Cathexis Northwest Press

© 2018 

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Even to say there are no words

For YNG, Chengdu, China 

Near a construction site by the river Jin

Not a single visible wave

But as close to the bank 

As booming Chengdu permits


A breezy lot of neglected grass 

Of rutted earth 

      Encrusted with fragments 

Of cement and bricks and stone 

      And papers 

                    Whose messages could not be read


An obovoid candle 

Chinese red 

Impaling a mound


Triads of incense sticks 

Planted on thin stems


She crouched by a pyre 

Making oblations for her dad 


In the ruts near the candles

We joined her 

Fake bills we peeled in threes 

From hefty stacks

And laid in the flames


Smoke closed my eyes 

Poked my nostrils 

Gagged my throat

Pushed me back 


She sniffled 

Hope blamed burnt offerings 

But nodded to truth

When a tear buckled down her cheek 



Then there came a murmur 

She was speaking

To her father

In words 

                     that ran like the river we could not see

In characters 

                     that floated with the incense

                     that wrapped around my neck 

And squeezed


My heart now scarred with ruts

My own tears massed


I could not swallow 

I could not breathe 

I could not speak 

Even if there were any words 

For a father taken from his daughter


By her quiet unparsed words made 

Mute unlettered

A poet with no words 

Even to say there are no words

now three weeks dead

in any language

sudden and too soon

John Kearns is the author of the short-story collection, Dreams and Dull Realities and the novel, The World and playwright of dramas including Sons of Molly Maguire and In the Wilderness. His novel-in-progress, Worlds, was a finalist in the 2002 New Century Writers’ Awards. John’s poems have appeared in such journals as the North American Review and the Grey Sparrow Journal. John is the Treasurer and Salon Producer for Irish American Writers and Artists. He has Masters Degree in Irish Literature from the Catholic University of America.

The Poem from the Poet:

"In 2018 I was in Chengdu in the Sichuan province of China to celebrate Chinese New Year with my wife's family. The father of a good friend of ours had passed away a couple of weeks before our arrival. So, she invited us to take part in a folk tradition that occurs every week for 49 days after an elder relative dies. People burn paper money and make offerings believing that the deceased will receive and put them to use in the afterlife. I did not know this at the time but often messages to the deceased are spoken as well. Our friend does not speak English. I speak a little Chinese but cannot read the characters."