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"Intimate Letters"
to the World :

  Introduction to Chen Li's Poetry 

by Chang Fen-ling

        Intimate Letters        The Edge of the Island  

Two books of poems by Chen Li
Published by BOOKMAN BOOKS LTD. Taipei

   Chen Li is one of the foremost practitioners of contemporary Chinese poetry in Taiwan. He started writing poetry in the early 1970s and has published fourteen collections. In a writing career spanning more than forty years, his poetic style has undergone several transformations. Originality, variety, wittiness, and profundity have always been his signal traits; fluent command of imagery and innovative technical experimentation are characteristic of his works.

   Born and brought up in Hualien, a small city on the east coast of Taiwan, Chen Li derives much of his inspiration from his hometown. In the postscript to his collection Animal Lullaby (1980), he writes, "Isn't the mundane world the greatest theme of my poetry?... I can never forget what's coarse and humble in our residence on earth." And from the vulgar and twisted fragments of life in this small city, he has come to realize the imperfection and confusion of human conditions. In his first collection In Front of the Temple (1975), he cherishes nature by celebrating the innocence of his attachment to his childhood, hometown, and motherly love (which are treated here as symbolic of nature). On the other hand, he sarcastically hammers on the unnatural and inhumane phenomena of modern life. In either way, his concern and sympathy are focused on the limitations and dignity of ordinary people.

   In the second book Animal Lullaby (1980), Chen Li is no longer a sarcastic realist; he turns out to be a romantic-symbolist. The longing for nature and the sarcasm directed at city life are now transformed into wider and deeper thinking about life and time. He builds up a world of imagination and sketches beautiful experiences, trying to seek out of the limited and fragile reality a certain order to fight against the ridiculous and disorderly world. Man's situations on earth, full of chaos and absurdity, are well illustrated in "In a City Alarmed by a Series of Earthquakes." Chen Li sometimes takes a dark view of life: the world is a prison in itself and everyone is born into it as a prisoner ("A Handbook to Prisoners"); people can't be free from fear, and even "a sudden shower" deprives them of the sense of security. However, he is not a pessimist; he is curious and imaginative enough to get joy out of life. In the second collection, there is a recurrent motif the world is a theater abundant in dramatic scenes. In "The Lover of the Magician's Wife," Chen Li lets one image after another flow out vividly and fluently to express the caprice of the magician's wife and the ever-changing atmosphere of magic; in "Our Ventriloquist Who Is Good at Jugglery," he uses a still larger number of images with a view to presenting before the readers the ventriloquist's jugglery. And of course, the poet proves himself a magician of imagery.

   Chen Li shows much concern for people who wade through life, suffering from anxiety and fear. They are "alarmed by a series of earthquakes;" they are under the threat of time; they are troubled by desire; they are confined physically and mentally (the mistresses in "A House"); they mourn for the loss of naivety (the teacher in "Among School Children"); they humbly long for human dignity ("The Love Song of Buffet the Clown"). Chen Li's compassion for human plight and understanding of human suffering are clearly expressed in the title poem "Animal Lullaby." Chen Li successfully avoids sentimentality by implying his theme through careful choices of imagery and tone. It is a tranquil and peaceful world, but it's a "garden without music," which may well be viewed as a garden of eternal sleep a graveyard (the heavy steps of the grayish elephant imply a funeral procession). In this poem (as in "Sending a Cancer Patient Home in the Evening by Way of Su-Hua Highway") Chen Li ironically points out a cruel fact: death seems to be the only solution to human suffering.

   Chen Li's humanism is most explicit in "The Last Wang Mu-Qi," which won the first prize for poetry in the China Times Literary Contest of 1980. In this long poem, Chen Li exhibits his talent for narration and lyricism, and reconciles the contradiction between sense and sensibility, art and reality. The narrator of this poem is Wang Mu-qi, a miner who has died in a mining calamity. Through him, Chen Li attempts to reflect miners' reality, presenting their fears and nightmares, sorrow and anxiety, dreams and longings. Contrasts are cleverly juxtaposed: we hear Wang Mu-qi’s ghost relating the pathetic tragedy, we hear the wretched families’ heartbroken sobbing, we see miners’ miserable living conditions and share their fatalistic views of life, but we also see a Utopian dreamland Wang Mu-qi pictures in his mind; we see sixteen pairs of "black" images composed as an elegy, but we also see Wang Mu-qi's letter to his wife—full of affection and tenderness; we see the miners’ distressing plight, but we also see the poet cynically criticizing those who are indifferent to the suffering. Throughout the poem, the misery of the living is contrasted with the relief of the dead. The dark group of images alternates with the bright one, contradicting yet complementing each other, and the intensity of the whole poem is thus developed.

