It took me a minute to “crack” this poem. I looked up Ha Jin and though it seemed obvious he is Chinese, I discovered he is part of a poetic movement called the Misty Poets who are reacting to the cultural revolution through obscurity, but with reality as the central, grounded characteristic. Perhaps I could liken it to how Magic Realism works in that it uses the fantastic to make a point about the political reality – such as the blood with a life of its own in A Thousand Years of Solitude.
The initial image of “the golden rain” has a dreamlike quality to it. Perhaps it’s sunset? But it also recalls Chinese amber, that yellow, orange-reddish, honey-ish (“bee” and “hive” is used later in the poem) translucent material used in Chinese folk art. This forms a connection between worlds, that of the new (our title tells us we are in New York), and that of the old (China, assuming Ha Jin is a Chinese name). But rain does has an ethereal quality to it so we know we’re getting a poem that exists somewhere between forms, a shimmering betweenness or vacillating between worlds.
“Plod” is an interesting word because it recalls a worker in a rice field plodding along in the paddy (on his “back” are “the words” like a worker hauling bundles of rice). There’s a drudgery to it, but it also relates to the modern world’s drudgery and how alone we are in it (which we get to as the poem continues).
“Loaded with words” made me think of letters from home, but also being bombarded with English in the advertisements in storefronts along Madison Ave. The duality of images is tightened down into that of language, Chinese and English. And here we get the breakthrough in how language defines us as individuals with “a person to a tribe”. He is showing us how the words themselves make us who we are and that we are part of something larger, more vital than just our individual selves (a very Eastern way of thinking, though it still relates to the modern world’s indifference to us).
He talks about the hypodermic needle effect of language, how it enters down into “my bones”, the very skeletal structure that holds us together, props us up, gives us form and shape. Even letters and characters look like little skeletons, and in a way letters and characters are skeletal sketches of larger ideas, they don’t “shine” as bright as “traffic lights”, but they are as “true”. Words literally define us, just as we used words to define the world. And so “I become another man” based on what language is gnawing at him, English gnawing at him like it’s attacking him, and Chinese gnawing at him to remind him who he was born as.
And in the final 2 lines we get a sense of what Chinese is like in giving is the strange image of “money eyes” What are “money eyes”? The “luck” he no longer dreams of? The American’s with money on their mind? Chinese eyes in their oriental shape (so “exotic” to non-Asians). Money eyes feels like a Chinese language character meant to represent something there is no English word for. I feel like he’s teaching us Chinese to help us understand who he is, where he is coming from, what his life and ancestry and culture is about. He’s giving us language to gnaw into ourselves and transform us.