Posted November 2, 2018.

2018 Fall Contest: Poet’s Choice, 3rd Place Winner

Corpse Walker
by David Allen Sullivan

A man was there, walking a few paces ahead of the corpse carrying a basket. Every few minutes he would reach into the basket, grab some fake paper money, and toss it high in the air. You know the ritual, don’t you? It’s called “buying your way into the other world.” His partner followed, hidden by a large black robe, carrying the corpse on his back and shuffling with the weight.
—Luo, as quoted in The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories from the Bottom Up, by Yiwu Liao 廖亦武

I am carrying my father through China,
like those hired to carry the body of the dead
back to their home village before their job
was outlawed by Mao, who wanted bodies
to become fertilizer, though to this day
many pay to see the face of their dead.

I show my father sights he cannot see,
carry him to Calligraphy Street past
Little Goose Pagoda’s racks of tiny bells.
Carry him past a cart that rings with knives,
past calligraphy brushes—some thick
as a shoulder, some just a single hair.

Off one courtyard, by Xi’an’s city wall,
I carry him into the quiet of the Stele Forest,
boundary markers signed with entwining
stone dragons. A man brushes red ink over
rice paper riding the stone. Peeled sheets
hang dry. Strange laundry fills courtyards.

The many languages of China swarm
the train station. No queuing up here, just
push and shove and shout, everyone clamoring
for the same ticket. I buy hard sleepers
for my family, knowing my father won’t mind.
We board the bullet train, blur through villages,

rice fields, oxen teams making their slow circuit.
I am carrying my father through China, over
the heated tracks of the tundra train to Lhasa
where no stupa will hold his relics.
I throw a silk-wrapped stone into Lamdrok Lake.
P A P A inked on it. It gurgles out of sight.

He takes an extra seat on the China Eastern flight.
At the market in Kashgar voices barter for sheep
they will bless with Qu’ranic verse before
the slaughter. They hang them upside down.
Slice a red smile in each throat. Catch what falls.
Children play with blood on their foreheads.

In the accordion-like yurt on the steppes
where my whole family piles on blankets
and milk-softened skins of sheep
he needs no extra coverings. We place him
in a chair. Should a government official come
for us they’ll have to deal with him first.

All through China I carry my father. I enter
the seventeenth cave at Dunhuang, finger
the ragged neck of a seated Buddha
while our chatty guide’s turned away.
I imagine the red-guard officer who rifle-
butted off his serene expression.

I imagine my father’s face in its place,
imagine I’m the guide that nightly—
before I flick the lights off—puts a hand
here to reverence to what no longer exists,
to the face I’ve begun to forget. I replace it
with the phrase: I’m carrying my father.

David Allen Sullivan’s books include: Strong-Armed Angels, Every Seed of the Pomegranate, a book of co-translation with Abbas Kadhim from the Arabic of Iraqi Adnan Al-Sayegh, Bombs Have Not Breakfasted Yet, and Black Ice. He won the Mary Ballard Chapbook poetry prize for Take Wing, and his book of poems about the year he spent as a Fulbright lecturer in China, Seed Shell Ash, is forthcoming from Salmon Press. He teaches at Cabrillo College.

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