Quarantined Like Cats in Windows


Quarantined like a cat in a window,

Pedestrians scurry like ancient adversaries;

Rummaging through twitter feeds and litterboxes

I sit, and wait, and hope for any number of fixes.

Not the great outdoors, or some great adventure— 

Perhaps a tree to climb, to lay like larva upon a branch

And so suspend above an endless expanse of leafiness

To crunch and munch on chlorophyll until I’m full.

Quarantined like a mannequin in some boutique,

Passersby seem to love window shopping;

So outfitted I stand quite still and fit to my profession,

But even mannequins start to feel the oppression

And I’m tempted to put myself on sale, to shout—

Everything must go! —so long as I go with it.

I don’t need no Champs d’Elysees or promenade upon which to parade—

I’ll take an alleyway if you let me stay outside all day.

Quarantined like pigs in a pen [if they could fly, they surely would?] 

Quarantined like fish in a barrel [swim in circles and hope for the best?]

Quarantined like Soviet cosmonauts [finally severed from the capitalist


Quarantined like a book you wish you’d put down [better just finish it?]

Quarantined like fake news on Fox [no news is good news?] 

Quarantined like the diaries of a Madman [Октября 3. 分隔多年,消息漸闕?]

Quarantined, Quarantined, Quarantined;

Quarantined! Quarantined? Quarantined. 

Ode to the West?

The sun it rises, according to Hegel,

In that ancient Orient before the flood

Till the ships sailed toward Byzantium

And time itself came hanging over Europe.

It’s absolutely not accidental, says Hegel,

That the great Geist wind blew West—

It is and was the Occident

Where History itself would be won.


And so a cardinal direction claimed itself to be

A civilization of peerless superiority

Gathering evidence of its own supremacy

Through cosmological inquiries into its own destiny.

Dissecting and inspecting with great glee

From Descartes to Demolins they all did decree

Encomia of an all-knowing rationality

Defying and defiling any remaining mystery.


Imperial sails flew flags of progress

Adding entire continents to their shelves

And emissaries with instruments came

To put the world itself to work.

Through cogito came a cogent capitalist system

Ergo the sum of its parts was a globalized vision

Of labs like corporate pyramids—

That’s how the atomic bomb came to be

That crystallization of Western energy.


O Geist, thou breath of Adam’s being—

Winter lingers on, and Spring will never come

Until they’re all gone, the injustices that were done!

So be thou me, impetuous atom bomb,

And blow away the vast blue sea;

Billow up your messianic gales

And sing in menacing maelstroms;

Let the blaze ooze out from the abyss

Lighting every wave leaf and cloud;

Let threnodies rip and roar in every direction

Making the very earth bleed upon its thorns;

Write with me a savage decree

To blast out missiles made of enmity;

Let all wonder be burst asunder

And every repose be deposed;

Send me crying havoc in the night

And with Jupiter’s arrows smite the starlight;

So that it may all begin anew

So that we all may begin again.

The Morning is an Empty Room

Coming into consciousness cold and slow,
Shaking off bedsheets, lifting up limbs,
We exhume ourselves from the ether
In procedures that need no appointment.

Cups arrayed in stark anticipation,
Water boiling, caffeine grinding, waiting
To chase away the embers of evening,
To excise the would-be’s and were-they’s? of dreams.

So awakened, a desk full of commitments—
Analyses that need analyzing,
Texts that seem to want to need dissection—
The species-being of an academic is in making things specious.

But the room stays quiet, quiet like night
Quiet like Christmas Eve when you were eight
Quiet like the sands of the Taklamakan
Quiet like the fog of the Tianshan
Quiet like the sound of distant oceans
Quiet like all memories in motion
Quiet like the fate of precious green jade
Quiet like it once was and will be remade.

A Mantis Prayer

The days are growing longer
And I’m stuck without a clue;
My love for you grows stronger
I just don’t know what to do.

So come a little closer
Sweet mantis in the dew;
Please be my mantis lover
Please tell me what to do.

These buzzing insects bore me:
They’re crunchy, full of goo;
In youth, I found them tasty
Now old, I must eschew.

