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


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):


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

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.