Poetry in the Cultural Revolution

by Bob Bradshaw
The Waters
Third Place, December 2018
Judged by Jeanette Beebe


Soldiers stormed in, ripping doors
and cabinets open like wounds.
I clung to mother’s leg

as they pried up planks
for signs of treachery: books.
Hadn’t neighbors seen shelves of poetry

stacked from floor to ceiling?
Where were they?
Father was dragged away

as neighbors watched,
covering their ears, hurrying off
when Mother tried to speak to them.

There were rumors that Father
played piano in his youth, booming out
anti-revolutionary songs.

His list of treacheries grew: the name
of Li Po rolling like a grenade
into our house one morning.

Mother disappeared. Hadn’t she led
children in singing poems? Wasn’t poetry
as dangerous as temples?

I joined a stage group, where I drew
my biggest applause denouncing
my parents as counter revolutionaries,

citing how my father wrote poems
the way a traitor makes bombs—
at night, alone.


The way this poem ends stays with you: it's strong and elegant at the same time. Figuring a poet in the light of a bomb-maker is beautiful and moving. It echoes other parts of the poem, which use image and comparison so skillfully. The opening tercet's "ripping doors / and cabinets open like wounds" is lovely. Imagining a poet as a traitor resonates far wider than the image itself — there is also the "I" in the penultimate stanza, who denounces the parents as counter revolutionaries for applause on a stage, and, arguably, the writer of this poem. --Jeanette Beebe

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