Writing Asian Poetry in English by Nicholas Jose
If you open a collection by a contemporary Australian poet, you’re likely to find poems in forms derived from various Asian literary traditions: haiku, ghazal, tanka and other verse forms that originate in the swathe of cultures from the Arabian Gulf in the West to Japan in the North and Indonesia in the South. This is not new, of course. Nineteenth-century French poets, including Baudelaire, were attracted by the pantoum (pantun), a traditional Malay verse form. John Ashbery and other Americans followed suit in the twentieth-century. Contemporary Australian poet Mike Ladd acknowledges this lineage in ‘Pantuns in the Orchard’ (Island, Spring 2011), a recent essay about his experiments with the form during a residency at Rimbun Dahan in Malaysia.
In Victorian England Edward FitzGerald’s bestselling version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859-89) nativised a Persian form in language that has become endlessly quotable in English: ‘The moving finger writes….’ Fitzgerald wrote to a friend that the ‘form’ of his ‘transmogrification’ was of particular interest: ‘I suppose very few people have ever taken such pains in translation as I have’. In another letter he calls it a ‘transfusion’, as Marina Warner tells us in Stranger Magic. Iranian-Australian author Nasrin Mahoutchi considers the result a fascinating ‘cultural hybrid’.
A gorgeous early arrival of Chinese poetry in Europe came through Gustav Mahler’s setting of German adaptations of Tang dynasty Chinese poems for his song cycle Das Lied von der Erde (1908-09). Modernist poets such as Yeats, Eliot and Pound shared a Western inclination to look elsewhere for wisdom, turning newly to the literatures of Asia for allusions and stylistic borrowing. The influence of ancient Chinese poetry on the idiom of modern English poetry was pervasive, yet so unlikely on the face of it.
Empire, war and decolonisation brought Asia closer through the last century. R.H. Blyth, an English professor interned in Japan during World War Two, is credited with introducing haiku to post-war Western culture. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder took to haiku through Blyth’s Zen-inspired translation and scholarship and started writing their own. Haiku is the best-known, most widely practiced of all poetic forms today, rivalling the sonnet, itself once an exotic import into English from 13th century Sicilian Provencale. In The Making of a Sonnet, Edward Hirsch writes: ‘The sonnet is an obsessive form—compact, expansive—that travels remarkably well … it is a form with a past.’ The haiku is its match. The outside discipline of an imported form attracts poets who want to explore the resources of their own language under the pressure of conventions and constraints from another. Asian forms appeal to writer and reader alike, partly for being exotic, but equally as a means to new expression.
This history has an Australian dimension, as Noel Rowe and Vivian Smith show in their anthology Windchimes: Asia in Australian Poetry (2006):
The story of Australian poetry’s conversation with Asia becomes much more complex and interesting as soon as poets start to adopt and adapt Asian literary forms. Like their counterparts in Europe—Paul Claudel and Victor Segalen, and a little later, Ezra Pound and Arthur Waley—Australian writers were starting to become aware of Chinese and Japanese culture. Poets like Dorothea MacKellar, Kenneth Slessor and the now almost forgotten Robert Crawford were not slow to realise how imagism and the haiku could help them to ‘make it new’. Modern poetics values suggestion, brevity and obliqueness and these could be found in the Chinese and Japanese poems that were becoming available in English translation, especially through the work of Ezra Pound (1915) and Arthur Waley (1918). Australian cultural and intellectual experience was widening. John Shaw Neilson wrote in a letter of 17 October 1937: ‘I have a great fancy for these short things, which are like Japanese poems only about thirty or forty words.’ In Shaw Neilson, MacKellar and Lesbia Harford we have moments when ‘Asia’ is no longer ‘there’; it is here. Of course, these striking early stylistic influences are minor compared with the amount of haiku and haiku adaptations found in recent Australian poetry. They do, nevertheless, remind us that in many ways Asian influences have become invisible in Australian poetry, merging with an inclination towards visual and epistemological austerity, as well as towards understatement.
