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In 2003, the world’s largest hydraulic dam transformed the Three Gorges into a deep currentless reservoir. Water flooded 28,000 acres of farmland, 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,352 villages. Eight thousand recognized archaeological sites were flooded and 1.4 million people were driven from their homes. In May 2002, my son and I took one of the last river boats through the Three Gorges before the Chinese government started to flood the area. I wrote the following poem when I returned from that trip. The drawing is from my sketchbook. While sketching on deck, another artist joined me. Unable to communicate with words, we enjoyed drawing together.
The Yangtze: Three Gorges
Coiled with mist, the cliffs rise
half a mile into the sky.
Looking up, past the trackers’ path,
past the hanging coffins, past the caves,
past the stunted trees,
I see deep blue sky.
Rising Cloud Peak.
Sage Spring Peak.
The riverboat passes villages, orange groves,
fields of pink peach blossoms.
Tall limestone walls dwarf the town.
The river roars.
followed by quiet.
Fish inscribed on White Crane Ridge:
two carp facing upstream,
one with a lotus sprig in his mouth,
mark ancient low-water levels.
On the road: barbers, plumbers, food sellers.
A welder creates jewelry with his blowtorch,
fired by a garden hose and a bottle of gasoline,
his foot pressing the bellows.
Under a red umbrella a woman sleeps,
sweet slices of watermelon by her side.
Children squat with a deck of cards.
Small groups of people eat noodles out of bowls.
Dressed in a tattered gown of silk
embroidered with dragons, an old man
sits near a persimmon tree.
All this will be underwater soon:
the temple with its wooden pavilions,
pagodas, loggias, reflecting pool,
the monkeys scampering among altars;
the storefronts, streets, houses, fields of rice.
What will happen to the Siberian cranes,
the white flag dolphin, the Chinese sturgeon,
the house tucked under a tree?
What will happen to the barbers, sellers, plumbers,
the little girl in yellow jelly shoes,
her mother selling Camel cigarettes?
In a home in Suzhou I saw this poem
on a piece of wood shaped like a banana leaf:
My mind-heart is like the reflection of the moon
in a deep pond on a snowy night
my creativity blooms like flowers
after the spring rain.
The old towpath clings to the rock face, high
on the north side of the mountain.
Trackers pulling boats on the Yangtze
sing back and forth, strange chanting melodies.