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 Selected Poems of Chen Li
Translated by Chang Fen-ling

[2] From
Animal Lullaby

See poems in Chinese

The Lover of the Magician's Wife    Footprints in the Snow    Dancers of Delphi

A Handbook to Prisoners    A House    Our Ventriloquist Who Is Good at Jugglery

Among School Children    The Dancer in the Kitchen    A Sudden Shower

In a City Alarmed by a Series of Earthquakes    In the Poorest County of Ours

The Love Song of Buffet the Clown    A Love Poem

Love Song    Animal Lullaby    The Seaside Classroom

Sending a Cancer Patient Home in the Evening by Way of Suao-Hua Highway

The Lover of the Magician's Wife


How can I explain to you this breakfast scenery?
Orange juice falls off the fruit tree, and then flows along the river into cups;
sandwiches are conjured out of two beautiful
The sun always rises from the other end of the eggshell in spite of the strong smell of the moon.
The table and chairs are just hacked off from the nearby forest.
You can even hear the
leaves crying.
walnuts are hiding under the carpet, who knows?
Only the bed is stable.
But she's so fond of Bach's fugues
the magician's wife whose fickleness is due to
people's incredulity. You can't but stay up the whole night fleeing with her.
( I'm most likely the one who pants after her dog-tired...)
I'm afraid after she wakes up she
'll play the organ, drink coffee, and do her calisthenics.
Alas, who knows whether the coffee is boiling in the hat?
It's my turn, perhaps, to be the next garrulous and verse-parading parrot.




Footprints in the Snow


Cold makes for sleep,
sleep, for
a feeling soft as a swan.
Where the snow is soft, a hastily scrawled line is left
in white, white
hastily because of his mood, and the cold:
the hastily scrawled
white snow.




Dancers of Delphi


There wandering, a lad with his lute and poems.
There, under the moonlit laurel tree,
the dancers of Delphi sprinkled wine all over the ground
and the moon fell into a trance.
Those fond of asking riddles kept swinging their hair-trailing heads,
thinking of nothing but melancholy and dark thick eyebrows.
How did he know,
how would he suspect those whirling myrtles and ivies weren’t their bodies?
How would he? Such exquisite and life-like description.
Smiles, sculptural reliefs, all the mysterious occurrences.
There, the dancers of Delphi sprinkled wine all over the ground.
There, a lad with his lute and poems.

Translator's note:
The title of this poem comes from a piano piece by the French composer Claude Debussy (Preludes, book 1, no.1).




A Handbook to Prisoners


We didn't understand what people said about our parents, that they had
 committed murder, and about the various theories of heredity. When we
went through, the door was open, with the cut ribbons scattered bright
red on the ground. We really didn
't know who presided at those
inaugurations. The passage that followed seemed all the narrower, and
dark. To be frank, it was so dark that our eyes were as helpless as two
lighted bulbs in broad daylight. We could only grope along, seemingly
hearing the dripping of water and feeling thirsty. What stopped us was,
as we expected, a door. One of us said that we had the key with us.
The door opened, and to our surprise he said,

"We've committed murder!"

Sir, we are truly innocent because we were really in the very, very dark
darkness, knowing nothing except a sound much like that of the scissors.




A House


The mistresses of those who regard simplicity as a complicated house
may be living right next door to the post office.
It means that they will be accustomed to receiving scenic postcards
early in the morning
and finding in them a lawn, a flock of seagulls,
or a boat
because a boat is a window, and a window is larger than a house.

But they can never stand being asked to agree on the metaphor of the package.
It means that their men must, first of all, find a tree to climb up, cut down the fruit, and
chop it in half, put the love in dispute into the core, glue it up,
and then, as if nothing had ever happened, stealthily hang the fruit operated-on back to the tree

climb down.

Yet they have no other choice:
since an island is defined as what is surrounded with the ocean on all sides,
and the definition of a drawer is something you can never open once you lose the key.




Our Ventriloquist Who Is Good at Jugglery


Swallowing into the stomach a whole swamp and all the morning glories,
throughout the summer, our ventriloquist who is good at jugglery sits at the table talking boastfully about the nutriology
of the great frogs.
His recipe is half a bottle of mineral water with spoonfuls of lies
excavated from the mountainside.
What a fantastic recipe, grinding the great sound and fury with gravel.

