Genghis Chan on Drums

John Yau (2002 Grantee)

Published in the Foundation for Contemporary Arts 2020 Grants Booklet

Once you were a crescendo, a cascade, a sarabande
hacked haiku coughing up blood and spitting on moon
with no dance to cry over spilled sludge

Once your name was John Chinaman
You lived in a cricket ding-dong on outskirts of mills and malls
in granted state of Marshmallow Falls

You said, call me Johnny Jodpurs or Lenny Systematic
Suave Stymie or Hamburger Harmonica

You said, listen to my thunderstorm and fire worm
while you perambulate squeal and stamp indissoluble

You said, I am a picket fence, a rumor, a superlative immigrant, a turboprop

You said, pickax, influenza, rum, and tuxedo twang

This is the placard above my rickshaw chariot moon chaser swoop


Once you were an egret tired of all regrets sticking to you like white feathers

You thought you were a mirage, a whisper, a lone lover standing on one leg
a bush or shrub gleaned in shimmering distance.

You began to dream that you saw what you were dreaming in front of you
as you looked down from airplane window

remembering the dog sitting beside your desk
two boys burning a rat for fun
a bank robbery in progress, and the song of a young girl
who lived beside her dead parents–another body
lives inside my dilapidated husk, another intruder
longing to leave me standing by the water’s blue and pink edge
wondering why I can no longer see my face when I look down into the water

Once you were a makeshift bamboo pontoon bride, a cleaver man
a phonograph of someone lost in an eddy that no one heard
a dirty look pushed through a window
a young girl standing on a stoop listening to her father spout clichés
as if they were precious nuggets to be handed down
from one military attaché to another

Winter came and stayed

You were scheduled to make a speech
until you saw a ghost had entered the auditorium and was sitting in the front
smiling, your throat a furnace where the words bloomed in flames
a lamp of unstable considerations pressing its muddy towel against your
bleeding gums


Once you were human but then you forgot to put in for overtime
The weather grew hungry but you were not in the mood and decided
that being ignorant was a sign of how savvy you were at not being fooled
by those who talked down from the sky or wherever they sat
when they were not shitting on others besides you
there were many tragic cuckoos indebted to their illnesses
standing at the end of the street waiting to drift into the creviced sun’s bright
red scar

Once you were a greasy river cut off from dreams and hundreds of fish
floated on your back their bellies swollen and their heads stinking and you said
a hundred years from now this watch that I am looking at will still be telling
even though it lies on the muddy bottom, a lone lantern pointing to the stars

Once you were a wall pockmarked with bullet holes
astonished that anyone would look at you and not vomit
but that was before the future arrived, an unexpected guest.

John Yau is a poet, fiction writer, art critic, and freelance curator. Ghengis Chan on Drums is the title poem from his next book of poetry, scheduled for release in the fall of 2021. Yau received a Grants to Artists award in 2002. Yau joined the Foundation’s Board of Directors in 2020.