chinese new year

by Lynda Hull

The dragon is in the street dancing beneath windows
        pasted with colored squares, past the man
who leans into the phone booth’s red pagoda, past
        crates of doves and roosters veiled

until dawn. Fireworks complicate the streets
        with sulphur as people exchange gold
and silver foil, money to appease ghosts
        who linger, needy even in death. I am

almost invisible. Hands could pass through me
        effortlessly. This is how it is
to be so alien that my name falls from me, grows
        untranslatable as the shop signs,

the odors of ginseng and black fungus that idle
        in the stairwell, the corridor where
the doors are blue mouths ajar. Hands
        gesture in the smoke, the partial moon

of a face. For hours the soft numeric
        click of mah-jongg tiles drifts
down the hallway where languid Mai trails
        her musk of sex and narcotics.

There is no grief in this, only the old year
        consuming itself, the door knob blazing
in my hand beneath the lightbulb’s electric jewel.
        Between voices and fireworks

wind works the bricks to dust—hush, hush—
        no language I want to learn. I can touch
the sill worn by hands I’ll never know
        in this room with its low table

where I brew chrysanthemum tea. The sign
        for Jade Palace sheds green corollas
on the floor. It’s dangerous to stand here
        in the chastening glow, darkening

my eyes in the mirror with the gulf of the rest
        of my life widening away from me, waiting
for the man I married to pass beneath
        the sign of the building, to climb

the five flights and say his Chinese name for me.
        He’ll rise up out of the puzzling streets
where men pass bottles of rice liquor, where
        the new year is liquor, the black bottle

the whole district is waiting for, like
        some benevolent arrest—the moment
when men and women turn to each other and dissolve
        each bad bet, every sly mischance,

the dalliance of hands. They turn in lamplight
        the way I turn now. Wai Min is in the doorway.
He brings fish. He brings lotus root.
        He brings me ghost money.

A teenage runaway and high school dropout, Lynda Hull eventually became a college professor widely acclaimed for her poetry. Newark’s once bustling Chinatown off Mulberry Street was largely a memory by the time she wrote “Chinese New Year,” which appeared in her collection Ghost Money (1986).

Image: NYU Asian-Pacific-American Institute
Image: NYU Asian/Pacific/American Institute

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