The Nanjing Massacre: Poems (Wing Tek Lum, 2013)

NanjingMassacrePoems

Yesterday I posted some work by Wing Tek Lum, a Chinese-American poet living in Hawaii. Today I am looking at his 2013 book, The Nanjing Massacre: Poems, which is his second collection of poetry; the first, 1987’s Expounding the Doubtful Points, won an American Book Award. This is not a review, because I have not read the book; it is not available in any library I have access to, although I have filled out the appropriate forms in the hopes that it will change. But from the glimpses I have seen it is an interesting and powerful collection, one I wish to talk about here, and so I will use the online interviews and excerpted poems in order to enter a little into the book I do not have.

In an interview with Jocelyn Richards at Brown University, Lum describes the beginning of his interest in the Nanjing Massacre:

I knew about the Sino-Japanese War, I knew there were these atrocities, and I knew there were hard feelings by my parents’ generation about the war, especially among the Chinese-American population, where I grew up in Honolulu, but I didn’t know about the specifics. So, in 1997, when Iris Chang’s book came out, I was outraged, so, I started writing one poem and then it cascaded into another poem and another poem.

He continued writing for the next fifteen years, studying photographs, reading diaries and memoirs and academic histories, and when possible speaking to survivors of the massacre. His poems encompass a variety of perspectives, seeking entrance into the historical reality of the atrocity by examining perpetrators as well as victims, collaborators as well as soldiers and civilians. Lum is not writing from a neutral standpoint, however; he is writing what Jane Wong, in her review of the book, calls “the poetry of witness.” In this she echoes Lum’s own goals; as he says in the interview following her review, he is determined to “to speak for the dead, for they could not speak for themselves.” In doing so, Lum hopes to turn the eyes of others onto this moment of history which it is far more comfortable to look away from. The few poems I have been able to find online are harrowing; they demand attention even while the brutality they recount makes it difficult to keep reading. Here is one:

The Nanking Safetyzone

Eyes red beyond tears
darting, filled with crazed hope
her voice so choked, past sobbing
past exhaustion and despair
that she can barely muster a whisper
her plea hoarse and deliberate
as she shoves through the ornate gate
through a narrow opening of cast iron
the bundle of her young son
just old enough to walk
but not yet weaned
wrapped tightly in a large padded jacket
a long scarf and woolen cap
squeezing him through the grating
into the surprised arms of strangers
those already crowded around camps inside
fortunate enough to have arrived earlier
inside the sanctuary walls
these walls shielding them from plunder and rape
the slaughter outside
even of infants bayoneted
or their heads dashed to the ground
in front of parents
an imaginable horror to this mother
now desperate to complete her last act
and then race away from the wall
vowing never to look back
as if it would be bad luck
her will so strongly focused
even against her own maternal instincts
that she could at all costs
care for him forever
but now she knows that this can never be so
and so for this one final chance
she takes control of her son’s life
by giving him up
his survival with better odds than her own
a lone woman on the street
now unburdened and resigned
stealing away through the rubble of her wounded city.
before the night that soon will come.

I do not find it easy to read, easy to contemplate the experience of having to make such a choice, but I am glad for the chance to bear witness through art, to try to hear what has been silenced. Sooner or later I will have the entire collection; when I do, I will write about it again. In the meantime, if anyone who reads this blog is familiar with Lum’s work, I am curious to hear.

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One thought on “The Nanjing Massacre: Poems (Wing Tek Lum, 2013)

  1. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14649373.2012.659809

    Hello, my name is Gayle Sato. I thought you might be interested in an article I wrote about Wing’s Nanjing poems; it’s available at the link above. I also wrote something about Expounding the Doubtful Points many years ago. Wing Tek and I have been friends for many years. We presented together (2010?) at a symposium in Taiwan that led to the article on the Nanjing poems, which had not been published yet, and again at Brown University for the panel that included Ha Jin. I’m teaching from both books now in two classes at Meiji University, Tokyo, where I’ve been since 1997.

    Your use of the word “contemplate” (in the comments after “The Nanking Safety Zone”) caught my attention in particular, because the title of my talk in Taiwan was “Contemplative Space” (and the production of “impossible obituaries” enabled by that space comprised of Wing’s poems), which generated for me and many others a heart-wrenching and heated presentation, and ensuing 60-minute Q&A. The following day, Wing and I did a post mortem of the symposium session during breaks while visiting the National Museum. This continued for weeks afterwards. I count the entire experience as one of the best learning experiences of my career.

    Sorry for the long message. The Nanjing Massacre, by the way, again won the Poetry prize in 2016 from the Association of Asian American Studies. If you think I can be of any help to you regarding your work with Wing’s poetry, or if you just want to talk occasionally about the Nanjing poems, or Honolulu poems (as I call the poems in Expounding the Doubtful Points), please do write me at the address below.

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