Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Tina Chang from her new book, Hybrida. “Mankind Is So Fallible” is a lovely, ambitious poem about the mysteries of belief. Chang’s lines are simultaneously gentle but jarring: we are eased into the murky and mystical place of faith. In Chang’s poem, the narrator’s mother sets aside God—”She no longer believed in the unseen”—leading the narrator to wonder with what one might replace the divine. Perhaps belief “could be as simple as sleep, curling inward / toward an avalanche of hummingbirds.” This poem thrums like that small, beautiful bird’s wings.
“Mankind Is So Fallible”
We lie down to the day as if we could flee
from the body’s burden. On the ground are notes,
candles, a saint’s face painted alive with gold.
Where does God live if not in the shadows
of struggle, marching next to the living,
with battlements and a slogan, knowing
faintly more than we do? Someone dispatches
a call for help. Someone notes the patches
on a man’s jacket. Somewhere there is a circle
of people praying and dying at once, the loss
of which makes a narrative rain down
in news feeds across frames of light.
My mother once gave up her savior,
walked into our living room to profess
her love for the here and now.
She no longer believed in the unseen,
could no longer bow to invisible idols.
She sat on the chair in front of me
more mortal than she ever was,
face lit with resolve, done with faith,
done with the promise of rapture.
Somewhere, glass breaks
and the one who shatters it
wears a mask of God’s many faces.
How would the body be summoned
if we started over? Imagine a blank book
in which the body is drawn.
Would the body lie horizontal like a violin
whose music plays off-key or would it stand
upright like a totem pole against its own weather?
I place a book under my pillow
as the ancient Japanese courtesans did
to dream the body into being.
Wind gathers from the past until I am walking
in snow. The arms and legs move in unison
with the mind, an engine of sinew and meat.
How should I draw it, not the body
but what it contains. Not its contours
but its tensions. Not its stew of blood
and clattering bones but its promise.
I prefer now to think of the body’s debt
and what it owes to the ledger of the living.
I imagine the courtesans rising from sleep,
hair rushing to the waist like ink. They rub
their eyes of dream, tighten their robes
as they lift the book from beneath their pillow
as if urging a stone from its bedrock.
How would they think of the body then,
having wakened from that place
one could describe as near death.
Instead, the body startles forward toward infinity.
The courtesan runs her hand along the page,
feels the blank space, an urgent bell summons her.
Dips her brush in ink and draws a line through emptiness.
When a young man enters a church,
he seeks a furnace to burn away his hatred
and a foundation on which to kneel.
He seeks his mother’s mercy
and his father’s vengeance. He passes through
the doors and we call this worship.
If it could be as simple as sleep, curling inward
toward an avalanche of hummingbirds, the mind
freeing itself as the body lets go its earthly wreckage.
If it could be like enduring the wholeness of a dream
so real we dissolve into a veil of the past,
wind dragged backward, so brutal in its disappearance.
Reprinted from Hybrida: Poems. Copyright © 2019 by Tina Chang. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.