Ouyang Yu
NONFICTION
 
Foot Notes to Poetry

 

            shihua or “talks about poetry” is an ancient Chinese form of criticism that aims at picking out the best lines of one poet and talking about their beauty in comparison with other lines of poetry by other poets of different historical periods. Instead of writing wordy articles that can be put into anthologies or collections later on as writers are wont to do these days, poets in days gone-by would say a few words about what impressed them most in their reading and say no more. Lately, consciously or unconsciously, I only read Chinese books, going backwards until I hit this book titled, shihua and xiaopin from Previous Dynasties, xiaopin being small, sketch-like articles. In an attempt to learn from my Chinese predecessors, I recorded my impressions as briefly as possible, for no one else except myself, for the contemporary West remains blind to the gems of the ancient Chinese literature in its ceaseless pursuit of wealth and fame and conquest. I beg to be excused for not putting in any reference to the time and place of these poets and their poetry. Mine is only for the intelligent and learned. (date lost)

            Su Dongpo or Eastern Slope Su once wrote a line that goes, “I’ve had enough of everything in my life/Except for my want of death.”(pingsheng wanshi zu, suoqian wei yisi) I suppose he could say that because he had at least been a high official in the government, a well-known poet and, what’s more, had a concubine. (date lost)

            A professor of English, on reading my English poetry, asked why I had so many poems untitled. I remember telling him that that was just the way it was but to this day I remain unsatisfied with my answer until I read Wang Guowei’s renjian cihua (Talks about Ci of This World) recently. He said that all the ancient poems in The Book of Songs, The Nineteen Ancient Chinese Poems and Ci down to the Five Dynasties had no titles, the reason being simple. “It is not that they do not have titles,” he said. “it is rather that the meaning in the poems cannot simply be brought out by the titles.” (date lost)

            At one of the numerous book or magazine launches in Melbourne, Gig Ryan and I were introduced to each other. The very first thing she asked me was, “why are you so angry in your poetry?” I said, “I thought you were the one who was angry and it was for this reason that I used to translate some of your poems that I like, such as ‘If I had a gun’.” There are at least two Chinese phrases that come to mind: fennu chu shiren, meaning a poet is born out of anger, and henren, meaning a poet is a “hate person”. (date lost)

            I was briefly interested in Australian poetry when it was introduced to us through Nick Jose and Rodney Hall. I even began translating some Australian poets such as Les Murry, Chris-Wallace Crabbe, Robert Gray and Gary Catalano. When I went through the whole anthology of The Younger Australian Poets, the only one I decided to use was Catalano’s “The River”. In due course my translation of it was published. On seeing it, a post-graduate classmate of mine said to me, “you made the right choice because the whole book doesn’t really have anything good except ‘The River’.” (date lost)

            I once had the idea of compiling an anthology of Australian poetry from an Asian perspective. When I discussed it with an Australian poet whose name I refrain from revealing, he did not have an enthusiastic response. The longer I stay in this country, the more I understand him, and the more I understand him, the less I want to do that anthology. (date lost) But I have already done that now. (1/2/03)

            Gary Catalano told me that he writes about two to three poems per year. I was amazed by this revelation that in some way is very similar to an ancient Chinese poet, Jia Dao, famous for his ability or inability to produce poetry, for which he won the title of a kuyin shiren (a bitter poet). His famous lines include: “two lines gained in three years/and one chanting accompanied by two tears,” and “Birds sleep in the trees by the pond/and the monks push at the door in the moonlight.” But he could never decide whether it was better to use “push at the door” or “knock on the door.” Hence the phrase tui qiao (to push at or knock on) that means “to weigh one’s words”, “to deliberate”, “to seek the right word.” But the same subtle connotation never comes out in English! (date lost)

            Yi Sha had a line that he seemed to like very much, which he also used in an unpublished novel he sent to me for consideration in Otherland. The line, from his poem, “The Hotel”, goes, “When I woke up/my cigarette/was beautifully burning/in her hand.” If there are two meanings one can read into ancient Chinese poetry, the surface and the political, there are equally two to read into the post-1990 Chinese poetry, the surface and the sexual. (date lost)

            There is a Chinese idiom, suiyu er’an, meaning “to be able to feel at home wherever one is.” I suspect that comes from Bai Juyi’s line, “if my body and heart can find peace here, it will be my homeland” (shenxin anchu shi wutu), echoed by Su Dongpo’s similar line, “if my heart finds peace here, it will be my home village.” (cixin anchu shi wuxiang) This is quite similar also to Alex Miller’s words, “to be in exile is to be at home, to be displaced is to be in place,” except that the latter says it in a more English way. (date lost)

