“Broken Flowers” and “Paterson”


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Watched Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” 2 days ago, and it kind of set something echoing. A beautiful movie about exactly what this blog is about: tiny attempts, poetry.

So I wrote this one:


Paterson’s morning begins with a bowl of Cheerios and a boxful of blue-tipped matches. Not much happens. Not at all. Just like life.

At the bottom of the manju box, (the manjus were not exactly great, but the box was too pretty to be thrown away, so I kept it. The packaging outdid its contents, as most Japanese snack boxes do) I found the ticket for Broken Flowers.

The first movie we saw together. It amazes me that we are still together. More than together.

We were flirtatious, tentative, unsure. Letter writers.

Now we are anxious, nervous, cautious. Bill payers, bookkeepers. Parents. (Plus I always want to own an apartment)

I really didn’t like Broken Flowers. Not at all. But I love this one.

Maybe Jim Jarmusch got better. Maybe I got better.

Or maybe we are just more in the middle of this ordinary life.


 Video: “Patterson” Poems

A Funeral (I)

I know I am supposed to post things that are poetry-related here, but I have been overwhelmed and preoccupied with this recent loss. I want to write about this marvellous woman so badly and this is the by far the most appropriate place to share. I promise that this piece is poetic from time to time, although it is in the form of prose (a mini-memoir). 


A Funeral (I)


David and I arrived at the crematorium early. A bit too early, perhaps. We had a restless night’s sleep, as was expected. He was worried about not being able to get up early in the morning, so did not dare to sleep too deeply; and I was haunted by a piece of Chinese superstition that the deceased would return home once every seven days for the first seven weeks.

That night, it was the second seventh day.

I didn’t bother to check the time when I woke up in the middle of the night. The melatonin failed me for the first time, and I just couldn’t get back to sleep. It must be the jet lag, I thought. Neither could I get rid of her image on the platform of Penrith Station, her wave and smile, her body against a column (it took me a long while to register how immobile she was, but that’s another story). She’s visiting us, I thought in the dark.

It was late December and the Lake District was genuinely cold. In the station waiting room, our daughter delivered her usual charm by hugging her Nainai (“Grandma” in Chinese) again and again. And Nainai was enjoying the cuddly little arms, while gently stroking her granddaughter’s chestnut-coloured hair. The 70-year-old looked huge next to the 3-year-old, but the former seemed the more dependent one. The waiting-room was filled with restless suitcases and their impatient owners, but whenever someone walked past the cuddly pair, he or she would slip a smile, and then went straight to the platform.

“The train for Manchester approaching.” I heard the muffled announcement.

“See you, Mum. Happy New Year!”

“Don’t come out to the platform. It’s cold.” And it was raining. Damn British weather!

She nodded.

We hustled our two large suitcases to the far end of the platform where there were fewer people. My daughter had her hood and gloves on. My hands, however, were freezing without gloves. I foolishly packed them in. We three managed to board the Virgin train, but the aisle was so narrow and the luggage rack full, so it took us a couple of minutes before we could finally settle into our seats. The train started to move, slowly… and then it picked up its speed. As I looked out of the window, I had a glimpse of her, leaning against a column right outside the waiting-room gates. She had difficulty holding her body straight, but she maintained a long-standing smile and a Queen-style wave, steady and proper. Her eyes were fixated on one spot, at the level of the compartment windows. Although they were not able to locate us, they were hopeful to be located. She must have stood and waved at the whole train in order not to miss us.

“She walked out anyway,” I thought, and turned to tighten my little girl’s ponytail. I made sure that my tears were invisible to David – it is his mother, after all.

That was the last time I saw Wendy. December 30, 2014.



Becoming Two: 成雙


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Becoming Two

Once love makes us a couple

Its magician retires

Bread regains bread’s cast

Honey is ratting out honey’s expiration date

Routinely we keep our children’s routine

Children keep our dream


Once in a while we fought so hard

The night so dark that I thought the morning sun invisible

So I steeled myself:

My love for you in the next life

I advance for this one.


2016年2月25日 明報







The Constant Shift of Impermanence: Terry Watada’s The Game of 100 Ghosts


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Terry Watada, The Game of 100 Ghosts, TSAR Publications, 2014. 112 pgs.

crept like
smoke in a forest fire

at sundown
the evening
settled and everyone sat
a circle
a circle of candles.


between the mouths of the grieving and sorrowful
the thoughts of the
beloved dead secrets are

revealed. (“A Game of Ghosts”)

This book’s essence lies in its title, The Game of 100 Ghosts: it is ritualised, playful and haunting. Terry Watada models his poems after the long-lost Japanese parlour game of Hyaku Monogatari Kwaidan-kai (A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales), in which 100 candles are lit and 100 ghost stories are told. Imagine yourself in a spacious room as the sun sets and the darkness invades: you sit down to listen to people sharing stories of the dead; every time a story finishes, a candle is blown out. As the game nears its end, the room grows dimmer and you begin to expect a visitation from a real ghost when the last candle is extinguished. Initially a game of courage, Hyaku Monogatari Kwaidan-kai has now been transformed into a series of intimate elegies for family and friends in Watada’s magical hands. His poems neither generate fear nor test courage; instead, he lets the ghosts tell their own stories: their grief and regrets, their disappointments and frustrations, their greed and ignorance. By the end of the collection, you will be consoled and enlightened, paradoxically, after first having been haunted by the deceased.

