blackbird online journal Spring 2008  Vol. 7  No. 1



The Chinese Compass Lost Its Bearings

He wanted to be a star mummified in gold gauze
or a newt camouflaged in flame. If all else failed,
he imagined doing time as an evangelist on a ghost ship,
mooring at the globe’s fleshpots before sailing
into a night that dazzled him with signs of its origin.

No wonder the crew lashed him to a mast
and nailed a doubloon over his head.
If he’d spoken their language, he could have learned
to untie knots on his wrists with his tongue, slipped
into the sea like a porpoise, done something safe. 

Nobody expected our search for him to end
in a Mongol’s ger by a windmill clattering over a latrine.
The stink of goats, the cows chained to spikes
and bellowing, the lightning pricking mountains
reminded me of summers on his Swedish farm.

Sleepless, traveling backwards the way I was told
to do on high-speed trains, I found myself
once again in the Gobi’s wheel ruts with his ghost
trotting before me on a camel, scouting out
watering holes for an expedition he led to Shangri-la.

At the checkpoint, Chinese military police
took our passports, threatened to hit our Land Cruiser
with missiles or machine guns, then lock us in jail.
“We abandon the route,” our Chinese guide said.
“Uighur terrorists run guns here. We become targets.”

That’s when the toy compass lost its bearings,
the guide lost face, stared at sun lancing dust clouds
rather than study maps, at grapes shriveling
into raisins in the Turfan Depression’s brick huts.
The air conditioner gagged. The radiator fumed.

Diesel and water tanks leaked from the roof.
Only when clouds turned into mountain snowfields
beyond the ger did it seem inevitable—
the warnings at checkpoints, the ghost of my ancestor
evaporating from desert ruts I could never follow

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