"Out, out, eternal candle!"
Our talkative ventriloquist always relates tales with others
' tongues.
He interweaves his scenes with interlocked chromosomes, and secretes
a flood with surplus glands.
We really hear the prehistoric fish sighing.
We see crabs swimming on the tree top, butterflies dancing at the ruin, river-crossing tolls gradually
rising over modern times.
Our ventriloquist who is good at jugglery chops down seven olive trees at one stroke to make new puppets.
What a life-like recording!
For the lovelorn Death on the back side of the moss, he secretly taps his footsteps loud,
never stingy in casting fear to us.
But look, on the wall over there, after a shift of hands, he
's singing
like a syrup-lipped nightingale,
with moist and pleasant drops of notes guiding distressed poets to sleep.
Our ventriloquist cries and laughs.
He clutches the tail of the night as if it were a black cat, and swings it unceasingly
till we fail to tell the distance between the dawn and the dream.
Ah, our ventriloquist who is good at jugglery is a greedy tycoon,
publicly cheating you of gold-coin, silver-coin jokes and brass-coin sorrow.
No crows and sparrows can possibly cut in.
All the lost starlight, ancient and modern, is transformed into a pile of pearls dangling wildly in his basin.
We listen carefully, carefully, and behind the night
's back overturn the silver-gray basin bottom
    toward the sun...




Among School Children


The singing rules of insects can never be broken.
Fruits of the chinaberry covered the whole area for sweeping
like the lowercase letters just taught this morning.
The sweeping students spelt new words with fingers.
One sprinkled water,
seven or eight long broomsticks reaching the ground.

The one who walked outside the wall might be the civics teacher.
The clouds peeped on the top of the tree; the net
enclosed the future tentatively.
The bells rang loud,
settling a day
's argument publicly:
      Play while ye work,
      Work while ye play.
On the vast campus, you heard only one

Raindrops then followed. I stood
in the middle of the corridor to work out puzzles
for the last student.
On such evenings I too had asked questions of my teacher.
I was once as patient as a pond,
as confused as now.
The rainy sky poured all the words of the book into the rain.
This is a cat. This is a dog. These are not apples.
Are those trees?
                         (Sir, someone
's plucking flowers!)

The sudden cry held back my action.
"Ha, who is it
that dares to encroach upon our holy meadow?
His pale yellow raincoat glittered,
their tiny feet were bare.
My eyes dared not rush out of the sockets
to revolve, revolve with a tiny pink umbrella.

What a green meadow!
He danced on the taboo that we dared not trample.
Torrential music.
Endless transparent coniferous woods.
The rain was piercing.
I dared not approach the strange freshness.

You didn't need a book.
Your dance knew no start or end.
You didn
't need a pile of expressions loaded with meaning:
desks and chairs, repeat after me,
stand up, sit down... But why,
why did you wander to my classroom
to play in the luxuriant flowers,
to grow in the rain?
Raindrops meant only sounds,
bitter fallen leaves, to you, meant
mere shapes.
Oh, how I wished to cry out,
to bid you stay there, no more chasing, no more talking

stay there
                                            like any young tree:
no need to know about time,
no need to understand the garrulous foreign language.




The Dancer in the Kitchen
    for my mother


Twenty-five years like a day,
in remote Hualien,
you worked your way through your own college.
Washing clothes, going to the market,
getting to work, preparing meals

heavy schoolwork deprived you of time for recreation.
No music class.
No art class.
No barbecue or picnic three periods a week.
No monthly party to welcome the new or see off the old.
Love was your student ID number,
and worry your most intimate dictionary.
Late to bed and early to rise, you studied hard,
meticulously taking notes of overheard key points:
only to give,
to give is the main point of all tests

Day and night
I saw you go to and from school with a big bookbag on the back.
Before the dim lamp,
on the windy road riding a bike,
you devoured the textbooks of life
more voraciously than a bookworm.

Twenty-five years like a day,
I saw you write answers in ink of sweat and tears.
On chilly nights with starlight sharp as a pen
you paint your dreams by the window as if with magic.
Daily tests and monthly exams, one paper following

your demanding teacher was never satisfied
with your scores.
Your sons all went north to study
and graduated one by one.
But you remained in your college,
studying home economics once more,
taking make-up exams in manual work.

