Intimate Letters: Selected Poems of Chen Li
translated by Chang Fen-ling
REVIEWED BY JANET CHARMAN
In November 2009 I was fortunate to be part of a group from around the Pacific Rim, attending the annual International Writers’ Workshop at Hong Kong Baptist University. Over the month of November each year, this programme introduces new writing to the university’s student body and to interested members of the public. And the writers themselves also encounter, amongst one another, texts and literary practices which are new to them.
Chen Li’s ‘Intimate Letters’ 1 was, to all intents and purposes, my introduction to recent poetry from his region. So although I don’t know how typical his work is; of either today’s Chinese poetics generally or Taiwanese poetry in particular; reading it alongside the Western work with which I am familiar, it struck me as utterly refreshing. And since, apart from the translator’s introduction, I have been able to find little specialist critical commentary on this remarkable material, I venture to make the notes that follow.
The poems in ‘Intimate Letters’ span twenty-one years in Chen Li’s writing life and contain work from the first six of at least ten published collections. Each poem is printed in Mandarin with an English translation on the facing page.
Chen Li is himself a prolific translator, (into Mandarin) of Western poets including among others, Neruda, Plath, Heaney, Larkin and Hughes; therefore his ease with European traditions may account for the climate of cultural affinity I experience when reading this work. Or, it could be that the poems’ wonderful immediacy, their, ‘rough play’, is a direct result of translator Chang Fen-Ling’s linguistic and literary acumen. In addition, her readings have a particular reliability since she is also Chen Li’s spouse.
But perhaps my greatest appreciation for Chen Li’s poetics arises from the fact that he supplies richly textured evocations of domestic life as the grounding for sophisticated readings in sexual and other sorts of politics: A perspective not generally prevalent in the writing of the male [New Zealand] poets of my experience: And for which female [New Zealand] poets may sometimes, still, be slighted. 2
Examples of working from “the domestic” can be found on almost every page of Chen Li’s collection. For example, a poem from 1976, ‘The Lover of the Magician’s Wife’ 3, records the surreal ‘breakfast scenery’ of an assignation where ‘The sun always rises from the other end of the eggshell in spite of the / strong smell of the moon.’
A 1989 poem about living in politically “interesting” times has: ‘Footsteps returning to every morning bowl of porridge. / Footsteps returning to the water of every evening washbasin’. 4 This poem takes the reader, in five unrhymed couplets and two singly placed lines, through the barely suppressed agitation of households trying to carry out the tasks of daily life, while gripped in listening hope and terror, for the return of their “disappeared”.
It’s the plainly stated images in the surrounding couplets that allow Chen Li to include the words ‘Rebelling against the foreign regime while ruled by it. / Raped by the fatherland while embracing it’ and have this read, not as polemic, but rather as an exactingly precise, and even bleakly ironic, statement of facts. That the charge of rape laid in these lines is couched as incestuous, serves once again as an example of Chen Li’s attachment to the domestic, the family, as the site of deepest social revelation.
‘February’ confronts the failure of a regime to represent its people by characterizing and then exposing that failing, as a ‘family matter’. A strategy that works against the tendency for a political apparatus or military chain of command, to detach leaders from their sense of personal responsibility for the human cost of their decisions. Whilst acknowledging the historical specificity attested to in the translator’s endnotes, it’s clear that ‘February’ could be read with equal understanding in Fallujah or Pyongyang, at Parihaka or in Manhattan.
And whereas the boundaries of family intimacy are here pierced by public acts of malice, the language of the poem equally denies sanctuary within the home, to perpetrators of private acts of abuse.
‘The Wall’ 5 was written a year later in 1990 and it also depicts the permeability of the membrane that separates the private and public worlds. It is a barrier on which characters lean through lives of muffled suffering. From a record of ‘The Wall’s’ eavesdropping on our human plight, the poem proceeds to describe the ways in which we imprint our dearly cherished identities onto it, in return. ‘Hanging on it is the clock / Hanging on it is the mirror’. “Attached” to the ‘The Wall’, these two ‘simple’ domestic appliances insinuate a sense of our fleeting mortality; linked to the eternal hope that we will ‘look the part’ even if we don’t deserve it.
The poem ends with the lines, ‘The wall has ears, / leading a giant existence sustained by our frailty.’ Despite the deployment of a phrase synonymous with totalitarian surveillance, the words which come immediately after, reveal that this is not an expression of hot defiance at the intrusion of “Big Brother”: Rather, the poem prefers a rueful acknowledgment of the structures of protection and nourishment one might expect from the dispassionate attentions of, say, ‘Big Mother’: ‘The Wall’ evolving towards a kind of scarily tender, uterine presence with whom the inhabitant of the room is both complicit and dismayed.
Manifestly not set in the hetero-normative king & queendoms of suburbia, the poem shakes out the social fabric of the high-density metropolitan: A location both protective and suffocating, in which privacy is revealed as a fiction sustained by the urban villagers’ compassionate or contingent belief in soundproofing.
What intrigues in this evocation and elsewhere in Chen Li’s work, is the complexity of the imagery. In the length of a line he habitually moves from the familiar, the aesthetically comforting, to points strange, inexorably foreign.
His prizewinning 1980 poem, ‘The Last Wang Mu-Qi’ also illustrates this tendency. The first lines read: ‘Seventy days, / we have stuck to the profound darkness, / listening to the coal strata talking with water. / The recycling quiet is everlasting as tapes, / playing back our breath in the minutest detail. / Roses between the lips, / maggots on the shoulders’. 6
This epic narrative is told in the voice of a coal-miner proletarian hero, a character whose consciousness over the course of the poem, ranges across Mainland China, ‘celebrating’ the works of man and nature. However, it is quickly revealed that this is also the voice of an entombed soul.
The changes Mu-Qi recounts take the reader from the rhythms of his subterranean shift at the coalface, across the bridge of terror into death. The poem deconstructs the explosion which leaves his body broken among those of his workmates: ‘ Intricate veins, / mysterious mother. / We are thus warmly immersed in great / geology. / Iron spades, coal carts, dynamites, fears / have all slipped along cordage of time into cobwebs of sleep.’ It enumerates with a kind of blackly comic yearning, the multiple aspirations he shared with his neighbours, dreams now to be fulfilled in his physical absence. And goes on to recount the specific ways in which ‘development’ may bring his own family previously unimaginable material wealth; but in the death of their husband and father, at a wholly unanticipated cost. The TV news noting the disaster, doesn’t even get his name right, so for a heartrending moment Wang Mu-Qi’s son believes someone else has taken his dad’s place in the apocalypse.
‘The Last Wang Mu-Qi’ manages its burden of bitter irony with a subversive slipping of tone between the gravity due to worker martyrdom in a ‘People’s Republic’; and the breathless elaboration of status enhancing material comforts from which the bereaved may take consolation: A thought that relieves Wang Mu-Qi nearly as much as it repels the implied reader. Balancing these tensions, as ever in Chen Li’s work, the meaning of this death is drawn from the deepest most private reaches of a particular family: ‘a nine year old child / I saw in a dream my dark-faced father return from the mine / and beat up Mother without saying a word. / A seventeen year old youth, / he watched confusedly his naked father / weeping secretly by the wall- / were you that young child too, when a black umbrella / sent the sister to a far away hospital / on a stormy night?’ 7
Throughout the poem Wang Mu-Qi seeks to make sense of what has befallen him, not just in death, but also in the inexplicability of the suffering he experienced in a life that he has had to leave so grotesquely unresolved. If the reader is rewarded with the narrative pleasures of an epic tragedy, they are also obliged to deal with its abrupt and ‘unsatisfactory’ termination. In his final advice to his widow, Mu-Qi says: ‘On such a dark and stormy night, don’t forget to bolt / all the doors and windows of the house…’ his best attempt at ‘closure’ frighteningly inadequate to the events that have overtaken him. Chen Li offers no final epiphanies in this brutal record of one man’s life and pointless death.
Elsewhere, in writing of vivid sensuality, husbands and wives, lovers, are given “room enough and time”, to fully communicate their emotions: ‘From the cup I drink the tea you pour for me, / from the cup I drink the spring chill flowing down / between your fingers.’ 8
This is a ‘modern’ Haiku, number twenty-six from a set of one hundred in the 1993 series ‘Microcosmos’, of which half are included in ‘Intimate Letters’. In these Chen Li has dispensed with the formal line length restrictions of the classical form, while retaining every particle of the electric shock that an aficionado of “the Haiku moment” might require. Number thirty-eight reads: ‘On the night cold as iron: / the percussion music of two bodies / which strike each other to make a fire.’ 9
In these two poems, and tellingly, in the absence of gender specificity, ‘simple’ domestic acts (fire lighting and pouring tea) are used to convey an intense eroticism. Many other pieces here, in both long and short poetic forms, render eros with equivalent poignancy. ‘Morning Blue’ is particularly notable for its evocation of lovers surfacing from jouissance into the prosaic “busynesse” of life: ‘your blue underwear, which is sought everywhere in vain / your blue hair ribbon, which is raised with the wind.’ 10 The narrator then appears to roam alone, in imagination, across the abandoned terrain of the dawn they’ve shared. Their profound physical engagement attracting deep anxiety about the loss of self on which, in retrospect, such an ecstasy is unavoidably predicated. So: ‘you contradict my thought / oppress my breath’. And: ‘You make me take the remainder of your saliva as the ocean / as the Mediterranean’: The beloved finally referred to as: ‘…goddess of evil, master of the morning.’
