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Cai Guo-Qiang speaks

In the old days in China
my father collected calligraphy,
ancient scrolls, and rare books.
We lived in Quanzhou,
across the strait from Taiwan.
We could hear artillery batteries
firing into the mist at the island
that still resisted the mainland.

My father’s calligraphy
was delicate and adept.
I used to stand at his shoulder,
careful to leave space
for his arm to move freely,
as I watched him wet the ink
to the right consistency,
select his brush, and dip it
gently and carefully, soaking
the soft hairs of the badger,
and stroke its sides
against the jar, forming a point
like no other, soft, flexible, yielding.

With an intake of breath,
he raised his hand that held the brush,
hovering above the paper,
and slowly exhaled
until he was an empty receptacle,
and then, and only then,
he touched the tip of the brush
to the fine rice paper—
the strokes flowed, deft and sensitive,
forming the ancient shapes of the words.

Then came the Cultural Revolution.
My father worried that his books,
his scrolls, and his calligraphy
were a time bomb ticking.
He buried his collection in a hole
in the earth of the cellar,
but he was still afraid, and little by little,
he began to burn it, at night, in secret,
in the hidden depths of the house.

Afterwards he was not the same.
He lost himself in a strange self-exile
and left us all, his family, behind,
finding perilous refuge
far away in the mountains
in a ruined Buddhist convent,
where an old crone of ninety,
the last remaining resident,
gave him sanctuary.

There he would take sticks
and write calligraphy once more
in puddles on the ground
that would disappear
as soon as it was written,
leaving invisible skeins of sorrow
in the changing reflections
of cloud and sky on water.

I am his son, and my calligraphy
is fireworks, my art gunpowder,
as evanescent as writing on water.
Pinyin—the Chinese word
means fire medicine, invented
by alchemists investigating immortality.

My explosions are brief dreams,
where space and time combine
in a momentary universe
of birds, fish, and animals,
little-known symbols,
the stream of the Milky Way,
energy transformed into chaos.

In my youth a shaman protected me
from the ghosts of dissatisfaction
that were haunting me,
freeing me to communicate
the invisible within the visible.
Some mysteries are meant to be discovered,
some are meant to remain heaven’s secrets.
I imagine an alternate history
where the discovery of nuclear power
was not used for making weapons.
I dream of creating a ladder of fire
far in the air above the earth,
seen from worlds beyond our own.

Anne Whitehouse was born and raised in Birmingham, AL and graduated from Harvard College and Columbia University. She is the author of six poetry collections, a novel, and short stories. annewhitehouse.com