Meeting Death’s Envoy on a Winter Afternoon

by Eleanor Goodman, translating from the Chinese by Wang Xiaoni

That messenger with his hands tucked in the sleeves of his silver jacket.

From across the table, we watch
red navel oranges roll all over the table.
The light leaps over to illuminate me
outside the palm trees look like flattened corpses
ancient warriors receiving their punishment.

He’s nondescript, a faithful man
one who could be called trustworthy.
Behind silence’s back silence speaks quickly
as though signing off on a timetable for the future.

I still can’t tunnel out from my insides.
It’s no good to run
no good to struggle
no good to leap away.
The most I can do is to try to move heaven and earth
is to sit lazily in this listless afternoon.
Time has treated me badly
all I can do is shun him.

The moon rises, goes to ring its small gong
I open the door, and Death’s messenger and I part ways
I use dusk’s last light to send him off.

Notes on the Poem

The judges' citation for 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted Something Crosses My Mind by Eleanor Goodman, translating from the original poems in Chinese by Wang Xiaoni, notes Wang's "quiet, loving, meditative distance to the mostly anonymous and lonely heroes she clearly knows well." We encounter one such hero in the poem "Meeting Death's Envoy on a Winter Afternoon," and we're left wondering about that hero's fate. The lines "It's no good to run no good to struggle no good to leap away." capture the languid, lethargic, possibly depressed tone of the narrator. Or is that tone bitter and passive-aggressive? Certainly, these lines verge on sarcastic ... "The most I can do is to try to move heaven and earth is to sit lazily in this listless afternoon." ... and in addition to bitterness, the verb in the following is active, not passive: "Time has treated me badly all I can do is shun him." Somehow, though, these lines burst out of this otherwise monochromatic poem: "we watch red navel oranges roll all over the table." The flash of moving colour is like a burst of spirit in the midst of the seeming torpor of the rest of the poem. At the end, when "Death's messenger and I part ways" ... has the narrator sent the messenger away having repudiated or accepted the message? What do you think?

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