   In the "Rainstorm" series of the third book, The Love Song of Buffet the Clown (1990), Chen Li expresses, after an interval of nearly ten years, his deep affinities with the land where he lives—its history, its culture, its society, its people. Meditation about life and time is now replaced by retrospection on the history of Taiwan and reflection on his own Taiwan experience. He writes of those "Rebelling against the foreign regime while ruled by it. / Raped by the fatherland while embracing it" ("February");  he uses the green onion as a symbol of indigenous Taiwanese culture, expressing his earnest aspiration to get reacquainted with and cherish his living environment in its entirety—its culture, art, literature, and history ("Green Onions"); through the work of sculpture The Portrait of Water Buffalo by Huang Tu-shui, a gifted pioneering Taiwanese sculptor, he perceives the suffering and toughness of the Taiwanese people, protests implicitly the injustice of the society, and goes deep into the secret dreams of his island (“Buffalo”); he looks forward to a better future: the coming generations are imagined as able to appreciate the value of tradition and the land in a world where a diversity of voices and ideas are highly respected and tolerated ("A Prayer for My Daughter").


   Chen Li has expanded the territory of his hometown into a fountain-head of images and symbols, and Taroko Gorge, an iconic site with mysterious beauties and of a personal “heritage” significance, is undoubtedly an ideal symbol for Chen Li to integrate his Taiwan experiences and his Taiwanese identity. "Taroko Gorge, 1989," though not the longest, is arguably his most ambitious poem on account of its integrated fields of environmental and cultural consciousness. In this poem Chen Li describes the various and changeable scenic features of Taroko Gorge to suggest the complexity of the fate of Taiwan; he leads the reader to review Taiwan’s suffering, look back on its lost culture, and acknowledge the fact that it has become a melting pot of different races, different ways of life, and different cultures. With time passing, Taroko may never recover its original indigenous features, but the new life emerging from it brings forth a renewal of energy, vitality, harmony, and sweetness for the human spirit. The poem ends with the Buddhist chanting at the mountaintop temple, suggestive of a realization of life—when the depths of human hearts are as vast and grand as the natural setting of Taroko Gorge, all hatred, sorrow, frustration, and bitterness can be shed, endured, soothed, or even transcended, just as the inhabitants of Taroko Gorge, assimilated to one another, have come to accept racial differences and cultural complexities as part of life’s bitter sweetness.

   After the "Rainstorm" series, Chen Li finds a new direction for his poetic style and material in his fourth collection of poetry, Traveling in the Family (1993). Unloading the solemn meditation about history and culture, he turns to his own life experiences for inspiration. He ponders over the essence of life in plain language and restrained sentiment. In the title work, which consists of seven poems, Chen Li transforms a distressing family history into several touching silhouettes of life, in which he proves himself not only a poet with compassion and a sense of calling but a man full of tenderness and affection. Prevailing in this group of poems are images which suggest misery, dark sides of life, and the state of being shattered. What connects the poems is a common theme: the incompleteness of life. However, what coexists with the melancholy images is human warmth family love, dreams, toughness, and tolerance with which sorrowful mothers silently embrace "anxious fire" and "the waves that turn back" ("Traveling in the Family"); poor children do all they can to protect their satchels, on which lies their future hope ("Stairs"); the traveler in worn-out shoes remembers the good old days while wandering in a muddy city on a rainy night far away from home ("Shoes"); the aged and sickly grandfather "seems to smell the fragrance of flowers" while waiting for the sunset in a narrow house ("The Garden"). And through the images of circles in "A Rider's Song" Chen Li expresses his understanding and tolerance about life. The bracelet, ring, and necklace symbolize on the one hand the inescapable life bondage and family ties, but on the other, ceaseless human love and life commitment.

