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).