            After finishing reading Paul Hoover’ Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (1994), I felt dazed, impatient and weary; I skipped through the last part including the poets’ essays as appendices. It is enough to say that the poets’ ideas or theories are better than their poetry. I was strongly reminded of a theory recommended for all men and women of letters in Cultural Revolution, which promoted that ‘Themes or ideas ought to take precedence over everything else’ and resulted in the death of vigorous and lively writing. The same thing is happening in the West. Even that idea, I suspect, might have also come from the West originally. (date lost)

            Sometimes it is surprising how connections can be made between poets of very different times, places and nationalities. More than a thousand years ago, Su Shi alias Su Dongpo or Eastern Slope Su wrote in one of his most famous ci poems, ‘Prelude to the Melody of Water’ that ‘I’d like to return riding the wind/but I am frightened of the crystal palace and the jade tower on high where I might not be able to stand the cold.’ Hence gaochu busheng han which roughly translates in contemporary Chinese daily language as ‘higher up where I might not be able to stand the cold’ and which implies the higher up one is in official position, the more danger or isolation he faces. John Ashbery has a line in his poem “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher...” that goes: ‘But where in unsuitable heaven/Can he get the heat that will make him grow?’ (p. 168) Though this strongly smacks the flavour of the line by Su, it does not have the contemporary overtone the Chinese line has. (date lost)

            Ouyuang Xiu, a famous name-sake literary man of the Song Dynasty, opened his famous essay, ‘An Account of the Pavilion of the Drunken Old Man’, with a very short line that consists of only five characters, huanchu jie shan ye, “Encircling Chu-zhou are mountains” or “Chu-zhou is encircled by mountains”. The well-known part of the anecdote is that that sentence alone went into several drafts until it was reduced from more than a dozen to only five characters. Stephen Owen, the Harvard Professor of Chinese literature, translated that into very bad English as ‘Encircling Chu-zhou all around are mountains’ in his latest anthology of ancient Chinese literature from its beginnings to 1911. But Henry Lawson’s writing has this Chinese quality of succinctness when he opened his ‘The Drover’s Wife’ in its terseness, with ‘Bush all around’. I don’t know why Americans miss the point. (date lost)

            In 1992, I was invited to a Chinese Literary Festival in Sydney and afterwards we went to a dinner party. At the end of the party, editor of a Sydney-based Chinese newspaper approached me to write a few words on a special page devoted to the festival. I really had nothing to say. I mean I really didn’t have the quick wit of some men of letters who could deliver lines from the top of their head as the occasion suits. I happened to remember two lines from a poem I wrote, ‘Song for an Exile in Australia’, which go, ‘the death of the old world has such weird attractions/while the light of the new world has somehow darkened.’ I put this down in long hand much to the delight of the editor and others as something dedicated to the hard-working and hard-living Chinese students in Australia then. Later on, this poem was published in a Shanghai-based literary journal called Shanghai Literature Monthly, but just minus these last two lines. By comparison, when my poem titled ‘Fuck you Australia’ first appeared in Westerly, and, later on, in Northern Perspective, neither magazine took out the word from the poem; they did not even change the word ‘fuck’ into something like ‘f--k’. I thought to myself that if I did something similar in China, something like ‘Fuck You China’, it would never possibly be accepted and published, not for the rest of my life and my next life. That does make a difference, doesn’t it? (date lost)

            Charles Baudelaire once lamented the helplessness of the albatross teased and mimicked by the sailors, saying, ‘how awkward and feeble he is! Not long ago so fine, how grotesque and ugly!’ While totally agreeing with him, I cannot but help remember the old Chinese saying that goes, ‘when a tiger drops on the plain, he will be bullied by the dogs.’ Recently, I came across a pen-note story in shishuo xinyu (Sayings of the World in a New Language) written in the fifth century of how a princess so loved raising cranes that in order that his crane would not fly away he cut his wings but came to regret it, where it is described that ‘the crane looked at his cut wings and lowered his head, looking dejected. Lin then said, “if he has this gesture of reaching the clouds, how can he bear to be raised for the pleasure of one’s eyes and ears?” And he raised him until the wings grew again and set him free.’ (date lost)

            Yuan Mei complained that contemporary (Ching Dynasty) poets wrote in order to show their learning, their art of composition and their literary inheritance so that their writing is hardly genuine but full of overelaborate formalities, whereas my complaint is that contemporary Australian writing is being produced like a machine, solely for the market. (date lost)