The important point is that last sentence. Australian poets found something in Asian poetry that answered their distinctive needs. In conversation Vivian Smith recalled how a wave of translations, including the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite (1964) and the Penguin Classics Li Po and Tu Fu translated by Arthur Cooper (1973), inspired Australian poets. Those translations in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the influential Penguin Modern European Poets Series which introduced Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Akhmatova and Miroslav Holub (among others) to English readers. Ancient Far Eastern and Modern Eastern European contributed alike to a new, alternative idiom in poetry in Australia and elsewhere: an oddly diachronic position of resistance.
Peter Porter dedicated his haiku sequence ‘Japanese Jokes’ (1970) to his friend Anthony Thwaite. Rosemary Dobson’s moving sequence ‘The Continuance of Poetry: Twelve Poems for David Campbell’ (1981) is partly about exchange and transmission and includes a poem called ‘After receiving the Book of Poems by Li Po’. Another Penguin anthology of the 1960s, Poems of the Late T’ang translated by A.C. Graham, gave Pink Floyd lyrics for the song ‘Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun’ (1968). A certain take on the East was in the air.
Australian poets could edge away from European and American dominance by incorporating Asian influences. It was part of the wider rethinking of Australia’s geography and history that Alison Broinowski explores in The Yellow Lady, an imaginative reaching for a different Australia that was newly open to Asia. Judith Wright, for example, wrote ghazals in her last book, Phantom Dwelling. The title is a quote from Basho. Language is stripped of all trace of English pastoral to voice a radical late-life relationship of self and environment in a form borrowed from Persian poetry.
The practice of engaging with Asian cultures by borrowing its forms has become more common in recent years as more Australians spend time in Asia, as more Australians acknowledge Asian ancestry and inhabit multiple Asian and Australian identities, and as more Asians are present in Australia. Cultural exchanges invite Australian writers to engage with Asia, and Australian writing that uses Asian material, including Asian forms, has often come out of writers’ residencies in Asian countries, such as those supported by Asialink over 15 years.
There is the larger context too of the racialised formation of Australian society historically, in ways that continue today. The role of Asia in Australian national construction can be as defining other, the boundary of the island-continent, and ‘Asian’ in Australia can also be a third term, of triangulation or elision, between white settlers and Indigenous owners, as contributers to Lost in Whitewash: Aboriginal-Chinese Encounters from Federation to Reconciliation (2003) argue. That history is invoked explicitly in a passage in Brian Castro’s novel The Garden Book (2006), which has at its centre a Chinese woman poet who writes Chinese poetry in the Dandenongs outside Melbourne in the period of White Australia. She becomes invisible, like her poetry, which is written on leaves. Her father describes their impossible position:
Between dog and wolf, at dusk; between fear and hope. Or should it be between hope and fear? That’s how it is for us. For years, before the turn of the century, my father, grandfather and their people went back and forth freely between Australia and China. We brought industry; trade and culture. We were gold-seekers, shopkeepers, market gardeners, furniture-makers. A large group of us living in the shadows beneath these brooding hills. Then came the restrictions. No freehold land, no bank loans, our labour boycotted. The day Australia woke to a national identity, it fell asleep on the thorn of racial prejudice. It was defined by its wound.
That history shadows contemporary engagement with Asia.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is competency in the languages of Asia, which has reportedly gone backwards in recent years. For most writers the Asian literary inspiration happens indirectly through English translation, or through non-verbal experience, whether at home or while travelling—sights and sounds, encounters, transactions, dreams, nightmares, personal relationships. In this context, poetic form can offer a template for connection. Highly evolved in its culture of origin, elements of form can be converted into another language, with suitable guidance, without requiring linguistic competency in the first. An English haiku borrows the line and syllable pattern from the Japanese haiku, but you don’t need to know Japanese to do it. There’s a recipe, and what you get is a likeness, the translation of a shape or shell, without the fullness of the original language; a sequence of steps, like a yoga pose, and better than nothing.
