Still Life

Remember that year we sat in the stench of death,

peering at lighted squares, searching for the numbers of fallen.

I was conscious of my breath, conscious of too-close bodies

passing in the aisles, conscious of the skin of the oranges,

already touched, in the pile. I tried to grieve,

I tried not to cough. I couldn’t sleep or I slept too much.

I tried to believe that words were enough, but I wore

them through. There was nothing to do, or everything to do

and no one to touch. It was a communal crisis of the flesh

yet I lost mine in the wash, lost sense of the seasons

and the earth and the feeling of the turn as the world shrank down

to assorted squares of sound and sight.

We joked that none of us would age that year. A desperate lie

while op-eds sneered that it wasn’t worth a dollar

to save people from dying if they were already old.

All life was cheap, some was cheaper.

All bodies are material, only some matter.

The killings were watered down, the victims rewritten

as if they were already dead or dying.


Even back then, we knew our bodies

were sacred, our inheritance lush,

our ancestors attentive. I carried

the strength of my lineage,

I learnt to shed its burden.

The gift was wheat but not bread,

fruit but not wine.

In those days, the bosses and their machines

stole all our time. They crept into our houses,

they owned our faces and stories

and footsteps and grammar and sold them on.

All that our ancestors gave us,

the market clambered to purchase, trade,

perfect and erase. We fought back,

marching in streets, singing in towers,

bleeding on film and paper. It wasn’t enough.

The water climbed up, the fires burned hotter, the prisons

swelled and swallowed more of our number.

The second summer of that year indoors,

the old world came knocking and flirting again.


Wheat but not bread. Fruit but not wine.

We had to take our time back, hold close

to the skin of the earth, feel the turn inside and out.

There was no script, only the noise at the door

and an ache in my neck and a dim memory

that once we were worth more.

There was no blank page. No empty land.

Never a moment that felt like the stage was set

for the world to come. There was only the unmarked seed,

the garden already overgrown, and between the weeds and flowers

there was work – there was living to be done.



This work was created for Assembly for the Future: The Last Disabled Oracle, part of a series of participatory digital gatherings forBLEED 2020, and was cross-pollinated with provocations from Alice Wong, AM Kanngieser and Kera Sherwood-O’Regan.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 12, 2020 as "Still life".

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Jinghua Qian is a Shanghainese writer, poet and provocateur living in the Kulin nations.

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