Sunday Jul 14

Thorburn-Poetry Matthew Thorburn is the author of three books of poems, including This Time Tomorrow and Every Possible Blue. The poems published here are from a new collection he’s working on, called Never Going Back Again. He also curates the What Are You Reading? interview series. A native of Michigan, he lives in New York City where he works as the communications manager for an international law firm.


The Angel and the Lady

If anyone let you pick him up
he would shock you
with his density, his heft, how
in any weather he holds the cold
deep inside, this water buffalo
carved from a chunk
of spinach-green jade. He stretches
eight inches, neck to rump.
He has turned his head forever
to look back over his shoulder:
a gift from a Chinese duke meaning
spring, that green, a new
year, another chance. Odd charm
looked at or not, touched or
turned to the wall. He gave it to someone
else’s wife. Decades, then centuries
ticked by. Until it disappeared
from the record. Until a Londoner
called Sparks let it go for
two hundred and fifty-three pounds
to an earl-turned-colonel shipping out
toward the War. This was 1939.
Wrapped in that week’s newspapers
like a poor pharaoh, stuffed
in a crate mis-stamped porcelain,
forgotten when the earl survived
a torpedo but then died anyway
back on land. Decades more
before someone found the box,
broke it open, and now
wouldn’t you love to run
your fingers down his dark flank?
Look him over for scratches
or a patch worn shiny by her thumb—
any sign of that woman who once
held him? How many nights
did she stare at him, Lady Hui,
slip away, slip back, until that night
she couldn’t? Whose name did she hide
in his leaf-shaped ear? The way
he looks back—his eyes reflecting,
as you hunch closer now, you
There is no end to looking. You’d love
to slip him into your bag, sneak away
out the back, but this man would
never let you. “Anyhow it is sold,
practically gone already, back to China,”
the auctioneer says. “But good
story, yes?” He’s curly haired,
bespectacled, possibly Hungarian.
He struggles to keep his excitement
in English. “So Chinese people
get rich and they buy back
their art. So that is the story
of today.” So—no more mystery,
no more getting lost. Is that why
he’s thinking now about
Annunciations? He wants you
to notice how this one, in a plain
wooden frame, about the size
of an old Life magazine, is different:
“Do you see what you are not seeing?”
He’s smiling, hands in
pockets, elbows out, waiting for you.
It’s a dance you don’t mind
slipping into. “Most times it’s a tale
we know, the angel and the lady
caught between words—if an angel
explains things with words.”
He laughs a dry little ha-ha laugh.
“Imagine today a virgin told
about her miraculous change.
Would she ever believe?”
You look back at the painting,
gaze at this woman just old enough
to be a woman—a little out of focus
under the haze of a century’s
smoke and grime, spider-webbed
with cracks—the delicate blue folds
of her robe, pale lips pressed together,
the tiny white flame in her eye,
her hand cold as frosted glass closed
so tightly over her heart you wonder
did she even believe it then?
“But what is missing? You see?
She is alone,” he says, rocking back
on his heels, pointing at the painting.
“The Virgin looks outside
the frame. She inquires. How she
questions with her eyes! Because
there is no angel.” I have lost myself
in this story I look out from. “She stares
back at you—yes, you
because now you are the angel.”

A Green River in Spring

Taoists hitch a ride on a crane
to get to heaven, or else
become cranes themselves.
Better than wishing yourself
governor of Hangzhou next time
around, or a rich man who pays

someone else to mind his farm
and winds up broke.
Just don’t get confused
and return as a stork—
they can’t sing, can’t even talk.
Yes, slip away, get going,
disappear into the mountains
or the cold whisper

of a green river in spring.
I would, I would,
though knowing me
I’ll probably just come back
like this gray cat—
skooching across the floor
inch by inch all afternoon
to stay inside this
yellow square of light.


Where do the bees go in winter,
their hives shuttered in ice?
When spring rains tear down
the spider’s web, she hangs up
another. It seems the same
cicadas sing in the willow leaves
each year. In spring they rise

from the dirt. When Lao Wen
died, great-grandmother placed
a jade cicada on his tongue.
You are my salt, she said
though she was already alone—

angry and alone beside
dark Lake Tai. East wind blows,
swallows come home:
same song, same song.
Now he will stay at Lake Tai
forever. Blackened by fire
the cicada slips into her pocket.
Still warm. Starting to sing.