I read this last line as a manifestation of the patriarchally orchestrated unheimlich, which, as ever, kicks into life in the presence of a desired feminine ‘other’. But earlier in the poem, uncanny waves of terror are equaled by the exhilaration of tumultuous desire, voiced as if by someone swept ashore on an island “where the wild things are”. However, in the end this reader feels she has to swallow a summary rejection of the [voracious] feminine. That may close (if not resolve) the issue for a man: But it’s no coda for a woman. Despite this; in its tender and funny opening; its audacious, risk taking body text; and its fatally wounded and wounding (albeit culturally prescribed) final act of denial; the poem is one of the masterpieces of the collection.
The tone of other love poetry here ranges from the sublime understatement of ‘A Cup of Tea’: ‘At first hot, turned warm, and then cold.’ 11 To the anguished bravado of ‘Nocturnal Fish’: ‘Do you still boast of your freedom? // Come and appreciate a fish, appreciate a space fish that suddenly becomes rich / and free, because of your forsaking.’ 12
In ‘My Mistress’, 13 the collection’s first piece, from 1974, the narrator employs the conventional erotic trope of woman-as-guitar: Only to reveal, when the music begins, a destructive impairment of the player’s exquisite preparations, exposed in a tone of [willful] innocence: The chagrin of the ending like a dispatch from an outpost between theory and practice.
In the 1990 poem ‘An Intimate Letter’14 , the narration initially embraces a sensual decorum, composed from the intensely observed minutiae of a view from a window. Then the comfortable opening tone: ‘Youth, the sound of the chapel organ’ subtly shifts and with changes of dark to light observed in the street, there comes a registering of other memories: ‘the panting electric fan in a small hotel, / the street lamp sighing under the moon.’ The sense of a sexual anonymity, barely but exquisitely contained in these lines, is remarkable. From here, with the narrator’s awareness of corners left unturned and friends unmet, the poem’s focus pulling nostalgia is progressively destabilised. Out of a present that ‘brightens’: ‘broad’, ‘spacious’: comes a sudden recognition of doors at first opened and then shut. The narrator stands: ‘back to a set of half-dark wardrobes’: and examines a metaphor for a long abandoned aspect of the self: ‘You think of a scarf, not exactly ugly, / used in winter, forgotten in summer. / It occurs to you that a scarf is like a song, and a song / is a winding street.’ These incremental displacements lift the poem from initial conventionality, through ambivalence, to alert acceptance. And as it ends, the narrator buoyantly taking the stairs to the outside world, seems set to embrace both the light and shade of all he has lived through: And in so doing, to admit the past to the present.
Because of what’s been felt to achieve this resolute finish, the tensions raised in the poem remain acutely in play. It’s as if the public soul searching of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” were made to vibrate for a moment at the pitch of a private life: Yet the poem’s lightness of touch is an implicit indictment of all forms of compelled self criticism.
Appropriately, this poem is the one chosen to lend its register of artless simplicity to the collection’s title. However, despite its series of unassuming confidences ‘Intimate Letters’ makes no concessions in terms of aesthetic or intellectual complexity. Rather, the subtleties of the poems’ language strategies are directed to engage the reader in a series of unflinchingly personal reflections on the ethics of the public realm.
Intriguingly, ‘My Mistress’ and ‘An Intimate Letter’, depict a kind of dynamic musicality as inherent in our bodies as we interact with the world: ‘Then she tenses herself into a real / six stringed instrument, spreading intensely / her easily-ignited beauty.’ 15 Both are representative of the musicological strand present in Chen Li’s work generally. Another example: The 1992 poem, ‘The Bladder’, renders this organ as if it were a sort of art installation in the Len Lye kinetic tradition: An internal instrument that ‘…goes up and down, flickering and blinking’. 16
In this poem the social consequences of drinking are conciliatingly and wittily revealed in a hyper-aware depiction of their physical effects. However, elsewhere, such indulgences are treated with forensic acuity: In ‘Buffalo’, Officials from the north are, ‘Drinking tea, urinating, on the laboriously-carved dreams of the people’. 17 In ‘Travelling in the Family’: ‘[…] pressing her, beating / her, cursing her/ after drinking at midnight, leaving her washing the scars on her body / with her baby in arms.’ 18 This richly detailed inter-generational sequence, particularly registers with me in regard to its treatment of family violence: On which topic [New Zealand] poetry commonly maintains a speaking silence.
Chen Li’s depiction of social consequences can also be seen in his portrayal of indigeneity and colonialism. Many poems in the collection unpack the ethnic influences that constitute modern Taiwanese society, wrestling with complexities of language, nationality and colonizers’ identities: And looking to some extent at issues of culpability in displacing indigenous populations.
An example of the poet’s particular identity concerns can be found in ‘Green Onions’ where the issues are constituted, (again, typically) in terms of the domestic. A boy is sent out to buy green onions for his lunchbox: the ‘green onions smelling of mud. / When I got home, I heard the Holland peas in the basket / telling Mother in Hakka dialect that the green onions were brought / home.’ 19
The poem then proceeds through the child’s day at school, observing how he: ‘ate my lunch stealthily after every class’, and because of this, despite the welter of political indoctrination included in his lessons: ‘Counter-attack, counter-attack counter- / attack the Chinese mainland’: it is the taste of green onions, so entirely at home in his mother’s kitchen, that immunises him against propaganda; and leads him to the realization that he does have a ‘place to stand’, a personal geographic location with which his identity is profoundly engaged. This small, sunlit, kitchen moment, is posed as a counterpoint to the poem’s dizzying seven-line evocation of the narrator’s cross-continental journey to the ‘vast Green-Onion Mountain Range’: The poem as effective at drawing the unfathomable immensities of the world into its own ‘small’ frame; as the little green onion is at revealing to the narrator the truest sources of his identity.
Chen Li’s assertion here that cultural weight is estimable not in size, but in substance, is further amplified in his 2010 essay, ‘Travelling Between Languages: Possessed by Chinese characters.’ 20 The article is an expression of dismay that the sophistication of Chinese literature may ultimately be diluted by the Mainland’s use of a modified text in Putonghua, which standardises the simplification of characters written in Mandarin.
However, it’s not possible to read this essay from an entirely linguistic perspective since Chen Li also suggests, from his position as a seeming outlier, that the classical complexity retained in Taiwan’s written language, positions the Taiwanese as in some sense more ‘Mainland’ than the mainland. That the piece appears in an edition of the American journal Poetry, also locates these issues within the framework of ‘superpower’ debate over competing imperialist claims on Taiwan: Whose citizens respond by asserting (whilst spending enormous sums of money on arms from the US) their unassailable sovereignty.
The ambivalence inherent in such alliances and the issues of authenticity of identity they raise, are cuttingly, if comedically addressed in Chen Li’s 1994 poem ‘English Class’ 21 which skewers the cultural presumption implied in the phenomenon of the monolingual English teacher. Chinese students’ English language acquisition here revealed as yet another strand in a long history of Western colonization. A poem also alert to the irony that, (as the biographical notes in ‘Intimate Letters’ attest) Chen Li has himself taught English in various settings, throughout his working life.
Here, as elsewhere, Chen Li’s poetics destabilise polemical confrontation by refracting contentious issues through the personal and the domestic. Not with the effect of diffusing or diminishing the importance of such issues, but rather by reframing the private sphere; the self, the home; as a site in which one may engage deeply with; rather than detach from; such concerns: A setting in which avante garde art practice may effectively interrogate realpolitik.
To the extent that poetry under patriarchal capitalism has resisted commodification, the reconfiguration of domestic spaces and personal privacy in writing such as Chen Li’s, is potentially the antithesis of bourgeois retreat: A resistant rootstock, which in the age of digital communication offers some interesting alternatives to the bankrupt discourses of perpetual economic growth.
The presumption of marginality or triviality for such poetic strategies is neatly challenged in the following extract from ‘A Vending Machine for Nostalgic Nihilists’22. A poem whose iconoclastic menu bullet points the ‘hot button’ issues of a generation of thwarted activists: ‘Sleeping pill *for vegetarians *for non-vegetarians // Misty poetry *two pieces in one *three pieces in one *aerosol // Marijuana *of Freedom brand *of Peace brand *of Opium War brand // Condom * for commercial use * for non-commercial use’: And in so doing refutes the idea that a poetics closely attuned to the ‘everyday’ experiences of commuter consumers snacking their way home from work, must, by definition, be inadequate to the political challenges of “serious” art.
The poem’s unconventional ‘listing’ structure amplifies its theme that all authorities, no matter how professedly liberal or artistic, can be questioned. In this respect its reference to ‘Misty poetry’ bears closer examination. On the mainland, in the late seventies, the writers identified with this label, produced work whose calculatedly anarchic forms both exposed and temporarily evaded the crippling cultural restrictions that eventually resulted in their banning. Chen Li’s line sketches ‘Misty’ poetry’s progress through linguistic condensations of existential extremity, to ‘aerosol’. Aptly suggesting the persuasiveness of ideas invisible to “The Authorities” but accessible to anyone else with a nose. Yet ‘aerosol’ also sounds a dismissive note, perhaps understandable in a writer not bound to subterfuge: someone brave, reckless or lucky enough, to be able to call a spade a spade: Chen Li himself handy with a ‘digging implement’ when necessary.