But can there be a substantive cross-cultural transaction? What actually is translated in the process, culturally, conceptually, or experientially? Conventional discourse has tended to critique such practice in terms of appropriation and inauthenticity. Its valorising as ‘hybrid’ or ‘fusion’ can make it seem superficial. The concept of performance is a more useful way of recognising a relationship that involves study and respect, as one practitioner performs another’s script. The form that comes from another language and culture, mediated by the work of translators and interpreters, stands for that other language and culture. To use that form is to take on something in that other culture, a sign rather than an essence. It is an act of communicating back, as well as communicating out, in which elements of the other culture (in this case the rules of poetic form) are taken across in order to enlarge understanding. It’s a kind of translation, only without the primary linguistic elements of grammar and vocabulary. The use of Asian forms in English poetry needs to be understood within the larger discourse of translation as creative process.
As translation scholars explore the relationship between translation in a literal sense and translation in a larger metaphorical sense, a perspective opens up in which selves, communities and cultures are always subject to translation in a mobile and global world and in which every act of writing is translational. This was the theme of a workshop organised by Monash University in association with the British Centre for Literary Translation in February 2011, papers from which are forthcoming in a volume called Creative Constraints: Translation and Authorship. Co-editor Rita Wilson writes: ‘The act of multilingual creation reflects a desire to enter, know and become the Other, and then share two spheres of cultural and linguistic formation through the process of transculturation.’ This is a way of deepening our understanding of what happens when writers introduce cross-cultural elements into their work. The translation that has enabled the Asian literary form to be knowable in English is a ‘refraction’, to use translation scholar Valerie Henitiuk’s term, taking the reader into ‘that ellipse of communication’ between origin and destination where understanding is possible. ‘Multilingual creation’ through the writing of an Asian form in English is a further refraction, where metissage and code-mixing are a new norm. Octavio Paz calls translation ‘an art of shadows and echoes’, ‘a process of re-writing linked to a recognizable source’, according to critic Ramon Lopez Castellano. For a translated form to be used without access to the original language links the process of rewriting at the same time linked to an unrecognizable source. This produces something puzzling: like a Zen meditation.
Here discussion drifts inevitably into the deeper conceptual and philosophical currents of the other culture which the borrowing of its forms honours, imposing protocol on the cross-cultural dialogue. It is akin to the detachment of self that Buddhism demands. The form can empty the self, as words take shape. Detached from content in one way, it enables new content in another. As form is taken over, the appropriating move can be balanced, and needs to be, by a gesture of mindfulness. Form can be a means of glossing over incommensurability, or a stage on the way, or a true way, depending. ‘Mindfulness’ is itself a translated concept, from Sanskrit.
The Asian form is intended as a vehicle for entering Asian thought and feeling. It requires re-positioning and self-reflexive understanding. Possibilities of change and expansion are implied, dissolution of boundaries and the potential for new creation. The work of contemporary Australian poets who look to Asian models can be seen in this way as an experiment in responsive, responsible transculturation.
It is also a teaching moment. I take my cue here from two North American classroom experiments that have impressed me. The first is a popular undergraduate course at Harvard, taught by poet, translator and Professor of Korean Studies David McCann, called ‘Writing Asian Poetry’. The other is a program of the San Francisco Center for the Art of Translation called ‘Poetry Inside Out’, in which students in disadvantaged multi-ethnic, multi-lingual junior schools produce their own versions of classic poetry on the way to generating their own original work. Given the poverty of foreign language expertise in Australia where it is most needed, in relation to the capacity to engage meaningfully with Asia, and since it is not easy to develop fluency in an Asian language in a hurry, it may be that writing Asian poetry in English can go part of the way.