The nights they bring me sorrow
The days are all so blue;
What’s the point of more tomorrows
When all I want is you?

So come a little closer
Sweet mantis in the dew;
For me there is no other
Let’s make a love stew.

As we approach the altar
You need make no pretense;
I promise I won’t falter
When you with my head dispense.

You grab me with your pincers
And grip me tight like glue;
My heart’s all helter-skelter
Will you say the words ‘I do’?

So come a little closer
Sweet mantis in the dew;
For me there’s nothing better
Than being beheaded by you.
Oh kiss me on the neck
And bite me till I burst;
In this mantis lovenest
I know I’m not your first.

My life is almost over
Herein our grassy room;
But my soul it stays forever
Kissing as you consume.

A Lament for Georgia

Her impending death trickled in
By way of her friend through a telephone,
Bringing shock to the afternoon.
And yet at once more shocking
Is the sheer pace of transition
From lament to consolation—
From ‘does it have to be?’
To ‘it is and it will be.’

Somehow I accept its arrival as immanent.
The facticity of the thing;
The ceasing of a dear friend;
The ceasing of conversations;
Of chuckling over coffee, of—
Stop pouring the coffee.
Live on only in memory.
Converse only in hindsight.

In the place of your breath—
In the place of your footfalls
Leading into the cafe
The key into the ignition
The food you consumed for breakfast
The chair you would sit on, an antique—
Only your memory.

In the place of your breath, imagined footfalls;
Imagined keys churning inside a now second-hand automobile;
An imagined car pulling into a driveway that is no longer yours;
An imagined hot breakfast that is in fact long-since cold;
An imagined repose on a chair that has been brought somewhere else,
For some other, for a time.

My memory of you, detached from you,
Is brought to finality.
Now my memory has the last word.
Now my memory must talk to itself.
My memory of you it lives alone!
Severed from the memories of others of you,
Somehow my memory of you is accepted as enough:
It will have to do.


One Quiet Night

The air is cold but not quite as cold as Siri had predicted as I step out of the yellow cab and close the door, the graceful click registering that I have neither pushed it too hard nor with too much delicacy. It is not an immense pleasure, but there is satisfaction even in this small act.

In my left hand sits the device that has allowed me to reach this place in the hinterlands of Brooklyn, the screen blaring in its own small waist-level corner of the night. I look up to make sure I am exactly where Google has told me that I am; seeing the neon confirmation that hangs above a dark and hermetic door, we, the map and I, nod our heads in assent; I have arrived.

There is a modicum of noise trickling out of the door but the street is otherwise quiet. Through the two large windows framed by a two-story brick façade I see the apparitions of revelry—dim shapes arrayed and in motion. The image strikes me as odd: the bricks feel puritanical, worn, static, and they appear to tell a story that is at odds with the glow of neon and the swirling Saturday-night crowd within their bowels. How many sober nights were spent in this once placid brick building before the hipsters planted the flag of PBR into the community?

I think to myself that I’m probably too sober for this. I stand for a dense moment, myself mute and unmoving, transfixed by the curvature of the neon emblazoned above the door located fifteen feet in front of me. The name of this place is fashioned in white cursive; underneath the appellation and three times as large is a single art deco all-caps word: BAR. The lambent green of those three letters seems to call to me; I, like a gnat in the night, am borne ceaselessly into its aura.

The door opens out toward me. An acquaintance emerges accompanied by a patchwork humming of voices and a particularly staccato moment in Alt-J’s “Breezeblocks.” She, clearly not sober, beams and comes to give me a hug, asking why I’ve arrived late to my own sister’s going-away-party. I offer my condolences, certainly not certain why I have arrived ninety minutes late and sober at 10PM on a Saturday.

The door is shut now and I can’t hear the song anymore, though I am inhabiting in my head its memorized continuation, and the exercise allows me to feel temporarily cut off from the moment’s awkwardness. I am for a few seconds more relaxed than my imminent entrance into the building—into a new vantage at which point the brilliant neon sign will no longer be visible, into a self-professed dive bar that has as much in common with a dive as a belly flop—would typically warrant.

