the river
but twist it onto itself
to become a modifier for the moment,
to mean extraordinary, unusual, splendid.


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