Old Shanghai

August 12, 2015
translated by Dong Li
史国瑞 (Shi Guorui), “Shanghai,” 15–16 October 2004, unique camera obscura, gelatin silver print,129 x 440 cm. By permission of the photographer. In this YouTube video, he discusses the genesis of the photo.

for s.t.

a carnival, our youth catches the last train.
the customs-tower clock has gotten a new set of works,
its minute hand turns the whole city around. in the morning fog
whistles blast in unison, the hunched-over bund casts off its shackles,
the colonial age comes back in watery reflections of tall ionic columns.
do not miss watching the crowd on the street before eight o’clock,
millions of ants carry away a lie. every day
is new, a jigsaw puzzle in the kaleidoscope,
you stand and adventures surge toward you. alas, too many blind spots
like a shikumen-style façade, dim and damp and full of holes,
lined up to be exposed once overcast days have filed by.

two universities separated by a railway bridge, you study literature
and i study law, whatever we are learning,
we are learning to breathe freedom. while an
unfinished confession lies in the hospital and accepts admiration,
an underground library expands quickly: nietzsche, freud,
sartre and dear theo . . . by which time the whole city’s elites
can brood on eggs of flesh and blood, patches and detachable collars
betoken the soul, poetry is a pass for the despicable and the noble,
toward friendship and dream, toward schizophrenia and trash
and the adulterous bed of power, until the eventual arrival of summer.

a spiritual carnival breaks off abruptly,
i pack my luggage and feel that it is lighter than before,
like a whimper pressed under index finger; as bulldozers
level the horizon of memory, as life’s
sails will not overlap for good, as our girls
turn into mothers, as shanghai becomes new york city,
for the past twenty years, i have been here less and less, on each visit
i can hardly recognize it – how would we know
every night you sneak back through hidden minefields, to wipe off
portrait frames of the dead, to brandish don quixote’s long lance?

you enter purgatory and bar all of us out.

Translation from the Chinese
By Dong Li

Dong Li was born and raised in P.R. China. He is German Chancellor Fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (2015–2016) as well as Literature Fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude (2015–2017). He was Colgate University’s Olive B. O’Connor Poet-in-Residence (2013–2014). His honors include fellowships from Yaddo, Vermont Studio Center, Millay Colony, the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, and elsewhere. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, Guernica, Cincinnati Review, manuskripte (Austria, in German translation), and others.