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an Excerpt from The City of Yes
by Peter Oliva
Copyright 1999
Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved


When crows become too old, or too fat and lazy to fly away from soybean fields, they are fashioned into lacquer brushes. The lucky ones are ground into charcoal cakes, mixed with water, then brushed into written words. The ink is silent, low in static, and distilled to resemble a pool of black cormorant feathers. But if these birds are to glimpse immortality, they will become dark streams of calligraphy, tributaries of words that pour down paper scrolls, opaque screens and mulberry walls. They are happiest when they splash through windowpanes, for the glass in this place is also made from paper.

A book's pages are usually doubled-all the better to support a bird's flight-and each sheet is made by screening a cloth-covered frame through milk, rice, straw, bits of bone, roots and water. A common sight in Japan: cormorants, spread out across a paper sky, leaning into the fibers as though bracing for wind.

And the words themselves? The stories that follow?

When narrative begins, a story takes to the air in a cataclysm of winged intent. Whatever the tale, meaning chases the birds' flight, as though the crows and cormorants have just glimpsed a haiku's trajectory. A story unravels, or pours, or drifts toward one outcome or another. And the birds try to outwit the ending-that moment of death-and sudden enclosure.

You see: on the page, stories are frivolous collisions that place image just before idea. As if to compose a thought, the poet must first build a city. A context is given: the day, a shaft of light that gouges the earth. A hole in the ground that soon widens into a subway. And by the third line, an idea emerges like tired salaryman. To fully understand this place the salaryman must piece the city's architecture together one journey at a time, commuting one stop to the next, until he finally contains the whole city in his head. Like a novel.

Each day the salaryman steps into the gush of streetcar steam and momentum, letting the crowd pull him out, toward the city and toward the light of day. A fistful of paper flutters in his hand.

Copyright 2006-2008 Peter Oliva. All Rights Reserved.