            A Ching Dynasty poet once wrote that ‘poetry benefits from the assistance of the rivers and mountains.’ That set me wondering about Australian landscape where there are no impressive big rivers and tall mountains and the longer I live in Australia the further away I find my own poetry is moving from the rivers and mountains into the domestic environment, a theme that would be regarded as trivial and unpoetic by most Chinese poets. (date lost)

            I was immediately reminded of the poem, ‘The Man from Pollock’, by an English poet, whose name I forgot, when I read about Pan Dalin, a Song Dynasty poet in my native town, Huangzhou. He once was just about to begin a poem when the taxman came so that the process was interrupted. All he got was a single line that went, ‘the city was full of wind and rain as Chongyang Festival was approaching.’ I don’t know how many good poems have been killed by life itself this way. (date lost)

            American poet Mark Strand wrote a poem, ‘Eating Poems’, that I like very much and translated into Chinese. A Ching Dynasty critic once commented that ‘reading ancient books is like eating’, which I also like. (date lost)

            Wang Xizhuang’s definition of a poet is interesting. He thinks that a poet is not necessarily someone who can write poems but someone who can maintain a detached state of mind and be gentle and cultivated even if he doesn’t read and write a single word. I remember going to a reading in Melbourne and seeing this Australian woman poet declaring that she was a poet in a very exaggerated manner. I don’t know why I felt mildly disgusted but I think I know now. (date lost)

            Ouyang Xiu, the Song Dynasty poet, singled two lines by a poet on poverty for praise. As I like it, I record it here. The poet says that he is so poor that ‘when I borrow a cart to move furniture, the cart is too big for the furniture.’ (date lost)

            I like the way ancient Chinese hermits are described as having “married plum blossoms and had cranes as children.” (date lost)

            A Chinese poet/painter friend phoned me today to say that he is intending to paint some ‘vulgar’ paintings in order to sell for cash rather than keep painting ‘serious’ stuff that no one buys. I said to him that that is possible for painters but not for poets because you simply can’t write ‘vulgar’ poetry and still sell, at least not to the editors. In this, fiction is more like paintings. (date lost)

            Wang Guowei, the Chinese critic who was heavily influenced by Nietzsche, cited four Chinese examples such as Qu Yuan, Tao Yuanming, Du Fu and Su Shi to prove his theory that ‘there has never been a case in which great and noble literature can be produced by people without a great and noble personality.’ I immediately thought of Jean Jenet, Thomas de Quincey, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Patrick White, whose writings I appreciate more than their personalities. (date lost)

            I find that sometimes better comments are made in footnotes than in the main body of a critic’s work in Chinese literature as in the case of Wang Guowei’s book, where in the footnotes a critic is quoted as saying that the difference between Su Shi and Huang Tingjian (whose poems are quoted in Alex Miller’s The Ancestor Game) is where one writes the way a man does when he strides out to meet a guest while the other writes the way a lady does when she takes time dressing herself up and making up before she meets a visitor. (date lost)

            Ouyang Xiu had a Taoist friend to whom he sent his own Taoist gown. The friend, after Ouyang Xiu’s death, wore that gown for twenty years, patching it up and never washing it, which inspired Su Shi’s brother, also a poet, to write a poem. I thought this is quite similar to Mao Zedong’s admirers during the Cultural Revolution when they would keep his cigarette butts or keep their hands unwashed for weeks because they happened to shake hands with him, a typical Chinese way of showing one’s admiration and worship. The Western way is simpler. They would auction Ouyang Xiu’s Taoist gown and sell it for a large sum of money like they did to Van Gogh’s paintings. (date lost)

            Few literary journals in mainland China respond to my contributions and I am content with sending them things that I know will never be published and that will only show that I, a stranger unknown to them for the rest of their lives, am still alive. Taiwanese lit. mags. are slightly better because they can afford to return the ms. without me enclosing any international SSAE. In China, they returned everything twenty five years ago as far as I can remember. Australian journals are okay. They publish me from time to time although some will never publish me for the rest of my life. That I know for sure. I thought it was racism. I was naive. By comparison with mainland publishers, they are small beer. This might give people like Les Murry some comfort, whose poetry I don’t read any longer. (date lost)

