The Breakdown Atlas

Lauren Tivey


It happens in a Hong Kong hooker hotel,
off Nathan Road.  A round bed under mirrors,
girlie pinups gazing from candy-pink walls:

pain clamps its toothy mouth down, and the body
spasms and crumbles.  Clean sheets, a fresh towel,
no cockroaches.  One doesn’t ask for much.

Women’s heels click back and forth
along linoleum, past hourly-rental rooms,
amid Cantonese chatter, laughter, muffled sex.

All that flashing neon—the nerves, liquid fire.
It wasn’t easy to find a hotel, after 18 rigid hours
on a mainland train.  There had been omens

in the bland, cracked fields, in the decrepit
concrete row houses, phantom eyes of windows,
an old man hacking clams of phlegm, debris

of years.  The girl on the wall curls into herself,
a spotless rabbit; clean curve of hip and folded leg,
my daughter’s dewy age.  Let them have their youth—

this agony, collapse of muscle and bone, a paring
down of the superfluous.  One could give in
to comfort’s cotton grip, to capsules, doctors,

death insurance, to hobble the tawdry malls
of America, to stow the dog-eared passport
in a shoebox of humiliation.  It could be so

ordinary.  Fetal position on the floor, I count
replications in the pocked pattern, riding the surge,
holding on, animal-tough, yet close to beaten.


Guiyang sprawls and rots under the smog,
where bustling restaurants display carcasses
among tunnels of garbage.  No myth,

they kill dogs at the river, blood mingling
with mud;  the shit, the stench, the yowling,
the gaping crimson crescents at their necks…

From a sixth floor apartment, I watch
ragged figures pick through the dump,
slowly sifting.  Refuse falls from buildings,

a putrid snow of rotted vegetables, dirty
diapers, used toilet paper.  At night,
a tempest:  an old woman dying next door

begins her hours of torment, sickly protests
waking babies, squeals blending with rough
and drunken domestic beatings, shrieking

of stray cats in heat, my own wracking sobs—
psyche scorched, finally.  I move as a ghost
through the city, trembling and ashen, thinking

of Dante, looking for a guide, a kindness or
a revelation, finding only dread limits within.
By the apartment door, a pile of raw garbage,

a brown person in tatters, sex obscured, picking.
I meet eyes—black cavities—watch as a hand
lifts to mouth, and eats.  I’ve nothing left to give,

and I can’t endure.  Cold rain begins to fall:
   the city breaks me, the city breaks me
hard, and I run, tracing a coward’s map out.


His name still lingers in the thin air,
after fifty years:  Tenzin Gyatso, Ocean
of Wisdom
.  Of the thousand dim rooms

in the Potala Palace, a weeping breakdown
in his meditation chamber.  Chinese tourists,
unaware they’ve been hoodwinked, gawk

at his belongings, point and snap photographs,
then shuffle off, a docile herd, after the prattling,
propagandist guide, all of them, spoon-fed

the party line since birth.  Tears form a diagram
across my cheeks, a secret route of truth;
they’ve removed his name but can’t erase

the story, the devotion of followers, the solace
and surf of his wide sea.  Alone in a sacred room,
I pray, and I cry, cow-faced, juvenile, just another

invader with western epiphanies.  In the murky
warren of corridors, later, a burgundy-swathed
monk smiles at me, and it’s a smile that took place

five hundred years ago, or will take place
a few light years ahead—it travels, blazing
like daylight, into the private, aching core

of my soul, as purifying as orgasm.  Outside,
Lhasa pulsates in a mist of incense, banished
sovereign alive, unforgotten in the avid piety

of his rosy-faced people.  Cleansed, I step out to join
the holy city kora; chanting, spinning the wheel,
as Dharamsala beckons to the shining south.


Something called home.  Can I comprehend
the meaning anymore?  My daughters mature,
have babies.  Mother begins the slow sink

into frailty.  Friends divorce, die—it all goes on
with me, or without me, as they continue to think
my life is glamorous (and no, I’m not so cruel

as to disillusion them).  My suitcases are battered
and busted, worn with the stress.  The axis
persists with its realignment:  north, south,

east, west—I follow like a bloodhound,
obligated by instinct, on a crusade of selfishness,
pursuing the mystery, the track, the flight pattern.

I fixate on the roads below, laid out like a grid
through the vast fields, almost pinpointing where
they converge in the distance, before we drift

into clouds.  There is trance in this movement,
sometimes a forgetting:  Asia?  Europe?  Africa?
Does it even matter anymore?  The pilot knows

where we are going, and why, a familiar purpose
in the structure of duty; yet how could I fathom that,
when I need everything, the tapestry of the globe

as my backdrop?  We pull into wherever; Beijing, Dublin,
Amsterdam, Miami, where I cart my circus boxes along,
weight of years towing at my heart and heels, in a build-up

to the next breakdown, and I lumber through customs,
both weak and strong, driven to move until the end,
doing something I don’t understand, but think I love.



About The Writer

Lauren Tivey Split Lip Magazine

​Lauren Tivey currently lives in China, where she works as an English Literature teacher in the American program at a Chinese high school. She received a MFA in poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Blue Hour, The Camel Saloon, Red Fez, Hobble Creek Review, Blue Lake Review, and Gutter Eloquence, among others.  Her chapbook, The Breakdown Atlas & Other Poems, was released in 2011 by Big Table Publishing. She lives for poetry, photography, travel, and adventure. You can find her at: