(in response to Billy Collins’ “Orient“)

No, I will not dwell on landscapes
colored with pretty prayer flags and
dragon-decorated temples, or villages
eternally shrouded in mist, the kinds
so easily conjured in armchair travel
fantasies, because— hello, have you read
the news lately? There is a building boom
in China and the national bird is now
the construction crane. In Changsha,
they built a 30-story hotel in two weeks,
and have plans for several more. In October,
thousands of factory workers doing piece-
work on the shiny new iPhone 5 went on strike
in Zhengzhou and in Taiyuan. Around these
factories, they’ve built metal nets to catch
the bodies of would-be suicides: overworked,
undertrained, poorly paid (we know the concept
here as liability). I do not bow from the fulcrum
of my waist and my talents do not include
“cultural dancing” or being able to cut your toenails
while giving you a blow job. The sound of my voice
is not soft like a bell or like a little saxophone: it is
nothing diminutive, and my children will tell you
that years ago, when their father spent the household
money on a used car someone had conned him into buying
sight unseen, I threw pots and pans against the wall
and told him to go to hell. And yes, I have another side,
I have many sides, but they are all grounded in history,
bristling with context and all the languages in which
I dream. If you dug a hole in one of these worlds and fell
headlong into it, you would think you’d discovered
a new country; you would wonder how long it would take
before a band of beautiful, half-naked women would appear
to bear you away in a hammock and make you their king.



In response to Orient.

15 Replies to “Dis-Orient”

  1. Hilaire Belloc has a nice tidbit on armchair travel in his “Moral Alphabet”

    T is

    for the Genial Tourist who resides
    In Peckham, where he writes Italian guides

    Learn from this information not to cavil
    At slight mistakes in books on foreign travel

    1. Good one, Donna! I wonder what it is about Collins that leads him to write such risible things? Which is not to say he hasn’t written some very fine poems, too. But to me it’s an object lesson in the pitfalls of what I tend to think of as the wisdom school of poetry: like the Dalai Lama’s Twitter feed, a continual reaching for small profundities can quickly become more about the wisdomy style and gesture than any authentic insight, and self-parody ensues.

  2. Beautiful, Luisa. Truthfully I’m not quite sure that Collins per se deserves all this, but there’s a whole tradition & history out there that you are beautifully engaging, and, yes, taking down.

  3. John, yes – Collins is not, has not, been the only one. And there has been a long tradition of armchair travel-writing that been passed down as “history,” “anthropology,” and “science.” Power disseminates, reifies… I used to write critical essays about such things in grad school. Thanks for reading!

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