            Some Australian poets do have this great weapon of exclusion with them. When I go to readings, they pretend they never know me. They look the other way when I look their way. They cluster around their precious little tables and hold their small talk that no one can have access to. After one of those readings in which the same sort of thing happened again, I said to myself, what the fuck! Who wants to come to such bloody readings with them? To them I can openly say, and say it clearly here, that I won’t be a poet in their sense. Not for the rest of my next life! (date lost)

            I don’t remember if any Chinese poets, ancient or contemporary, ever write ‘shit’ into their poems. Mao Zedong is an exception. In one much publicized poem written late in his life, he says, buxu fangpi (Stop farting!), which translates nicely into ‘Bullshit!’ Yi Sha, my favourite contemporary Chinese poet, is of course another exception. In a poem that I like but find hard to translate, the poem called ‘Song of Childhood’, he ends the poem with two lines that he learnt as a kid, ‘a great flood in the toilet=shit surging forward’ and ‘throwing grenades into the shit holes=bombarding the people’s shit.’ (date lost)

            I have stopped writing poetry, either English or Chinese, altogether. I think this is some comfort to those who pretend that I do not exist. Fuck them all. When I want to I can pick up writing again. But all I need to do now is a long long rest from the fucking poetry. (date lost)

            In China, I seldom read contemporary poetry because of the similarity produced and promoted by the times. I have the same problem with contemporary Australian poetry. Poets have to die before the real worth of their poetry comes out. Same with me although I am not a poet. (date lost)

            Snobbishness is a disease clothed in gentility. An Australian poet laughed to scorn when he saw me going into a reading venue with a take-away MacDonald. My afterthought was that I can eat anything I want to without having to feel ashamed of it as I had felt when laughed at by him holding a paper cup of coffee as if it was a better poem. (date lost)

            It has recently come to my notice that I read and, of course, write, less and less poetry. In most cases, it is not the poems but the poets that turn me off. I’d wish for a day when poems, unnamed, are broadcast like music so that one could enjoy it for what it is, not for who writes it. (date lost)

            Chinese Post, a Chinese-language newspaper based in Sydney, pays A$5.00 for a short poem they publish (they don’t have space for longer ones). Australian lit. mags. pay a minimum fee of A$40.00 for a poem, short or long. So, 5 and 40, that is the difference. (In 1997)

            Once they assess poetry for award purposes as if it were a piece of commodity, the shelf life of poetry is indicated by “use by.” (date lost)

            Who's reading poetry these days? Not a market researcher. Nor an airplane pilot. Nor a prime minister. Nor a minister. Nor god himself. Nor a nuclear scientist. Nor a penbroker. Nor a confectioners' supplier. Nor a roof plumber. Nor an airport taxi controller. Nor an accident assessor. Nor a wholesaler. Nor a rubbish collector. Nor a dentist. Nor a cool room builder. Nor a computer room cleaner. Nor an underwriter and undertaker. Nor a theatre goer and telemarketer as well as a telephonist. Nor a tour guide. Nor a tennis coach and a long-distance coach driver. Nor a secondhand dealer. Nor a seedsman. Nor a signwriter. Nor a wall finisher. Certainly not a poultry (pronounced poetry) farmer. (date lost)

            The only reader of poetry is the poet himself. Period. (date lost)

            Poetry has written itself to death. (date lost)

            But professors of poetry are too well paid to be able to write poetry. Instead, they write books on poetry that are very quickly forgotten. Their efforts to buy poetry, however, are well appreciated, if only by the bought poets themselves. (date lost)

            Why do they all want to get into Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, or other literatures for that matter? Even if you were a god of poetry, you can't occupy more than ten pages. I have counted it! So what's this fight all about? Besides, who knows a bush fire might not destroy all the evidence after many futures? At least you yourself would not know. (date lost)

            A short story friend said to me, why do you write poetry? I used to write some poetry and soon stopped it because I think fiction is better for a mature man. A poet never grows up. (date lost)

            In Chinese poetry, whenever there is a new school appearing, there are hundreds following until that one is followed to its end. (date lost)

            Chinese have a saying that goes, ‘an article does not tire of being revised for a hundred times.’ That being right, a person does get tired of revising an article for a hundred times, particularly a poet. (date lost)

            Westerners’ pursuit of fame and colonization is reflected in the personification of the places. Hence Melbourne, Sydney, Wellington, Washington, Vancouver and Paris. The Chinese naming of their places is an extension of their poetic imagination. Hence the Long River (the Yangtze), the Yellow River, North Capital (Beijing), On the Ocean (Shanghai), Fragrant Harbour (Hong Kong), West Peace (Xi’an) and Martial Man (Wuhan). (date lost)

