“The Symmetry of Missed Appointments” (Helen Wong Huie, 1979)

Helen Wong Huie is another Chinese-American poet whom I discovered through the Sunbury Press anthology American Born and Foreign. I can find almost nothing about her online except that she was one of the guest-editors of that anthology, to which she contributed the poem below, and that she also contributed to the anthology Ordinary Women / Mujeres Comunes: An Anthology of Poetry by New York City Women, for which Fay Chiang was one of the editors. I am sorry that Helen Wong Huie did not publish anything that I can find after these two anthologies; I like this poem by her very much:

The Symmetry of Missed Appointments

There was no answer
to the knock.
The nameplate on the door
reads:

Drinking Apricot Nectar
without the image of the Tree
or its Fruit.
The symmetry of missed appointments.

I am going to get Ordinary Women from the library, so a few weeks from now I will have more poetry by Helen Wong Huie to share, as well as more by Frances Chung, who I wrote about last week.

Advertisements

Untitled Poem (Frances Chung, 1979)

Frances Chung was a Chinese-American poet, born in New York’s Chinatown in 1950. She began publishing poetry in various journals during the 1960s, while working as a math teacher in the New York public school system, but unfortunately died in 1990 without having ever published a collection of her work. After her death Walter K. Lew compiled her manuscripts and published them in 2000 as Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple: The Poems of Frances Chung. I have not yet read that collection, but there was a poem of hers I particularly liked in the 1979 Sunbury anthology American Born and Foreign, so I am sharing it here.

do you remember when it seemed the whole world
was closed
on shrimp-gray days
the rain held us in
we saw Lincoln Center from a bus
elegance was a Greek restaurant
the New York Times was too big to fold
with too many dictionary words empty crosswords
they never reporting the killing
down the street
the clothes they advertised were unreal too
who lounged who wore bathrobes
who had a dining room
everything in life being guesswork
cooking without teaspoons
eternal windowshoppers
we women were sometimes like children

I like it for itself, the stream of images saying something clear and a little bitter without being direct, and I like it also that it connects to me; I still have many days in which, “everything in life being guesswork,” I feel that child’s confusion despite my adult self.

“His Long Tapered Fingers” (Fay Chiang, 1979)

Fay Chiang is a Chinese-American poet, artist and community activist. Born in 1952, she began publishing in the 1970s, and has released three collections of poetry that I can find: In The City of Contradictions (Sunbury Press 1979), Miwa’s Song (Sunbury 1982), and 7 Continents 9 Lives (Bowery Press 2010). It is through the Sunbury Press that I discovered Chiang, in fact — this was a press founded by Virginia Scott in 1974, to publish under-represented poets — women, people of colour, working class writers. Sunbury published not only collections by individual poets, but also anthologies under the imprint Sunbury–a poetry magazine. I found one of these anthologies, American Born and Foreign, at the library while looking for Asian-American poetry, and thus discovered Chiang, who is one of the guest editors Scott invited to work on the book. There are three of Chiang’s poems included, and this is my favourite of them:

his long tapered fingers
  guide my young hand curved around
  bamboo brush pen
      to form my name
         in chinese:

              family name, chiang; from northern china
               we came south on
                 tamed wild horses and became
                                  farmers
              middle name, wei, shared by you and your
                sisters, intelligence
              and your own ping, for peace or plains of green field

bits of characters:
    green, heart, three dots of water, woods, home

write again and again, your name,
   that you may never
             forget it.

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.

Three Early Poems by Wing Tek Lum


I will write more about Diana Chang when I have finished reading her 1956 novel, The Frontiers of Love, but in poetry I am moving on to Chinese-American poet Wing Tek Lum (林永得). He was born in Hawaii in 1946, graduated from Brown University in 1964 with a degree in engineering, and then went on to the Union Theology Seminary, graduated with a masters in divinity in 1973. After spending some time in Hong Kong to learn Cantonese he returned to Hawaii, and has spent much of his life there, running a running a real-estate business with his brother and serving as the business manager for the Bamboo Ridge Press. Through all that time he has been writing poetry; as he put it in an interview published last year in the Hawaiian magazine Summit:

When I was young I was not noted as having much talent as a writer. Nor do I have formal training. But occasionally when I have a thought, I try to write it down. Sometimes I am lucky enough that it turns into a poem. I have been doing this for 40+ years; so I persevere.

His first collection, Expounding the Doubtful Points, won an American Book Award in 1988; his second, published in 2013, is The Nanjing Massacre: Poems. I am planning to write more about that second collection tomorrow; for now, here are three of his poems I have found in Asian-American Heritage: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry (1974):

Blessings

I write best in wintertime
when I’m cooped up;
she can corner me at will.

I stay up all hours of the night.
When I try to go to sleep
she dreams my dreams.

I’ve got it down to a science now:
a tensor lamp by the bed.
It beats scribbling her last traces in the dark.

My muse is quite jealous,
If I ever found another true love
there’d be poems to pay in hell.

That is the lightest poem of his I have seen; the others are all much graver, darker, although these next two have a sting of bitter humour as well.

