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Thermodynamics


He pours hot water into a cup, stirs the powdered

ling chih mushroom, hands it to you. You observe

black specks swirling in the inky tonic: sip,

shudder, sip. It is supposed to treat neurasthenia,

dizziness, insomnia, high serum cholesterol,

coronary disease, rhinitis, asthma, duodenal ulcers,

boost the immune system. You look around the room,

catch crescendos and decrescendos to the flute music

open on the stand, pick out the first character,

"Spring," written in official script on a scroll—

Warring States bronze mirrors lined up on stands.

You pick up the last strands of glistening jellyfish,

see speckled tracks of grease on the platter,

feel as if you are jostled in a small airplane

as it descends into cumulus clouds. You remember

in Beijing a couple wanted to thank him for arranging

financial sponsorship of their son in America;

under the table, she rubbed her leg against his

and whispered she had tomorrow off from work;

but tomorrow, lust, betrayal, delight, yesterday,

ardor, scorn, forgiveness are music from empty holes,

and you wonder if the haphazard course of a life

follows a fundamental equation in thermodynamics.

He pulls styrofoam out of a box and reveals

a two-foot-high human figure from the tomb of

the Third Han Emperor; the face and trunk are intact,

though arms and hands are gone. He bequeaths

it to you, though requests that you pass it on

someday to a museum. You nod, sip the cool tonic,

down a few last black specks at the bottom of the cup.

 

—Arthur Sze

 


Arthur Sze's latest books are The Silk Dragon: Translations from the Chinese and The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970–1998.

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review



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