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 Selected Poems of Chen Li

The Cat at the Mirror

Tango for the Jealous     Butterfly Air     • The Cat at the Mirror

  Nightsong     Tunnel     Dialogue

Black Sheep    
Evening Breeze     Comb

     Composition     Gliding Exercises    

Music     Sonnets     On the Island

Tango for the Jealous

If you embrace love as if it were a
dishwasher, ignore the greasy scars left on
the dishes licked by others' tongues or slashed by
the lengths of their knives and forks. Start the cycle
and flush them: forgetting is the best detergent.
Remember only the glorious, beautiful, shining parts,
because platters, especially china, are delicate.
Wash them, dry them, and, like a brand-new man,
greet tomorrow's breakfast as if nothing had happened.
Especially when your life is approaching or has passed
noon, youthful anxiety comes back to you again.
You pick up the phone and dial her in vain.
Suspicious and fretful, you make even more mute
and aimless phone calls to your invisible rivals in love.
You call that one again and again (oh, how convenient
modern communication), only to be answered
by an afternoon empty as a big bowl. Now, please
unplug the dishwasher for the moment, and swallow
the tangled phone wires like a mass of noodles,
splashed with a little of enmity's soy sauce.
The dishwasher will quickly rinse off your disgrace.
However, the dark night is an even bigger dishwasher,
when you're grieved and all the past dishes are flung at you—
unwashable bits of starlight stuck to the dish bottoms.
Ah, ignore the noise of the machine in operation,
the hum of the dark universe that won't go away.
Ignore the shadows which encircle you like left-over
fish bones, if the one you love is not by your side.
If you still feel like spitting out those irritating fish spines,
rearrange them, stroke after stroke, into new lines of poetry.

  Translated by Arthur Sze   




Butterfly Air

"The fluttering of ten thousand butterfly wings in the Southern Hemisphere causes
a typhoon in the summer mid-day dream of a woman near the Tropic of Cancer, who was
chased by love but betrayed love..." I found this sentence
in the meteorology book with color illustrations lying on the dressing table in your room
Ah, the terrace of memory with metallic walls and glass floor,
where I once entered but later lost the key and could not
get in. With a navy blue eyebrow pencil you highlighted
on the book: "The staple food of the butterflies is love poems, especially
sad ones, ones that cannot be swallowed in one gulp and need to be chewed over and over..."

I mull over ways to reach you again: Dismember yesterday,
hang it up and let it float outside your building like a spider? Or, on the wings of one
butterfly stamp after another, deliver a parcel of longing and despair
to your door? Your smooth, tightly closed metallic walls cause every single
crawling insect trying to climb up to slip and fall off the building...

So, I wait for the fluttering of butterfly wings in the Southern Hemisphere to cause a
typhoon in your summer mid-day dream, to allow the butterfly shadows secretly issued by sorrow
to flap and strike the doors and windows of your heart, and to let a question mark,
a comma, in the incompletely digested poem stir up your memory
like a tiny screw, pop the top of the old perfume bottle sitting on your
nightstand, so that  you can hear anew the chirping insects, barking dogs, singing clowns
without a nose that we once heard together and are stored inside,
so that  you can smell anew the perspiration and scented mud that we once rolled on:
at the bottom of a deep lake a summer night's conversation that cannot be stopped.

Now our hearts are as far apart as two ends of the globe, although my eyes,
like a thumb tack, still fix on the longitude and latitude of where you are on the map.
I can only write a poem, a sad poem, to make the butterflies in the Southern Hemisphere fight for food
and make them flutter ten thousand wings so as to cause a typhoon
in the summer mid-day dream of you, who are behind metallic walls in a tall building near the Tropic of Cancer.

