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TAIWAN: A GEOGRAPHICAL HISTORY
      Wendy Cheng

The island was born of a collision of continents,
the clash of East and West, rising from the ocean
in the shape of a yam--its people say,
in the shape of a leaf fallen from its mother tree
--its shadow says, in the shape of a teardrop
--the shadowed say--showing her sorrows to come.

Mountains of white coral rose as the island rose
from the sea; now, monkeys swing from gnarled vines
once rooted in the ocean floor.  The dirt of past ages
bears the footprints of today's grandmothers and grandfathers
out for their daily walk, their belts clipped
with tinny radios; pop songs and the morning news
blare, sharing the air with the call of birds and monkeys,
and the whisper--lost in the slightest breeze--
of butterflies winging through the trees.

On the Northeast coast, the sun rises over the Pacific,
and sets over a stormy strait. Once, the goddess Mazou
steered sailors safe over the strait--but now,
she presides over a faded temple, tempered by time,
inhaling incense, prayers and offerings, silent
to the ever-strident demands from across the water.

On the Taroko gorge, ferns are delicate sprays of lace
adorning the steepness of the cliff.  Water
trickles down through the cracks to the water below, still
colored a lush aqua--though dammed--and flows
under a red-bright bridge, past a beloved name spelled with rocks.

We wend a twisting path along the ridge, over an ocean blue:
further out, bluer still. Cliffs, water,
forest primordial, the delicate flowerings and tangled
undergrowths: with us we carry these sites
to the dusty streets where, half a life ago, a girl was held
in her mother's arms, a girl who then learned
how to crawl, how to walk, how to leave.
She stayed away a generation, to come back
with vitamins and chocolates, with fiber supplement
and medicine and a suit for her sister.

For half a life--for all of their lives--friends
had suffered and died, were still suffering
--and now triumphing; these were the stories
with which she raised me, though I did not know then
what they meant--but envisioned an island in black and white,
a girl with a mandatory bobcut standing tall
above her brothers and sister, serious for her age,
about to leave home for the first of many times,
to travel on a train from a town to a city,
through a snake's maze of tunnels.  The tunnels
had been bored straight through the mountain
because then, that was the only way to go.
It is of this mountain which I wish to speak.


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Last updated: 06/30/1999