Close Encounters of the Liminal Kind

Sally Wen Mao

Maglev train, Beijing to Wuhan—
          snacks in the holster, I ride
the test track. We are crash dummies

for levitation. Carry us, magnetic
          fields—marvel, our travel
at these speeds without wheels,

in the silver caul where we feel safe.
          I was born in Wuhan—left
at five, returning now. Here’s my ticket,

stamped, ready, an apology
          for my foreign pelt. Childhood,
we used to sit three to one seat

as lightning poisoned the whole
          night white, and only sows
peopled the passing cityscapes.

On the road, a man, two women,
          and two children on their laps
cramp onto a single motorbike. Soil flies

beneath their heels. I watch them
          from my porthole, missing
wheels, missing motion, how it slices

softly, softly, to salvage friction
          against tracks, makes me think
of the homes I’ve lost to wilderness.

Someone says: the invention
          of speed will ruin us all.

Rails glisten like scriptures awaiting

translation. Someone stops reading
          his book and hurries toward
the exit. Someone gives up

his seat, drags his luggage
          across the platform. Someone
climbs quietly onto the tracks.

Sometimes I take weeks to remember
          a single word in my own tongue:
orange or courage or please.

Sometimes I take hours to work
          up the courage to ask a question.
This barreling quiet, our euphemism

for speed. Gone, ferromagnetic
          dreams—gone, fear of disquiet.
Once I met a boy on the overnight train.

I asked: Have you ever wondered
          who walks across these fields
at night? Who has the nerve

to breathe that ghostly air? We snuck
          a kiss under his coat. Smoke
from other people’s cigarettes

entered our bodies. Behind our faces,
          Wuhan scattered into fields
darkening with frost. This is a city

full of sensors. They detect
          the shapes of hips and mouths.
There is heat at the center of it.

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