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 Selected Poems of Chen Li
Translated by Chang Fen-ling

Traveling in the Family

Traveling in the Family: Traveling in the Family  / Stairs

/ Shoes  / The Garden  / A Rider's Song

An Intimate Letter    The Wall    An Encounter    Spring    The Bladder

Mass Rapid Transportation System    A Vending Machine for Nostalgic Nihilists

The River of Shadows    The Magician    Postcards for Messiaen    An Open Cage

Souvenir-Photo: Statues of the Bunun    The Edge of the Island    A Dog Barking at the Moon

Traveling in the Family


1. Traveling in the Family

And of course it is a book,
a dictionary of absurd form and yet of absolute truth,
printed on four-color cards, on certificates of indebtedness,
on warrants for arrest, on marriage certificates.

On this page is my father, who has been wanted by time.
Because his mother is a crab swimming in the sea and crawling on the sand,
all his brothers' names are made of water.
Her husband came down from the mountain in a cable car, with
the vigor of mountains and the violence of fire: pressing her, beating her, cursing her
after drinking at midnight, leaving her washing the scars on her body with her baby in arms.
And he resented that he had a fire-like name like his father's, just as he resented
pneumonia and festering ulcers, which were responsible for
his twin brothers' early death and crippling.

This page reveals the family medical history too harsh to face
my infertile grandaunt, my mother's missing father,
my mother's brother, who came to know that his own father was my
father's father after living together for twenty years,
my father's sister-in-law and cousin, who married my fourth uncle and
gave birth to three mentally retarded children,
my father's father, who knew how to beget children yet knew nothing
about child-raising and education...

This page is an index of difficult and obsolete words
my drowned uncle, my father's self-imprisoned cousin,
my father's sister who eloped when young but became a tonsured nun when old.

This page is an index of words in order of phonetic symbols
schooling: with years' schooling, my father was corrupt and negligent of his duty;
screwing: gambling and screwing around half his lifetime, my father became a drug addict and seller.

They are traveling in my trunk,
overturning and rearranging the printing types again and again,
to become my brothers, to become me.
The margins are tears of mothers:
love, sorrow, silent embrace

embracing anxious fire, embracing
the waves that turn back,
and on the beach of time, reading over and over
the pages of the ocean that become all the whiter with every leafing.

3. Stairs

Stairs are the dreams of the poor.

We dreamed of a tall building like others', stable and secure stairs,
going up, and up, and up
to see the scenery all over the world.

But our stairs were horizontal, put low in the corner of the one-story wooden house
and carried out when typhoons came.
We climbed up to the roof with Father to mend the iron sheet, to mend the doors and windows.

It never rains but it pours.

Our dreams were like the basins placed about in the house, holding
one drop of rain after another.
We stepped onto the tables and chairs to hang our satchels on top of the erected stairs:

the fountainheads of dream that allowed no invaders to occupy.

4. Shoes

The shoes were worn out, on a muddy rainy night in the city.
A wanderer felt his socks at the crossroads.

The shoes were worn out, the feet got wet.
The shoes, postmarks of emotion,
postcards of time.

One to his mother far away:
On a certain day, a certain month, a certain year,
you washed clean my black sports shoes.
I got on the platform to receive the award, but found
the feet were in the wrong shoes.

One to his wife in the dream:
Remember to polish
that red pair of leather shoes I wore on our wedding day.
I like the sunset clouds
that pass by our doorway in the evening.

The shoes were worn out, on the way home.

6. The Garden

The garden, a warehouse of memories.
My illiterate grandfather is sitting in the narrow house waiting for the flowers to bloom.
It's dark, he turns on a dim light,
sick and old.

He turns on a dim light, brightening
the ants that are carrying away his drowsiness.
Magnolias are by the trash can,
the out-dated calendar on the wall.

He did grow some flowers.
The yard in the morning, a spring mood
blooming with sunshine.
Mother's red chair stood bright by the fence.

That was the garden we shared, a winding corridor of time
hanging in eternity.
We took a walk in it with our sorrow,
hiding the superfluous fragrance in our pockets.

Now his garden is even bigger,
distributed in the medicine parcels of various colors.
Sitting in the narrow house waiting for the sunset,
he seems to smell the fragrance of flowers.

7. A Rider's Song

My dear grandmother
rode her bicycle,
singing in the sky.
Two bracelets were left behind
like wheels on the ground,
hanging on my heart.

The wheels revolve into
a ring,
worn around the finger of
my newlywed daughter.

Some day
when I too ride my bike
singing in the sky,
her child will feel
the necklace on her breast
and smile at me, understandingly.


Translator's Note:
"four-color cards": a card game popular with the Taiwanese folks, usually used for gambling.