Great art may be constructed in extremis, but more often it is ground under the heel of the dictator. So in our “interesting” times if we think we have the right to free speech, such a belief needs to be tested. Chen Li does voice the concerns of people who might otherwise be rolled under the ‘big wheels’ of history. And while the ‘homely’ strategies of his poetics merit broader theoretical consideration, this is not to deny that his work could be read in many other ways. A diversity of approaches to issues of sustainability in contemporary life has never been more important. Think global: Act local.
I found Chen Li’s poem ‘Adagio’23 on the web and since it was written in 2006, it does not appear in the collection under discussion here. Nevertheless I will refer to it in this essay because I hope it may signal future directions in Chen Li’s writing. Specifically its compositional strategies link it to the series of ‘concrete’ poems 24 that appear towards the end of ‘Intimate Letters’. In this work, form follows function in terms of ideographic representation: However, the thematic concerns of ‘Adagio’ are ‘concretely’ expressed in a use of repetition.
The poem begins, ‘Grandma sitting by the window’, her seventeen-year-old self, poised watching cloudscapes and waiting for her future: As an old woman, that long ago “cloud gathering” descends to her head both in the changed colour of the ‘cloud’ of hair she sees in the mirror and in the form of her mystifying perception of time. The compassion and economy with which the poem evokes this complex progression in the character’s life, is remarkable.
Looking through her eyes, her grandson walks across the lawn to the house in which she sits, watching him cross the lawn. In this cycle of seeing and being seen both are connected to the energy of the instant. The reader simultaneously bound into the richly detailed imagery of Grandma’s sequestered intelligence: ‘The oriental sesame flower stands / at the other end of the lawn / chit-chatting with her sisters / Grandma thinks to herself / the silent tree is poetry / so is the talking flower / She raises her head and sees me’ The enjambment in these lines reveals the complexity of a “female gaze” presumed to encompass the independent witness of the protagonist’s grandson.
And conveying a refreshing subjectivity further amplified when, in this first section of the poem: ‘She turns on the radio / to listen to reports of snow / but the grass is so green / Suddenly she craves / vanilla ice cream’. The intensity of this description a particular novelty to the extent that our cultures commonly deny sensual pleasure to the old: privileging the young.
Then starting into the second section, a shock of realisation awaits the reader since although entirely new features of the narrative flow into view; paradoxically these perceived changes arise from a repetition of precisely the same words: Here Chen Li makes manifest a twist on the ancient philosophical truth that “you cannot step into the same river twice”. As the poem’s ending cues the reader to start again from the beginning, the poem also suggests this metaphor of seemingly perpetual change, may also be read as part of a deeper cycle of eternal renewal.
I read Chen Li’s innovative use of repetition as coming from a feminine jurisdiction, by referencing an essay of the English novelist Rachel Cusk’s, that appeared in The Guardian Weekly in response to the publication of new editions of Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’.
‘A Voice of Her Own’, 25 discusses the pressure on writers to abandon ‘the book of repetition’, if they wish their work to be taken “seriously” and to adopt instead the literary style of ‘the book of change.’ The latter can be summarised as a narrative model whose effect is to impoverish literary representations of women’s sexualities by preferring that only male centered discourses be considered as “serious” art: the texts most worthy of critical notice and canonical inclusion.
However, I understand ‘Adagio’, as opening the ‘book of repetition’, to reveal a ‘book of change’ that may be read concurrently. The poem, in these terms, deprived of essentialist tropes of either femininity or masculinity: Its ‘change’ situated, not in the text its-self, but rather in the construction of a reader freed of their assumptions (conscious or otherwise) about the superiority of ‘masculine’ over ‘feminine’ narratives.
Yes, the poem is repetitive, but that does not make it inferior. Its narrator embraces the cyclic way [an old] woman sees the world: affirming both her physiological representation of time and her unique cultural perspective. A recycling of the text which both exposes and counters the reader’s culturally condoned tendency to dismiss or trivialise her.
The poem’s language of Arcadian serenity (distant clouds, green grass) conditioned my first impression. However, the text’s subsequent re/presentations provoke an involuntary re-evaluation. When ‘A cat walks across the lawn’ and accidentally ‘knocks over the rattan chair’ it triggers a consciousness that the ‘pig’ that once dominated Grandma’s field of vision; was responsible for intentionally knocking over other “things”: ‘but not now’. As ‘She turns on the radio’ the poem overrides an embedded memory of pain. The narrative’s onward momentum, determinedly recognising the abuse Grandma endured, yet perpetually reinstating her in the garden as a self-determining subject: Someone who sees the world on her own terms and who can choose to occupy ‘the middle of the lawn’.
Such an innovative use of repetition might also cue the reader to think about more conventional ‘change’ cultures, for example in institutions [narratives] where successfully realised masculinity is synonymous with relentless ‘development’ [plotting]. Such approaches potentially destructive not only for those whose social disposition is towards co-operative models [as revealed, say, in the ‘microclimate’ of this poem] but also for the healthy functioning of other ecosystems that we share.
Yet, given the chance, as Rachel Cusk’s essay ably demonstrates, we women have shown ourselves to be as adept as the next apparatchik at the [literary] ventriloquisms, which close ‘the book of repetition’ in favour of ‘change’ narratives allowing us to “pass” as honorary patriarchs. If such a co-option is an ever present temptation for a woman, how much more seductive is it for a man? Wherever his position of superiority becomes visible, we are encouraged by the hegemonic tendencies in our cultures to read his preferment as ‘natural’.
The refusal of such abject identifications is what makes the feminist project for sustainable social and ecological practices meaningful. However, in all probability what will be needed for such a project’s success is the concurrent emergence of a masculinist project whose goals (whatever they may be) are synchronous. With that thought in mind I read ‘Adagio’s’ tricky, transgressive narrative, as contributing towards such a contingency.
Throughout ‘Intimate Letters’ the changes Chen Li’s protagonists undergo may be read as occurring with, rather than against, the tidal currents of the feminine: Particularly in the sense that his work depicts the quest for mature identity as being less about leaving home and more about finding the courage to invite the world in: ‘Joy is a hole: / tuck an object in, and out flow / fruit-like vowels.’26
The ‘Microcosmos’ in, and beyond the Haiku in the pages of ‘Intimate Letters’, are peopled with ‘minor’ identities whose vividly sketched individuality can be read as testimony against patriarchally ascribed abjection. Yet, paradoxically, the writer who finds inspiration in somebody [seemingly] with nothing to lose, voices that marginalised subject, as s/he would not dare to express herself. The poet’s authority to make pronouncements implying a position of rightful privilege: ‘In a city alarmed by a series of earthquakes / I saw pimps on their knees returning vaginas to their daughters.’ 27 Her lack ‘necessitating’ that s/he is spoken for: Chen Li’s very eloquence, here reifying his character’s inarticulacy. This is unsupportable.
Chen Li is himself alert to these implications and can be said to address them in his poem ‘The Image Hunter’, 28 which presents a series of violent scenarios and asks how an artist engaging with them, may: ‘move slowly, restrain the sense of guilt… / [.] / so as to present the world with true and grievous art’. Seeming to resolve, in the arresting ambivalence of the poem’s conclusion, that the poet ‘…making fruit slack enough to flow out / juice’; 29 must bear the consequences of framing questions they can’t answer: But this seems too much like “man’s” work to me.
Elsewhere, a wilful humbling of his own authority can be gathered from Chen Li’s joyous evocations of the natural world: Not magisterially descriptive, a voice nakedly exposed to the exigencies of our contestable human habitats: wordquakes, urgently summoning the reader, with the writer, to the kettle, to the precipice, of our own known worlds. Where ‘we watch the cold river boiling once again, / warmly dissolving the descending darkness’. 30
I wait impatiently for more translations.
Here, to close, the last four “open” lines of Chen Li’s 1995 poem ‘Furniture Music’ 31:
‘In the songs that I hear
In the words that I say
In the water that I drink
In the silence that I leave’
1.Several of Chen Li’s poems have won literary prizes, both in Taiwan, his home, and in China. The biographical notes in the collection also record that in 1993 ‘Intimate Letters’ received Taiwan’s National Award for Literature and Arts. In addition, Chen Li’s web page: http://www.hgjh.hlc.edu.tw/~chenli/selectedpoems.htm: notes his appearance as guest reader at a number of distinguished international forums.
2.‘When Life Happens in more dramatic ways, the poems get more compelling; a series of poems on Livesey’s ageing, and ailing, mother are often very moving. But there seems little to compel the reader’s interest in them as poems beyond the human interest of the story they tell. A cracking irregular villanelle, ‘Chrysalis’, shows that Livesey is capable of far richer formal investigations, and more arresting imagery than she risks elsewhere in this collection.’
‘The poems explicitly exploring this dark passage in her life are riveting, in their way: how could a poem from a mother to her children imagining their response to her own death be anything but? However, these are perhaps not the most successful poems in this striking debut. Unsurprisingly, there is in these works what Wordsworth called an “overflow of powerful feelings” but not quite, yet, that transformation by reflective “tranquillity” that would sublimate these feelings into a fully realised work of art.’
