Kjell Espmark, The Imperial Army in Xi’an Translated by Göran Malmqvist

What is the devouring light
we are staggering towards? Unarmed.
The sword is but a void in my grip.
The wooden hilt has mouldered away
and the bronze blade has fallen to the ground, green
and brittle like eggshell, I feel
the terrified faces of others within my own.
My twitching muscles search in theirs
but fail to find our rapture:
the stiff cries above our lips,
the delirium that made us implacable.
Here in the vanguard not one coat of mail ─
in our encounter with the future
intoxication was to be our armour.
We wait for it, shaking, a horde of
fragments leaning into each other, shamefully
seeking the support of others. I understand nothing:
surely our army was invincible?

Close beside me
I sense the flank of a horse:
only a stiffened neighing from the ground.

I’m still half asleep.
Only an instant ago
I possessed senses. And was sought by one
who was as close as my own skin, kneeling,
a tress of hair, held taught by the comb
that falls to the ground
as the lips seek my throbbing groin,
and who still defends her honour
throughout the centuries I have been gone:
a face more and more dissolved,
a voice more and more tenuous,
the only one who knew my loneliness.

Now there is nothing but this light.
Nothing else ever happened.

An archer close by, kneeling,
his crossbow drawn against the throbbing light,
without stock, without string, the patinated
arrow-head fallen to the ground.
He must have had a name. Or
was there not even a name to forget?
Yet the situation tells me
that he is our best archer:
his mouldered arrow never fails to hit the target.
But what is his target?
He has only terror where his sight should be.
His lips tighten from what he sees.
Straining black lips of burnt clay.
On his back a strip of skin, broad as a hand, is
utterly unprotected, bubbling, blackening,
a peeling text, for no one to read.
This is a final loneliness.

A loneliness in 38 formations.

I rush forward, my hat
is a bird that rises from my head.
In collapsing order we stumble
into the growing light.
With an aching shard of tile serving me for eye
I see that the gleam is full of shapes,
flaming white.
They move against us with drunken faces:
merciless. I recognize them!
I recognize my own features,

I have but one thought left,
more like a wriggling void behind my forehead
and hard to retain a grip on.
But I sense that you who trust in us
needed to feel our helplessness.
The bird risen from my head,
from these scattering shards,

brings you tidings of our helplessness.

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