Translated by Michelle Yeh    




The Cat at the Mirror 

My cat jumped from inside the book on the desk into the mirror.
It was a cat painted in gouache
by a decent lady in the early twentieth century,
lying near the foot of a flute-playing lady.
I closed the book and returned it to the library on time,
But the cat is still in the mirror, on my wall.
At times I hear the music of the flute flow out of the mirror,
along with sounds of a moon-shaped lute and car wheels.
Playing long hasn't made lipstick come off
her tiny red mouth (I guess the dust of time has obscured
those melodies). I gently wipe the mirror, seeing

the crouching cat give a yawn and stand up.
It's stil
l active in the painting, sleeping
between music, contemplating, and occasionally passing through
the picture to overhear my
 11-year-old daughter in the
next room talking
with her classmates. It even sees
them looking at each other in the mirror, discussing brands of
cosmetics, good and weak points of cars with hand and auto shifts.
It must have seen itself in the mirrors
in their hands: idle, yet still
young, lodging in the mirror on the wall in a corner
of my study. It must have seen me, outside the mirror, sitting
at the desk reading and writing, and wondering when
I will open a book, unfold a piece of paper,

for it to jump back onto the desk.

Translated by Chang Fen-ling  





When your dream parachute lands
Because of the ruthlessness of others, you suddenly lose speed and change direction
Get hung up in the treetops on the island in the lake

You call for a childhood landscape to come and help
Your father gives you a lollipop
(Hard as the tree trunk that supports your body)
The Children's Day balloons are tied to the telephone pole in front of the theater like happiness
(Later, a pill got you just as high)
The small feeble trumpet of the wholesome recreation troupe quivered and said,
"not guilty, not guilty"

Next door, the woman and her husband turn off the living room light
A purple bra, just washed, hangs dripping under the eaves

You are stranded on an island surrounded by loneliness and desire
And the night, and boundless memory and shame
And powerless, I look at you from the indifferent mainland

How to turn blossoms of parachute into cotton candy
How to turn a pair of sandals into wings
At least tonight in a closed body which no key can open
In the body's night
Let the tangled iron blossom in your hair
Let those unused words and incantations
Escaped from the dictionary that pursue you the whole night
Return to their etymological roots

O, beloved
Open your parachute
Humanly in my ruthless arms
Even if all the dogs in the world bark
And jealous of your over-cooked tears
If love deepens the pot of night
If love increases the weight of hate
My monotonous song creaks by like a cart
Carrying your spirit and your flesh

 Translated by John J. S. Balcom   





From a distance your weeping
drills a tunnel in my body.
This morning I return to the familiar darkness,
enter the box of honeycomb that belongs to me,
waiting for sorrow to drip like honey.

In the amber-colored time I solidify,
feeding on imaginary death, on soft candy
of emptiness. Your weeping
is a soundless inscription on my ear;
at the end of the tunnel it sparkles into

a translucent rain tree.

Look for its shape, not for its entrance.
A tunnel passes through a life of grief connecting you and me

 Translated by Michelle Yeh   




For Hikari Oe

At the concert celebrating the sixtieth birthday of the conductor Seiji Ozawa, I hear the new duet by Hikari Oe, mentally
 retarded son of the novelist Kenzaburo Oe. The aging Russian cellist in exile, the gorgeous Argentine woman pianist.
They are conversing. How do shadows weave a crown of laurel, how does imperfection contain the beauty of a flower?
In life's earth, stone, cloud, rain
lights, of language and music. Flying over the river of Time: "Wandering, drifting,
 what am I like?"
Exile, return, suspension, resolution. C string and chromosome, pain and love. On my video player
 whose right speaker is out of order so whenever it replays noises interfere incessantly, I hear so clearly a breeze blowing
 across fine grass on the riverbanks, my chest suddenly broadens as stars reach down. On my solitary transnational
 journey in the afternoon, I gladly pull out the passport issued by a fellow traveler from an earlier time:

"The moon rushing forward, the great river flows."