Roberts, Hugh, ‘Is it a poem or a blog?’ NZ Listener, Arts & Books, July 31-August 6, 2010 Vol. 224 No 3664: The full text can be read at:
3.‘The Lover of the Magician’s Wife’: Chen Li, Intimate Letters: Selected Poems of Chen Li, 1974-1995: Translated and Introduced by Chang Fen-Ling: Bookman Books, Taipei, 1997, p. 47
4.‘February’, ibid, p.103
5. ‘The Wall’, ibid, p.201
6. ‘The Last Wang Mu-Qi’, ibid, p.163
7. ibid, p.173
8. Haiku 26, [from: Microcosmos] Intimate Letters, p. 245
9. Haiku 38, ibid, p.246
10.‘Morning Blue’, Intimate Letters, p.271
11. ‘A Cup of Tea’, ibid, p.263
12. ‘Nocturnal Fish’, ibid, p. 277
13. ‘My Mistress’, ibid, p.37
14. ‘An Intimate Letter’ ibid, p.199
15. ‘My Mistress’, ibid, p.37
16. ‘The Bladder’, ibid, p.209
17. ‘Buffalo’ ibid, p. 127
18.’ Travelling in the Family’, ibid, p. 187
19. ‘Green Onions’, ibid, p.123
20. ‘Travelling Between Languages: Possessed by Chinese Characters’
Chen Li @ www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=238868
21. ‘English Class’, ‘Intimate Letters’, p. 281
22. ‘A Vending Machine for Nostalgic Nihilists’, ibid, p. 213
23.‘Adagio’, World Literature Today, Contemporary Taiwanese Poetry:
24. Concrete poems are another significant aspect of Chen Li’s poetics. A particularly effective example is: ‘A War Symphony’, Intimate Letters, p. 286. In this piece the ideograph for ‘soldier’ marches across several pages of text, progressively losing, left and right, its glyph ‘limbs’: (“兵”, “乒”, “乓”, “丘”) The effect is that in their progressively reduced forms the second and third ideographs above, can be read as explosive ‘combat’ sounds, and finally, as seen in the fourth ideograph, the original ‘soldier’: “兵”, is ‘cut down to size,’ as: “丘”. This is also the ideograph for ‘small hill’, which, in the blackest of ironies, may also be read as ‘burial place’. An extraordinary animation of the poem can be viewed on line at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKJumF5Rdok
The written text can be viewed with an audio of Chen Li performing it, at: http://www.hgjh.hlc.edu.tw/~chenli/WarSymphony.htm
NB: In ‘Intimate Letters’ Chen Li’s poems have left justified margins. On his website however (and in this reader’s view, with a consequent loss in visual fluency) his work (excepting the ‘concrete’ poems) is ‘centered’: As are the poems he has translated.
25. Cusk, Rachel, ‘A Voice of Her Own’,
26. Haiku 27, [from: ‘Microcosmos’] ‘Intimate Letters’, p. 245
27. ‘In a City Alarmed by a Series of Earthquakes’, ibid, p.73
28. ‘The Image Hunter’, ibid, p.302. This piece, from 1994, is subtitled ‘in memory of Kevin Carter’. A note to the poem explains that this photographer committed suicide not long after he was criticized for taking a Pulitzer prize winning shot of a vulture waiting to settle on the living body of a malnourished young girl, at the point of death in a Sudanese desert. Instead of engaging with her he chose to represent her plight: as ‘art’.
29. ibid. p.303
30. ‘The River of Shadows’, Intimate Letters, p. 215.
31.‘Furniture Music’, ‘Intimate Letters’, p. 305
JANET CHARMAN has an MA 1st. Class Hons. from Auckland University. She has published seven collections of poems and was granted the New Zealand Annual poetry award for her 2008 collection Cold Snack. She has been a visiting creative writing fellow at AU and HKBU. Her most recent collection of poems At the White Coast, appeared from AUP in 2012.
Sudeep Sen read English Literature at the University of Delhi & as an Inlaks Scholar received an MS from the Journalism School at Columbia University (New York). His awards, fellowships & residencies include: Hawthornden Fellowship, Pushcart Prize nomination , BreadLoaf, Pleiades, nlpvf Dutch Foundation for Literature, Ledig House, Wolfsberg UBS Pro Helvetia (Switzerland), Sanskriti (New Delhi), and Tyrone Guthrie Centre (Ireland). He was international writer-in-residence at the Scottish Poetry Library (Edinburgh) & visiting scholar at Harvard University. Sen’s dozen books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems (HarperCollins), Distracted Geographies, Rain, Aria (A K Ramanujan Translation Award), Letters of Glass, and Blue Nude: Poems & Translations 1977-2012 (Jorge Zalamea International Poetry Award) is forthcoming. He has also edited several important anthologies, including: The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry by Indians, The Literary Review Indian Poetry, World Literature Today Writing from Modern India, Midnight’s Grandchildren: Post-Independence English Poetry from India, and others. His poems, translated into over twenty-five languages, have featured in international anthologies by Penguin, HarperCollins, Bloomsbury, Routledge, Norton, Knopf, Everyman, Random House, Macmillan, and Granta. His poetry and literary prose have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Newsweek, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Financial Times, London Magazine, Literary Review, Harvard Review, Telegraph, Hindu, Outlook, India Today, and broadcast on bbc, cnn-ibn, ndtv & air. Sen’s recent work appears in New Writing 15 (Granta) and Language for a New Century (Norton). He is the editorial director of Aark Arts and editor of Atlas [www.atlasaarkarts.net].
Ten years on, I came searching for
war signs of the past
expecting remnants—magazine debris,
that mark bomb wounds.
I came looking for
people past, skeletons charred,
that once housed them.
I could only find whispers—
whispers among the clamour
of a small town outpost
in full throttle—
sketching outward signs
of normality and life.
In that bustle
I spot war-lines of a decade ago—
though the storylines
are kept buried, wrapped
in old newsprint.
There is order amid uneasiness—
the muezzin’s cry,
the monk’s chant—
merging in their separateness.
At the bus station
black coughs of exhaust
The roads meet
and after the crossroad ritual
skating along the undotted lines
A porous garland
with cracked beads
adorns Tiger Hill.
Beyond the mountains
are dark memories,
and beyond them
no one knows,
and beyond them
no one wants to know.
Even the flight of birds
that wing over their crests
don’t know which feathers to down.
they fly, tracing perfect parabolas.
I look up
and calculate their exact arc
and find instead, a flawed theorem.
Zoji La Pass
at 12,000 feet
slopes steeply. Hard snow
cut into two
by winding tarmac—
a severe cold-slice
freezing to a stand-still.
A car shrinks
through this open-air tunnel—
ice walls on either side—
a geometric strait
the warmth of diesel’s grey metal.
Two yaks on the lower slopes
look up for colour
in this blinding white.
Their horns storing clues,
of changing temperatures.
In this rarefied air
clarified oxygen is sparse here—
high-tone octane echo in the stark terrain.
In Japanese, Yuki is snow—
unmelted and poised.
She sits askance
in front of a wine-tinged door
whose paint flakes
to expose its wood-raw skin—
pale, seemingly snow-flecked.
Her hair rambles all over
her face, eyes, and neck,
as she stares shyly—
sideways into the distance.
There are secrets locked,
in a shut non-descript studio
tucked away somewhere
in Prabha Devi—
as the industrial estate
at the allusive
thought of snow herself.
Fantasy instils in
just as for me—
peeling curls of paint,
a circular chromium lock,
a rusted dis-used bolt,
and breeze that affects
a woman’s hair and lashes,
thaw, compassion, desire.
[inspired by a photo by Rafeeq Ellias]
A bright red boat
Blue fishing nets
Ochre fort walls
Sahar’s silk blouse
gold and sheer
Her dark black
A street child’s
holding the rainbow
in his small grasp
My lost memory
white and frozen
now melts colour
ready to refract
drawing a breath between each
sentence, trailing closely every word.
— James Hoch, ‘Draft’ in Miscreants
some things, I knew,
were beyond choosing:
under cancer’s terminus care.
mama’s mysterious disappearance—
ventilator vibrating, severed
silently, in the hospital’s unkempt dark.
an old friend’s biting silence—unexplained—
promised loyalties melting for profit
abandoning long familial presences of trust.
devi’s jealous heart misreading emails
hacked carefully under cover,
her fingernails ripping
unformed poems, bloodied, scarred—
my diary pages weeping wordlessly—
my children aborted, breathless forever.
these are acts that enact themselves, regardless—
helpless, as i am,
torn asunder permanently, drugged, numbed.
strange love, this is— a salving:
what medics and nurses do.
i live buddha-like, unblinking, a painted vacant smile—
one that stores pain and painlessness—
someone else’s nirvana thrust upon me.
some things I once believed in
are beyond my choosing—
choosing is a choice unavailable to me.
Birds fly across the pale blue sky
cross-stitching a matrix in Pali—
a tongue now beautifully classical
like temple-toned Bharatanatyam.
Dialogues in the other garden
happen not just in springtime. Yet
you stare askance talking poetry
in silence, an angularity of stance
like a shot in a film-noir narrative
yet to be edited down to a whole.
What is a whole? Is it not a sum
of distilled parts, parts one chooses
to expose carefully like raw stock—
controlling patterns in the red light
of dark, a dark that dutifully dissolves.
There emerges at the end,
nests for imaginative flights to rest,
to weave our own stories braving
winds, currents, and the elements
of disguise. Fireflies in the grove
do not belong to numbered generation—
they only light up because line-breaks
like varnam keep purity alive—
enigmatic, disciplined, spontaneous.
Let the birds fly tracing angular paths,
let the dancer dance unbridled,
let the poet write unrestrained—
natural as breathing itself.
