C.N.P Poetry 

  • Cathexis Northwest Press

Even to say there are no words

By: John Kearns


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

now three weeks dead


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

in any language

For a father taken from his daughter

sudden and too soon

By her quiet unparsed words made

Mute unlettered

A poet with no words

Even to say there are no words




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."

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