   Chen Li picks up his images and scenes from daily life. Memory is like a scarf which is "used in winter, forgotten in summer" ("An Intimate Letter"); meeting with his mother at the crossroads reminds him of the relation between the family, which is seemingly intimate yet actually alienated, seemingly alienated yet actually closely-related, and which exemplifies human relationship ("An Encounter"); a lonely traveler in a city where the mass rapid transit system is under construction is like a coin falling into "a giant and disorderly public telephone" and trying to "dial out his own voice" only to be rejected ("Mass Rapid Transit System"). In the cup from which we drink water every day, he sees a river in which flow shadows of time; life comes and goes just like a camellia or a jasmine flower blooms and falls ("The River of Shadows"). Life, to Chen Li, is a great magic in itself, and we are all living in an ever-changing world of magic: nothing is eternal and things are not what they appear to be ("The Magician"). Therefore, the poet, a magician of language, conjures many touching scenes of life out of a flash of notion, a fit of emotion, or a piece of music. In his note of "Postcards for Messiaen," he quotes a passage from the Japanese composer Takemitsu, "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." And this is true of Chen Li’s poetry writing. As a lover of the mortal world, he has a profound understanding of the sadness of existence.

   The most interesting poem in this collection may be "A Vending Machine for Nostalgic Nihilists." Chen Li designs a game for readers to play. But the sense of fun is not the only thing he offers. He seems to imply that modern men are missing some of the natural elements in life, such as mother's milk, drifting clouds, chirping insects, and twittering birds. But on the other hand, he is offering several types of Utopia for readers to choose from. What a fantastic world it would be if such things were available at any time hot mother's milk, large packets of drifting clouds, enduring cotton candy, canned daydreams, perfume with the twittering of birds, marijuana of freedom and peace, and white moonlight ball pens! It takes an idealist to invent such a vending machine for nostalgic nihilists.

   Chen Li's fifth book Microcosmos (1993) is a collection of one hundred three-line poems. Patterning after the Japanese haiku, he doesn't adhere strictly to its traditional verse form, but adds to it contemporary interest, trying to explore new possibilities of poetry. To stimulate readers' imagination with such a concise and compact verse form is certainly a challenge to all poets. These short poems are, at their best, self-contented microcosms, from which readers may derive the delight of discovering new meaning and sensibility from daily experiences. Chen Li seems to have the insight of finding poetry in everything. A remote control, a turning dice, ear wax, a multiplication table, a pelota, a mole, soybean milk, a faucet, an insane woman, a pair of sandals, the towels outside a massage house, a blind men's chorus, an erect penis, TV antennae on the roof, and the flush toilet have as much poetic charm as the autumn wind, solitary peaks, clouds, stars, grass, Bartok, Balzac, Baudelaire, schoolchildren, a necklace, a blue silk handkerchief, tears, sorrow, passion, and love. Through Microcosmos, we peep into the macrocosm, and there lies the greatest joy of reading these modern haiku. Some critic once compared the haiku to a silent bell, and said that a reader must first sincerely learn the skill of tolling the bell before he can hear its mysterious and profound toll. Indeed, a haiku, which is very often a subtle implication through imagery rather than a presentation of any idea, is completed by the poet's imagination as well as the reader's active mental participation. In reading these poems, we are reminded of what Robert Frost said, "A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom."