Matrix woven can be unwoven—
enjambments like invisible pauses
weave us back into algebraic patterns
that only heart and imagination can.
She walks porcupines—as you do—and
listens to the sound of the sea in a conch.
she has no english;
her lips round / in a moan ….
calligraphy of veins ….
— Merlinda Bobis, ‘first night’
My syntax, tightly-wrought—
I struggle to let go,
to let go of its formality,
of my wishbone
desiring juice — its deep marrow,
muscle, and skin.
The sentence finally pronounced —
I am greedy for long drawn-
out vowels, for consonants that
desire lust, tissue, grey-cells.
I am hungry for love,
for pleasure, for flight,
for a story essaying endlessly—words.
A comma decides to pr[e]oposition
a full-stop … ellipses pause, to reflect—
a phrase decides not to reveal
her thoughts after all—ellipses and
semi-colons are strange bed-fellows.
Calligraphy of veins and words
require ink, the ink of breath,
of blood—corpuscles speeding
faster than the loop of serifs …
the unresolved story of our lives
in a fast train without terminals.
I long only for italicised ellipses …
my english is the other, the other
is really english — she has no english;
her lips round / in a moan ….
her narrative grammar-drenched,
silent, rich, etched letters of glass.
Eating Guavas Outside Taj Mahal
The heavy drunken aroma
of fresh guavas
is too sweet for me to bear.
Instead, I drink its nectar
not as liquid-pulp
but as raw unsmooth fruit.
I bite its light-green rough skin
the way I used to
approach a sugarcane stalk
as a child
crunching every fibre
to extract their juice.
There are memories—
memories attached to food
and their consumption.
There are memories
about the rituals of intake—
how certain foods
are allowed or disallowed
depending on God’s stance
and their place
in the lofty hierarchies
How misplaced these stations
are—God, Emperor, Man
all mistaken—proud errors
of selfhood, status, and ego.
Even under prayer’s veil,
there is something about
eating guavas with unwashed
hands, tasting its taste before
masala, lemon and rock-salt
turn them into sprightly salad—
seed’s bone-crack intentions
buried before they fruit.
As winter secrets
with the purple
what is revealed
soil in a circle.
for a calligrapher’s
in invisible ink,
as phrases fold
so do veils
Nima Kian was born in Tehran, Iran, but left the country during the early years of the Iran-Iraq War. He spent his childhood in Germany where he witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, after which he immigrated to Los Angeles just in time for the L.A. Riots. A resident of L.A. Nima worked in the Entertainment Industry for nearly a decade before deciding to pursue graduate degrees. He currently resides in Lincoln, NE where he attends UNL as a PhD candidate in Poetry with specializations in Film Theory and Nineteenth Century Studies, focusing on Iranian representation in the western literature of that century.
A Persian Ripple
My father sipped his tea, picked up a single
dried green raisin from the tray,
and I watched his bifocals glisten;
his eyes blurred behind his lenses.
A dried green raisin in the tray,
the ideal place to share some words.
His eyes blurred behind his lenses.
Our eyes never need to meet,
the ideal way to share some words.
He spoke to the wooden table between us,
our eyes never met.
The table bounced his words to me.
He spoke to the wooden table between us,
he told me about the students
and the table bounced his words to me.
He told me they jabbed air with slogans.
He had told me about the students before,
they learned their slogans from a fist
so he told me they jabbed the air with them
months before Iran’s king flew to Egypt.
They learned their slogans from a fist,
he said again, months before you were born,
months before Iran’s king flew to Egypt.
Then they joined another direction,
he said again, months before you were born,
where marchers met the sea.
Then they joined another direction,
they crossed their nationalities
where marchers meet the sea
and catapulted themselves into “heaven.”
We crossed our nationalities
with a one-way ticket into America
and catapulted ourselves into “heaven.”
Did students break sticks to understand wood?
With a one-way ticket into America
we forgot that hell depends on heaven for endorsement.
Did students break sticks to understand wood?
Someone drank tea as the march tamed our grass.
We forgot that hell depends on heaven for endorsement.
Wind spun our echoes, defined days
as someone drank tea while the march tamed us
inside cement and brick buildings—lulled cities.
Breath spun our echoes, defined minutes
as my father left for another glass of tea
inside a cement and brick building—lulled me.
I heard him speak to the kitchen counter
after he left for another glass of tea,
inaudible words that demand tone for understanding.
I still hear him speak to kitchen counters.
The table got quiet and still,
inaudible words demand tone for understanding,
so I continued to throw my own words at it.
The table remained quiet and still;
the dried raisins: still dried raisins,
so I started to throw my own words at them:
We feed somewhere between commercials and headlines.
The dried raisins: still dried raisins.
My father, walking back, continued to speak to the floor.
We feed somewhere between commercials and headlines
was my repeated attempt at a conversation with green raisins.
My father continued to speak to the floor
until he reached our wooden table
and my repeated attempts at a conversation with green raisins.
Who will come home is in the mail, he said.
He had reached our wooden table
and I watched his bifocals glisten.
Who will go back is in the mail, he said.
My father sipped his tea with a single dried raisin.
An old woman had a conversation with the ground,
but it wasn’t her voice that spoke to it;
she faced the ground as if that was her labor.
There was no other to walk for her;
age brought her down and age kept her
there. I imagine knowing pain
in that position. Her body had become
a two-legged table that could not fold
beyond a right angle. Draped in blue plaid
she ignored her cane; she carried
a plastic bag of herbs. Every time
her eyes glanced at the scanty bag
she shoved the air that much harder,
shouldered illimitability that much faster.
Ahead, two donkeys grazed in purple flowers
where the mountains hold her people.
two fig roots to the yard
where grass, yellowed, broke.
if fruit tasted the same
because water had changed.
Born in India, Lalita Noronha has a Ph.D. in Microbiology and is a science teacher, writer, poet, and fiction editor for The Baltimore Review. Her literary prose and poetry has appeared in over sixty-five journals, magazines and anthologies. She has twice received the Maryland Literary Arts Award, an Individual Artist Award, and a National League of American Pen Women Award, among others. She is the author of a short story collection, “Where Monsoons Cry.” Her website is http://www.lalitanoronha.com.
At eighteen, in school, when boys and girls
strolled beneath tamarind trees,
sorrow swallowed me like a python takes a rat, head first.
At noon in the zoology department,
I stood beside the python’s cage,
watched his beady eyes, squashed head.
Coiled tight like a fat rope,
he lay oblivious of my eyes
counting scales, marking hues.
I waited till the keeper came,
bearing in a sack, a thrashing rat
he poured into the cage.
How it darted, climbed walls,
slipped, scurried, crouched, froze—
as the fat rope uncurled, slithered, moved.
On the floor the empty sack lay in folds,
the python undulating,
a single hump below its head.
Even in pale light, his eyes ignite her skin,
dark and sweet as brown sugar,
the vein in his neck throbbing
like a gecko’s heart.
She turns slowly, shows no eyes,
no pencil thin or full lips,
just her translucent face, a yolk-less egg
held high to a beam of light.
Like a glinting sword,
she lets the moment hang between them,
the vein in her temple trembling
like a butterfly’s heart.
Waimangu Valley, New Zealand
(for my daughter)
What lay before us was born of violence—
great rocks of molten lava, boiling mud,
black scalding water had rumbled, roared,
exploded from the belly of the earth, swallowed life whole.
But now, winding our way down red cliffs of clay,
streaks of yellow sulfur, flecks of silica,
we pause—beside an emerald pool, blue-green algae,
panga trees, whistling tuis, black swans.
And as mists drift apart,
in the mineral waters, volcanic ash,
we find at last
the fertile ground of forgiveness.
Janet Charman has published six collections of poems. Her most recent, cold snack (AUP), won the 2008 Montana Poetry Prize. She has an MA in English from the University of Auckland and has held writers’ fellowships at both AU and Hong Kong Baptist University. She lives in Auckland.
where people are
where people are alive in jeweled walls
i am a new arrival to this cabinet on the ninth floor
a grey crab immobilised in twine
yet a few evenings later i’m rattling round like an almond in a drawer
then every morning when i scuttle out the weather has grown colder
the newspaper says they’ve opened nine chill shelters for the homeless
i look down to ground level and decide from passers-by if i’ll need long sleeves
some days it’s freezing
cloud shadows pass
palm leaves gust
see how our shudders manifest on the ceiling
at a window across the valley an inhabitant leans out
a twenty second story to pull in her quilt
i am that chopstick that fell from the table
i am that chewed bone left on the cloth
though as i’m beginning to form an opinion
you’ll see me in the lotus shaped bowl they’re filling
with green tea for sterilising
a restaurant utensil
plunged to wash off
any microscopic bit of stuck on sediment
the dishwasher didn’t get at
our graceful host makes her gestures apt
to fit this vessel
which is up to just below overflowing
not quite spilling
i arm myself before we eat
against too much relief at your acceptance
since i am the battle that wants to be fought
but when you say you like what i write
and in your translation
my lesbian allusion
is colloquially rendered ‘female comrade’
i become the big messy nest of an unknown bird
found all along the highway between Qufu and Mount Tai on The Mainland
but no-one can tell me what name that bird has or where it has flown
though it knows
is it centred from a hide in your web pages?
is it scavenging my Octopus card in the MTR?