Watada attains form in formlessness. The first thing the reader notices is the playful, mercurial quality his poems possess through creative punctuation, lack of capitalisation and word and line spacing. One often has to read for pages before she gets a full stop. Conventions for formal writing are not followed either: “i” outnumbers “I”, a lower-case “c” stands for “christian,” “christ” and “chinese government,” “a Black Man” is capitalised; a word is broken across lines; business-like listing is employed:

seems like yes-
met and fell in

a Black Man
a refugee from the
war for Civil Rights

● a taboo embraced
● a disgrace born
● estrangement sworn

a baptist wedding:
$1000 with a potluck
dinner yuki &
yukiko were the maids-
with Rev (small “c” christian) (“Lisa”)

Throughout the book, enjambment is the key poetic technique. Watada is taking risks here, because, as is the case in much contemporary poetry, too much enjambment can be off-putting and tedious1. I was, therefore, alarmed by Watada’s extensive use of it when flipping through the book for the first time. Nevertheless, he is so skilled that his poetry proves it is well worth the risk. Words drip unpredictably like rainfall: sometimes as scanty as a spring drizzle, sometimes as abundant as a summer storm. Either way, these “worddrops” stir ripples in the puddle of your heart:

the sizzle of
the steady rainstorm
siding into a drizzle
and sputter of
whisperings of

long-ago dead
ghosts speak

the mouths of rain remain silent (“The Silent Mouths of Rain”)

At first glance, the stanzas look fragmented, but this initial messiness is replaced and steadied by the concluding line, a complete and relatively long sentence that holds everything together. Visually, the three stanzas also merge into one, which keeps the flow going. Musically, the lovely repeated /s/ sound links one line to another while intricately echoing the restless sound of silence. Watada does this all the time: on the one hand, he shifts the diction and syntax constantly to maintain a sense of impermanence; on the other hand, he also ensures that the meaning comes across effortlessly and naturally despite the interruptions. The broken lines are not randomly crafted but rather a form of “controlled mutations.”2

I do not read or speak Japanese, but I think Watada’s insistence on fragmentation might be an unbending effort to mimic the voice of his ghosts, who happen to be mostly Japanese immigrants, presumably still speaking under the influence of their native language. Could the technique be designed to reproduce the effect of Japanese-sounding English? One thing is for sure: the prominence of this fragmentation is indicative of Watada’s struggle with the incomplete memories he is eager to preserve.

Thematically, Watada’s poetry engages with several crucial issues that are going to stay with me for a long time: those of immigration, education and cultural inheritance. The poems become extremely powerful and poignant when the most personal stories are shared. In “A House of Crying Women,” for example, a grown-up describes his childhood in a first-generation immigrant community, which was “struggling to un- derstand / the language” of English. The “un” and the hyphen become a focal point of the poem. The punctuation mark also bears significant symbolism for the immigrants: “no one was / Canadian,” “no one felt comfortable / with the hyphen.”

Elsewhere in the collection, we encounter the monologue of an “oniisan” (father), in which I am reminded of the voice of Asian parents and their pragmatic and problematic way of paving a safe path for their children.

You’re in grade 10 for christ’s sake:
doctor, lawyer, architect, engineer
you need a 90 average
to get into

Drop music,
take important subjects —
they can be hobbies to make friends

You don’t have to like what you’re doing
just do it (“impermanence,” IV. the 1960s)

The last line, “just do it” recurs towards the end of the book. It becomes a parental voice that haunts the younger generation.

As the game gets closer to the end, the reader is taken deeper and deeper into the speaker’s subconscious, whereas the poems themselves enter a confessional mode. Just as one begins to worry that the poems may become too clichéd and sentimental, Watada pulls them back into playfulness. We cannot ignore the fact that it is through the revival of a dead game that the poet realises his intimate relationship with the dead. In the original game, it is the gathering of 100 stories that brings together the ghosts; in this book, it is the ghosts that help shape the speaker.

1 In a poetry workshop I participated in on July 3, 2015 in Ithaca, New York, Anastasia Nikolis asserted that contemporary English poetry relies predominantly on enjambment.

