Peppered Path

She walks the heady perfume of pepper-scented roads,

Strides through clumps of spikenard, scattering their fragrance.
—from “The Goddess of the Luo,” by Cao Zhi (192–232)

they used to sprinkle the path
with pepper
so that it smelled good,


that it was firm, straight
a good will. that no one
who ever trod on it
would walk awry. a dream.


it was good to dream
dreams in third-century
China, when bronze pigeons
floated around, literati
woke up to find food


on the table.
they smoked herbs
to get high.


now they use pepper
for a different purpose.
when we, the literati,
gather, they, the barbarians,
pepper us.


those pepper seeds, grown
in the warmth of South America
distilled—capsaicin. assassin.


a peppered path: where
another pepper tree grows
solid, piercing
shielding up the soul
from anti-riot vehicles.

Weijia Pan is a poet and translator from Shanghai, China. His poems appear in AGNI, Boulevard, the Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, the Georgia Review, New Ohio Review, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. He’s a third-year MFA candidate at the University of Houston, where he won the Inprint Paul Verlaine Prize in Poetry. His manuscript Motherlands was chosen by Louise Glück as the winner of the 2023 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize and will be published by Milkweed Editions in 2024.