if you think now you can leave me alone to get on with my independent learning
i am actually a left margin justified crazy person
who agitating at her map in the crowded concourse
will talk to herself
and wheeling down the mountain
i am the green sweep of the mendicant’s robe
drink in his tragic theatre
his rictus of despair
not giving any money to a beggar
i am that woman
to get relief
but high on Mount Tai one who no longer expects
that where we eat
there’ll automatically be a place to piss
and now i’m also understanding
how expectation makes me ridiculous
when we get to The Mainland you switch
and i digest
that since we met you’ve been speaking to me in a foreign language
with men about sex
in a language
can you say if you really wanted me to take up your invitation
for the massage you mentioned?
and when our feet no longer ache would it be
finished? at that time of night
after her last clients
while we head off to dinner
must that masseuse accept some chilly weight? until she gets her ride home late
where i come from that’s what would happen
but in your Microcosmos
the lines of towels of all sizes that hang outside the massage house
are readied for a speech contest
good strong boy-towels wagging the breeze
‘where are all the girl-towels?’
trust me to ask
a rainbow serpent stretching a circle in the soft smooth-flowing water
i am becoming
chosen for smiling in the cold at reception
but however tall i appear in my boots and red coat my shift is longer
i am the parts of many dishes
left on the table when the guests have finished
i am your beloved wife’s voice in the distance
i am the grey Mainland preparing urgently for transfiguration by Capitalism
i have not looked at my hands but they may need scrubbing
and regular four hourly disinfection
i am the wrinkled shirt where the sweat smells like deodorant
i am our unexpected stopovers
i am the line of wash you lift to come into my room
i am the accommodation where the dragon eyes of the smoke detector
are opening and closing
they have seen everything
and many times over
where you hold tight to the handrail i am the precipice you are close to
i am your sensational mouth
i am that day when in our arms for the first time we held our daughters
i’m the friend – mortally ill – who has flown from this country
to be with his family
and die in mine
i am the youth by the fire extinguisher in the moving train
who holds onto his girlfriend as if no-one can see them
i am the sex goddess who uses Botox
i am the Men’s Fun business
i am the boy in the little club shooting up
in the dark
i am the one who has that touch holds down a heart
and wants that talk which opens the door to another time zone
when the answer is no
i am the one who doesn’t hear so well
who wants to sit with you
when our relatives are gone
books leaning together
in the sun on a verandah
i am the one who waits to ask about your cough
i am the one whose teabag lasts for three cups
who wants to be civil to your wife and her parents
and would like to like her better than either of us
i am the one who sometimes makes the audience laugh
who annoys the journalism students with a poem that is too long and not
i am the one whose work you translated
who you pushed to the edge and from whom you retreated
who fears men for every good reason
and still wants to be wrong about them
your poem conversation with a lover -embracing her
i am the one who broke in thinking
should be reopened
when you put the rowdy guest out of your house and won’t let her back
i am the one under a full moon
i am the one
walking on The Mainland in a decorated face mask with her boyfriend
since they are a couple
expects to pay
and she is going to marry him on an auspicious date to be announced soon
but there is still time
i am the one who showers considerately at night for her family
and arrives at work in the morning a little bit sweaty
who knocks a knob on her room phone and starts a siren
who you found in a struggle with the hairdryer
because it won’t turn off
and you hang it up to make it stop
telling me developing countries don’t have off switches
then just at the moment someone compliments me yet again on my left handed dexterity
i am the one whose piece of crispy duck splashes onto the tablecloth
i am the life-size replica of Margaret Thatcher
hunched forward attending the words of Deng Xiaoping
in the Hundred Years of China exhibition at the National Museum i am enjoying
his nonchalant posture
i am the people jam for the Peak Tram
my Comrade Friend was born up here many years before The Handover
above the view i listen for her
i am the Haagen-Dazs mascarpone ice-cream i ate
that one of the staff asked me how to pronounce
but what would i know? since i am the one frozen to the bone at Lantau
who you insisted should try
and then you command me to lay off the soy sauce
which overpowers all the other flavours
intermittently out of the mist
The Buddha appears
very trim at two hundred and fifty metric tonnes
once i saw some women at our airport greet their newly arrived priest
with joyful obeisance
to the side on a bench the European devotee
half perched with the car keys
receiving a blow
if you’ve forgotten what happened the bruises know
in the cold gondolas i am the one who suspects you feel vertigo
and so i can please get some sleep i want my crush on you to be over
when you said you could see more people should read my work
that was the aphrodisiac
but why praise my style by publicly quipping
that in comparison
your own is nothing?
then you give me your selected poems
my friend i’ve read them
you are nothing
as the air is
did you think i’d expire when i find you’re a lyre?
i dare say we’re both lyres
i am the one whose other life waits
like an indigenous owner
for the return of their home
like The Mainland holding on for the return of Taiwan
i am the one who at the back of my notebook makes dozens of jottings
leaving room at the front for important thoughts
and never has any
the one sniffing these other writers’ successes
and till the market women run after me pleading i am the one afraid to bargain
who purchases sundry fridge magnets and three acrylic blend pashminas
for which i can honestly say no endangered species gave up their fleeces
i am the one who in that very local way
agonises over the democratic politics
of giving presents
what to give
to whom and when
with what wrappings and un-wrappings
what to make of the photo opportunities
that spring from these spontaneous demonstrations
and i am the one who wants to live in a place like this
where students walk from satellite campuses in sub zero temperatures
to hear a poet like you warm us through
but because these enclave streets are clearer
on account of the armed guards at the entrances
i don’t want to stay on The Mainland either
then when your airport shuttle is due
i am the one who waits for you
on the last couch
with a gift for your wife
and now you’re on your way home
i see how you can look after a good night’s sleep
you give me your hand with its heat
you are not a photograph in my brain
my voice is wobbling
i hurry off to get it hidden in Pacific Coffee
which is closed
it must be Sunday
i try the dining hall on Baptist University Road
where i choke on my food
and leave it uneaten
but that’s not your pigeon
i’ve run out of Protease inhibitions
i gulp my way down the hill
to the Kowloon Tong station
at least i know where this curved white avenue is leading
walking it like stroking the little bit grubby limbs of a long legged European
at a roller door phone i’m passing a young speaker is saying
‘i am the elocution teacher’
and they buzz her in
that’s what i have become
somebody waiting for anyone who’ll buzz her in
because English here is but one swift current bound in the Cantonese ocean
while we were stuck in ‘The Olive Basket’ transit café at the airport
en route from The Mainland
i tried for a piece of your sweet tanghulu
and even if we don’t collaborate
like you first suggest
despite your objections
that i would know how to go about it
you say these particular characters
are each suspended in a multi-level narrative
which can’t be interpreted into English
my answer is i’d intuit
bite them up bit by bit
if you’d explain i can do it
now you down my questions
saying your text doesn’t stack up in any manner for a language outsider
to comprehend it
-not even if you sent me the words
after your Other Half has seen them into English?
-not even with the way the whole of the two of you
make one of them?
the ideas would be attenuated
but i don’t want to accept that
and now i’m older it takes more people to push me over
hers is another voice i’d like to encounter
i’ll admit it
work in translation can be leaden
in her rendition your poems are incandescent
fired from one language into another
read on a dark night
seen ever after
in their own light
but here your pouring thoughts call for surrender
my head on the table
-then keep your ‘nocturnal emissions’
call them starlight
if anyone can
transcend the sub-textual comic inflections
i can’t resist you
i want your attention
i don’t want to be smashed with a hand on my neck
like in the Judd Apatow in-flight comedy i saw on my way back
where he’s saying ‘this is Hollywood
for at my lit key board
morning comes in finger sequences
and now i’m getting it
in the neck
from the women i was appraising in these gangster movie pole dance scenes
they’ve come down to the front of the screen
and begun appraising
but aren’t those fully dressed men the ones they should be questioning
and all the Directors? who set them up as sex furniture
as i approached you
those women were with me in the transit café at the airport
because in my head among the coffee cups on the remembered table
i felt naked
risking one harsh second to last laugh the universe was having
at the fact our worlds were set
to fly apart
and despite that
i was out there
trying so hard for the sixtieth time in a month to catch your drift
and i want to put that in italics
but i haven’t
and there goes your language up and down and across in strokes of glyph music
even to where
reading it through stinging particles of notes in English
i find my hair standing on end
even to where because you’ve kept me at a distance
i feel as if i’m in The Catholic Church
trying to accept all those common-sense words of rejection
The Holy Father issues
but they might as well be nits since i defy all of them to listen to your arias
and take the tanghulu into my mouth
piece by piece
to my sense of refreshment
as you relent
and show me where you’ve cracked the sugar
in the dead walls of The Confucian Mausoleum
this poem you’re making
takes me straight to the tart fruit i want
if i grasp
your intention is
that The Direct Descendants’ Family Name be transfigured
as a place for women reclaiming their private part
through the small hole of the feminine
shall make a place to
but now i’m out here
in the open
making my stand
on the infinitely renewable hill of the clitoral
where winds drown
or carry my voice
will you hear my shout? that in these phoenix arts
hard by your depiction
i say men have holes
’make them as receptive as anything women commission
is the private part entered only in the feminine?
render the private part surrendered in the masculine
where bees figure in the honey
i am for a morning sunlit beyond planting
good green filth
that sugar snap i get from red work
where the almonds of the earth break into leaf
a fifth season
better than a revolution
make your embrace that poem
yet i fear
with things as they are
i will have to make do
with clopping down the vagina walled avenue to the Confucius Family tomb
the donkey drawing our party through
as the whip cracks across her old shoulders
– the carter’s three year old nephew borne there
falling asleep on his feet
and then we leave him at the gates of the garden of death
transfer to a mini van to get to the main graves
buried among pine forest
no bird or serpent or girl permitted to live
here where The Red Guard came
and later at the hotel you give me the sharp of your tongue
because you know it never even occurred to me to bring an electronic dictionary
Western cultural hegemony
you exercise your right to be angry
yes i’m ashamed
still i presume
to take the tanghulu into my mouth
‘cunt’ and ‘Kant’ you remark
who may use words like that?
