Reviews / November 2011 (Issue 15)


Leung Ping-Kwan's Amblings: A Review of the Right-hand Pages

by Douglas Kerr


Leung Ping-Kwan, trans., Kit Kelen et al., Amblings, ASM, 2010. 239 pgs.

 
even though white clouds are beautiful
you can't live in them
"Cloud Journey" (1981)
Treat yourself to a copy of this generous selection of Leung Ping-Kwan's poetry, whether you like to read him in Chinese or in English or both. Here you will find about seventy poems, in a creative span from the 1960s up to yesterday, in smart parallel-text form, the Chinese text on the left-hand pages casting a quizzical eye on its reflection in English on the right.

This is a review of the right-hand pages, the English versions, which are translations by Kit Kelen, Song Zijiang, Debby Sou Vai Keng and Iris Fan Xing. English readers will probably be most familiar with Leung's verse through City at the End of Time (1992), which he co-translated with Gordon T. Osing and which is something of a classic. But indeed he is a poet who has been well served by a number of English translators, Osing and Martha Cheung principal among them. It would have been good to know who translated which poems here, and how the decision was made to retranslate some but not others for which an English version already exists. I will come back to these editorial questions a bit later.

If it was necessary—though it probably isn't—to make the case for Leung Ping-Kwan as Hong Kong's leading poet, this volume could be given in evidence. Here is a lifetime of poetry. The poems do not come in chronological order, though many (not all) of them carry a date. Critics are fond of talking about the way writers "develop," shrugging off early influences, evolving a style, discovering a distinctive voice and staking out a field of poetic experience. I don't think this is a particularly useful way to read this poet, especially since this romantic idea of organic development usually implies that the poet is somehow better, or more himself or herself, in the "mature" work. What strikes me most in reading this book is how the earlier poems speak to the later ones, and the later poetic personality is already quite fully formed in the earlier work.

I'm not sure how old Leung Ping-Kwan was in 1974, but that is when he wrote a poem, "midday, Quarry Bay," which is already unmistakably stamped with his style and his peculiar way of seeing things. This is the Leung we know best, the poet of the Hong Kong scene, entirely integral to the everyday life of the city and yet at the same time just a bit aloof from it, savouring it all with relish and the slightest aftertaste of melancholy.
on a basketball court
the ball is dunked
a passing car sounds its horn
sometimes I walk to the pier to watch
to try to learn from the iron anchors
sometimes there are ships
and sometimes storms
mostly just white waves and sea
The waterfront is a place of work, with "people unloading/and pushing a heavy cart along tracks" and so on, but a ship at anchor is also a romantic cliché waiting to set sail. More poets would be tempted by it to drift off into dreams of travel and otherness—think of Baudelaire's "L'Invitation au Voyage"—than to linger, as Leung does, and "try to learn from the iron anchors." Sceptical, humorous, anti-romantic, grounded, understated, even prosaic but with a jolt of surprise—it's an entirely characteristic gesture that might occur anywhere in the five decades of Leung's writing life. Here is the sensibility and style that has weathered the choppy decades of Hong Kong's recent history.

The compass of his world may have extended—these are often poems of place, and there are as many about foreign places as about Hong Kong itself—but essentially the vision is a steady one, which is why "development" doesn't seem the right word. The themes are pretty consistent: places, travelled or returned to; friendship; conversation; art, especially the visual arts including film; memory and history; food and drink (Hong Kong's gastropoet!); the everyday material world. When the poet visits a museum or thinks of history—or both, as in "in the Krakow History Museum"—his eye is quickly drawn away from the panoply of power, "so many crowns of emperors/maces and robes," to the history inscribed in things people live with, the street signs, the cigarette packs, the graceful tableware, the belly-shaped bottle that makes you want to pour water from it.

Rather than a development, what you find in Leung is an increasing confidence in the ability of material objects and scenes to speak for themselves, if they are patiently noticed in the first place, and allowed to find their own level of importance. Its groundedness in shared everyday experience is one of the things that makes it appropriate to describe Leung Ping-Kwan's work as thoroughly democratic: another aspect of this is the intense sociability of his poems—it's as if each one is inseparable from an address and friendly greeting at the top, and a date at the bottom. They carve out and inhabit a sphere of thoughtful and sensuous life where the blare of big public discourse, political or commercial, does not call the shots.
 
To pursue this theme of things a bit further, anyone who reads this volume is likely to be struck by its proliferation of objects, many of them worn with a history of being handled, used or enjoyed—less like a museum, perhaps, than someone's flat with a lot of clutter accumulated over the years. Leung is the poet of furniture and luggage and household articles. The title of one of his best poems is translated here as "we travel with lots of stuff."
 
