By Sandy McCord ('70)
27 pages | Finishing Line Press, 2010 | $12
In Sandy McCord’s first book of poems Dragon Well, which details her extensive travels in China, she instructs the reader on how to be a very bad tourist. Put down the cameras, she begs, “the useless cameras / that click and beep / and miss it all”. With each sophisticated and sensual line, she reminds us of all we miss just outside the frame of an 8 X 10 photograph—the smell of “yams charring in charcoal,” the sweet reek of incense in the courtyard, the “bolts of blue batik-dyed cotton” moving in the wind—and proves that she herself has missed nothing.
In this collection, we see McCord’s desire to keep an account of her experiences in China—to feel the grit of the trade roads, to hear the slap of sleepy carp in their galvanized tubs, to sketch out “the map / that ties us all into the story”. The story McCord tells in these poems is one of connection and conflict, a barter between East and West. Visitors to this land, a position McCord both speaks from and tries to overcome, “take souvenirs to prove they made it through Chinese highlands” as local kids with their cell phones snap pictures of “open-mouthed Americans”. Like the dragon well tea in the collection’s title poem, McCord steeps herself in the space around her, and what emerges is an “ancient-modern” China, wherein “the new dips / a foot into the older liquid”.
McCord exposes in this collection the burden of the tourist—how every experience changes her, steeps her within the waters of the Chang Jiang, within the traffic on the road to Baoding Shan as it “fumbles out of the mountain”. However, in turn, by laying hands on the world’s largest prayer wheel, the tourist leaves something of herself behind as well.
Our culture today is fond of tracing carbon footprints, the tracks we leave behind on our journeys, but few stop to consider the transactions that take place between us and the world, or between each other. McCord is not one of that company. This experience of trade, the give and take between cultures, is present in every word she writes. Describing a trip to a Chinese market in the poem “Out of Water”, it is only after the poet “hauls / food enough for the whole tour” back to her room that she opens the bags and discovers what was bought.
What McCord has purchased in this collection is transformative magic. In her travels along the Silk Road, the Great Wall, the Yangtze, McCord picks up the world’s minutia as a reminder that experiences are lived, not photographed. They are parceled, measured out, haggled over, weighed in the hand, picked up and put back and picked up again before the tourist finally takes them home, along with the knowledge that these moments will be “never so beautiful / again as they were here”.
This is of course the tourist’s lament—the sadness of recognizing what cannot be captured, what is beyond words. But that’s okay, McCord assures us, because the experience is its own “sweet fortune of gold”, and because the search for those words is poetry.