An Intimate Letter


Youth, the sound of the chapel organ
returns periodically
to the window where you've just written a letter,
distant but intimate,
all at once the street becomes broad and spacious again.

All at once it brightens up,
because of a boy on the bicycle
with a bell in the front,
because of the washerwoman crossing the bridge.
You think of many a street corner.
Turning around it, you come across him;
turning around it, you find him gone.

You think of many a corner of life
once belonging to you:
the panting electric fan in a small hotel,
the street lamp sighing under the moon.
The door opened, the door shut, and you stood before the same window

Before the same window as now you are,
with your back to a set of half-dark wardrobes.
You think of a scarf, not exactly ugly,
used in winter, forgotten in summer.
It occurs to you that a scarf is like a song, and a song
is a winding street.

So you go downstairs,
waiting to meet with him again around the street corner.





The Wall


It hears us cry.
It hears us whisper.
It hears us tearing the wallpaper,
searching anxiously for the voices of departed relatives

the enormous breaths, snoring, and coughs,
which we have never heard.

The wall has ears.
The wall is a mute recorder.

We give it nails
in memory of those absent hats, keys and coats.
We give it crevices
to give shelter to crooked love, rumors and scandals.

Hanging on it is the clock.
Hanging on it is the mirror.
Hanging on it are the shadows of lost days,
the lipstick marks of sunken dreams.

We give it thickness.
We give it weight.
We give it silence.

The wall has ears,
leading a giant existence sustained by our frailty.





An Encounter


On my way to work
I saw my mother
on an old bike
stopping before the traffic light.

She didn't find me looking at her before the other traffic light.
A pink umbrella, a black purse,
a basket to carry vegetables home after work.

Every night I drive my wife and daughter home to eat the dinner she prepares;
every night I eat the fruit peeled by my father, have a chat
and then come back to where I live.

I've never felt that we aren't living together,
never felt that she is moving on one way,
and I, another.
I know that after doing the dishes she will take a bath and watch TV;
I know that she will dance and jog in the neighborhood primary school the next morning.

This morning,
under the brightening sky,
we waited to cross the street with the crossroads between us.
She was standing by her bike, ready to turn left;
I was sitting in my car, ready to turn left

turn left, to different places,
where different tears and music meet.

This morning,
under the bright sky in my hometown,
we encountered for a brief moment,
and then disappeared from each other's rearview mirror.





Oh, world,
our hearts have
become legitimately and healthily lustful again.




The Bladder


I feel all the more
the bladder is another heart of ours,
trembling on the verge of waking and sleeping,
burdened with our previous luxury.
When the original heart, because of the day's uproaring,
the night's duskiness, gets weary and fatigued,
it, remaining clear-headed,
reminds us of the direction of reality
with the water pressure of a whole reservoir.

With the weight of a whole reservoir it plays
seesaw games with our dreams,
lifting us from the chaotic abyss to
an altitude of dizziness,
making consciousness struggle against subconsciousness,
making crime argue uneasily with punishment.
It goes up and down, flickering and blinking,
until we, having had enough of the torment,
start up resolutely
to confess to the nearest toilet,
and in a fervent, short flush,
repent to our hearts' content.

The bladder, the conscience in the latter part of the night,
the witness of a prodigal son.





Mass Rapid Transit System


The entrance was the rainy nightif on a winter's night, a traveler
suddenly fell like a coin into a giant and disorderly public telephone,
into a blue city whose circuits were all paralyzed because the rapid
transit system was under construction everywhere. A cold and lonely
coin, stuck among the steel frameworks of the unformed rapid transit
system, trying to pierce through the cold rain and dial out his own
voice. He was drowned in the numerous arrowheads and signs which
screamed out "Danger," "Keep Off," and "Detour."

"Let's tide over the dark period hand in hand." He and his nostalgia, on
a winter's night, were exposed to a labyrinthine city, to a secret rapid
transit system where nothing passed freely but loneliness. In the telephone 
where he failed to dial himself out, he found himself, like a rejected
 coin, melted into loneliness by chilly rain and flowing out of the slot...





A Vending Machine for Nostalgic Nihilists


          Please choose the button
               Mother's milk   cold    hot
         Drifting cloud    large packet    medium packet    small packet
                Cotton candy    instant     enduring    tangled
                   Daydream     canned    bottled     aluminum foiled
Charcoal-burned coffee     with nostalgia    with passion    with death
                Star perfume    with chirping of insects     with twittering of birds    pure
        Sleeping pill     for vegetarians    for non-vegetarians
                Misty poetry    two pieces in one    three pieces in one     aerosol
                    Marijuana     of Freedom brand    of Peace brand     of Opium War brand
                       Condom    for commercial use    for noncommercial use
    Shadow facial tissue    extra-thin    transparent     water-proof
   Moonlight ball pen    gray    black     white





The River of Shadows


Every day, from our teacups
flows a river of shadows.
The places spotted with lipstick marks
are the constantly vanishing
A houseful of tea fragrance allures us into sleep.
What we drink may be time,
may be ourselves,
may be our parents, who have fallen into the cups.