To Li Po

I liked that poem
—the one about getting drunk,
three hundred cups of wine,
to drown away the sorrows
of generations.
                         In those days,
for every poem you wrote
a million Chinamen suffered to die.

         pen from bone
         brush from hair
         ink from blood

They were illiterate, you knew.
Better than words,
cheap liquor was solace for them.

Minority Poem

For George Lee

Why
we’re just as American
as apple pie—
that is, if you count
the leftover peelings
lying on the kitchen counter
which the cook has forgotten about
or doesn’t know
quite what to do with
except hope that the maid
when she cleans off the chopping block
will chuck them away
into a garbage can she’ll take out
on leaving for the night.

I like the clarity of each of them, the objects which come into focus but are not the focus themselves, and the emotions that come through strongly. I am glad he has persevered these forty years.

“A Dialogue With My Own Temperament” (Diana Chang, 1984)

Here is my favourite of the poems in Diana Chang’s collection What Matisse is After:

A Dialogue With My Own Temperament

Must you, I sigh again,
must you disturb the peace I also garden?

     Small aspects detach themselves from a field
     the dog’s color matches the wheat
     but in motion and thought
     he parts from the unawakened sheaves

My nature replies, I know you come and go.

(Am I hers
or is she my soul?)

Ah yes, I remember with relief,
glad to see nothing down the road of promise and will.
I can do without me very well, she mockingly reminds me
yet walks alongside like a montage
The lanes oblivion all the way

Stray knowledge laments
in trees likes doves.
We’ve each offered more than our hand:
Striving, grief, patience and love

I’ve nothing to say. I am deaf
and single and dumb.
This peace I need, pure and plain,
is such a joy,

Is dismay.
I am away again—
cast far like a long shadow

Go. Stay gone. Why do I keep returning,
large with new time?

But she unfurls
her breath in my sleep
And I have things to say to myself again.
I’m the very rain she rains and weathers.
Once more

we are

one another.

How can I judge a poem that feels so close to my own experience that I recognise my thoughts in many of the lines? Not at all, so I only share it, and wonder as I read it over again if I might grow large enough to be always the rain.

What Matisse is After (Diana Chang, 1984)

ChangMatissePx2
At the beginning of October I took a vacation, spending some days in a cabin surrounded by redwoods with someone I dearly love. Afterwards came two weeks of catching up with my ordinary life, organising birthday parties and baking for a fundraiser and spending far too many hours daydreaming about being back at that cabin. But here upon this last Monday of October I am starting to find my rhythm again, and so I have more poetry by Diana Chang, whose collection What Matisse is After came from the library while I was gone. It is a beautiful collection, one of those books which is a pleasure to hold; my photo does not do justice to the cover, that boldness of the black and red upon the pale matte grey, nor does the texture come through, the paper not quite smooth to the touch. Inside, with the poems, there are drawings; I have even fewer words for visual art than I do for poetry, but they are simple, black and white and grey, seeming to me about the lines themselves, the size and shape and angles of them, experiments in form, perhaps. Whatever the words for them, I like them.

As always when reading a collection, I find the poems themselves to be a mix; some that do not work for me at all, some which come close but not quite, and some which are very good. Chang’s best poems do not, for me, reach the level of Mark Strand or Jane Hirshfield, but the why of it eludes me; I do not know if they are objectively weaker in some way I might eventually learn to define, or simply less the sort of thing I appreciate. Still, there are some which linger. This is one:

Naming

Because it is white we call it snow
The dark side of things is true to names, too

Geese scribbling across the sky
are having their say indefinitely

The wind of time drops
We will be a lasting quiet

By surprise, deer are fastened to a field
Cameras also try their desperate stilling

Through nerved,
we find, in any case,
what we gave away is called years.

I like some of the language of this one for itself, the geese having their say indefinitely, and also the concept of it, the naming of things, holding things still through naming; it is a poem which unfolds itself a little in my mind with the reading, but only a little, not largely.

I like this one as well, the title poem:

What Matisse is After

The straight in a curve
is what Matisse is after

two lines
one veering in,

an invitation to
the rest of space,
the other

a long gourd
swelling
out of bone

an arm  sings
that its reach

rounds
into a heave
of loving

the line of a thigh
on its departure
toward returning

in the teeth
of our dying

what elegant
flying

He exhales paint we need

to
breathe

Simple in that way that takes much craft, and flowing, and it captures a little of the looking at a painting’s line and form in the way the words move.

My very favourite poem in this collection is quite long, so I am going to save it for tomorrow.

Asian-American Poetry: Diana Chang

I could fill pages with my outrage at a white male poet posing as a Chinese women in order to benefit from attempts to listen to Asian-American voices — as if the entire world did not already listen long and well to white men. But instead of adding another white voice to the outcry, I encourage anyone who has not already done so to read Jia Tolentino’s article above, and then go read Jenny Zhang’s Buzzfeed article.