   Like all the self-conscious writers and artists, Chen Li is never contented with what style he has. He is always dangling among different coordinates of art to locate his ideal position. Therefore, we see different poetic styles and share new delight in his different books of poems, but never before have we got so much pleasant surprise out of his books as out of his latest book The Edge of the Island  (1995).One of the most impressive features is its experimentation with verse form, as is seen in the concrete poems selected and translated in this anthology (it is a great pity that only five of Chen Li's concrete poems are included, because the wide gaps between cultural backgrounds and language symbols have made translation difficult). I have made no attempt to translate the poem "A War Symphony" into English, since much of its charm will definitely be lost in the process of translation, and those Chinese characters ("兵", "乒", "乓", "丘") and the verse form with special visual effects speak for themselves. It is not only a poem, but a picture with sound and sense. In the first stanza, we see an imposing military force marching to the battlefield; in the second stanza, we see a pathetic battle scene: some soldiers are wounded with one of their legs missing, and others may be killed, as is suggested by the blanks interspersed between. And in the last stanza all the soldiers seem to be assembled, yet they may have been handicapped or buried in the graveyard ("丘" visually suggests soldiers without legs, and literally means "small hill," where the Chinese dead are usually buried). The hills, though speechless, lay the strongest accusation against the cruel war. "A War Symphony" successfully combines the qualities of images, sounds, and Chinese characters. It is a silent protest against war, a compassionate elegy for the sufferers, and a tribute to the Chinese language.

   In many poems, such as "A Prayer of Gears," "Wind Blowing over the Plain," "A Cup of Tea" and "The Autumn Wind Blows," Chen Li exhibits his sensitivity to language and his efforts to re-motivate language (again it's a pity that the barriers between different languages will to some extent deprive English readers of the joy of sharing the wits and ingenuity which Chen Li has shown so abundantly in Chinese). Chen Li liberates some Chinese characters and idioms out of the conventional meanings which are so familiar to people as to be taken for granted. He tries to bring them back to their literal origins and lead readers to interpret them from a long-forgotten yet brand-new angle, just as he looks back on the history of his homeland not only to rediscover but also to re-explore its meaning.

   Meditation on the history of Taiwan has been a main theme in Chen Li's poetry since 1989. In "Green Onions," Chen Li reexamines his own residence on the island of Taiwan, analyzing its significance both in history and in the personal territory of his life. In "Taroko Gorge, 1989," he looks upon his hometown as a symbol of vitality which comes from interracial hybridization and tolerance; in “Karenko Town, 1939,” he rearranges the scattered voices and historical scenes, re-presenting the touching temperament and image of a new-born city where different cultural and racial elements coexist. In "Formosa, 1661," he takes the reader further back to the seventeenth century, when the Taiwanese were under the rule of Holland and would soon be governed by Zheng Chen-kong, a general of Ming Dynasty who drove out the Dutch in 1662 and tried to establish Taiwan as a base from which to regain sovereignty over China. Chen Li boldly combines two seemingly contradictory elements in this poem—a serious historical theme and imagery suggestive of sensuality and sexuality. These contrasts contribute to the post-modern interest of this poem. The speaker of this poem is a Dutch missionary with a sense of racial superiority and a sense of entitled satisfaction with his accomplishments on this island. He plays a double role: a colonizer who presumes himself a “civilizer,” a master who expects to assimilate the Taiwanese to his own culture but is being assimilated by them in subtle ways. Chen Li expresses no antagonism toward these colonial invaders; he even finds humanity in them. Toward the end of this poem, the Dutch missionary says, “...I’ve always thought that we are / living on the cowhide, though those Chinese troops are approaching / on junks and sampans with axes and knives / attempting to cover us with another bigger / cowhide,” which sarcastically implies that without respect for the indigenous people, no colonizers can justify their invasion or colonization, whether they are the Dutch or the ethnically related Chinese.  From "Green Onions" to "Formosa, 1661," as Chen Li goes deeper into the history of Taiwan, he has also broadened his definitions of national identity. In the process of root-seeking, he has come to realize that the vitality of Taiwan arises much from the fact that it is a melting pot or a palette of various racial and cultural elements. The 17th-century Dutch missionary treated here is no doubt a member in Chen Li’s “united family” of Taiwan. Chen Li is persistent in exploring the history of Taiwan. After writing his trilogy of Taiwan—"Taroko, 1989," "Karenko Town, 1939," and "Formosa, 1661"—Chen Li looks further back and explores deeper into the island’s cultural roots. In his collection of poetry Me/City (2011), there are a series of poems dealing with some historic constructions and landmarks of Taiwan which are precious memory assets for all the people living on this island. To Chen Li, the conquering Spanish navy soldiers who were conquered by the beauty of the island ("Santiago, 1626") and the Spanish invaders who sat at Tamsui listening to the simple and soft flowing rhythm of the river ("Santo Domingo, 1638") were once new inhabitants of this island, contributing to part of Taiwan’s unique culture. What remain conflicts in politics find perfect solutions in poetry.