She begins to smoke a cigarette and I politely take my leave (with, in my own opinion, not a trace of the emotional pacing I’m doing internally). My steps carry me forward, though I steal one last moment with the neon green hanging above the dark oak (oak? was it?) door. I am too busy thinking about myself to pay any attention to the make of the knob, or handle, or whatever it is, and I pull.

I had last spoken to my half-sister two weeks prior, in the days after I had returned from another summer in China. My father and I sat across from each other staring at our phones—a once highly busy clothing designer and a soon-to-be very busy graduate student—neither of us wanting to look at the fact that I had spent yet another spate of days in a place he would never visit, whose language he didn’t speak, and the memories of which he never seemed to be all that curious in exploring. Then the phone rang—his, to be exact—and after a few minutes I was handed the device. The conversation was short, tense. We both seemed to be aware that there had been a change in our relationship.

I walk into a new world. The air is surprisingly cool considering the size of the crowd—roughly a hundred people spaced among the booths that line the wall to my left, sitting at the long bar to my right, or standing in between these two habitats of drunken conversation. The room is much longer than it is wide. While I don’t recognize anyone yet, my gaze is pulled by the red glowing light that emanates from behind the bar. The bartenders are moving frenetically about, and the way their bearded complexions mix with the crimson lighting and the dark hues of their clothing seems redolent of some undiscovered ring of Dante’s Inferno. I imagine Vergil explaining the scene: “these poor souls are condemned to work the fun hours of the night while listening to the same songs on repeat as they watch others luxuriate in the evening liquid; every time they fill up a glass it immediately empties into a stranger’s hand.”

A beautiful woman smiles at me. I stand for another moment because the light is truly beautiful. I notice that the red is emanating from behind the impressive shelf of various liquors—the light carries through the different shades of the bottles and creates a decadent structure that is as radiant and alive as a Gustave Klimt dress. It now seems so obvious: I am looking at a shrine. The men in black are not poor servants paying for past sins, they are priests presenting the most holy of potables. Nunc est bibendum

The point at which our relationship really frayed was the moment I learned that she had told our father that her mother would never set foot in our house again. It was made abundantly clear that this stemmed from her birth-mother’s indignation at my birth-mother. A frequent guest at Thanksgiving and Christmas Day festivities for the last fifteen years, my father’s ex-wife had perhaps manipulated my sister into thinking that my mother—our mother—mama—had somehow contrived to make her wedding a painful ordeal for her. My mother, in spite of orchestrating almost the entirety of the wedding, of laboring for hours over every detail and working tirelessly to make our house nuptiable, did forgot one thing: the wedding bouquet. That in part led my half-sister and her mother to spend the following Thanksgiving in Maine.

I walk toward the back of this mystical room and in its shadowy recesses, removed from the ambient glow of the glass bottles, I find a swell of varying degrees of familiarity. And sitting in a booth near the back corner I find my younger sister and two of my older sisters. They jump up in a flurry of smiles; we hug. They are lovely people, and I am happy. My younger sister slides over and we all sit down. I am sitting across from my sister who is about to move to LA with her husband. She and I have never openly talked about what her mother said to our father; the absence from Thanksgiving; about how I resent the way she chose to handle the situation. She and my mother’s relationship has repaired in the year and a half since the wedding, but it may never be the same. Our relationship may never be the same. The booth is comfortable; we sit on the black leather that is roomy enough for three on each side. Seeing that this is a sibling moment, most of her friends continue to enjoy themselves in various pockets of the BAR.

She is doing this because her husband hates New York, the city she loves and has called home for eight of the last ten years. As we talk about the impending move I start to reflect on how much she hated the two years she formerly spent in LA, how isolated she had reported feeling. I think about the fact that all of her dearest friends live here. I am suddenly saturated in a moment of fear (which I also try to hide, because my sister is an extremely anxious person and to show her that I lack confidence in her ability to make this already-made decision work out is counterproductive). I am worried about her and the awkwardness I felt over the telephone completely dissipates. I notice that she is almost finished with her drink and I ask her what she would like.

