The grouping below of four poems, shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Prize, forms part of a longer sequence in Banquet in the Hall of Happiness, the 2015 international Fool for Poetry chapbook winner, published by Southword Editions
Banquet in the Hall of Happiness
When staying at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China’s Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908)took her meals in the Hall of Happiness and Longevity attended by teams of eunuchs
They listen to the click of my silver chopsticks on the porcelain plate. No one dares to speak.
Each supper they bring me the kitchen’s riches. Tonight I’ve eaten nothing but hyacinth beans,
these mirrored screens my only guests. Once I was the Lady Yehenara, concubine to a god.
Now, forbidden by rank to smile: a dowager with starched face and waxen hair,
a woman made Buddha, too precious to touch. Later, when the maids change my gown
for my evening walk in the marigold garden, I’ll feel each fingertip of their white lace gloves,
a hundred buttons being undone, sleeves slipped from my arms, silk falling.
On the table before me, dishes for a dynasty: sauce of bear’s paw, hummingbird wings,
cakes of a thousand flowers. I peel an iced lychee for its scent, its flesh full, its skin red as a berry.
Pictures from the Forbidden City
Before becoming China’s emperor, Prince Yinzhen (1678-1735) commissioned a series of propaganda paintings portraying himself tilling the fields
Dawn poppies sprout along the edge of every irrigation ditch,
waving their flags like crowds in the streets on coronation day.
Across the valley, wind, like war, has stripped the hillside bare of trees.
An army of rice plants raises a million spears above the drowned land.
So often the crop is flattened by rain. Villages murmur hunger.
Spade and sword have shaped these terraces and pathways, the graded banks,
still pools, where every stem, each ripening head, has its place.
I dip the ladle in the wooden pail and pour the mix of watery dung.
This is how the people must know their emperor: back bent with peasants,
up to his knees in the flooded fields, while he alone sees the snakes
that swim among roots, their dark bodies twining the stalks.
Temple of Heaven
Saturday afternoon, and the amateur opera singers gather in groups along the painted cloisters. Beijing’s breezes are out too,
a dry Mongolian wind and sleet of dust clogging the contact lenses that trouble the diva as she steps forward to perform.
She brushes her white weekend blouse. The tenor, straightening the collar of his scuffed suit, unfolds his songsheet
and glances at the soprano. She nods. He starts. Accordions, flutes, harmonicas, hand-drums: all find a way
to enter the stuttered harmony. A Mozart lilt, Verdi aria, a Cantonese song from a time before the land was drenched
in revolution, the days before they saw their teachers sent to pick stones from furrows, to boil bark.
Sitting on a bench, an old man peels an apple and wipes his penknife, ignoring the accordion’s quick, free notes.
The Ambassador and His Wife Take Afternoon Tea at the Orient Hotel
He straightens in his rattan chair, she teases a cigarette in her lean fingers.
His New York suit is summer beige, she is Prague chic in linen grey.
Each Sunday they are seen for tea, the Siam lounge, a corner seat.
The glass-topped table reflects a past preserved on the wall in photographs.
Hemingway, Coward, Nehru, Mountbatten: a gallery of lives their minds inhabit.
Above the stairway, a ceiling-fan stirs the foyer’s air-conditioned ferns.
A guest in the salon orders cocktails. They dip their heads and smile.
Their smiles are light as the lemon cake on the plate.