December Lit: "Everything Where It Belongs" by Esther Lin

Poetry by Esther Lin
December 13, 2016

Illustration by Mori Walts

For December, we bring you this poem about a young woman caught between the bloody edicts of the Cultural Revolution and the transcripted words of Western novels.

—Karissa Chen, Senior Literature Editor

Everything Where It Belongs

How many nights Mei Hsin read of fallen women,
transcribed in her own hand. Pored by lantern light,

one arm an Ionic column, and the rest of her, drapery,
gliding down to inspect the broadsides she’d spent

weeks repurposing. Before coming to Wuping, she had,
with her mother’s sable brush, obscured the printed words.

To build a new world we must break the old one gave way
to In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station.

To avoid disgrace, long live the red terror faded under
His eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Lily Bart.

Ink to ink; edict to narrative. She worked
with an increasingly sure, swift hand. Whole scenes.

Whole chapters of Wharton, Flaubert, Tolstoy in translation.
Tedious, at first, until she noticed how 火車 suddenly

appeared to her like the starburst of a bullet pock,
or that the puny figure within 開 was not only

standing at the gate, ready to depart, but also
looking back. Each slender frieze of writing became

its own missive, one that over and over told her everything
was where it belonged. In Wuping, when the moon set,

she folded these well-read pages to firm squares and slipped
them back between bedsheets, though the village

Red Guard were as young as she, and months ago
befriended. She hadn’t known what to fear besides

beatings. One was selective about such things.
Fear was a tightening ribbon, bounding out family, city,

nation. How could anyone think clearly about nation
then. Fear was the fifth chamber to her heart.

Perhaps her clearest understanding of anything.
On dawns yielding fleas that scorched her left arm

and right leg, she arrived to the pen to teach children
their letters and found she had nothing to say, nothing

to dictate, not even curses. She’d recall the night before,
how she posed for the bluebloods of Fifth Avenue, New York:

The unanimous “Oh!” of the spectators was a tribute
to the flesh-and-blood
loveliness of Mei Hsin.

Never mind Lily Bart. Never mind Edith Wharton.
What use was Wharton when Mei Hsin was prima donna

of these passages? Never mind the broken bodies
that concluded all these novels. Almost a pleasure

to jettison that. But a pleasure to read and, later,
recall the crispness of poplin against bare skin, as if

it were her own memory. It had become her memory.
Was anyone so lucky, in defiance of space and time,

to be a Lily, Anna, Emma, when Mei Hsin was a forced
laborer in one of many waves of the Cultural Revolution?

Decades later her daughter will read these novels
almost by accident. Will learn what no one else had.

That what began as transcription became, climbing out
of that sable brush, sister-selves. Their lives her lives.

The daughter will have already known which aunts
vanished, which uncles starved; will have heard the polite

prose of desperation. Dear one, sending us twenty dollars
is a little better than sending ten.
There will be hearsay.

There will be no documents but the novels themselves.


Mori Walts is a queer Nikkei multimedia artist based out of Santa Rosa CA who is currently focusing their art on processing the imaginary Japan within the western imagination. They hope to pursue a career in animation.


Esther Lin

Esther Lin was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and lived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant for 21 years. A 2015 Poets House Emerging Poet and Queens Council on the Arts Fellow, she has poems published in or forthcoming in Copper Nickel, The Cortland Review, Crazyhorse, Drunken Boat, Guernica, Vinyl Poetry and Prose and elsewhere. She teaches in the English Department at Queens College, CUNY, and lives in Jackson Heights. More of her poems are listed at