 Translator's note:
Hikari Kenzaburo was born with brain hernia in 1963 and did not speak his first word till the age of six.
 At thirty-two he started writing music; he has since become an internationally acclaimed composer.
In his 1994 Nobel lecture, Kenzaburo Oe (b. 1935) described his own writing as a coming to terms with his son's condition
 and referred to "the exquisite healing power of art." The question "Wandering, drifting, what am I like?"
and the last line of the poem are direct quotes from "Thoughts on a Night Journey" by Tu Fu (712-770).

 Translated by Michelle Yeh   




Black Sheep

 Dropping out of senior high and fooling around, my youngest brother is the black sheep of us three brothers. Although he has
 a blue dragon tattooed on his leg, his heart is as gentle and weak as our mother's. Mother, who has been riding a bike to and
 from work all her life, has been paying off debts all her life. She has wished her youngest son to stop going astray. After the
 several motorcycles and cars she had bought for him were all gone, she borrowed money and bought him another car
 without my knowledge. That was a white car, white as the morning fog on winter days. That morning when I returned to
Shanghai Street, I saw her, with cleaning cloth in hand, sneaking toward the white car parked on the roadside and wiping its
 body forcefully but gently, as if to rub the black sheep into a white one. She rubbed and rubbed, because she knew the white
 car might soon be gone, and she had to sew the white skin on quickly before the black sheep woke up.

Translated by Chang Fen-ling  




Evening Breeze 

I well remember her name was Evening Lee, which I saw on a strip of cloth at her funeral. I was eleven years old then. I walked
 slowly with a group of people from Seashore Street to the downtown main street. The afternoon sun blazingly shone on the funeral
 procession. But after thirty years, what crosses my mind now is the gentle evening breeze, pleasant and refreshing, blowing from
 the evening sea. While she was alive, it never occurred to me that she should have a name other than "Great-grandma." What I
 can recall to mind about her is one afternoon in my third or fourth grade. The teacher announced we could leave school earlier to
 go home and ask parents for money; all the students were to see a movie in a chartered cinema. I got home, and in the dusky
kitchen found Great-grandma, who was aged over seventy. She stopped working and took out a lump of cloth from her clothes,
and from the well-folded cloth she took out a one-dollar coin. I have long forgotten what the movie was about, yet I clearly
remember the sound of that coin sinking into the wooden box of the lady clerk at the entrance. However, the coin isn't gone;
 instead, it is deposited secretly in the bank of time—an forgotten sum of money which is glitteringly recollected after many
 years, along with the interest it has yielded. All of a sudden I realized she was the toughest, bravest, and purest woman of
 the whole family. During the last years of her life, she chose a religious belief different from her children's, just as she chose
 in her youth to betray her impotent wealthy husband and give birth to my grandmother and her brothers. I, taken care of by
her until nine years of age, feel a thrill of joy mixed with loneliness and revolt in the breeze blowing from the ocean.

Translated by Chang Fen-ling     




 Comb your hair with my comb: my comb is made from time.
Wash my comb with your hair: your hair melts old snow into spring.

Translated by Chang Fen-ling   






I cultivate a space
with loneliness, with breath.
Two or three plastic bottles on the floor,
a laundered pair of orange panties
dripping from the stainless steel          dripping.

I cultivate orange smell,
shampoo, wings of a glider.

I cultivate a word in lower case
veronica: cloth with the holy face of
Jesus; a bullfighting pose (with both feet
planted, the bullfighter slowly moves
the cloth away from the attacking bull).

I cultivate a closet in which hang a pair of black jeans
and a blue T-shirt.

I cultivate a laptop computer awaiting the input
of the sea and a range of waves.

I cultivate a gap:
isolating me from the world
and leading me to your human world hanging beneath the bellybutton.

I cultivate the tortuous, complex nation-building history
of a newest, smallest country.

