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Winter Arrives in Beijing, 1990

All October the old acrobat of autumn,
An ace slipped up its sleeve.
Then, suddenly, on a single day,
By tradition, by government decree,
The season unleashes one basic need:
The scent of cabbage, millions of heads.
We see them everywhere, on the backs
Of pick-ups, horse-drawn wagons.
The full measure of spring's
Hundreds of pounds of them.
So desire, so love is born of hunger.
Now we know what we'll eat
This January: Stacked like firewood
Along the hutongs, lining tiled roofs
And courtyards. Come winter,
Almost gray by then,
We'll wash the coal dust off of them.
But today the passion, the rush
To bring them in. As if it feared
To miss its chance, the season
Seizes the moment, and in an instant,
In passing, bears down on us.
We look up from our work, we go out
On the street to mark the quick of it:
One man spread-eagle on a load
Of cabbage, smiling back
As the traffic floats him past.
What's pressing, what's to come,
As if he knew our place among
The last long-shadowed warmth of the sun.

Stephen Haven

The Last Sacred Place in North America
New American Press

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