   In the tug of war between politics and art, the power of the latter can never be underestimated, and in the Chinese painter Li Ke-ran, Chen Li finds confirmation of this aesthetic power. The painter’s ruler attempts to govern art with "threats under which even plants were taken for enemy troops," while the artist liberates politics with "knife-sharp brushes and ink" ("The Autumn Wind Blows"). With belief in art, the artist has tragically but heroically survived political pressure and dignifiedly become the master who dominates the territory of truth and beauty. Chen Li glorifies the triumph of art over politics, but he knows well the tragic essence behind—what a dear human price the artist may have to pay in achieving such a victory! He is never a naive optimist. In a short poem "Floating in the Air," he compares a poet to a spiderr:

    A spider, I imagine,
    occupying a few branches
    to spin out poetry

    transparent stanzas interweave an empire,
    a self-contained sky
    baptized by rain and wind.

And in "The Ropewalker," he compares himself to a comic tightrope walker of a circus, who trembles in the air “cautiously walking across the earth, propping up / the floating life, / with a slanting bamboo cane, / with a fictitious pen.” Burdened with thoughts of “time, love, death, loneliness, belief, dreams,” the poet is dangling on the rope of art and trying hard to find his balance. Similarly, in "The Image Hunter,") Chen Li depicts the photographer Kevin Carter as precariously balanced between morality and art, conscience and duty, death and beauty, reality and aesthetics.

   Chen Li's seventh collection of poetry, The Cat at the Mirror, published in 1999, was named in recognition of a work by the French painter Balthus. In this volume, Chen Li continues his experiments with new forms and searches for new sensibility. Here, what the poems are about is not as important as how they are expressed. He puts in his poems certain musical elements when exploring various human experiences or emotions; he makes his poems a "composition" of colorful lines or narrative blocks, which reflect the joy and sorrow of love, the lightness and weight of desire, the splendor and shadows of existence; he brews the modernistic and post-modernistic wine in the casks of myth and balladry; with compassionate tenderness and profound understanding, he turns many snowy scenes in the memory into new landscape of life. These poems travel well between the real world and the fictitious, dive deep into life, and transcend it.

   In the first decade of the twenty-first century, three books of Chen Li's poems were published: Agony and Freedom Well-Tempered (2005), Microcosmos II (2006), and Lightly/Slowly (2009). In 2012, Chen Li suffered for months with pain in his back and right hand. Unable to use the computer or write with pens, he could only circled around words with pencils from some published texts (such as the Bible, works of Shakespeare, Neruda, Szymborska, and his own) to create new poems of his own in what he called a "half-automatic" way of writing. A perfect example is " 'The Love Poem' Renewed"—an English haiku based on a 36-line poem by the English poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. In rearranging the words he picked out of other texts for his "half-automatic" writing, Chen Li set rules for himself to follow. These rules were not limitations but instead opened up radical new possibilities for word choices just as the strict requirements on sound and meter in traditional Chinese poetry or English sonnet forms require poets to choose very bold and unusual words. In this sense, limits set on the play of words actually made for greater risk-taking and consequent liberation of the poet's imagination.

   Therefore, although physical pain disabled Chen Li from writing with the convenience he was accustomed to, the acute mental stress caused by his physical constraints unexpectedly resulted in tremendous renewed vitality for experimental poetics. The more intense his physical and mental anguish, the greater his energy for self-expression. Indeed, he found writing itself an effective way of fighting depression. In three months, he completed more than three hundred poems. That was quite remarkable. The results are presented in his two recent collections of poetry: Evil/Exorcized (2012) and Dynasty/Saint (2013). And in 2014, he published his fourteenth book of poems, Island/Country.