Translated by Michelle Yeh   





Gliding Exercises

       based on Vallejo's theme  

↓ Gliding Exercises: for Soprano and Piano (Music: Lily Chen / Poem: Chen Li)


“At that corner we sleep together plenty of nights.”



such height looking back at the earth

your breath tops my breath



steer the wind forward, along with

the stars playing truant


Sleep together

through such lengthy and dark pre-historic times and Middle Ages and

suddenly wake up

in the modern light


Plenty of

wet and glistening golden fleece, and your name, called by the

lips of the whole Milky Way



medals, words which have been

rubbed and inscribed



(yes, that) giant warehouse with time as its pillar, where thunder and

lightning and clouds and rain

are stored in its secret



Translator's Note:
The first line of each stanza of this poem comes from the beginning of a poem in
Trilce by the Peruvian poet
César Vallejo (1892-1938)
“At that corner we sleep together plenty of nights.”  Chen Li divides the sentence into
seven parts, and tries to weave them into this poem of his own, using each part as the first line of each stanza.
It is a pity that owing to the gap between languages the English translation fails to present such a poetic device faithfully.

Translated by Chang Fen-ling   





A daughter
will recall these
30 years from now:
her father
drove her
to school.
In the back seat
she listened to the
music from his player
(usually what she
was practicing hard)
interspersed with
the sounds of his
clearing the throat.
For 30 years
repeatedly playing
these musical pieces,
she will feel that
wrong notes flashing
once in a while
seem to be
some kind of
acceptable beauty,
like the style
her father has played
all his life:
unethical, derailing
on the lengthy
stern course of life.

Translated by Chang Fen-ling   





You asked me what eternity is, for we often can't
wait to stick our tongues to panna cotta before
eating up a cup of ice cream. I love lemon pie (I
hide it on your breasts); cheery soda, cheese
cake, nyonya cake, sago are also what I desire.
What is desire, what is taste, what is everlasting

gluttonous hunting
eat till the table is messy, eat

till the day breaks, eat day and night, around the clock.
Eternity is not a paused scene. Often we watch channel A
and record channel B. Fast-forwarding, rewinding the video, we
watch and search, feasting ourselves on tasty images and sounds.
We feed our fastidious senses, allowing them to build an illusory
city of color, smell and taste on the leased land of time. What is
eternity? Before answering you, let me lick you up first.

At midnight, when they are watching the World Cup on TV,
another World Cup is being held on your breast quietly,
with, oh, the holy cup made of your eastern and western
breast hemispheres, our unique World Cup. You said: defend
with the heart, attack with the eyes, and don't rashly dispatch
your ten fingers or toes. The right wing of the French team then
caught his teammate's pass, made a strength shoot,
came near shooting into Brazil's goal. You said: desiring
is always better than achieving. Enjoy your creativity and
wit; hold back your shooting. The French team gets a corner kick,
No.10 player volleys the ball and scores a goal. The audience gives
thunderous shouts, but you, looking at me in silence, said:
drink me like noiseless juice, shoot my goal, open my
cup, the World Cup made of imagination and expectation.

The earthquake is the topic we haven't talked about yet. Yesterday
a violent quake hit Chiayi. Houses caved in; landslides blocked highways.
Today there were ceaseless aftershocks in Hualien. The biggest
one's epicenter was on your bed. Scattered on the floor were
our gasps. The earthquake is over; the rhythms remain...
Earthquakes make us beware of peril in peacetime. Suppose all
the fleshly constructions collapsed, what would it be
that pillars our love? Slanting metaphysics? Metaphors deformed 
and redeformed? Earthquakes make us cherish peace in time of
danger, thinking of the holy empire of senses that is both spiritual
and physical, of gossip, suspicion, poverty, and sorrow that
strengthen its columns, roofed corridor, and overhanging eaves.
Thunder and lightning help form the music of blacksmiths; at
earthquakes we feel sorrow, write, and keep music going.

Author's Note:
Chiayi is a place in the western part of Taiwan, while Hualien is in the eastern part.