In ‘Writing Asian Poetry’ David McCann encourages students to learn about and then reproduce classical Chinese quatrains, Japanese haiku and, especially, Korean sijo (SHE-ZHO), a less familiar form that McCann hopes will catch on. The course attracts literature, East Asian Studies and creative writing students. Like haiku, sijo is a three line form, but the lines are much longer, between 14 and 16 syllables, with a pause in the middle of each line, and a further break into two syntactic components in each half-line. One sijo line can approximate two English octosyllabic lines, with a comparable informality. Sijo were traditionally sung: the breaks in the half-lines mark rhythmic beats, 3 lines of 4. Sometimes the three sijo lines are broken up and printed as six lines, but that obscures the most important thing about the sijo’s triadic structure. The second line introduces a turn and the third line concludes with a twist.
A fine example is found in McCann’s translation of a famous sijo by a Korean woman, Hwang Jin-i (1522-1565):
I will break the back of this long, midwinter night,
Folding it double, cold beneath my spring quilt,
That I may draw out the night, should my love return.
This demonstrates with beautiful clarity the movement of the form as line two folds back on line one, while the third line wraps the first two and then takes the poem into a new, plaintive emotional register.
Here’s McCann’s contemporary English sijo, written over lunch in Charlie’s Kitchen, a local eatery, with appropriate caustic gusto:
All through lunch, from my table
I keep an eye on your disputes,
green lobsters in the bubbling
tank by the restaurant door.
Slights, fights, bites – Whatever the cause,
make peace and flee, escape with me!
Sijo advocates say it sorts out English in interesting ways. Poet Larry Gross writes:
Remember the three characteristics that make the sijo unique — its basic structure, musical/rhythmic elements, and the twist. It is shorter and more lyrical than the ghazal. It is more roomy than the haiku, and it welcomes feelings and emotions which haiku either discourage or disguise. It should please lovers of ballads, sonnets and lyrics, and the downplay of regular meter and rhyme should appeal to writers of free verse. In short, it’s a fascinating challenge. (‘Sijo Primer #1’, 2000)
In appreciating sijo’s particular inward tension and capacity to turn on itself we acknowledge a distinctive quality in Korean culture, which then becomes visible elsewhere, such as in the work of the great contemporary Korean poet Ko Un (b.1933), now nearly 80, here translated by Richard Silberg:
because you croaked
the rain clouds massed in the sky.
You sure are a mighty dude,
you little runt.
Sijo practice in English fine-tunes effects that resonate in the larger culture.
Here’s a response by one of David McCann’s students, Henry Ung, to the challenge. Born in Texas, son of Cambodian refugees of Chinese ancestry, Henry enjoyed the multiple possibilities that could be concentrated in a complex act:
‘Poetry Inside Out’ is a program of the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco that aims to build ‘problem solving, critical thinking, and literacy skills through the translation and composition of poetry’ in schools. Program director John Oliver Simon writes, ‘Poetry Inside Out students are given the tools that enable them to translate work by the world’s great poets, such as Pablo Neruda, Anna Akhmatova, Li Bai, and Mahmoud Darwish…. The synergy of translation and poetry composition allows students to experience the power of language while building essential literary skills.’ This is happening in ‘classrooms where 85% of the kids get free lunch. This work is based on acceleration rather than remediation—on high-expectations for low-scoring students’
The students work in groups with teachers and professionals and produce their own translations and adaptations of poetry from Latin, Mayan, Chinese, Arabic and other languages, some of which are spoken in the classroom to a degree. A contemporary Japanese tanka by Tawara Machi, for example, is translated into English by a professional and then into Spanish, or should it be ‘Spanglish’:
of being in love
my heart impervious
to “Jingle Bells’
This, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, becomes, in the translation by 8th grader Yésica Gutiérres:
de estar enamorada
mi corazón insensible
a “jingle bells’
The examples are taken from Cyclops Wearing Flip-Flops, the Center for the Art of Translation’s 2011 handbook of student work.
