The Mission House (Lunar New Year 1948)

Shangjao, Kiangsi, China


When I saw Shangjao for the first time  the mission house was clearly visible
over the city wall   & Spirit Mountain to the north stood out in the afternoon sun
my train clacking to the end of the line

Lost trains echo through the compound’s central courtyard
confused among the porticos as though looking for the tracks
to Nanchang   destroyed by war

Drums now pick up the rhythm as we watch from the window of our room
We were wakened the other night here by a creeping rat seeking winter stores
Now the fiery serpent crosses the tracks   creeping like the plague

Down below lies the bomb that damaged the corner of the house
As we watch from the window of our room the lantern parade winds down
   toward the city
Drums beating   beating   beating   from all directions at once

Questions and Answers

What inspired “The Mission House (Lunar New Year 1948)”?

“The Mission House” is part of a longer cycle of poems, So The Moon Would Not Be Swallowed, published as a chapbook by Rubicon Press (Edmonton); it received an Award of Merit from The Word Guild in 2008. The inspiration for these poems was a suitcase filled with hundreds of letters my grandparents had written home from China, where they had been missionaries from 1923 to 1951. I was so taken with the enormity of what I found here—the adventure, the dedication, the sacrifice, the purpose—that I knew this treasure must be preserved. Poetry was the obvious approach, both because of my orientation and because it was the only vehicle that could truly capture the essence of the letters.

What poetic techniques did you use in “The Mission House (Lunar New Year 1948)”?

This poem, like many in this series, is very visual and quite narrative. Because its source was a series of letters, I wanted to preserve the epistle-like quality. It may seem like it came from a single letter, but it brings together experiences from several letters from late 1947 and early 1948. It paints a portrait of the mission house in Shangjao, using strong images from my grandparents? observations, beginning with my grandfather?s impressions from when he first saw it.

This poem “The Mission House (Lunar New Year 1948)” originally appeared in Literature & War. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 179 (Winter 2003): 106-106.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.