We catch from the silty bottoms of the cups
last year's scenery:
a mountainful of jasmine,
flowers blooming and falling.
We watch the cold river boiling once again,
warmly dissolving the descending darkness.

Then we sit drinking tea from the cups that
brighten up like lanterns. We sit
on the bank as high as a dream,
waiting for the tea to turn into the river,
for the trees to blossom and bear fruit,
till we, like our parents, are incarnated
in a fruit,
a camellia,
vanishing into the river of shadows.




The Magician


That night, on one end of the bridge after the crowd had dispersed,
     he said to me, "Son, all magic arts are real..."

So, those drifting clouds were conjured out of the handkerchief on his breast,
those running cars, those motionless houses.
He waved a secret river,
a white handkerchief stained with tears and sweat
like a dove in
the dream when folded,
and a world map when unfolded.

He spread the unfolded handkerchief over the ground, unfolding and unfolding
until all the people were seated on it.
He said, "Magic is love,
love for all the things that are transient and beautiful, that
you want to possess but fail to."
He conjured a bunch of roses out of the handkerchief
and connected himself to the flowers with vein-like tubes.
He asked us to stab his heart with a knife.
"My heart is filled with love.
Stab the knife into me, and my blood
will spit out of those roses."
In panic we tried to keep away from the blood splashing around like petals,
yet found it as sweet as jam.

He conjured a deck of poker cards out of another handkerchief,
saying we were all in it.
He wanted each of us to pick a card, remember the number,
and put it back. He said numbers were our names,
the identity cards given to us by eternity.
He shuffled the cards skillfully until every card was turned
into the same number.
We gazed at each other amazedly, not knowing which one
was our true self.

He liked all changing things.
He hid in the sleeves all the fountains of the city,
mixed them with our joy, anger, sorrow, and delight,
now spurting black vinegar,
then spurting red wine.
He knew there was nothing new in the sun,
so he chose to perform in the moonlight.
The flames and sharp swords swallowed into his throat
would eventually turn out to be (he declared as he unfolded the newspaper)
shocking murders, massacres, and religious revolutions far away.

He wanted us to watch carefully because life, he said,
is a great magic itself:
"As long as you believe, a handkerchief can become a flying rug!"
But some changes come too fast
for us to tell the differences,
and some so slowly that it takes a lifetime
to perceive the mystery in them.
They say an ocean may become a mulberry field, and girls
may become old women.
But how can love blow the dead soul awake, ashes
be burned into new fire?

That night, on the vacant lot by the river
no one believed the handkerchief beneath our feet would fly us to a far-off place.
Yet the magician was still working on his handkerchief,
a secret river flowing in his eyes.





Postcards for Messiaen


We are all hanging

Over the abyss of time

A garden of sorrow in the air

We run on a terrestrial globe
I am in ancient Asia
you are in distant Europe
Someone revolves the earth
we stumble, falling together into
the melancholy ocean

The suffered but serene ocean



Like a stretch of waves full of strength and light

Going up
and down

Like a secret tunnel recycling over and again

From the canyon to stars
From dream      to dream

Birds fly into a pentagonal garden
music streams into music

The west
The east

According to what


Author's note:
These poems are written according to some of the music I have heard recently, especially that of Messiaen (1908-1
992), Nono (1924-1990), Webern (1883-1945), and Takemitsu (1930-1995).
 Takemitsu said,
"The joy of music, ultimately, seems connected to sadness. The sadness is that of existence. The more you are filled with the pure happiness of music-making, the deeper the sadness is."





An Open Cage

  for John Cage


You are a born cage,
so are we

writing our faunas in the destined space.

But your bird is not the nightingale that eats ice cream and cotton candy;
yours is a magical bird that eats screws, rubber, wood,
spitting out piles of fantastic notes,
hitting the fence around it,
shattering the glass that blocks it,
and like excavators, digging out every throat that has been
buried by habits.

It also eats the wind, drinks dews, and hangs the cage
upside down like a basket,
filling it with sounds of wind and water,
sounds of vehicles and people,
with mushrooms,
with silence

with silence, like an empty
conch shell
receiving all the sounds of existence.