Students can write their own tanka in linked verse ‘renga’ in which one person writes the first three lines and another responds in two. Then someone else responds by starting another three, and so on, in a generative string. Here’s a terrific two-author original tanka by Kathy Espinosa and Janiah Owens, from the 4th grade:
I said no
No no no no no
To my mother
But my mother says yes
Yes yes yes yes yes
And here’s a code-switching response by non-native Spanish speaker Desha Harper, from the 6th grade:
I am from south
and from north
The process requires management and mediation—glossary lists, dictionaries, the presence of partially bilingual speakers—but handled lightly, making necessity the mother of invention. The class is divided into small pods of three or four to produce a collective translation of a foreign language poem. The translations from the several pods are then collated in a workshop with the whole class to arrive at a further, collectively authored version. Rather than a literal translation, it’s a response to the source text generated by the group. Meanings are guessed, divined, gaps glossed over. It’s a more blatant version of what happens in any literary translation.
It would be worth exploring this in an Australian classroom, at any level, as part of a creative writing workshop, or a literature class, where passages of Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson, or Aboriginal song poems in parallel texts, could be translated in this way to enter the space ‘where the meanings, are’.
Australian poets who work with Asian forms are doing a version of this. I want to conclude by offering a short anthology to illustrate the new aesthetic they are working with, which also signals the ethical re-orientation learned in the process. But let me start with a counterexample to show how things have changed.
Here is a haiku by Peter Porter from ‘Japanese Jokes’:
Somewhere at the heart
Of the universe sounds the
True mystic note: Me.
Porter’s take on Asia, from metropolitan London in the 1960s, is ironic. It’s a satirical piss-take, with an aesthetic of mischief. The poet enshrines egotism, the I, the self. A generation later poets will use an Asian aesthetic to discipline and efface that ‘Me’ in favour of the not-self, an ‘eye’ that is no longer separate from what it sees nor from the world in which the voice lives.
In between comes John Tranter, younger than Porter and writing from Sydney. His Asia is a site of experimental play and generative misalliance , as in his ‘Notes from the Late Tang’:
On the mountain of (heaped snow, boiled rice)
I met Tu Fu wearing a straw hat against the midday sun
distant bridge, restless parting, rain (in, on) the woods
By the end of the poem the impossible translation of Chinese characters produces: ‘pig liquid telephone handset’, which has a mixed-up, combinatory meaning all its own. Tranter is doing something of an Ern Malley here, reversing the direction of one of the Ern Malley originals, Harold Stewart, who came to live in Kyoto, Japan, where he sought to produce authentically Tang-inspired verse in a pure idiom in his last decades.
Contrast Greg McLaren, a half-century later, from ‘Buddhism Decoder’:
Five prayer wheels gathering dust
in the shop front
on Hunter Street.
Cars drive by in the late afternoon,
patterns of light on the window
leaving no trace, as if nothing was there.
Here self-surrender is ordinary, a habit of attention to the not-self in a shared world. The aesthetic is mundane, of the moment, meditational.
That disposition makes possible a loosening of the mind’s grip, as Mike Ladd discovers in his adaptation of the pantun, which, like sijo, has its own built-in insistence on a transformative shift of perspective that, with mental movement, also brings emotional release and expansion:.
Kalau ada sumur di lading,
Boleh hamba menupang mandi?
Kalau ada umur yang panjang,
Boleh kita perjumpa lagi?
If there’s a pond in the field,
May I take a bath?
If I live long enough,
Can we meet again?
That’s a traditional Malay vesion. Here’s Mike Ladd’s:
Out of the sky of luminous black
Rain falls joyfully. You and I
Who lived so long alone together
Now walk again under one umbrella.
The challenge is to find language that can carry the presence of another language within it, at least by implication. For poets who have Asian ancestry, especially if their mother’s tongue is not English, that search goes to a personal psychology that must also acknowledge the movement of escape from that prior language into the literary English mainstream, with its long, impersonal, book-borne traditions and promise of liberating opportunity. Australian poets such as Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey and Eileen Chong share this territory with other poets around the world. Kit Fan, for example, moved from Hong Kong to England, where he reworks the Chinese couplets of his mother’s tongue into a telling kind of English that makes the journey from child’s remembered predicament to accomplished book:
It is not only the guilty secrets
are hard to tell in the end.