In the meanwhile, I am going to rectify my own narrow vision, for while I have been reading classical Chinese & Japanese poetry in translation for decades, I am entirely unfamiliar with the work of Asian-American poets. It is a rich body of work to explore, and I have begun by acquiring some older collections of Asian-American writing from the library and investigating the authors whom I meet there. The first of these is Diana Chang; she was born in New York in 1934, but grew up in China, only returning to the United States after World War II. Her 1956 novel, The Frontiers of Love, is believed to be the first novel by an American-born Chinese published in the United States. She went on to publish five more novels, and then began to publish collections of poetry — but so far as I can tell, poetry is where she began; her first publication seems to have been three poems in the November 1946 issue of Poetry Magazine. Here is one:

Knowing What Desires We Have Had

Knowing what desires we have had (some flaring, beautiful ambitions),
And have had to let go,
And knowing what questions we have put off answering,
Slurring over them, always,
Seeing double, gladly,
(Fearful, unbigoted minds grasping at both sides of every question),
It is not surprising, only regrettable that we should have come to this.

And now we are too-far gone:
We have practiced too well a partial living.
From here, there is no recovery.

To the roomful of us, it seems always to have been this way:
You, I, and the other, manifesting conversation,
Watching the gestures of talk.
We hear the silence, uneasily,
Fearing the next pause might give us away.

It is a beautiful poem, very clear, building that tension of regret and despair. It needs no biography to make it live and move, but I cannot read it unaware of Chang’s life; this was published when she had been in the United States for at most a year. Coming to New York to finish high school after living in wartime China seems a very definite double vision. Perhaps not what she meant at all, but it is there in my reading, in part because of this much more recent poem of hers which seems to be included in a number of textbooks and thus, one hopes, frequently taught:

Saying Yes

“Are you Chinese?”
“Yes.”

“American?”
“Yes.”

Really Chinese?”
“No… not quite.”

Really American?”
“Well, actually, you see…”

But I would rather say
yes

Not neither-nor
not maybe,
but both, and not only

The homes I’ve had,
the ways I am

I’d rather say it twice,
yes

The more I read these poems and others by her, the more I consider her work, the more excited I am to have encountered her. I will be reading more of Chang’s poetry, and all of her novels which the library can provide, and will of course write about them here in the months to come.

“The Dead” (Mark Strand, 1968)

As promised, here is one more by Strand, also from his 1968 collection Reasons for Moving. His language is simple, which for me helps it to cut deep.

The Dead

The graves grow deeper.
The dead are more dead each night.

Under the elms and the rain of leaves,
The graves grow deeper.

The dark folds of the wind
Cover the ground. The night is cold.

The leaves are swept against the stones.
The dead are more dead each night.

A starless dark embraces them.
Their faces dim.

We cannot remember them
Clearly enough. We never will.

I am looking forward to more Strand, in time. However, next week I am going to start looking at some Asian-American poets, as the outrageous behaviour of a certain white man in pretending to be a Chinese woman has made me realise that I know very little about Asian-American authors.

Reasons for Moving (Mark Strand, 1968)

I first encountered Mark Strand through Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with him on the CBC Writers & Company podcast. Usually I do not much enjoy hearing writers read their own work, but I fell in love with Strand’s voice, in both the literal and stylistic senses, and with his dry, sudden humour which is so similar to mine. He had a long and varied career, publishing poetry for five decades as well as translating, writing children’s books and criticism, and editing various anthologies until his death in 2014. Although the interview was from 1999, I only heard it a few months back, when I began to finally listen to the years of podcasts I had downloaded, and even though it is foolish, I wish very much I had met Strand’s work while he was still alive; I would have written some sort of joyful letter of my excitement at his poetry, perhaps, although that is an easy thing to say in retrospect. It may well be that having the chance I would not have taken it. Regardless, I do feel in discovering him only just after his death that I missed some opportunity, however ridiculous it is.

As for this collection, it is slender, only 47 pages, and the poems are short and deceptively simple. I have chosen two I liked very much.

The Man in Black

I was walking downtown
when I noticed a man in black,
black cape and black boots, coming toward me.

His arms out in front of him,
his fingers twinkling with little rings,
he looked like a summer night full of stars.

It was summer. The night was full of stars.
The tall buildings formed a hallway down which I walked.
The man in black came toward me.

The waxed tips of his mustache shone
like tiny spears and his teeth glistened.
I offered him my hand which he did not take.

I felt like a fool and stood in his black wake,
shaken and small, and my tears
swung back and forth in the sultry air like chandeliers.

It is that moment between the second and third stanzas, for me, which makes the poem, the repetition that changes it from the everyday recounting to the sense of something numinous occurring, the man who is like the summer night full of stars in the summer night full of stars, suggesting the man is the night, or there is no man, only the poet seeing the night both ways — it is one of those poems where my attempt to explain what I see in it trivialises, because I cannot say it better than the poet can, but for any reader who might be mystified by my joy, read it to yourself, slowly, and linger on that repetition, that space between those stanzas, where suddenly what seems to be reality changes and becomes much larger and stranger and more mysterious — and the poet weeps because he may not enter into it even as that last image suggests that he is already there.

Here is another, shorter, and much anthologised, but I had not heard it until Strand read it during the interview and it took my breath. I am glad to be able to remember it in his voice:

Keeping Things Whole

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

I will share one more from this collection tomorrow, I think; I find I cannot resist, nor is there any reason to.