Your clock is twelve radios telling different stories.
Your calendar is musical scores arranged at random.
To your bird nothing is discordant. It can't tell

which is more musical—the noise of a truck passing by a factory or
the noise of a truck passing by a music school.
It enjoys the biting of gears as much as it welcomes
the kisses of trees with wind or the dialogue between hammers.

A mechanical bird flying with a cage,
a wound-up bomb of notions,
you respond to the posture of falling leaves, the speed of running water
with lonely but clear heartbeats,
and on an afternoon when all strings contend to be heard,
blow open the world with
deafening silence

blow open the cage of the world,
and make us hear the open music.


Author's note:
John Cage (1912-1992), the most controversial and influential 20th-century American composer, philosopher and writer on music. Breaking off the line between noise and music, he attached much importance to silence in music as well as in life, and regarded every sound as music. His most famous work was 4'33", silence throughout the whole piece. He was also an expert on mushrooms.




Souvenir-Photo: Statues of the Bunun


I do not know if Rodin, the sculptor of The Burghers of Calais, would
ask them to rise at sight of them. Nine Bunun people,
nine obstinate stones, sat side by side in front of the police substation.
Iron chains locked their limbs, but not their souls.
If their heads should be chopped off with huge axes to become
other stones, their bodies would still be perfect statues
standing upright on their native land. Now they were seated
waiting for the trial, for the ruler to mold them into immortality:
Ramata Siensien of the Ikano tribe with his four sons; 
Taromu of the Kanto tribe with his three younger brothers (he even killed
his mother, who came to talk him into capitulation under the Japanese’s threat).
Their eyes looked right ahead, carved on their faces was ‘dignity’
pronounced differently in the Bunun language: dignified sorrow,
dignified apathy, dignified freedom...They were inborn stones.


Author's note:
This photo was found in Perspectives on Eastern Taiwan, published by Mori Toshiyuki in 1933. Taiwan was ruled by Japan between 1895 and 1945. On September 19, 1932, at Li-Long in the prefecture of Tai-Tung, some Bunun people (aborigines of Taiwan) killed two policemen and one police assistant in Kwai-Gu near the Da-Guan-San police station. The Japanese police went all out to arrest the killers: first they tracked down the suspect Taromu, an influential man of the Kanto tribe; then on December 19 they went into the mountains and caught the principal offender Ramata Siensien with his four sons as well as three younger brothers of Taromu's. On the photograph, these nine men sat side by side, barefooted.




The Edge of the Island


On the world map on a scale of one to forty million,
our island is an imperfect yellow button
lying loose on a blue uniform.
My existence is now a transparent thread,
thinner than a cobweb, going through my window
 facing the sea
and painstakingly sewing the island and the ocean together.

On the edge of the lonely days, in the crevice
between the new and the old years,
the thought is like a
book of mirrors, coldly freezing
the ripples of time.
Thumbing through it, you'll see pages of obscure
past, flashing brightly on the mirror:

another secret button—
like an invisible tape recorder, pressed close to your breast,
repeatedly recording and playing
your memories and all mankind's—
a secret tape mixed with love and hate,
dream and reality, suffering and joy.

What you hear now is
the sound of the world:
the heartbeats of the dead and the living
and your own. If you cry out with all your heart,
the dead and the living will speak to you
in clear voices.

On the edge of the island, on the boundary
between sleeping and waking,
my hand is holding my needle-like existence:
threading through the yellow button rounded and polished by
the people on the island, it pierces hard into
the heart of the earth
lying beneath the blue uniform.





A Dog Barking at the Moon


Time sets its dog biting us.
It bites off our sleeves, leaving two or three
rags of oblivion.
We cross the street to buy sugar, finding a deserted arm,
not sure whether to drop it in the nearest mailbox or not.
Maybe our parents on the trip will receive it
at a distant hotel.
Maybe it is hanging at the door of the railroad station.
Every five minutes out of the loud-speaker comes the announcement:

"A deserted arm to be identified at the information desk."

We don't believe they are our long-departed relatives:
childhood handkerchiefs, exercise books, lipsticks and
brassieres of the beloved, diplomas.
We pick up the toys scattered about on the ground.
They are heard to say,
"It hurts."
The moon is pasted on the sky like a stamp obscured by the postmark.
We write letters with ball point pens of starlight and mail them
to God, who lives north of the air-raid shelter,
and two express conductresses in red skirts and red hats
push the pushcart by and ask if he
'll buy some medicine.

Of course it's bitter,
still he sends us a family photo:
the war-fostered colonel, the black-skinned procuress,
tomcat Gigi, the unmarried old maid A-lan

they are all there, on the platform of time,
facing a dog barking at the moon with wide-open eyes.
They are waiting to pass by us once more.
We open the stamp album, suspiciously searching out
seemingly familiar cries.
Maybe that
's what they call family reunion.




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