I don't know if your staying back every year
finally relaxed your persistence in academic work.
Your unbalanced education made you realize
the importance of aesthetic and physical training,
the value of youth and health.
In the deep of night, with few stars in the sky,
after grading my students
' test papers, I walked by your classroom.
Suddenly I heard a familiar waltz
coming from the dimly-lit kitchen.
There I saw you, still young, holding a small tape recorder,
carried away by your own dancing:
the refrigerator on the left,
the electric rice cooker on the right.
I seemed to hear the bowls and chopsticks in the cupboard clapping
their hands together
to accompany you,
with tomatoes, lemons,
bitter gourds, and cabbages...




A Sudden Shower


As cruel as last night's bats.
Flapping, the giant wings abruptly break into
the aluminum doors and windows of sleep open to attack,
leaving an ill omen pitilessly on midday
's mouth:

you find around you melted and stiffened time,
crisscross paths interlocking one another,
the fear of getting lost becomes wet faster than the ground:

I prefer my world to be smaller than a candy box,
more solid than fragile glass.





In a City Alarmed by a Series of Earthquakes


In a city alarmed by a series of earthquakes, I heard
a thousand black-hearted jackals say to their children,

"Mother, I was wrong."
I heard the judge cry
and the priest repent. I heard
handcuffs fly out of newspapers, blackboards drop into a manure pit. I heard
literary men put down their hoes, farmers take off their glasses,
and fat businessmen take off their clothes of cream and balsam one by one.

In a city alarmed by a series of earthquakes,
I saw pimps on their knees returning vaginas to their daughters.





In the Poorest County of Ours
  as seen on Jan. 28, a day of religious service


Two hundred million New Taiwan dollars,
four thousand giant boars,
forty-six ceremonial arches,
twenty-three religious altars.
After three days and nights
' fasting and purification,
knives are presented to butcher chickens, ducks and fishes.

Fifty thousand distant relatives,
eleven local beggars.





 The Love Song of Buffet the Clown


Simply because half the world's sorrow is resting on his nose,
Buffet the Clown stays awake the whole night. He laughs,
radiating light as dutifully as a street lamp.
No other machine is more awkward; he hangs a hammer on his breast
to guard, to watch over time,
as if his hands rather than his legs were the clock hands of infantile paralysis.
Our righteous Buffet knows no hunger.
He lives frugally, keeping his figure slim for the numerous affectionate ladies on the balcony.
His hat is a
weathercock whose paint is chipped,
chasing the dandruff of dreams day and night.
His eyelashes are the illegitimate children of pelicans.
His sighs are the female cousins of crows.
But how proud the
neck covered with lipstick marks,
persisting in its slenderness more gracefully than a giraffe.

Simply because half the world's happiness is resting on his nose,
Buffet the Clown stays awake the whole night.
He laughs, he laughs, behind the eyes as sour and yellow as lemons.
For the tiny eyedrops of love
he must cry, must pretend to cry sadly.
No more honest magic can ever be seen.
He presses a curved glass wand close to his ears
to turn the evil curse into grape juice and make it flow into his mouth.
But you must forgive him for his speeding heartbeat;
timid Buffet is at best half a great ropewalker,
dancing shakily before the slanting electric guitars.
Ha, when the ladies and stars are frustrated in love,
Buffet the Clown reads the moonlight
and imitates a broken clockwork orange, singing silently.

Simply because half the world's superiority is resting on his nose,
Buffet the Clown stays awake the whole night.
He cries, he laughs, in the upside-down dressing mirror.
For the sake of the ladies
' bright spirits
he adorns himself carefully, rubs laboriously
and polishes his wits as if they were worn-out shoes.
And without his knowledge dust moves into his hair,
wrinkles of desire crawl up his babyish face like a giant spider...

Ha, Buffet the Clown has no mask.
Buffet the Clown has no Oedipus complex.
He must get angry, must get jealous,
must write his love poems on every disposable advertisement
like a forgotten hero,
and on the great morning

march into the printing house of sunshine with all the
vermiform appendixes in the city.



A Love Poem


We must welcome all kinds of
possible quarrels,

let different feet experience different
rhythms: crooked metaphors,
paradoxical expressions,
for love has only one theme.