It starts as a semi-comic study of travelling habits but opens up into a subtle meditation on culture, the memories and usages by which we define ourselves.
we travel with lots of stuff
in the morning the smell of plain congee
            a strange cold drink, something green
holding the warmth of another pair of hands
            holding the cold iron railings
carrying an unfinished letter
            an unfinished story
an impulse to explain something
arriving at an empty room
        one
after another
(I love "holding the warmth of another pair of hands.") Hong Kong, as everyone says, is a city of migrants, but it's also a moveable feast (a suitably Leungian figure). "what is Hong Kong?", this poem asks with unusual directness. From an ungainly scramble with luggage, a jumble of possessions—some temporary—and a handful of photographs, this poem builds and rebuilds the city, in memory and imagination. For the poet, culture is untidy, it's what we remember, and carry with us. In this collection, he turns out his pockets.
your photos are mixed with other photos
behind curtains in the shadows of trees
a mother with a child in a bathtub
a young man on the bed
around him a bicycle and other stuff….
You could think of these poems as a photograph album, or an installation if you prefer, of Hong Kong memory; a history which, like a suitcase, is a burden as well as a resource. Another poem featuring the culture-clutter in which we live is "square." In the translation in this volume it begins:
we wake up one morning after a series of spring rains
and find all the furniture become old
nowhere to settle the body between
yesterday's quilt and us now
In City at the End of Time, the same poem is called "In the Great Square."
After days of Spring rains we awakened
in a shabby parlour jammed with beat-up furniture
and no place left for the waking to really live,
between ourselves and the piles of old bedding.
In this case I think it's fair to say the Osing version is much better, though perhaps it takes more liberties: "all the furniture become old" is more accurate than "beat-up furniture." Osing is less awkward and allows a far clearer emergence of an extended metaphor of the nation as household, with its furniture of institutions and cultural practices. It's a pity that "the square" is printed here without the two poems that follow it in City at the End of Time, "Broken Home" and "Refurnishing," because as a sequence they are a powerful discourse about the events of May and June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, their bloody climax and then their sanitizing from the official historical record.
They cleaned the floors till they shone like trackless water;
They soaped away the smells of cutlery, until
Nothing had happened; the last smoke went up the ventilators.
("Refurnishing")
The inclusion of "the square" without its companion pieces raises a question about the principles of selection and organization in this book. Editors are sometimes too keen to interpose themselves between poems and their readers. But for my part, I would have appreciated a page or two explaining the thought behind the choice of the poems in this volume, and the order in which they appear. The book is divided into sections with a rationale that isn't always immediately obvious. And as a final gripe, I can't help thinking that the title was a mistake. Perhaps the intention was to cast the poet in the role of flâneur. But to my mind "ambling" unfortunately evokes a horse, and an elderly one at that. There is something sweet, rural and slightly comic in the word. Ambling is not a good description of the movement of these poems, which is sharply focused, cinematic.

Leung Ping-Kwan is always a local poet but never a provincial one. There is not a contradiction, but a dialectic, between his locality and his cosmopolitanism. If I have concentrated here mostly on small-scale, even domestic moments, I do not mean to leave the impression that he is a miniaturist. One of my favourite poems in this collection is "The Silk Road," a poem of 1999 with an epic, world-historical scope. I rather wanted to finish this review without using the words "postmodern" or "globalization." But "The Silk Road" really is a postmodern poem about globalization. It's in three stanzas, of which the first two are punctuated as speech, so that we have three voices here, it seems, though the third and last stanza, without quotation marking, has a different status (so maybe two voices, followed by an unspoken discourse?). The poem, like the Silk Road itself, shuttles between east and west, the dialectical movement of the text mimicking also the weaving of the textile. It is a wonderfully supple, simple and intelligent discourse about how—a familiar Leung theme, here on a different scale—the objects we use and exchange shape our lives, how traffic in commodities makes our history and brings us together in understanding and misunderstanding and how these meetings bring culture into restless being, the broken and unbroken threads between us. The poem is, among plenty of other things, about translation itself. Here's how it ends.
over thousands of years the myth was spewed
clever merchants sail the Mediterranean
facing the north wind, heading east
there's a star-gazer trying to make out
the shape of the universe in that direction
it's either curiosity or greed that goes through the storm
that escapes the pirates on the Indian Ocean
finding the promised land and expanding the imagined border
trace after trace, half linking half breaking
the silk comes and goes back and forth
weaving the unseen orphic face
 
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