From the age of six my mother
put me in the Telford Gardens
Library in Kowloon so that she
could sweat in other people’s
kitchens. That was why I owned
a library corner. Every shelf
hour held me in custody.
Page travels, lost milk teeth
…I dreamed of an orphan-
age: long corridors, dorm beds, wet
sheets, breathing up against the wall.
I made myself homeless as if she
would never come back, her hands
tinted with bleach….(from Paper Scissors Stone, 2011)
The m/other tongue moves between poet’s body and mother’s body and the body of text, doubling and shadowing the self.
In a related way the contemporary American poet Jeffrey Yang uses elements of Chinese poetic form and its modernist avatars to bridge natural and textual consciousness in his alphabetically arranged collection of poems, An Aquarium (Graywolf Press, 2008).
Ouyang Yu moved from China to Australia in 1991. In translations, particularly, he returns to traditional poetic forms as a way of reflecting on his background and ancestry. The movement between languages is a movement between selves past and present, in one home and another. The modular nature of classical Chinese couplet or quatrain heightens internal balances and contrasts. The translations appear side by side, the matching visual modules emphasising the parallax error of identity. Ouyang explains: ‘We have now entered the age of self-creating things. … What is pre-modern in Chinese poetry is exactly what is postmodern here, something written more than a thousand years ago as if it happened only yesterday.’ (Loving: the Best of Both Worlds, 2005).
‘A Casual Poem Composed After My Return to My Hometown’ is translated by Ouyang from an original by Tang poet He Zhizhang:
i left home young and come home old
my accent remains the same although my hair is grey
when kids see me they do not know who I am
and they ask with a smile: where are you from?
The measured, modular form and simple, near-monosyllabic language contain an immense translation, across time and space, in which native speech is layered over by non-native experience.
Counting lines and syllables and assembling sequences of modules reflects an awareness of measure that is made explicit in Jane Gibian’s work. One of the poet’s ‘twelve haiku’ lightly recognises this god of small things:
on the carpet
after the dinner party
two grains of rice
Another poem from Ardent (2007) goes further to physicalize the measure words that play a defining role in Chinese and related languages, ordering the world differently:
in your mouth you roll and taste
the classifier for fruit, shaping
the rounded rising syllablealso used for fruit-shaped objects:
and run your tongue
along the sharp edges
of the classifier for objects
with flat surfaces:
feel then the graceful classifier
for leaf-shaped and leaf-thin things:
it is the leaf itself
In the poem’s climax thing and idea of thing are one, as separation and doubleness dissolve.
Measure and module thus open up to the multiple and manifold, which is an awareness given expansive form in the Sanskrit-derived currents of Asian tradition that include Hinduism and Buddhism. Vishvarūpa, the title of Michelle Cahill’s collection (Five Islands Press, 2011), is Sanskrit for manifold: ‘having all forms and colours’ (88n). Cahill, born in Kenya, describes herself as a Goan-Anglo-Indian poet, although she writes in Australia. This multiple destiny is projected in her poetry, in ‘Durgā: A Self-Portrait’, for example:
What I see is myself in this world: deviant, without genealogy.
Snow monkeys shiver in the deodar pines, goats loop in a shelter.
Women abandon their duties, their grief, and Vishnu is paralysed.
