Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Imperial Collection

The Imperial Collection
At The Asian Art Museum
by Elizabeth Southwood

We rented tapes,
hung them around our necks
like miniscule, fashionable purses,
listened to them as we
crowded around Plexiglas containers full of
ancient carved jade, rhinoceros horn,
intricately chiseled cups,
or smooth symbols of heaven
like tiny, jade, moon gates for dollhouses.
Fathoms of painted scrolls
of mountains, gardens, and rivers,
with groupings of ladies and warriors;
the scrolls, ivory with age,
stamped with Chinese-red seals
of early emperors,
enclosed in well-lit, tilted display cases.

We sat to rest a moment
on a leathery bench,
watched the deluge of viewers pass by.
A crone in green in the crowd
noticed our bench, crossed over,
pushed down beside me.
She had fierce eyes, like a homeless person,
a musty thrift-shop smell.
She turned to us and asked, “Did
you see the Great Wall
Southwood page 6 of 10
in that scroll of snow-topped mountains?”
My husband asked, “The scroll
where the mountains
look like the dogs with wrinkles?”

“Or bunches of rolled up crepes
or steepled fingers,” I added.

We three stood up, eddying the crowd,
crossed the room,
peered at the scroll.
She poked my arm. Her thick arthritic finger
pointed at the scroll like Scrooge’s last ghost
towards the vision of his future.
“See,” she said vaguely
as she disappeared.

Now, all I saw was
praying fingers
made of palest gold snow.
I shivered,
envisioning the slaves
who built the Wall.

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