For some reason, when I was in late elementary school my sister stopped spending as much time at our house. I don’t remember it being a stark shift; it was more of a gradual transition that some psychologist had probably implemented in order to make the changes in our lives as subterranean as possible. Weekend by weekend, fortnight by fortnight, month by month, my big sister became my half-sister. I leaf through my wallet and grab a $20 a $10 and four $1s, handing them to the bartender. There is no longer any impetus to write about the bar at his back, and I could describe his face but I thank him and walk back to the booth with two Moscow Mules; I hand one to my sister and I sit back down. We all raise our glasses and the clinking sound is enveloped by the warming legato of Odesza’s “How Did I Get Here?” and we joke about things that are profound in their triviality and I think I’ll never come back to this bar and that I want it to always be what it is on this night when the air felt slightly warmer than Siri had predicted and that Claire and I will always be Claire and me standing together on that cold night before Siri existed as a five and eight year old with our matching felt jackets with the leather sleeves and the red C with the yellow stripe running behind it that made me feel like a professional baseball player an image that I would turn to at various points in my later childhood as a symbol of who my sister was before I understood intellectually the concept of what a symbol was and yet it was all there she and I and her height belying the doubts and the anxieties begotten by a messy divorce and perhaps confusion over who her real mother was but one thing always apparent always evident that she loved me ceaselessly and always would

Xinjiang, 2016

Reflections on Mae Salong

Originally published in Columbia University’s Asia Pacific Affairs Journal.

“Most of the hill tribes here smoke opium in the evenings. For us Chinese, it’s almost exclusively the older generation—those who came with the Kuomintang. Have you tried opium? Why not? It’s medicine: the world becomes a blur of comfort and quietude after a hard day’s work.”

Two weeks through my stay in Mae Salong, I still hadn’t acclimatized to its peculiar language. A sleepy mountaintop town located near Thailand’s northern border, its population is as enigmatic as its history. Settled by the remnants of one branch of the defeated Kuomintang military that had initially fled to Burma in 1949, the village’s Chinese inhabitants built a formidable opium kingdom here in 1961. The profits were used to fund a counter-attack against the PRC that never came.

Today the guns are gone from Mae Salong, and the former opium fields swell with what will become delicate oolong teas. At night the dark green hills are lit intermittently with the subtle glow of fireflies and the more prominent beams of flashlights: patrols on the lookout for opium smugglers from Myanmar.

By day the languages of the Lisu and Akha hill tribes, as well as Thai, Mandarin, and the Chinese dialects of Yunnan Province mingle across Mae Salong’s landscape, making it exceedingly difficult for visitors to build a coherent picture of the community. While the groups mostly commune among themselves, important intersections do occur.

On a hot May afternoon, I visited a small neighborhood populated by several of Mae Salong’s most aged villagers. Chinese characters adorned the larger houses, offering blessings. Interspersed between these buildings were the more rustic Akha and Lisu dwellings. I sat with a wizened Akha woman, a middle-aged Lisu man and a Chinese woman whose late husband had been a KMT soldier. We drank tea on makeshift stools beneath the awning of her small knick-knack shop. Each of them spoke varying degrees of Mandarin, allowing us to communicate in a common tongue. In between our conversations, I listened as my interlocutors switched between languages with the ease of our languid afternoon.

Facing the risk of attack from nearly every front, the Chinese colonizers of Mae Salong developed deep and lasting relationships with the neighboring hill tribes. Brought together by a confluence of twentieth century circumstances, this interethnic rapport was more unaffected than I had ever encountered in Mainland China.

Somewhere within the house behind us, an old man coughed; another whooped with euphoric laughter. Beneath my feet, chickens peeped and scuttled across the cracked road, pecking at grain. Scooters whirred by, carrying up to four schoolchildren in blue uniforms. The day was uncharacteristically dry, but dark clouds were rumbling over Myanmar. Within minutes a swirling downpour would submerge the gleaming valley below, and all that would remain to characterize this place would be the sounds of my temporary, aged companions, their voices shifting back and forth between the somewhat familiar tones of Mandarin and the obscure languages local to this hilltop two hours north of Chiang Rai.