Art by Susan Silas
“To avoid being caught, Hong Kong protesters have deployed an array of euphemisms when coordinating their actions... The act of protest itself is referred to as ‘dreaming.’” —Yi-Ling Liu
Metaphors, homophones, and word play abound in Mandarin and Cantonese. For instance, the artist Ai Weiwei protested the Chinese government’s internet censorship (officially part of their “realization of a harmonious society” policy) by serving crabs at massive dinners and installing porcelain crabs in art shows, with the reasoning that “river crab” (河蟹, héxiè) sounds like “harmony” (和谐, héxié) in Mandarin. The Chinese state responded by censoring the word “river crab” from the internet.
I read between the lines of quickly refreshed, revised news stories and tweets:
For double entendres do not constitute doublespeak.
For figuratively speaking, the grass-mud horses fled the desert plains.
We now serve river crabs.
Despite what JFK claimed, there is no opportunity in crisis.
From afar, I witness: Yoda, Iron Man. Ski, Guy Fawkes,
Hello Kitty, Joker. Surgical. Medical, laser, fluid-resistant,
Personal protective, isolation, procedure, face. Between SARS
And the current pandemic, a colonial-era ordinance bans them all.
But this year, the flu season ends six weeks early.
In other tones, to give someone a clock is to send someone off to China,
a funeral. Whereby protest is an anagram of privation.
It’s raining in the Central Business District, a microclimate firing of tear gas.
A school pickup, an offer to drive to safety.
To strike magic, set aflame,
To renovate a street or shop with projectiles.
Yellow ribbons and yellow umbrellas turn. Crowded,
black tee-shirts and black capri pants, black baseball caps,
Sensible black flats. Glasses, red fanny packs, gray gloves.
Amidst the blues, Triads surge, clad in white.
To dream with hundreds of thousands of others each Sunday,
To dream in public. I dreamed on Waterloo last night--
I read that in Cantonese, dreams radiate, consistently pervade
Daylight hours. Fingers draw circles around their cheeks,
Peace signs are not scissors but pliers.
With helmets, sparrows en volant. A bird in
Hand in hand in hand.
Despite the supposed omnipresence of death, I could not locate it until--
The city grieves, screams its outrage at the local polytechnic. Canisters,
Bean bag rounds, sponge grenades, rubber. Emergency rooms shed neon blue tears.
If, like poetry, these dreams are the machinery not of memory, but remembrance,
Throwing into sharp relief each structural bind we had normalized as first, tacky,
Then, see-through glass, to be willed invisible, then, flowered wallpaper.
If, like dreams, these protests suspend these construction scaffolding,
Steel logics to build an encampment, and by occupation, my chest sings, an other worlding,
Active molding, modeling, melancholia, molten iron anger cooled,
Harnessed into encrypted legal briefs, water main blueprints.
In my distance, or in my middle age, I feared, or feared less
Mistaking infrastructure for architecture, than conflating debt with care.
I sit at my desk in New York as blue jays perch on coaxial cables
Outside my window, tracing fenced property lines
To transmit everything I “see,”
To witness mediated by flickering screens.
What can I, should we do from afar-- To cross our Ts,
Taiwan, Tianmen, Tibet, to carve Xs for Xinjiang, but,
For no boomerang spirals into Beijing, perhaps, still,
To dream in more than one language, even if it is common—
My vernacular did this to me. It was not anointed so.
Not spirit animals nor zodiac signs but labels or libel,
Amidst dogs, cockroaches, pigs, locusts, and vigilante lion-birds,
I sing alongside Dg yhl and read Linden Chai, on discussion forums,
I attempt to grasp hands and feet.
On our Zoom screens, late at night, early in their day,
Simultaneous captioning and interpreting into
A soft architecture of mutually constitutive volition, sovereign.
That we might open our eyes and blink, open our mouths, sing
That which we feel-- know-- fail to recognize,
A new public animal. When
This is no metaphor.
Celina Su’s writing includes a book of poetry, Landia, as well as two chapbooks, three books on civil society and social policy, and pieces in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and elsewhere. She is the Gittell Chair in Urban Studies at the City University of New York.
Susan Silas is a visual artist. She is interested in the way history intersects the personal and in how identity is formed. Her work examines the meaning of embodiment, the index in representation, and the evolution of our understanding of the self. She focuses on the aging body, gender roles, the fragility of sentient being and the potential outcome of the creation of idealized selves through new technologies.