Author's Note: I'm not sure I know how to write about freedom, but in "Postcard from The Smoke" (i.e. London) I try to remember being young and not yet grateful for it. I've spent much of the last two weeks looking at photographs, prose, and poetry that came out of a visit to China in 1992. "T'ai Chi with the Finches" isn't about freedom, but it is about a very different country from ours as it tussles with its beliefs and its values.
Postcard from The Smoke
Of my first six months as a refugee, I recall almost nothing. I was six. I did not feel grateful. I did not feel free. Instead, mostly what I remember was how cold London was, and how small our rooms were, and how foreign I was made to feel—and if the coming of summer cheered me, and acquiring our own house reconciled me, there followed a second winter: and I did not feel grateful. I did not feel free.
I was given, I recall, a pet, a hamster. Poor thing.
The house came with a coal scuttle, bigger than I was, which for an English winter seemed not big enough. It did not, since the laws had changed, and London, sick of its smogs, was going smokeless, come with coal. It came with a residue of coal, called coke.
So that still, when I hear the word coke, I picture neither a drug nor a soft drink, but a small, soft animal, whom I neglected, who so hated his cage he escaped and he escaped, out into the yard, into the pitch dark of the coal scuttle. Until one day I found him crushed by a great coke rubble—which glittered a little in the late light, for its blacks were streaked with pallor.
How, I thought, as I lifted it off of him, could this have weight enough to kill him?
Unless perhaps he wished it to, burrowing and scrabbling to be pinned?
I am grateful, now. I know, now, how much worse it would have felt, to grow up in the cage that other country was, for the likes of me.
There's not much left in me of who I was back then, at six and at seven, neither of memory nor of misery—barely enough, I would have thought, to make a poem—but look, I scrawl and I scratch a bit, and how, once I get it rolling, their weight still batters!
Photo credit: Derek Kannemeyer
Temple of Heaven, June 1992
At first sight, they’re as alike as birds. Not in their features—for the people of new China are as distinguishable to an American eye as any humans— it's more in how they come at us. In white shirts, dark slacks—the standard markings; each bowing a brass brown head; each swinging at the same slight angle, lightly away from him, like careful groceries, two bamboo cages. Soon, the pair will pick out a dapple of ground. The finches, dangled from a branch, will tune their radio. The men, with an immensely contained belligerence, will bob, spin, breathe, and smite the air. From dawn till dark we see them, in parks or some paved cranny: the citizens of Beijing at their t'ai chi— rinsing, for an hour of grace, their lives of fret. Mao had the songbirds who gorged on the crops drummed up from the bushes and slain. Once they lay dead in their millions, it transpired that what in fact they had fed on was the insects that ravaged the crops. Finches are the Number One Pet now. Without recrimination or alarm, they singsong away as a nation pivots and wheels, to tilt at shadows. All week we’ll see and hear them, carving their measured slices out of the open-necked June air.
First published, in very different form, in Stone Bridge Cafe.
©2022 Derek Kannemeyer
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