-Poets! it is our categorical imperative
i say: ‘wǔdǎyī’ and ‘Hua Yu’
someone! with a point of view
and with tongues Lu Xun’d
what more unforeseeable vocabulary could be spat between us?
in my notebook
you write: ‘bitter’ ‘pizza’
and think of cutting short your trip
but i intend to wade in
test with my thumb to find where the ink has risen
and fill my pen like a blind person
then you arrive from another direction
require me to consider
what of the Chinese culture
will be left
when Capitalism has finished planting the landscape with Coca
i can still argue
that there are numbers of women
coming out of the family whole
to the hill of the clitoris
and somebody else at Mount Tai told us: ‘observances are being made here
to the Grandmother’s Grandmother’
the head view happening
as i look at that mountain
which you conceded was culturally significant
on a five
not interesting in comparison with the strokes of the naked man we saw
swimming in the reservoir
where it started snowing on our way down
or the black swan
which is how i’ve been thinking of one of the women
who was with me when she lit her incense packet
the scent ascending as we prepare to climb higher
‘i never know how to make observances’ she mutters
my answer: just be who you are
perhaps the smoke will wind round our bodies and make us happier?
then as i clamber up the steps i spare an arrow
for the woman guard doing pat down searches all day at The Mainland border
who pinched my genitalia
-that she will find better things to do with her fingers
and that we’ll enter
into revolution together
but rather that your audacious configurations
will deliver to me so many good reasons
why the baby in the covered wagon
who rode with us to the funeral gates
can go back to his mother
and grow up somewhere we are not required to answer: ‘i am ab*so*lute*ly
as the cane beats the sugar into us
she explained that archetypal torture
the ridged place
they hit kneeling men
the ridged place
they beat kneeling women
whatever they were feeling
under threat of execution
required to keep smiling
but what i have
is your voice
dismantling the walls of conformity
a woman breathing
and in her arms of language
the weight of your poetics
bringing to consciousness
the blush of the body joyous
there is more of this
Michelle Cahill is Goan-Anglo-Indian writer who lives with her family and two minilop rabbits in Sydney. Her poems and short stories have recently appeared in Southerly, Poetry Review (UK), Cordite, Prosopisia and Fox Chase Review (USA). Vishvarūpa, her most recent collection is published by 5Islands Press. For a sequence of her poems she received the Val Vallis Award, and she was highly commended in the Blake Poetry Prize.
The Fire Eaters
Agni, did you come from lightning, sticky lava,
from dry, incendiary leaves or the sun’s hot coals?
Long ago, in the middle Pleistocene, our fingers rubbed fire
our compact homo sapien jaws ate warm flesh.
Worshippers, we stood up straight, to grip your spear.
How did we germinate these fields? Bonfires slaked you,
from the alchemy of brimstone and chalcedony sparks.
So temples shattered, so firearms and explosives broke
the great sleeping Buddhas of Ghandhara. We live in hope—
your seven tongues draw fire, dividing symbiotic flames
from air. Gums blister, lips kiss the burning world
goodbye, high on vapours, on singed skin and keratin.
The centuries drag. Our cartels breach the Orinocco,
the salt domes and Babylonian Mosques, unsympathetic
to prehistoric algae, the plankton time asphyxiates. Viscera
are stripped from tidy fossil beds, our pipelines carve
your thermal subjects. Nothing much survives: daughters turn
against fathers. Refineries melt, nuclear plants leak
apologetic isotopes. Yet, sunset converts our gestures
to atonement prepared from rice, cow dung, clarified ghee.
And somewhere with Promethean guile, a man wakes his lover
from her apartment as a light snow dusts the city streets.
In his arms, a two-litre soda bottle filled with gasoline,
on the pavement, a dropped cigarette ignites your flint.
I have not found your idol in any temple, Lord.
Your one thousand eyes elude me in sleep, your
net of pearls shimmering like pins, a flower sutra.
Yet how the Vedic skies praise your light.
Spear fisherman and hunter, each knot you tie
interweaving memory, a reef with a rosebud.
Bowlines and clove hitches are your fetters, all
the lace and twine of this world, the emptiness
it frames, uncharted. Your past might be a silk road
of gold, hemp, musk, caravans loaded with spice,
slaves traded. In my conjuring there are far colonies,
papyrus treaties, gold coins, pierced and printed
with your cognate deities: Thor of old Norse, Zeus,
whose thunder you whet, Bacchus, the soma-drinking
foreigner. Zoroastrian or Armenian, your polyglot
perplexes linguists with a strange loop of origin.
Like Escher’s Drawing Hands you are a paradox
to muzzle me. Water nymphs grace your cloud court,
a half-horse, a man with a bird’s wing, his fibula
inscribed with runes. Even the jade and dewpond
are small miracles, selfless things inventing selves.
Eileen Chong is a Sydney poet. She was born in Singapore where she studied and taught before moving to Australia in 2007. She is currently completing a Master of Letters at Sydney University with a focus on poetry. Her writing has been published in literary journals such as Meanjin, HEAT Magazine, Mascara Literary Review, Softblow, Hecate and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, with a poem forthcoming in Overland. Her work has also been selected for Black Inc’s Best Australian Poems 2010, to be published in November 2010. In 2010 she was awarded the Poets Union Youth Fellowship for 2010–2011. A chapbook of her poems will be published in mid-2011 with the assistance of Australian Poetry Ltd.
When In Rome
You went to Rome on your own
all those years ago. Your maps sat
on the shelf in your mother’s house,
creased, yellowing. We lay
on your old bed that afternoon
and you traced a flight path
down my arm. It’s not somewhere
you want to be alone, you said.
We took a room on the top floor
of the hotel. There was a balcony
that overlooked the cobblestoned lane
that rang like an ironsmith’s
each time a woman strode past
the shops towards the piazza. We
stopped for coffee but did not sit.
You clutched a map but didn’t need it.
I was here, you gestured
at the fountain, it’s for lovers. I looked
to see its beauty but saw only
tourists fingering cameras, myself
included. I let my hands drop
into the flow and laughed
at how cold it was. You kissed me
on the side of my salty neck.
In the darkness of the providore
we stood and breathed in
the brine of the meats, the ripeness
of olives. We learnt the true names
of prosciutto. We drank warm
oil. The man behind the counter
asked where we were from. Paradise.
You should visit one day. He shook his head.
At the markets we bought
red-stained cherries. I carried
them in one hand and your
years in the other. Each step
we took overlaid each step
you’d taken. In our room, I washed
the fruit in the bathtub. They floated
like breasts, free and heavy.
What Winogrand Said
“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”
So we write. We write
not because we don’t know
what it is we’re writing about,
stuck in our rooms at our desks
with a window facing
the park, the sea, a bricked-up
wall beyond which neighbours
scream at one another well
past midnight. We write because
we’re finding out what
the woman with the cigarette
on the bus felt when she was told
there was no smoking on the bus. What
the young man on the street corner
really wanted with his outstretched
hands and naked, vulnerable neck.
We write because all things
are writable. Nothing
is sacred. Not even the memory
of your mother’s pale leg
propped up on the wet stool
as she washed, you, too young
to turn from the dark flower
at the juncture of her thighs. The scent
of her breast: pillowy, milk-full.
The first time you reached down
and put him inside of you,
even though he, seventeen
and bare-faced, said for you
not to. We don’t know
if all things in our poems
are beautiful, but we do know
that things can be beautiful
in our poems. Or cruel. Lies,
all lies, some say, but really,
we write because it’s not about
what the thing is, at all.
It’s about what the thing becomes
in the poem. It’s about the poem.
Isil Cosar is an Australian poet born to Turkish parents. She is a mother, teacher and community artist who lives in Sydney. Her poems have appeared in Poetry without Borders, Auburn Letters and Zinewest 09.
From tower to tower
I am climbing a tower in my white night-dress
walking swivels of stairs-like the Guggenheim
I’m in search of seeds that I plant in mid air
they become birds and fly to another tower
the gatekeeper nods: welcome to Babylon
here words are keys to belong
which words did you bring? he points to my basket
the first word to escape is
I know now how to catch you and let you go
the Paramedic taught me
when I asked- how–how do I breathe
all the worried faces cried breathe
they could not take my breath, they could not save me
when I was blue and cold and I forgot
there is my breath in that paper bag
here is my life on this emerald earth
it is but it is not
it is 4 17 am-where do I go now
back to sleep like everyone else?
