A Poem: "The Modernist Impulse/On My Birthday"


West Lake, Hangzhou, China

Today, the first of March, is the sunniest, warmest day we’ve had in months, I think, with the snow from last week’s storm pooling on the sidewalks and cascading from the scaffolding, and I’m reminded of a poem that I read during the writing of A THREAD OF SKY

The poem, “The Modernist Impulse/On My Birthday,” is written by Melanie Rehak. It’s the only poem of hers I’ve managed to turn up (I can’t say I’ve done exhaustive research). It appeared in the New Yorkerabout six years ago, when I was living in Shanghai and depending on my dad to send me batches of the magazine a few times a year. To save postage, he would remove the ad pages and inserts, one by one. Somewhere between those torn edges, I came upon this poem.

The photo above is of West Lake in Hangzhou, China, one of the “must-sees” in A THREAD OF SKY. It’s the famed setting for the legend of Bai She (the white snake goddess), a legend that, in the book, gets retold by the characters, setting off a vicious argument about whether it’s a feminist parable or a tale of eternal love—and about everything else. To this day, West Lake is known to inspire romance—and, accordingly, fits of longing, bitterness, and heartache. Strolling around the lake, the six women, in all their fiercely maintained independence, find themselves as vulnerable as anyone to this.

All of the above is related to the poem only in the way that everything gets tangled in a novelist’s brain. And none of it is meant to shed light on the poem; I think the poem does that on its own. 

Here it is:

The Modernist Impulse/On My Birthday

Has it ever been absent, this desire

for every moment to stand in relief,

the unending row of them set

like solitaires into what passes,

burnished to unbearable depths?

The park here is going green and all at once

its expanse is a moment of its own great making,

a flare in the midst of so much shattered.

The trees are certain their time has come.

I have never once been able to say yes,

now, this is the instant in which

I should begin to live again,

in which this love is the only love

worth having, the richest of all possible shining arts

to hold forth: Here,

I was here and I knew it.

In this neighborhood the slate

sidewalk piles up on itself all winter,

as it has for hundreds of winters,

cracked by the cold and heaving

into crazed shelter for the dirt below.

I roll back the stone from my life.

Oh my near-miss, return to me

now when I need you most. Come

and tell me that ages pass, that effort

is rewarded at the very least after we die.

I loved you as well as this sweet green park

coming into focus across the street,

all in delicate arrogance.

—Melanie Rehak