High Peaks Pure Earth presents the English translation of a new poem by Woeser originally written in September 2022 and posted on her column for Radio Free Asia. Thank you to Christopher Peacock for the translation of the poem and the accompanying notes.
The poem was written at a time last year when Woeser was dealing with the grief of losing her mother coupled with Lhasa being in a strict Covid lockdown. To see Woeser’s Instagram posts as Lhasa entered the lockdown, follow this link. This poem accompanies that post and naturally follows on both thematically and chronologically.
“The City Echoes with Ominous Ambulance Sirens…
––For my mother, for our Lhasa”
Translated by Christopher Peacock
The preset alarm sounds on my mobile, reminding me it’s time for the sur[i] offering
I put down Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness,[ii]
Rise and go to the doorway, take the sur mixed with tsampa and special medicinal powders,
And sprinkle it evenly in the smoke-blackened stainless-steel dish
I turn on the hotplate, and a roasted fragrance wafts up with the smoke.[iii]
It is midday, the scorching sun high in the sky, white clouds scattered about
I play a video of the Karmapa reciting the Prayer to be Reborn in the Blissful Pure Land,
But all I hear is the wail of an ambulance siren coming from nearby,
Urgent, ominous, intermittent, like it’s not just one,
Like they’re full of patients who need to be taken away in a hurry,
But taken where? Apparently there are eight or nine fangcang in Lhasa now[iv]
This word fangcang hasn’t been translated into Tibetan, and if your Chinese pronunciation is off,
It becomes the Tibetan word for a pigsty or a beggar’s hovel.[v]
These days, thirty-plus days now of “silent management,”
The whine of the ambulance is the only “strongest voice” in this empty city
(as in that Newspeak phrase, “the strongest voice of our times”)
What other sounds are there? Who can hear the sobs and cries?
Sparrows chirp atop the walls of the courtyard, The roses
In full bloom are red as blood, sucked silently by the little bees;
A stray cat, like a leopard, leaps off the rooftop piled with rotten wood and steals away.
The worldly apartment blocks, ever more and ever higher, block out the Podrang Potala,
And block out the sound of the chimes that used to carry on the wind.
I calm myself, raise the vajra bell, and face the sur and its curling smoke,
I ring it thrice and recite three times: Om ah hum
How I wish that Ama, gone a month now, could hear it, and come again…
And then, I would follow that deep night of eternal farewell, before Ama, so frail,
Was placed on the stretcher by the sky burial master, young and strong,
And dressed in that green Tibetan shirt and the matching pangden[vi] she loved so much,
Out from the bedroom, suddenly silent, but where a fragrance lingered:
Through a passageway separated by knotted white khatas
Flanked by tangled branches and withered flowers from all her planting;
Past the wooden offering table with the beautiful Buddha statue and the vat of fresh water,
The ancient yungdrung symbol made out in tsampa beneath, while the window reflects
dozens of lit Butter lamps, flickering, as if to illuminate the unfathomable bardo;
A clockwise circumambulation, and then one anticlockwise,
Is that so the departed won’t be able to find their way home?
As I walked ahead tightly clutching the khata tied to the stretcher, all of a sudden
I stumbled, did Ama not want to leave? The tears flowed,
And I walked out the door… No, I can’t walk out the door; they say Omicron
Lies in wait right outside, like a fearsome beast, bloody maw gaping!
Yes indeed, none of us can go outside, all of us;
We must obey like good little children, all of us;
We must heed the orders at all times, all of us (in Newspeak: “all without exception”)
Must stand in long lines for COVID tests, or wait for the Big Whites[vii] to come do them on the doorstep,
And one time an “antigen test” in the middle of the night, like some kind of rigged game…
Ah, humans––to survive we need a big bag of tricks and a lot of luck
At best we have the vague sense that some abysses were dug out in the deep night long ago
That’s right, we must receive with both hands the gift of Lianhua Qingwen pills,[viii]
We must shed tears of gratitude, and thrice call out Long Live the Emperor…
But I don’t care about the epidemic right now, I’m sunk in the epidemic of separation and death!
Ah, my Ama, this path you took to leave me, to leave the house you
Built all those years ago, was not a long one,
Now I walk it again and again as I perform my thrice daily sur offerings,
Reciting om mani padme hum as I go, loud, like I’m yelling it,
As if the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara will be moved and take pity on one who’s lost her mother…
And I look up, and a wisp of cloud drifts across the deep, azure sky,
And then I don’t hear anything anymore: the incessant wailing
Of the ambulances, the three crisp rings of the vajra bell, the resounding salvation of the Karmapa’s voice, and these prayers of mine, day after day, night after night… I, oh––
I don’t hear a thing, just the last sigh of the mother who carried and raised me:
“Too late, it’s too late now…”
Lhasa, September 12th, 2022; revised on the 15th, and again on the 28th.
[i] གསུར། a type of smoke offering for those who have passed into the bardo. Traditionally, it is made with special medicinal powders and the “three whites and three sweets” (butter, milk, and yoghurt; crystal sugar, brown sugar, and honey), all mixed together with tsampa. When roasted, the fragrant smoke it gives off acts as a kind of nourishment that is offered to the departed consciousnesses of close relatives.
[ii] A memoir by the Israeli author Amos Oz (1939-2018).
[iii] Traditionally, this ritual is performed by burning cow dung in a clay pot and sprinkling the sur on top, an offering to the deceased to be used for forty-nine days.
[iv] Fangcang is the Chinese word for a portable cabin, referring here to the temporary buildings set up to quarantine COVID patients. When I was revising this poem, I discovered that eight or nine was far too low an estimate: there are some twenty-odd of these makeshift hospitals in Lhasa––perhaps even more. They have also spread into Meldro Gungkar and other neighboring counties. What’s more, ambulances aren’t the only vehicles taking people away to the fangcang when they test positive (or even negative) for COVID: public buses are yet more common. Because they often come to take people away in the middle of the night, city residents have dubbed them “Lhasa’s Midnight Buses”––a black humor horror movie title. According to a report from the bus company, 349,000 people had been transferred in this way as of September 23rd, and Lhasa only has a population of just over 800,000.
[v] In Tibetan, pigsty is pronounced paktsang, while a beggar’s hovel is a trangtsang––both sound similar to the Chinese fangcang.
[vi] པང་གདན། the apron worn over a Tibetan woman’s dress.
[vii] Another “Newspeak” term coined in China referring to COVID prevention personnel, so-called because of their white protective suits.
[viii] A type of traditional Chinese herbal medicine, originally developed in China to combat SARS. It is recommended by the National Health Commission of the PRC as a treatment for COVID-19.