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Tu fu, an exile in Berlin, writes poetry some mornings in a small cafe

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by Nissim Lebovits

Nissim is a second-year MCP (‘24) from Philadelphia. He studies environmental planning and data at Weitzman and tries to make space for writing in his free time.


        Because the body is a shard
           of bone-white porcelain, a man writes
   ‘Onion shoots on a cool spring morning.’

    Writes ‘onion shoots’ and not ‘the night rain
       is an ache, this city
           a permanent bruise.’


            As if the pen could resurrect, the windows
       be anything but an empty mirror. As if his hair 
           weren’t a crisp image


        of pain and lead his unending hymn. 
   & the soles of his feet are still stricken
           with the dust of his north. & this city tries 


        daily to peel shut the skins 
           of his eyes. Says surrender. 
               Says submit.
               Because the body is a house
           of exile, a man writes
       ‘Onion shoots on a cool spring morning.’

Poet’s Note:

Tu Fu, considered among the greatest of the classical Chinese poets, was forced into exile in the 8th century CE by what remains the bloodiest revolution in Chinese history. In this poem, I imagine him not in China, but a refugee in contemporary Berlin, subject to the convulsions of our century in which more than 1% of the world’s population is currently displaced. I was interested in exploring his sense of place: how this would be inflected by his uprootedness; how his real experiences of an unfamiliar city would map onto the imagined cities of literature; and whether, for him, literature would serve as an adequate homeland in exile—or only serve to emphasize the tragedies of homelessness.

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