2 I owe this phrase to Okla Elliott, which he used at the same workshop.

Her Way of Meaning: Wang Xiaoni’s Something Crosses My Mind (Book Review)


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Wang Xiaoni (author), Eleanor Goodman (translator), Something Crosses My Mind, The Chinese University Press; Zephyr Press, 2014. 128 pgs.

In Something Crosses My Mind, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize, Eleanor Goodman chronicles and translates over forty poems (written from 1980 to 2011) by Wang Xiaoni, a leading contemporary Chinese female poet. Goodman selects the finest poems from across Wang’s career, poems which are often full of dense imagery and metaphor. Hence, translating them is no easy task despite the poet’s down-to-earthness and use of the vernacular.

Zhang Xuexin, a critic and scholar of contemporary Chinese literature, notes that Wang Xiaoni has no intention of seeing the world as “a forest of symbolism”; instead, she strives to capture the transient and poetic in the most “ordinary.” In a similar vein, Goodman asserts in her foreword that Wang’s poems, rather unlike those of her contemporaries, “spring from direct observation that is then transfigured.” Wang cuts through the ordinary and transforms it, yet her sharp perceptiveness is not pompously self-asserting, but consciously balanced. On one sunny day, for example, she opens up hopeful possibilities for reforming China (“I Feel the Sun”), but on another occasion warns us of the sun’s wounding power: “Disaster and luck/ both hang from the thinnest thread. / The sun, like a gallbladder, / rises” (“Early Morning”). With a great sense of humour, she finds comradeship in a watermelon’s sorrow: “Without rhyme or reason, I carry the melon along / and without rhyme or reason, my busyness carries me” (“The Watermelon’s Sorrow”). And she litters lines with descriptions of China’s environmental realities while faithfully portraying a self-contained community that is blind to their impact:

The herd was driven into the ocean, and into the churning white froth.
Like a few unclothed and bashful gentlemen
the oxen strolled along the shore.
But the Pacific overran them
totally furious (“Washing Water Buffalo in the Ocean,” my italics)
She stands up, solid as a tall house on the earth
a house with a big flower garden
a house full of pipe organ music.
Far away the village pond jumps with black bubbles
her heart shines outward.

People say, this woman is religious (“The One Holding Peanuts,” my italics).

Elsewhere, she articulates a poet’s silence proudly, but not without sadness:

But a Chinese train
Is like a peasant burrowing his way through a cornfield.
On Chinese trains
I don’t say a thing (“Silent All the Way from Beijing to Guangzhou”)

Each day I write only a few words
like a knife
cutting into the gush of a tangerine’s finely woven juice.
Let layer upon layer of blue light
enter into a world that’s never been described.

No one sees my light
finely woven strand by strand like silk.
In this city I
silently serve as a poet (“Starting Anew as a Poet”)

The collection provides both the Chinese and English versions of the works, allowing the reader to compare Goodman’s translations with the originals. Her translation doesn’t always provide a literal rendition of the Chinese, but it has full awareness of Wang’s poetic nuance, carries through the works’ humour and sentiments and keeps the essentials of the music. For example, there is the line “夜空背後黑汪汪的深,” which Goodman translates as “the boundless black depths behind the night sky.” Unable to reproduce the sound of the doubling “汪汪” (“wangwang”) in Chinese, Goodman cleverly uses the alliterative “boundless black” as an attempt to recreate the effect. Another example is “財富研出了均勻的粉末.” Translated directly, this line would become “wealth grinds equally-shaped powder.” Yet Goodman opts for the more compelling: “Wealth grinds equality to a powder.” The choice works surprisingly well. There are many similar moments to these when the translation yields alternative imagery and themes that complicate any singular understanding of the original.

Of course, no translation can claim to be flawless and problem-free. Goodman sometimes shifts the syntax in order to smoothen the reading experience in English. This is not a problem in itself. However, in the second stanza of “A Rag’s Betrayal,” one of Wang’s central poems,[i] the syntactical rearrangement undermines an intended connotation. The original reads:


However, Goodman’s version goes:

I hadn’t thought
such a mistake could be made
with only two hours of work and a rag

In this translation, the original meaning is kept perfectly, but it fails to convey a cultural implication of the word “勞動” (labour) in Chinese. It would not be an exaggeration to say that “labour” has an almost religious connotation in the context of “new” China— “labouring is the most glorious thing” (“勞動最光榮”), as generations of Chinese have been brainwashed into believing. Therefore, to have “labour” next to “a big mistake” as is the case in the original is no doubt a deliberate act of mockery and defiance. In spite of its awkwardness in English, the Chinese syntax thus needs perhaps to be maintained:

I hadn’t thought that with
only two hours and a rag of
labour, such a big mistake could be made.