            The funny thing about exile is the state of non-existence. I came across a reference Eastern Slope Su made to the lack of basic necessities during his exile in Hainan Island, one of the two largest islands outside China apart from Taiwan. He said that “there was no meat to eat, no medicine to treat illness, no house to live in, no friends to go out to, no coal in winter, no cold spring in summer....” No poet of his standing, I happen to find a similar lack of things in my own poetry which is (don’t know whether critics ever or deign to find this at all) qualified by the use of the suffix “less” and the word “without”, such as loveless, poemless, riverless, and desireless, as well as a season without languages, a season without love, a season without death, and a season without imagination. (date lost)

            Eastern Slope Su writes so many beautiful poems about the lake, the mountain, the birds, the river and the moon but he never writes a single poem about the sea. The lack of poems about the sea in ancient Chinese poetry is appalling. Actually, when he was on his sea journey to Hainan Island, Su described himself as a person whose “heart was dazed and whose soul lost.” I guess this fear of the sea is what eventually brought China to the feet of such sea-faring people as English who had many poets writing about the sea as well as the Japanese. (date lost)

            Sometimes I do wish I could write poems as bad as some well-known Australian poets and still get published by big publishers. (date lost)

            One thing that watching Rush Hour in which Jacky Chan plays the leading role reminded me of is “found objects”. As painters do with them, Chan plays his martial arts with “found objects” humorously and dexterously, such as chairs, sofas, just whatever lies within reach. Which is sadly lacking in Western action movies. (19/1/99)

            “Poetry kills but we’ll kill it before it kills us” poped in sight when I opened a poetry website. I forgot which. But I was reminded of it when I came across a line by Huang Canran, a Hong Kong based poet, who wrote, “in the bosom of poetry is hidden the motive of killing.” What a coincidence! And this is a poem dedicated to a poet who died young. (17/02/00)

            Normally, in the description of the Chinese landscape you would never see anything Australian but read this about a place called Dongshan, the Eastern Hill, in my own English translation, from Yuan Hongdao’s essay, “The most hateful thing about this place is the fact that the locals compete in swords and awls and the custom has nothing elegant about it. With the strange peaks and cliffs, there is not one single pagoda sitting on the rock. Every time when I get my wine ready and take my flasks, I have to sit in the wild grass, and there are no pavillions with ample space for setting the table and chairs. The temple at the foot of the hills is so unbearably narrow and low-lying as well as deserted that it looks like a devil’s house.” Now you know what I am reminded of? The Grampians that I have once been to in Victoria, Australia. (11/05/00)

            I have often admired the verbalizability of the English language in that it can turn nearly everything into a verb, such as Xerox and BT, as shown by the sign “BT it inside” at its office in Melbourne. However, there are some fresh surprises in ancient Chinese prose in which rare nouns are used as verbs, which are not used as verbs even in English, such as “wife” and “partner”. See this, from an essay by Yuan Hongdao, again, qishan lüshi (wife the hills and partner the rocks). (11/05/00)

            In English, poverty doesn’t seem to be associated with any feelings but in Chinese the word pin (poor or poverty) is often closely knit with the word han (cold), thus pinhan (for poor and cold) and a word by association: hanshi (cold scolars). Lovely word. Hu Shi thought that it contains poetry because these hanshi take pride in being poor and cold. (15/05/00)

            In the history of Chinese literature, Yuan Dynasty is criticised for its poetry that is too much concerned with trivialities that happen around the poets and men of letters and centre around poets who write for each other. Now, when I read this I can’t think of anything more like it than the contemporary Australian poetry, so much of it bearing names of the poets who are friends, for which I never have much patience. (6/6/00)

            I don’t know about cultural difference but there are certain things a Chinese can never ever share with a Westerner or a white man or woman, which is exactly what I thought of when I read a quoted line by Li Bai the Tang Dynasty poet, who said, haoyue weineng qin, liangxiao yi qingtan (with the bright moon I can’t sleep as the great night is good for a talk). I know exactly what Li Bai is talking about and have myself had the similar experience of sharing the night with a few friends out in the open. I also know from my bones that this has never happened to me with anyone of European origins and probably will never happen. The moon for me is an extremely lonely one in Australia, a corrupted version of the West. (25/10/00)

            You can send or mail a letter but when a Chinese says jiyu it is so poetic that you find tongue-tied to translate it except directly: “to mail reside”. In fact, to jiyu is to live away from home, like something mailed to a residence far away, even if you were a human being. (26/05/01)

