You cannot take the city or the farm
from him or her who had been reared in one.
And those remaining in the forests or
the deserts or the mountains or the ice
have need of these to keep their beings whole.
But I have town and village in my soul.
Give me the city and the countryside—
the honking cars and blessed quietude,
the sunless toilets and the fragrant trees,
the towers and the open fields and sky—
and set these things, so contrary, beside
each other, as the breath drawn in and out,
and I will be content, between the two,
to live awhile—and then, in peace, to die.
Within a bustling city, I was born,
and in the cities I have worked and lived,
yet only when my soles had touched the earth
and when, in turn, the waters and the sky
had touched my soul, and villagers my heart,
could I perceive that I was home at last.
The city’s spawn may sneer at small-town folk,
as these in turn look down on villagers.
And peasants too may view as primitives
the ones who live in forests or in hills.
But I have dodged the city’s traffic and
have slowly walked on winding forest paths.
I’ve heard the city’s roar, been hardened—sinned,
then gentled, cleansed, by water and by wind.
Some tribal folk maintained unbroken lines
of culture, through the ages, even though
the empires, rising later, came and went.
They might appear as “simple”, yet they know
the precious things that we have sadly lost.
New empires rise—and beings pay the cost.
From teachers in the city’s schools, I learned,
and from the books in libraries and stores,
but just as much—perhaps, in essence, more—
I gleaned from kindly folk with rustic roots.
Our cities’ schools and books have been, at best,
an overlay on what was there before.
So though we post things on the Internet,
there’s still no substitute for local lore.
In Beijing’s narrow lanes, the rickshaws ply
and those who pedal greet the ones who sit
in summer evenings on those darkened streets.
But in Shanghai the lanes of traffic flow,
as advertisements shine from towers of glass,
and few are asking, “Where did China go?”
The traffic and the crowds and all the rest,
the canyons of the city, libraries,
the silent alleys at the end of day,
the coffee shops where poets still may meet—
these all are part of me, and yet there is
that treasure of the past that’s precious too—
that place, where all the faces there were known—
that village which, for humans, was their home.
strophes 1-3, on a bus in Beijing, July 8th, Fri. strophe 4, on a plane from Beijing to Shanghai, July 9th, Sat. strophes 5-6, on a bus nearing Nanjing, July 9th, Sat. strophes 7-8, in our apartment in Brooklyn, July 31st, Sun.