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.