Translated by Chang Fen-ling   




On the Island

A hundred-pacer snake stole my necklace and singing voice.
I will go beyond the mountain to get them back.
But Mother, look!
He has torn my necklace up, cast it down to the valley,
and turned it into starlight flowing all night long.
He has compressed my singing voice into a teardrop,
falling on the silent feathered tail of a black long-tailed pheasant.

Our canoe has drifted from the ocean of myth to the beach tonight.
Our canoe, my brother, has landed anew, along with this line of words.

A fly has flown onto the sticky flypaper below the goddess's navel.
Just as the day hammers gently on the night,
my dear ancestor, hammer gently with the unused Neolithic tool between your thighs.

We do not die, we just grow old,
we do not grow old, we just change plumage,
like the sea changing its bed sheets
in the stone cradle, at once ancient and young.

His fishing rod is a rainbow of seven colors,
bending slowly down from the sky
to hook every swimming dream.
Ah, his fishing rod is a bow of seven colors
that aims at every black-and-white fish flying out of the subconscious.

Because the bees buzz underground,
we have earthquakes. Yet earthquakes
can be sweet, if a bit of honey should
seep through the cracks of the
earth's crust, through the cracks of the heart.

She stood singing on a rock with her brother on her back;
the god who heard the singing voice fetched her to heaven.
But she felt like eating millet, so she asked her father
for three grains to sow them in heaven.
"On hearing thunder, just picture me
threshing millet."
At the sight of lightning, we'll assume
she has threshed open her homesickness again.

Her body, unopened by desire,
is a cement room without doors and windows.

"Drill a hole through my wall, Mother.
Numerous fleas are anxious to rush out of the dark ages,
out of my soft, swelling hahabisi,
to receive the baptism of light."

Under the giant Harleus's crotch hid a mobile rapid transit system.
His eight-kilometer-long penis is the most flexible viaduct,
crossing swiftly-running dales, crossing mountain ranges,
stretching from Village Hikayiou to Village Pianan.
Fair girls, while you enjoy the ecstasy of free transportation, beware
that his fleshy bridge may suddenly turn its direction
and creep into your dark tunnels.

The day is too long, the night is too short,
and the valley of death too far away.
My dear sisters, leave the taro fields
to men, and sweat to ourselves.
Let's put the hoes on our heads like horns
and become goats, to take shelter from the sun under trees.

You are a goat,
and I am a goat.
Away from men, away from toil,
we play and enjoy the cool breeze in the shade.

Author's note:
1) Black long-tailed pheasants are a rare bird found in the Taroko Gorge National Park.
(2) There is a legend about the origin of the Amis:
 a brother and a sister sought refuge from a deluge and drifted to the East coast of Taiwan on a canoe.
(3) According to the Atayal myth of the creation, there were a god and a goddess in very ancient times, who were ignorant of
 love-making until one day a fly landed on the private part of the goddess (the Amis have a similar myth).
(4) According to a Saisiyat legend, old people could recover their youth simply by peeling off the skin.
(5) An Amis myth has it that the rainbow was originally the seven-color bow of Adgus, the hunter who shot down the sun.
(6) There is an Amis legend about how earthquake was formed: the people living on the ground cheated those living
 underground by exchanging hemp bags filled with bees for goods.
(7) The Paiwan have stories about a girl singing on a rock with her little brother on her back
and being delivered to heaven because she aroused gods
' sympathy and affection.
(8) A Bunun legend goes like this: once upon a time there was a beautiful girl whose private part (hahabisi in the Bunun language)
 was a little swollen but tightly sealed. Her mother cut it open with a knife, and out sprang numerous fleas.
(9) There is an Atayal legend about the giant Harleus, who had a tremendously long penis. He stretched it out as a bridge
 for people to cross flooded rivers, but he got lustful at the sight of pretty girls.
(10) A Puyuma legend goes like this: two girls were close friends. One day they worked in the taro field on the mountain.
It was so hot that they took shelter from the sun under a tree. Rejoicing, they put hoes on their heads and were turned into goats

Translated by Chang Fen-ling


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