Portable Cities

after yin xiuzhen


Pack my village in your suitcase let’s get out of here.

Here’s our hovercraft, here’s our disk drive, here’s our charioteer.

Smell the colossus of our footprints—glass burns, copper

verdure, the valley sings. Singe your fingers on the infrastructures—

ignore what animal ribs they bury. Watch the pixels that murder

the distance between your eyes and the landscape—

isthmus bleeding water into the digital screen.


Wuhan is a city the dying river crawls toward.

Wuhan is a city of beautiful wreckage.

Here is the rubble of my wish.

Crown imperials, stinking through summer.

Watch the cranes drop blood diamonds.

Watch the neighbors huff brown musk in their flu masks.

I was born in this razed building. I was forced to leave.

My love is a fungus. It grows from wet spots and wattage.

On the slowest homeward train, we inhale the same damaged smoke.

We feed each other duck necks. It’s the specialty in this region.

Headless, heedless, we ride.


My opal bed is beautiful and unoccupied.

You have to whisper a lie before the flame blows out.

Ithaca: my Iliad of wanting out. Taffy. Salt blisters.

This is my shameful mouth, infernal with snow.

Our parsimony kept us alive as the winter slowly killed us.


Christmas in the bay and my secret was the Adelaide hotel.

In San Francisco, pinned against a map of California.

My fists bloodied Death Valley. His nails scratched Carmel.

His voice already meant far away. His breathing meant done.

We finished on a shooting range in the Sierras.

I thought I landed face first, kissing the hot basalt.


The heart is a fluorescent unpeopled auditorium.

A garbled film reel. A cuckold. A fogged aquarium.

Murder, sex, dogfights, and barracuda.

I was in love with its departure into soundproof spaces.

I lived where I was not meant to live. Forgive my intrusion.

Forgive my slow slither. Forgive my flight. Forgive my missive.


Boston: crows always return in the spring. Charred steeples.

Winter apples. Tiny sanctums, trumpet vines. Do they heal us?

I hope so. But no one’s certain that the bones the animals gnaw

will flower in May. The tepid baths I take begin to warm me.


Please curate this tiny apocalypse.

It’s a red buttress for cowbird’s nests. We are the chickens.

The cowbird’s ready to tip the egg toward the floor and shatter it.

Can you domesticate the cowbird with two quivering worms?

Can you domesticate an apocalypse with two small humans?


The firewall censors our faces and names. There is no map here.

Nowhere to go except our dim-lit bedrooms. Our pigsties. Our sensoria.

Pop song imports from Japan and South Korea crack open like warm eggs.

How their handsome-boy-bangs kiss my empty little sternum.

Larva hatches. Eggs drip over my scalp. I swear on lightning

that this love is real. Kunming is the city of eternal spring.

There I hitched my arms around boys riding motorcycles.

Through dour night tunnels, we sped. Our heels hissed on low batteries.


Autumn’s a neighborhood in Brooklyn with garbage fires.

We are locked out of our tiny apartments. In the meantime, we scour.

We eat ready-made meals that come with instructions.

We starve and strive and strip. We steep our novenas in dirty tea.

We dream of actresses who run across platforms. Of perfect alterities.

I thought I saw your face on the J train platform. The oncoming train

made your whole body vanish as fast as your ghost appeared.

Of smokescreens and touchscreens and the way we touch. Through screens.

Of the ghosts that shimmer through Bed Stuy on cold and amber nights

when the cops aren’t looking.


The lips on that landscape must belong to a corpse.

But once the corpse was a beautiful woman.

You can tell because it’s the deepest lake in China.

You can tell by the fluorescence of the smog.

You can tell because the geyser spills hot spittle still.


The year I loved in Pittsburgh, I walked into three rivers

at the same time. My body deflected so much water

and the deepness frightened me. Did I choose Monongahela,

for its current, or Ohio, for its purity, or Allegheny,

for its waste? Or did I abandon

altogether the notion of a river,

who flows and flows into another body

of water, too patient, too kind,

did I reject the water that couldn’t stop,

couldn’t help giving itself away, always?


I think I last died in the deep grooves

of a stranger’s handwriting. Captive creature: can you reanimate

the dead skin or peel it off? Do you know how to civilize my panic?

Is there a way for me to swallow the winter whole? Shatterproof

the walls? Do you spy on the venal sentries that guard your heart—

how they always cave in for a brief flash of warmth? O vernal heart

pumping blood, plumbing fat, spring is the season our ventricles fatten.

We are dwarves with obese  hearts. They plump, all gosling.

They grow like garlic.

The grouse smears the piping plate.

The vestal animal’s mouth does not open, even in spring.


Cover of TLR's "Street Cred" issueSally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2013 and is forthcoming or published in A Public Space, Poetry, Black Warrior Review, Guernica, jubilat, and The Missouri Review, among others. She is a Kundiman fellow.

“Portable Cities” was originally published in Street Cred (TLR, 2015)