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Taylor Altman

The Dragon King

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I was mortal once, a man with jade eyes
and a black goatee, who drank liquor that burned
like dry ice. Businessmen plied me
with cigars, the hush of cash
at the Golden Harvest Investment Trading Company,
and I lined up their competitors
like empty bottles on my shelf. I was kind
to their women, made them fat as concubines, with feet
the size of jewels. I ignited the fields
with rice, loaded the wooden boats with shark fin
and opiates, bound for the West.

One morning, a wealthy farmer found his wife
facedown in the paddy, my knife
in her back. Everywhere,
women turned up dead, their bodies in locked trunks
in the Yellow River, golden lilies cut off
and thrown to the fish. I was banished from districts,
driven underground. But still I did not stop.
I drained the rivers, set fire
to the fields. I delivered the plague in tiny lacquered boxes
to the doorsteps of Shanghai. I grew fat
as the women I loved; my flesh became scales, tangerine
moons that rose in the windows of Chinatowns
across the world.

Snuff Bottle, Qing Dynasty

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A goldfish with an agate snout, I rest
in drawers or on her bureau top, and fill
her nose with powdered moonlight from the West.

I hear the crush of crinoline; I spill
a few crystals on the tile floor.
I watch the growing stain of evening till

I hear a sound I haven't heard before—
not maids or younger sisters but the men
who come with silver boxes to her door.

One's a governor; his name is Shen.
The surfaces below his eyes are bruised,
his voice the click of numerals one through ten.

Holding me in her hand, she looks amused.
If I could say one thing to her, it's this:
You're only snuff to him. Don't be confused.


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Two days before she turned thirteen,
my sister filled herself
with the blue gas of God. There was no note.
She'd packed a suitcase
for the other world, and left me locked
like a dark closet.

Now I sit in a far corner
of the continent, thinking of how I'll do it.
Whoever finds me tomorrow
will find below my scars the oil fields
of Beaumont, Texas, where my father,
whiskey crowding his veins
like speculators, would come after me,
and then my sister,
wearing all his rings.

The Ghost

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I am the ghost. Once, like you,
I wore a cloak of human flesh,
and when it no longer fit, they
drained my blood and buried me
at Rosehill. They marked the plot,
like all the others, with a wooden cross.

One night, out of sheer
boredom, I walked back
to town, to the house
where I used to live. That sound
the pipes make on winter mornings,
and why your dog comes back
with his tail between his legs, and why
you always seem to have trouble
sleeping—look no further. It is I.

➥ Bio