   What Chen Li has suffered from for the past two years may well be looked upon as a blessing since it has led him to see and record life from a different perspective. He has learned to express his feelings more directly and warmly, but with equal wits and cleverness. In "Mechanics," the poet wrote in a tone of confession: "For nearly thirty years, I've been flying / toward your sky like a ball. / How come I've never fallen and vanished / in the void universe behind you, even though / I'm an obstinate nihilist? / Under the swing, I'm grateful for your / tolerating my dissoluteness, which has swung you / from the horizon of disappointment to / a transient climax. Which is heavier / or hurts you more, a newton of / longing or a newton of sorrow? " And in "The Saint in the Kitchen," he even puts his wife's name in the poem (though playfully) as a tribute to her: "If you find the title 'Saint in the Kitchen' / unpleasant to the ear, I could call you 'Saint Ah Fen-ling.' / O Saint, I'm blessed that you have my teeth and tongue / always feeling (ah Fen-ling) good, and that every day you're / as nagging as a wind-bell hanging at the window of the kitchen, / tinkling and jingling loudly enough to be heard all over the world." Any such explicitly autobiographical allusions are rare in Chen Li's earlier poems.

   Being ill, he was in a wintery mood, which led him to ponder once again on the themes of life and death. In "Winter Songs," the poet compares the grayish blue sea of winter to "an aged giant ship, / lingering outside the harbor, ill at ease when approaching home." As the season passes, winter is coming home to the world. Likewise, as time goes by, we humans are on our way to death day after day—preparing at home to go home. The cycle of seasons symbolizes the cycle of life and death. What the world offers us is simply a transient residence on earth. A similar notion is present in one of his three-line poems in Microcosmos II : "Offer Death a one-night stay in your pocket / to experience your curiosity and timidity about him: / he can try the food and the bed, but it's not formally open yet." This time, he added seriousness to his usual witty playfulness of the tone. The learner who used to be "not very attentive in class" is now studying hard on the lessons life has assigned him.

   Chen Li chose to teach in his hometown Hualien ("the edge of the island") after he graduated from university as an English major in 1976, and has been staying at his "seaside classroom" ever since. A poet who so far has not traveled abroad, he once wrote in an article entitled "The Traveler":

    As long as I conceive longing for the world, I'm on the road. I know the fifty students in
    my classroom are fifty different guidebooks, leading me to fifty different cities; I know
    that the people I meet every day on the street or by the market place have hearts as
    colorful as all the scenic spots in the world. I...duplicate all the cities in the city where
    I live, and I travel all over the world in my world.

Despite his attachment to his hometown, the poet keeps himself well-informed of the world through reading and listening. He writes about his favorite writers, musicians, and artists, and translates works of many poets into Chinese. We find echoes of their voices in Chen Li’s own works: the Chilean poet Neruda (in "The Last Wang Mu-Qi" and "Taroko Gorge, 1989," for example), the 18th-century Japanese haiku master Kobayashi Issa (in "A Cup of Tea" and Microcosmos ), the German baritone Fischer-Dieskau (in "Listening to Winterreise on a Spring Night")... He borrows titles from Yeats, Janáček, John Adams, or Jiří Kylián ( "Among School Children," "A Prayer for My Daughter,""An Intimate Letter," "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," "Petty Deaths") and is inspired by the works of Miro, Buffet, Debussy, Messiaen, Cage, Balthus, and Mahler ( "A Dog Barking at the Moon," "The Love Song of Buffet the Clown," "Footprints in the Snow," "Dancers of Delphi," "Postcards for Messiaen," and "An Open Cage," "The Cat at the Mirror," and "Saint Antony Preaching to the Fish"). Writing poetry to him is a way to communicate with the world, and each poem is, in some sense, an "intimate letter" to the world.

   In the poem "The Edge of the Island,"  Chen Li compares the island of Taiwan, which lies in the Pacific Ocean and is reduced to one over forty million on the map, to a yellow button lying loose on a blue uniform, and the existence of each individual on it to a transparent thread. As long as the heart— "another secret button" pressed close to the breast "like an invisible tape recorder"—does not fall off, one can always receive the sound of the world. Humble as a poet is, the pen in his hand can serve as a needle "threading through the yellow button rounded and polished by / the people on the island" and piercing hard into "the heart of the earth that is behind the blue uniform." With profound understanding of life and with strong faith in poetry, the poet turns the edge of the island into the center of poetry.

Hualien, Taiwan, 2014

 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