I am breathing
I am asking questions
what’s your name? how are you today?
my name is Adam- I think
….there was a quake, it shook the universe
there was a storm, it seized the seas
there was a fire and it burnt the proof
in order to forget we must remember
some say we should ask God
hold my hand let me touch you
hug me o God- let me see you
I am looking for words and you
look at me o God
see yourself in my tear and say
‘I knew him well’
he was awake at dawn
trying to know me
I am swimming with fragments of words
I speak yet no-one understands me
my head hurts, I must have fallen
I try so hard
but cannot remember
The vast ocean
Not the anger nor hunger
Not the tears nor rage
Not the animated living
What frightens me…
What keeps me awake
At 2 a.m
with a slow pulse
On that dreaded ocean
No land in sight
Bo Schwabacher is an adopted Korean American writer. She explores the art of writing and teaching. She holds a Master’s Degree in English (emphasis in creative writing) and a Teaching English as a Second Language Certificate. Her poem “Korean American Tongue” has been published in Saltwater Quarterly. She currently resides in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Confessions of an Adopted Asian American
My rice is watery.
Associative of Addition: (a + b) + c = a + (b + d)
당신을 사랑합니다 (I looked this up on yahoo.com)
I like eating shrimp dumplings at P.F. Changs.
My family—German & Russian = Schwabacher—ate Daeji Bulgogi and I sipped on sugar water
Sometimes I say 안녕하세요 (I looked this up on translate.google.com) to Korean women in nail salons and sushi bars. I pretend I can understand the Korean exploding out of their mouths.
Sometimes the woman at the Takamatsu sushi bar in Tucson mocks me
“you only know three words and you keep repeating them” Beautiful. Thank you. Friend.
“There’s someone else,” you said.
“You owe me money,” I said.
Navajo Flute Keys
We all like to think of cheaters
as evil people, behavioral economist says. I like
to think of your lungs
punctured and spilling
out Navajo flute keys like saliva
upon the edge of her cranium
the lips of her pussy—the one you claimed
to have never kissed. I think I smell her
woven into your neck, the sweat
of your back. I smell her
in the way you say her name
sweet and forgetful. The behavioral
economist says, Cheaters evade less
after having been punished. A policy threatening
to denounce cheaters publicly
might contribute to reduce fiscal fraud.
Nisha Mehraj is currently teaching English Literature to secondary school students in Singapore. She studied English Literature and Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University. She describes a love of India and the dream of living there someday.
‘Tea madam?’ asked the tea-master.
She shook her head and continued digging through her handbag for her purse, frustrated, wondering if she had left it on the train. She turned around suddenly and counted her luggage.
‘Three,’ she confirmed and walked in further under the shelter, dragging her red Elle bag with her.
‘Tea very good madam, try one?’ the man asked again.
She ignored him.
‘It’s boiled water if that’s what you’re worried about,’ someone said.
She looked up and saw him and felt something leathery. She pulled out the coffee-stained, off-white pouch and looked inside for coins, dropped a rupee into the payphone and took out a small piece of wrinkled paper from her pocket.
‘You are standing under his roof you know. The least you could do is drink his tea,’ he said.
She didn’t look up. She cradled the phone under her chin and pressed some number.
‘Hel-,’ she listened and placed the receiver down violently. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, mentally counting the miles she had travelled to be where she was. She bit down on her teeth, unable to hold her breath any longer and released the air suddenly. She blinked away the tears. He was staring.
‘Tamizha?’ he asked, leaning against a pillar, blowing into his cup of tea.
Wrapping her shawl tightly around her, she sighed.
It was ten at night. The railway station was packed. Trains had been cancelled due to the heavy rain and passengers were stranded. The railway tracks were starting to flood and people were crowding every nook and cranny. The sound of the rain and the non-stop chatter was starting to give her a headache.
She looked down at her sandaled feet. Her nails were brown from mud and some had dirt stuck underneath them. Closing her eyes, she prayed hard for the rain to stop and the trains to start functioning again.
Everyone around her stank of cheap beedi and body odour. Some women dragged their wailing children and large suitcases across the platforms, leaving the station. They squeezed through bodies, pushing to be the first to get out.
‘I’m afraid he’s going to ask you to leave in a while,’ he said.
‘I’ll go when he says something,’ she said.
‘Finally!’ he smiled checking his watch and nodded, pretending to be impressed.
‘Listen, I’d really appreciate if you would just leave me alone,’ she said.
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘Because… because I’d rather be left alone,’ she said.
‘It’s raining like hell, the call’s not helping and you want to wait the next five –‘
‘Five? You think it’ll last five hours?’ she asked, shocked.
‘Yeah, I mean look at it,’ he thought for a while. ‘Five, definitely,’ he said.
‘What makes you so sure?’ she asked. He shrugged and started to say something. ‘Oh god!’ she sighed, looking at the rain. ‘I was scheduled to be in Chennai by four in the morning! I have a fu – a meeting! At eleven!’ she said.
‘Your meeting would probably be cancelled. It’s much worse out there,’ he said.
‘Damn!’ she adjusted her shawl around her shoulders. She mumbled something under her breath and looked up. He was smiling at her.
‘I don’t know how you people can put up with this,’ she said and turned her back to him. ‘It’s screwed up. I just want to go home,’ she whispered to herself, feeling her eyes well up. She cleared her throat and swallowed back her tears.
The radio crackled in the background, barely audible over the sounds of chatter and the heavy downpour. ‘Illam pani… grrr…bzzz… neram…bzzz…illaigalil magarantha kolam…’ Cups clattered and the giant steel stove hissed every time a fresh splash of oil touched its surface. The place was warming up a little from the heat and smoke.
The strong smell of ghee and sambar made her dizzy with hunger.
The water level was rising as streams of water ran down the platform and dived onto the tracks. She bent down and folded her jeans up roughly, feeling wet and sticky. She brought her nails to her mouth in irritation and stopped. Her usually manicured nails were already bitten too deep and looked disgusting.
‘Anne, mutteh thosai. Nalla kozhe, kozhenu. Thirupi pohdahme,’ he placed his order to the tea-master. ‘You are not hungry as well?’ he asked her. She didn’t reply. ‘Look you’ll feel much better with some food in you,’ he suggested.
He remained standing by the pillar, his hair wet and greasy. He kept brushing it back and looked straight ahead. He smiled to himself while sipping the tea. His striped white shirt was undone to the third button. He had roughly folded up his jeans to his ankles and removed one of his sandals to wipe his foot against the folded part of his jeans. He looked like he had been travelling a long time but his eyes had no trace of tiredness. He looked calm and happy stuck in the storm.
He ran his finger down the bridge of his nose and smoothed down his stubble. When he caught her studying him, he winked then chuckled, seeing her roll her eyes. His grin was small and private. He seemed so happy being him. She envied that comfort.
‘Are there any ho- I mean lodges around here?’ she asked.
‘No. No hotels and no lodges,’ he said.
The place was getting more crowded, with more people coming in only to realize the trains had been stopped. The speakers were blasting the announcement over and over again in grammatically incorrect sentences. She sucked her tummy in in hunger and watched as a small boy handed the man his plate.
The egg was runny and spread evenly over the flour. He poured sambar on top of it and tore the soaked pancake easily with his fingers. He then dipped it between tomato and coconut chutney before chucking it into his mouth. She swallowed her saliva.
‘I’ll get a stomach ache if you keep staring like that,’ he said, not looking up from his plate.
‘I’m just looking,’ she said. ‘You come from here?’ she asked.
‘Ummhmm,’ he said chewing. ‘I’m Indian,’ he said with his mouth full.
‘No, I meant this place,’ she said. Cows roamed around, looking for shelter. Some climbed down onto the tracks and walked aimlessly, mooing painfully. She looked around to see if anyone noticed them but everyone seemed preoccupied.
‘This is part of India,’ he said.
‘Hah? Yes… Of course. Barath Matha ki Jai,’ she said softly and sighed to herself.
She sat down on her brown trolley bag and counted her luggage again.
‘Rendu idilli,’ he ordered some more.
‘You must be really hungry,’ she said.
‘No, I’m just trying to make you more hungry,’ he said.
‘I’m fine,’ she said.
‘Yeah, I can see,’ he said.
She noticed a blue sling bag resting atop the wooden showcase behind him. Maybe he was a photojournalist.
‘What do you do?’ she asked.
‘I didn’t ask you any personal questions,’ he said, blowing on his steaming cakes of idillis.
She looked away, annoyed. No one spoke for a while. He ate his food quietly. He washed his hand under the water running down from the roof and chatted with some people standing around. He went into the shop and came out again with a lit cigarette.
The rain poured down fiercely. It both frightened and mesmerized her in its abundance. Little children made paper boats in newspapers and chased after empty bottles that floated around. She sighed to herself and closed her eyes.
‘You know what you’ll remember?’ He didn’t wait for her to respond. He sucked on his cigarette and moved closer. ‘None of this. You might think of the long wait in the train. You’ll be relieved to be finally moving away from here. In a few months you might recall a few faces and random stations,’ he coughed. ‘But you see after years go by, all you’ll remember is that you were stuck some place where it rained like hell!
‘And what did you do?’ he waited. She shrugged. ‘You just… waited,’ he finished.
‘Maybe,’ she said.
‘See that is what happens to me,’ he said lightly. ‘And I’m going to remember you. You in this…’ he stopped and continued looking at her. ‘Well, I got to go,’ he said suddenly. ‘You have a good trip,’ he said and took the bag off the showcase. He saluted the tea-master and waved at her. He pushed past people and disappeared into the pool of bodies. She turned back and stared at her red Elle bag for the longest time before getting up and walking towards the tea stall.
‘Tea, nalla suuda,’ she said and smiled.