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The Ashes

for William Gass


This elderly poet, unpublished for five decades,

Said that one day in her village a young girl

Came screaming down the road,

“The red Guards are coming! The Red Guards

Are Coming!” At once the poet

Ran into her house and stuffed the manuscript

Of her poems into the stove. The only copy.

When the guards arrived they took her into the yard

For interrogation. As they spoke

The poet’s mother tried to hang herself in the kitchen.

That’s all I know about the Red Guard.

It is enough.


The elderly poet is bitter—and why not?

She earned her PH.D. at an Ivy League school

And returned to China in 1948. Bad timing.

She is bitter with me

Because I’ve chosen to transtrate a younger poet,

Young enough to be her child or mine.

The truth is, her poems are forced,

But not flowering. The good work died in the stove.

She knows this. She wants me to recompose them

From the ashes. She wants the noose

Around her mother’s neck untied by me.

She wants—oh, she wants!—to have her whole life over:


Not to leave America in 1948;

To know me when we are both young promising poets.

Her rusty English is now flawless,

My Mandarin, so long unused, is fluent.

No dictionaries needed. A perfect confidence

Flowing between us. And the Red Guard,

Except as the red sword-lilies

That invigalate the garden,

Unimagined by us both:

I, who believe the Reds are agrarian reformers,

She, who believes she will be an honored poet,

Her name known to everyone, safe in her fame.


From Carolyn Kizer Cool, Calm & Collected: Poems 1960-2000 (Copper Canyon Press, 2001) with permission of the author


Carolyn Kizer


The Brooklyn Rail


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