Cahill ‘reads the Mahābhārata’ as a way of confronting a historical and political legacy that is also personal in its summons. Her aesthetic of the manifold, derived from Indian traditions, is a response, an ethic too, verging on the ecstatic as it responds to overwhelming multiplicity:
Once in a ruptured past before mutiny or Midnight’s Children,
partition turning brother against brother, the Imperial tea-party
over, before the Monguls crossed the Ganges-Jumna doab,
or Tamberlane abandoned his jade and ribbed cantaloupe dome,
his leafy gardens of Samarkand, to turn infidels and polytheists
into a pyramid of skulls—the Rig Veda was written as divine ink. …
Trade or climate drove them south. Conquerors styled
On Indra himself, their wars and divisions are historicity, the subject
Of a fossilised verse, which like the pottery of an ancient citadel
Breathes life into an Indian heroic age, source of a timeless myth
Whose elisions are perfect riddles, Attic shapes, truth’s arithmetic.
For this, Ganeśa broke his tusk. Without pause or doubt Vyāsa spoke
His cosmic fiction synchronising Kali’s birth with the death of a god,
Whose vishvarūpa form teases thought, slows time, all her silences.
Many other examples are possible, from many other poets: Christopher Kelen, joanne burns, Michael Brennan, James Stewart, Ali Alizadeh, Pip Smith and Elizabeth Allen, to name a few more. Together they are working towards a new century Australian aesthetic that risks chaos in the name of a new ethics that seeks to join rather than divide. A dimension of the new century aesthetic is an inclination to rewrite, one discipline of which is learned in translation, often with Asian literary features, although many contemporary Australian poets also still make their pilgrimage and petition to Old Europe. Translational practice is a situated gift exchange, an offering of honour and conciliation, yet always with a question mark over whether it will be reciprocated. It moves to overcome the exclusion that has always been Australia’s double bind, since those who exclude are themselves excluded. Mindfully writing Asian poetry in English in Australia is one pathway to change.
I taught Australian and Asia-Pacific literature at Harvard in 2009-11, and lived for that time in Cambridge, Mass. My students told me about sijo. I told them about Ko Un, Korean poet rock star and living Buddha. I heard him in Sydney and Hong Kong, where I read the English translations of his poems aloud to the PEN audience. Ko Un came to read at Smith College, in Northampton, Mass., where Sylvia Plath went to school, and I drove from Cambridge to hear him again. Plath and Ko Un were born a year apart. He survived her by 50 years and read a poem about that, and his long road to Smith. I was conscious of my transpacific status in this part of the world, and when I came to write about my scattered impressions of Harvard, I found that sijo, a borrowed Asian form, was a way to do it. My poems, then, are part of my research.
Seven Cambridge sijo
Two squirrels make a sky nest in damp air and textureless light.
From a wire two birds go hunt. In the mind endless questions.
Floating in graduate life, how many chapters done now?
To Huron and Concord for the best brownies and grainiest loaves.
With walnuts and olives, pecans and cranberries, this bread’s not cheap
where writers and thinkers perched close materialize as one.
Homi the show-me hosts cabaret. Shanghai Yo-Yo plays the bill.
Humanities take centre-stage here at the intersection of the world.
May their fine faces launch a thousand shifts. Save Harvard, save the planet.
Migrant brothers lie together under one stone in reverent ground.
A sugar maple guards their plot year on year in leaf and fall.
They never imagined this end, playing all the time for youth and life.
Thyme Path. Death feeds the trees. Blood-stained five-fingered leaves drop
in the freezing pond where a turtle pokes its yellow-striped old head.
A red bird hops in the bare dogwood. The Double World. Azalea Path.
The lecture hall for Stead and White has nothing to do with Australia’s own car.
It’s a bequest, with terracotta child Mozart who fiddles a blessing
as students peer for the outback. How can a name travel so far?
It’s a long road to get here, through dirt and snow. Step off the sidewalk
into black melt and hope your boots are high enough, then change into classic
comfort to tread those sleek corridors and leave no mess, no trace at all.
NICHOLAS JOSE has written widely on Australian and Asian culture. He has published seven novels, two collections of short stories, a book of essays and two works of non-fiction. He has been a member of the Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, since 2008. He was general editor of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009), and Visiting Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University, 2009-11. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.