For instance, I, fond of making couplets, may say
"Sorrow is made of nothing more than care, jealousy follows women everywhere,"
while you, sticking to your poetic rule, would in a half-new way refute that

suspect," an abstract verb,
cannot be rhymed with

Oh, we must master the various skills of rhetoric:
hyperbaton, hyperbole...
and like alchemists, transform everything, everything
unbearable into gold

for love,
love is really too huge a rock.




Love Song


We'll wait until love and the sunset descend to our ankles.
I suddenly think of the midsummer, feeling my
face is like a glass overbrimming with juice.
But your eyes are an acre of dark purple glass grapes
which will never explode for the overloaded gaze.

We'll wait until all the florists in the city pluck away time from the clocks.
Our dream was once the unique giant garden,
the most brilliant and accurate star chart.
A stranger may come to inquire about the route at night.
'll tap our foreheads lightly
and wonder at their solidity.

You'll find how close the next morning is to us
when your bracelets and my kisses are all engraved in the pillars of the temple
to illustrate all the abstract virtues.
Yet you won
't know how long eternity lasts
until all the poems dedicated to you are written down in scriptures: recited by insects and birds.



Animal Lullaby


Let time be fixed like a leopard's spots.
A tired bird glides over the water, softly dripping its
tears like a shot arrow waiting to land.
This is the garden, the garden without music. The grayish
elephant passes by you with heavy steps and asks
you to guard the honeycomb, the honeycomb without bees.

I will put away dewdrops for the night, for the grass without clothes when the stars
rise in the sky, getting higher than the giraffe in the doorway.
Let nursing mothers leave their infants like
a cat finally loosens its arched back, no more
abstractly insisting on the color of love, the height of dreams,
for this is the garden, the garden without music.

When the awkward donkey parades, don't imitate his snoring.
Let time stop breathing like a bear playing dead lies down quietly,
some white flowers swatting his eyelashes, some butterflies.
I will wipe the doorplate for the cattle pen, for the swallows without eaves when
the grayish elephant passes by you with heavy steps and asks
you to mend the broken column, the broken column without sorrow.

This is the garden, the garden without music. Circling eagles, cease
hunting; hunting dogs, stop running
like an angel's forehead,
's wide enough for fifty castles and seven hundred carriages.
Let the children far from their mothers return to their mothers,
like some long forgotten myth or religion is rediscovered and re-adhered to.
'll praise and pray for the fruit trees, the fruit trees bare of their fruit.

Let time be fixed like a leopard's spots
some white flowers swatting his eyelashes, some butterflies.
't disturb the wrath of the lion soundly asleep.
This is the garden, the garden without music. The grayish
elephant passes by you with heavy steps and asks you
and the mud to cover his footprints quickly.





The Seaside Classroom


How far away
the calls of the harbors and the island!
In the high school where we grew up together,
a thousand times,          the wind
has scattered salt lumps into the shining textbooks.

Seated in one corner of the quiet library,
accompanied by the undulating tides, I am reading page by page
my students
' weekly journals.
Fishing nets are displayed and dried on the motley beach;
tourist buses have carried the latest group of foreign visitors here to watch the sea.

Just as they approach that white lighthouse in droves,
I see the purplish red waves fly onto the dike,
disperse us, who were still young, and then
cross the railroad,
slyly tempting my students, who are having class.

I do not doubt that now
you may be on a distant continent missing the harbor.
A thousand ships have departed.
I stay in the afternoon
to watch over this gradually eroded and retrogressing seaside classroom.





Sending a Cancer Patient Home in the Evening
by Way of Su-Hua Highway


I saw the two shaggy hands of grass pushing ceaselessly forward
to strangle a twisting neck,
just as the driver did to the steering wheel.
I wondered how come a smothered highway suddenly revived.

Looking up, I saw a dizzy and sleepy eye going down the mountain,
perhaps, for tomorrow
's sake,
just like you, who would soon fall asleep, no longer having to heed the falling rocks,
on this one-way highway with successive curves and difficult for the car to reverse.


Translator's Note:
 Su-Hua Highway (from Suao to Hualien) is built along the east coast of Taiwan, famous for its successive curves and precipitous terrain.


Books of Poems by Chen Li

In Front of the Temple   Animal Lullaby     Rainstorm
Traveling in the Family     Microcosmos     The Edge of the Island
The Cat at the Mirror     New Poems     Microcosmos II 

  Introduction to Chen Li's Poetry

  by  Chang Fen-ling