            When a Chinese writes about someone living in this world but with a feeling of almost chushi (going out of the world), he expresses an admiration for that as if it was the perfect state of things that could ever happen to a person: both living in and out of this world. (26/05/01)

            A euphemism for concubines in Chinese is ru furen (like-wife). (26/05/01)

            Daughter-father relationship seems similar across cultures. Germaine Greer titled one of her books as Dad: We Hardly Knew You, whereas Chinese woman writer Wei Hui said in As Crazy as Wei Hui, “He is not my father. He is a stranger who lives in our house.” I have yet to see a male writer write about his father like that. (26/05/01)

            Perhaps because I am a bilingual person I pay attention to the structure of words and their associations, too much attention sometimes. For example, whenever I look at “think”, I find the word well made because it contains “thin” and may have stemmed from the logic that the one who thinks must be thin. However, when it comes to “ponder” it doesn’t make sense because the one who ponders is not necessarily “ponderous”. So, who made these words and why? (23/06/01)

            A Chinese poet whose poetry I have translated and have got published widely in Australia never mentions the fact until my translations happened to get published in U.K. And then I read in an article that he wrote in Chinese that he was published in U.K. as if it were an achievement. Our mind is far from being decolonised yet. (23/06/01)

            Translating English poetry into Chinese, understanding is not as hard as the lacunae. For example, when I translated a D. H. Lawrence poem, I could not understand the word “loins” with the aid of Chinese dictionaries available then simply because there was no entry under that word. The same thing happened with “felatio” when I translated Robet Mezey, an American poet, back in 1987 or 1988. It took Nicholas Jose only a second to solve my mystery. In those days, Chinese were such a sticker for the purity of the language. (23/06/01)

            In contemporary China, falang (hair salon) is a euphemism for brothels for it is a place where clients meet prostitutes for sex. In one of my Chinese poems, I sort of played with the words falang a little by turning it into “fuck lang”, “fuck” sounding like fa in Chinese if you allow the “ck” to be silent. (23/06/01)

            Poetry is the ability to achieve exordinary effects with ordinary words. In a word, direct translation is poetry. Read this: “serious 800”. What is that, you wonder. Let me tell you. It is a common Chinese expression, zhengjing babai, that means, in dictionary definitions, serious or earnest. But I prefer “serious eight hundred”. Do you? (23/06/01)

            Hu Changqing, vice governor of Jiangxi Province, recently executed for his corruption and economic crimes, was known for his extravagant lifestyle and for boasting about it. Once he pointed to his leather shoes and said to his entourage, “You know what these shoes are made from? They are made from crocodiles’ leather. They are worth more than 3000 dollars. Have you ever seen them before?” You know who he reminded me of? Two poets. One is Robert Creely whom an Australian novelist told me about more than ten years ago in China saying the same thing by showing off his expensive leather shoes. One Chinese poet also told me about another Chinese poet who came back from overseas and could hardly conceal his pride in his leather shoes. Sometimes one’s shoes reveal oneself more than one’s hats. (23/06/01)

            Have we heard of government officials being referred to as “fathers and mothers”? Well, fumu guan (father and mother officials) has long been used to refer to those officials who lord it over people although it can sometimes be used positively only in the sense that are really such people existing. (23/06/01) Online, it is even shortened as DD. (1/2/03)

            There are many euphemisms in Chinese for a man’s penis. A common one is “little brother” (di di, pronounced dee dee). Another one is “second head”. A third is “that word” (nahua). Recently I came across one that refers to it as “the shameful area”. (23/06/01)

            When I read a Good Weekend article about Bob Carr and his wife, I was bewildered by one sentence in which Bob said something to this effect that his wife made her displeasure strongly felt in a bush walk that he took her out on. From a Chinese point of view, this sentence is infinitely circuitous and untranslatable. Why not simply say she was very unhappy about it? Structurally speaking, English languages is much more indirect and insidious than Chinese. (28/06/01)

            If you read what Chen Kehua, the Taiwnese gay poet, writes in his poems about how people eat people with finger-nails floating in the soup (from Head-hunting Poems, 1995), you wouldn’t be surprised to see similar scenes in the film Hannibal. The East and the West somehow have converged on this point by stretching the shock value to its limit. And the end result is more boredom. (28/06/01)

            One thing you never see any Chinese poets write about in their poetry is money but this exception is often made in English poetry. A recent example is Peter Porter who comments on Ted Hughes as someone whose poetry “became more and more a matter of issuing large emotional cheques with no deposits in the bank to support them,” (
The Saturday Age, NAA E4, 28/7/01), something I find hard to accept and wonder if it is the commercialisation of their world that makes their poets so. (30/07/01)