Having said that, I need to praise both Wang Xiaoni’s poetry and Eleanor Goodman’s translation. It is almost a cliché nowadays to say that translation is doomed to failure, but there are excellent failures, because they fail better, as Beckett would say.

Personally, I love seeing translations placed next to the original poems. In this way, the original and its afterlife go hand in hand, feed and speak to each other. Of course to do so, a translator must be brave and open, since such an arrangement invites endless and relentless comparisons, which inevitably lead to nitpicking about inaccuracies. However, the best translations are honest but not single-mindedly loyal, creative but not boundlessly wild. They provide a distinctive reading of the original, based on each translator’s knowledge, experience and sensitivity. As Walter Benjamin puts it, “a translation, instead of imitating the sense of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning.” Goodman’s translation is certainly an endeavour like that. Her elegant renditions both capture Wang’s sense and meaning, emotion and tone, while more importantly still manage to set Wang’s unique voice and style free. Goodman captures Wang’s confidence and insecurities, darkness and brightness, simplicity and whimsicality—in short, her way of meaning.


[i] Unlike other female poets, Wang’s poetry can be personal but is never private. She explores her inner world but sacrifices no privacy. She tends to look at the outer world with a cold eye and fights fervently against voyeurism. “A Rag’s Betrayal” expresses her insecurities and her strong wish to hide from the public eye.

Translating Poetry: maybe it’s best to let a poem translate a poem


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I was reading an ancient Chinese poem to my daughter and was struck by its simplicity in expressing the emotions that were very much close to an Emily Dickenson’s poem.

Sometimes it is a good idea to let a poem translate a poem, despite their differences in culture, age, gender and social background. For example, these two poems, for me, share the same sentiments and temperament.

The first one was written by a Tang Dynasty poet, Song Zhiwen (approx. A.D. 656-712), who wrote about his fear when going home after years away from it. Upon getting closer to his hometown, he was seized by an overwhelming sensation of intimidation and shyness, as if he were to see the place for the first time.

Dickenson’s poem is much more detailed and sensational: it is more about approaching a specific home, a threshold moment, a daunting experience of facing the strangeness of the most familiar.




I years have been from home
Emily Dickenson (1830-1886)

I Years had been from Home
And now before the Door
I dared not enter, lest a Face
I never saw before

Stare solid into mine
And ask my Business there —
“My Business but a Life I left
Was such remaining there?”

I leaned upon the Awe —
I lingered with Before —
The Second like an Ocean rolled
And broke against my ear —

I laughed a crumbling Laugh
That I could fear a Door
Who Consternation compassed
And never winced before.

I fitted to the Latch
My Hand, with trembling care
Lest back the awful Door should spring
And leave me in the Floor —

Then moved my Fingers off
As cautiously as Glass
And held my ears, and like a Thief
Fled gasping from the House —

Crossing half of China to Sleep with you


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Crossing half of China to Sleep with you
Yu Xiuhua (translated by Wen)
In actual fact, there is no difference between me sleeping with you
and you sleeping with me. It’s just but the force
of two bodies colliding, just flowers forced open,
and just the illusion of spring
making us believe that life is re-blossoming.
Things are happening across half of China:
volcanos erupting, rivers drying
Ignored political prisoners and fugitives
Six-tined elks and red-crowned cranes
hunted by ruthless rifles.
But I wind through the bullet rain to sleep with you,
crushing numberless nights into a dawn to sleep with you,
running countless selves into me to sleep with you.
For sure I could be led astray by a flock of butterflies,
mistaking praises for the coming of spring
regarding a village like Hengdian studio as my hometown
but these are exactly the reason why I am coming to
sleep with you.

Widgeon: A Chinese Translation

For Paul Muldoon/By Seamus Heaney

It had been badly shot.
While he was plucking it
he found, he says, the voice box –

like a flute stop
in the broken windpipe –

and blew upon it
his own small widgeon cries.










Poetry and Maths


If I were a peacock,
I would have a thousand eyes
To see you.

If I were a centipede,
I would have a hundred feet
To follow you.

If I were an octopus,
I would have eight arms
To embrace you.

If I were a cat,
I would have nine lives
To love you.

If I were God
I would have three bodies
To give you.

— Louise Gilmore






I have always thought that poetry and maths go hand in hand sometimes. This cheeky little poem proves it.

In terms of relationships, monogamy is always favoured. Even just spiritually, I don’t want to be chased by multiples.

On Thesis Writing




Writing a thesis,
I am a child talking adult talks.
At my wit’s end,
I started to lie Pinocchio lies.
The longer the thesis,
the bigger my nose,
the harder to square the circle.