To a Distant Country
for Liu Xiaobo (1955–2017)
The night we met you cried at the table
over a man of no importance. He was in bed,
it was this summer, there were walls and a ceiling,
women in white coats holding clipboards,
a guard outside the door, cicadas
twenty floors below, then he was gone.
Maybe he leaked through the walls
or the ceiling, a pale fume bound
for a cloud. Or he returned to his wife
—she would have been at home—
in the house they once shared in a nearby city,
a house they didn’t leave for years, such was
their love. When I flew home weeks later,
I think he was seated beside me, just
beyond the window, head on an inflated
travel pillow, thin hands in his lap.
I’d never seen him before, but something told me
here was a man of no importance
who should be left alone. At such a speed
clouds feel like sandpaper. The teeth of tiny frozen fish.
When the cabin lights came on
he disappeared from view. By now
he could be writing a letter to his wife
on a grain of rice. Could be waiting in line
at a border, having his picture taken,
his laptop, his name off the internet, he could be
ashes scattered on the sea. But I imagine him
crossing a street in lower Manhattan
even now, umbrella in one hand,
phone in the other, googling the news,
no one to stop him. And somewhere on the Pacific,
a pillow with his breath inside, light rain.
Poem was originally published in PEN Poetry Series.