            Years ago I read Sylvia Plath in China and when I came across her again recently while translating Germaine Greer’s notes to her book The Female Eunuch, and the kind of thing she wrote, like “I am a riddle in nine syllables/An elephant, a ponderous house”, strongly reminiscent of the so-called menglong poetry written in the 1970s China that employs obscure metaphors. These days one simply doesn’t write like that any more; it’s passé. (28/10/01)

            Do you still remember seeing this news item not so long ago on TV about the Beijing authorities getting people to spray strips of city streets green in a bid to win the 2008 Olympic Games? In a recently published Chinese poem, a similar scene is described that happened in 1958 when the authorities ordered people at night “to paint the field with green/and then with golden” colours. History is likely to repeat itself, for the same purposes, in different countries. That is in China but in Australia it is the prevention of refugees from landing but that is a different story and I need to find more interesting connections. (28/10/01)

            Months ago I read a poem by an English poet in a poetry magazine called BuzzWords, in which it is said that Kathleen Long started “not-writing” in the 60s. That immediately reminded me of a time in my life when I did not want to write and a friend of mine telling about this ancient Chinese philosopher Yang Zi who was famous for his theory of not writing. Hence the expression “Yang Zi not writing”. So far I have had no luck finding this expression but the idea is intriguing. (2/11/01)

            I was reading Imago (No. 3, 2001) today which publishes an extract from my novel The Eastern Slope Chronicle, among other things, and I saw, in a review, a line quoted of Peter Boyle’s poem that goes “The most beautiful part of the night sky is something scribbled in its margin”. The kind of scribbling or writing on the sky struck me as so similar to a Chinese poem that I’ve recently translated, not yet published, of which one line goes “The sentences reflected in the night sky darkened one by one”. (2/11/01)

            Striking similarities can sometimes be found in poetry written in very different times, countries and languages by very different people, which is how I felt when I read this New Zealand poem in JAAM (May 2001) in which the lines go “My high mountains call to each other/In a foreign language that falls like snow”. I wonder if he, the poet by the name of Luke Huntley-Badger, has read any Li Bai who has a famous line that comes readily to mind: xiangkan liang bu yan/zhiyou jingtingshan (we look at each other, never bored/and there is only Jingting Mountain). (2/11/01)

            Do we say high summer in English? In Chinese, we have high autumn although it is differently phrased as I encountered in this poem I was translating today. I thought the best way to render the phrase qiugao qishuang is by direct translation which makes it “autumn is tall and the air is crisp”. Now I could have turned it into “autumn is high and the air is crisp” for the same effect. Either way, it is better than the dictionary definition that makes it “the autumn sky is clear and the air is crisp”. The two lines I translated as “Under the leaves and branches of the willow tree/The autumn is tall and the air is crisp”. What do you think? (11/11/01)

            Years ago I read a lot of A. D. Hope and wrote an article about his concern with sex in his poetry. One image that frequently comes up is his reference to sexual experience with women as reading them like an open book. Now, in laocan youji, a novel written by Liu E in 1904, the main protagonist describes his experience with prostitutes as yueren yiduo (p. 259) Meaning what? Having read a lot of people! (27/11/01)

            When I read, “let no tears silent fall” by Larkin (from “When the Night Puts Twenty Veils”), I thought how different that was from Chinese poets that I have read, who tend to shed their tears freely in their poetry although I am suspicious if they do so in reality. (25/08/02)

            In reading poetry, I often get it wrong, not because I do so deliberately but because my eye slips, so to speak, seeing a wrong word for a right word. For example, in a poem where it is said, “I confessed to him my anthophobia”, I thought I saw “I confessed to him my authorphobia” and I actually thought mine better. Don’t you agree? What does it matter if you don’t? (25/08/02)

            Years ago when I read Les Murray (I don’t read him any more), I remember, there were references to verandas as “shy”, and I was again reminded of that when I saw xiuqie de shanpo (the shy mountain slopes) in Baihua’s poem written in Chinese. [translation mine] (08/09/02)

            And, Baihua also reminded me of Yu Hua, whose novel huozhe, To Live, formed the basis of the name-sake film by Zhang Yimou, in another of his poem which he ends with repeated words huozhe, “I gently said to myself:/I want to live, to live, to live to the end”. [translation mine] What a Chinese way of saying it! (08/09/02)

