My mother is in China.
Visiting Tiananmen Square.
The Forbidden City.
Viewing 800 ceremonial buildings
containing 9,999 rooms
and a courtyard for 100,000 people.
She walks through Beijing’s ancient narrow hutongs
Learning about the daily life of the ordinary.
Then the Summer Palace, where the Imperial court lived
Every year from April to October.
On to the peaceful valley of the buried Ming emperors
Later to the Great Wall,
Undulating up and down the Badaling Hills
Marveling at great stone towers she learns its
Curves are to defy devils and demons,
Who only travel in straight lines.
At the Temple of Heaven
a series of elegant circular structures
Reaching for other realms
She hears of rituals of servility
for release of sins
I follow her progress in the itinerary,
subject to change.
With no telephone numbers,
no hotel address,
There is no way to picture her
visiting these places.
I have no photos, no book
to show the way.
I am reassured that she will have
a welcoming dinner of traditional Peking duck
with a lively acrobatic show during dinner,
after which she can relax during the evening
and gather her memories and new friends.
This poem was penned in 2003 when my mother was in China. Each day of her trip I tried to picture her doing some of the things that were described in the very formal, old-fashioned itinerary that was provided by the tour company. Some of the phrases in this poem are “found” in that I lifted them directly from the itinerary. While she was gone, I realized that I had no way to contact her, no way to communicate. And it struck me that her traveling to China was giving me a foretaste (way in advance I hope, as she is still wonderfully vital and active) of how it may be when she is dead and gone. Then I’ll have no way to communicate with her, no way to see her, no knowledge of how she is. The formality of the itinerary and its stiff language made me think of the Victorians and their journeys and then of Victorian era poetry. The title of this poem refers to James Whitcomb Riley’s poem “She Is Just Away”. If you aren’t familiar with his sentimental Victorian poetry, you might find this Wikipedia entry interesting.