When I saw his face on a wall
at a party in a parlor looking out at the Hudson,
at a fundraiser for the winter soldiers
over blocks of cheese and baguettes,
I had just come from some grainy footage
of Dien Bien Phu in a hot black room,
where the scratched print showed the hills undulating,
bodies and parachutes disappearing in jungle grass.
Between decadence and the alien
Mao was propped in yellow and rouge
with lipstick and eye shadow,
a real queen—part décor, part radical something
the American lexicon hadn’t filled in yet.
From the aerial cameras
Haiphong Harbor was liquid light.
In liquid light, I saw my draft card float like a
giant litho over the highway at 79th
the letters popped—selective service system—
and morphed into gray rain—
anyone could have done it—
singed, blurred, laminated—
and the bartender poured me
another unidentified drink.
In the scratched cellulose nitrite, parachutes
kept drifting down on the hedges of the Laotian border.
On the wall Mao was the punctum
in rouge and yellow and smear.
Didn’t every myth signify confusion?
Confucius, Charlie Chan, Chiang Kai-shek?
(An American vision of a place.)
The guy behind me in class asked,
“Where is this place?”
Hanoi was glittering flecks on the nightly news,
and the teacher answered,
“Every snake of land is someone’s history.”
We didn’t know what we didn’t know about
the backyard furnaces, the tens of millions.
Even if Mao swallowed Darwin and Adam Smith
swimming the Yangtze—here on the Upper West
in late spring, he was wallpaper,
the most recognizable face in the world.
There seemed no point in breaking through the mask—
I was glued to the colors for a while,
until the next war let us out of Asia
until the sun went down on the wall.
© Peter Balakian