            Unexpected things crop up in my daily readings. For example, caoxin, which I came across while I was reading Milan Kundera’s Les Testaments Trahis in Chinese translation. It is a very common Chinese word meaning to worry about or to be concerned with until I rediscovered it. The whole problem is with the word cao, pronounced tsau, which could mean speak a language, as in cao hanyu (speaking Chinese language), caoxin (worry the heart), caozuo (handle or operate), until you hit cao b (fuck the cunt) for this fun word cao actually has the meaning of “fuck” although, in that sense, caoxin (fuck the heart), would certainly not make any sense except as a pun. (08/09/02)

            In my recent visit to San Francisco while attending a conference there, I met someone whose father’s name is Wu Wo, which in Chinese means “without me” or “I-less”. Nothing surprising, as the state of being I-less is one of the highest any cultured or literary person would try to achieve in Chinese culture. Even the Chinese grammar shows this: a sentence can begin without the subject. For example: “raised my head to watch the moon/lowered my head to think of my home” (from a poem by Li Bai). Hence the name. However, it would make little sense when translated into English, whose culture puts so much stress on the importance of being I, being an individual; even “I-less” sounds like “eye-less”. Who would want to go about eye-less or I-less? (12/12/02)

            Gu Cheng, the Chinese poet who killed himself and his wife at Waikiki Island in New Zealand, once said something to this effect that language is a currency that gets dirtied in its circulation. Amazingly, I find a similar remark in a Serbian novel, Le dictionnaire khazar, where the author says that, in my back translation from the original Chinese translation, “words do not come from the mind and the heart but from the secular and dirty language and foul mouths. For a long time, words have been devoured by the oily mouths and spat out and sucked in by the dirty and foul mouths.” (p.278) I love literatures from “small” countries. In a recent poem, I wrote, the more advanced a country is, the worse its poetry written and I think it equally applies to its literature but that is another story. (15/12/02)

            Gao Xingjian, in his novel, One Man’s Bible, says, “You have written this book for yourself. This book of escape, your personal bible. You are your own God and your own saint” (p. 202, Chinese version), which has a corrupt or vulgar version in one of Yi Sha’s poems, in which Yi Sha claims that he is his “own dad”. (23/12/02)

            I was immediately reminded of Camus with his “étranger” when I read Duras saying she “didn’t feel any grief for the dead woman” (her mother) because “I thought about the man waiting for me in the hotel by the river.” (Practicalities, p. 13) (27/12/02)

            When I read “You can’t change the shape of water” (Practicalities, p. 63), I recalled having written a poem before this, with a line, “how can you describe the shape of a smell?” (27/12/02)

            Duras says in her Practicalities, “I don’t carry a handbag any more” (p.66) and I recalled Germaine Greer’s remark about women’s handbags as their exterior wombs. (27/12/02) And I wonder if that is true. Do men not carry their handbags? If they do, what does that signify? Their stomach? (1/2/03)

            One of the blurbs on the back of Practicalities says, “Duras cannot write a dull sentence”, but, hang on. Yesterday when I read her, I did note in the margin that one sentence was “not good, being clever ‘cause it doesn’t say anything”. I found the sentence again, which goes, “When both members of a couple are writers the wife says, ‘My husband’s a writer.’ The husband says: ‘My wife writes too.’ The children say: ‘My father writes books, and so does my mother, sometimes.’” (pp. 67-68) (27/12/02)

            Duras writes about a love affair that happens to her and a male stranger on a train journey at night when everyone else has fallen asleep, with his hand groping all over her, and, then, “All around the hand was the noise of the train. All around the train, the darkness.” (p. 75) Years ago, I think in 1985 or thereabouts when I did not even know who Duras was, I wrote a poem in Chinese that goes, in part, “I embraced her,/the darkness embraced us/the heavy rain, our hut”. Now, that is what I was reminded of. We and the French, we do share something in common, much more so than the Australians. (27/12/02)

            “The people who pay to hear you sing or speak are enemies you have to get the better of in order to survive.” (Duras, p. 103) and “Something that verges on wanting to kill the person who’s come to sit in judgement on you.” (p.103) Well, not as bad as that but, Duras, I did once find a way of dealing with the audience while studying at a middle school in Huangzhou in the early 1970s. The best way I found to deal with a classroom of students and a teacher that made me tremble all over when asked to give a speech was to hate them all as if they were my enemies and as if they did not even exist. In my imagination, I spat into their eyes. That is the closest thing to Dura’s “kill”ing. (27/12/02)


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