Hong Kong Poets Under 40 / November 2012 (Issue 19)

Kit Fan

 Born and educated in Hong Kong, Kit Fan now lives in the UK. He studied at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and completed a PhD in English at the University of York. His poems have been widely published in literary magazines in the UK. He won a 2006 Times Stephen Spender Prize for Translation and his first book of poems Paper Scissors Stone (HKU Press) won the 2010 inaugural HKU International Poetry Prize.


Where does a poem come from? The knots of memories? The first thunder in spring? The drizzle the thunder unravels? The tunnels left by awakened earthworms? The laborious gestation of a moistened seed? The light-footed Gabriel arriving at Mary’s doorstep with a lily?

The mind of the poet is a house of various rooms. There is the south-facing room where the sun writes on the wall. There is the north-facing room where the moon revisits what was written on the wall. There is the room with a handleless door of which even the house is unaware.

A poem happens when it can be seen through a glass darkly, and yet the details are random and patchy, like seeing oneself reflected on pieces of broken glass and then feeling self-conscious and having to quickly look away. A poem happens only when it is first looked at with mistrust, or in Marianne Moore’s words, "with a perfect contempt." A poem happens when the poet looks for a "place for the genuine" (borrowing Moore’s words again): places where the poem and the speaker find their home.

It is the shape of the poem—not its voice, form, line, rhyme or metre—that the poet holds in his or her hand. Like turning a pot on the wheel, the hand translates the imaginary shape in the mind into physical form through the slightest, most precise adjustments. Every touch changes the shape, but there is a limit to what the hands can handle. The poet works in complete control but has to understand the invisible forces at work—the speed of the spin, the quality of the clay, the hold of gravity and the attempt to defy it.

Even though a poem lives outside the idea of solitude, it craves to be read aloud, like a lonely wineglass yearning to touch another.

A good poem, like good wine, needs to mature in time before it can bear to face the critical palate of connoisseurs.

"The poet," Emily Dickinson writes, "Distills amazing sense/From ordinary meanings." If the poet begins with ordinariness and meanings, the poem should end with amazement and both "sense" and the senses. While meanings point towards intention and interpretation, senses are bodily, receptive and responsive—involving what we hear, see, smell, taste and touch. The most amazing sorbet is made of the most ordinary ingredients—raspberries, lemons and sugar.

In the same poem, Dickinson continues: "Of Pictures, the Discloser/The Poet – it is He/Entitles Us – by Contrast – To ceaseless Poverty." If the painter discloses the riches of human senses through pictures, the poet by contrast entitles us to ceaseless poverty. By contrast, and also by contradiction, the poet entitles the reader to a different kind of wealth (or a different way of looking at gain and loss).

For the poet, memory really is the mother of invention; and the strange time of composition, short or long, in my case, seems to involve a dialogue with a familiar otherness of some kind—whether to do with place or time.

The deepest and most genuine feelings often found in poetry require a form of revisiting. The act of revisiting in a poem lies in the risk and pleasure of recycling an existing form, revising and readjusting a word or a full stop. It is also an act of remembering—be it a host of daffodils, a red wheel barrel, a burning tiger or the person from Porlock.

How Cangjie Invented Chinese Characters
"The moment Cangjie invented the written words, the sky rained millets as nature’s secret was disclosed, and the ghosts cried through the night as their shapes could no longer be changed."
The Book of Huai-nan Tzu (2 BC)
In the beginning was the knot,
and the knot was on the branch,
and the knot was mine, the same
tree on the same bank of the same
river, and I tied a second one,
and none of them had names.

Then all things began twice:
the river, the bank, the tree, the branch.
At first sight, I was still on my own.
My shadow followed me home.

By the tree laden with knots,
I washed my face and a phoenix
flew across the ripples round my knees.
I turned and found a creature
that had fallen from its beak.

I made a knot and sat by the river
till my shadow lengthened behind me.

As I looked at the hoof-print,
a passing hunter said, ‘It’s a Pi Xiu,
the ninth offspring of a dragon!’
He walked past, following his shadow.
I walked home, following mine.

But there were currents in the river,
trails on the banks; there was the crown
of the tree, the fork of the branch.

The same was in the beginning
with the mouths of the knots,
their braided muscles kept tight
through last night’s storm.

This morning I loosed them
one by one into the river, each ripple
a quiver of unnoticed past
scratched on a tortoise shell,

from the first knot of spring
to that of yesterday’s phoenix.

(First published in Paper Scissors Stone.)

Lines from "Another Poem of Insomnia"

Once the curtain’s been drawn, the restless bed swings
    between the room and the hours, like a boat cutting through
        a storm.  The world is suddenly darker like a cave within a cave.

'Why do I say "like", pretending that it’s something else?'
    It’s the sixth time in half an hour you turn and look for
        a better place.  As if here were the shore of a life that you do not own.

But you’re not asleep.  However well you pretend
    as in the day for money and family, or at work at your desk.  'I am
          sorry it's only a quasi-lullaby; insufficient to guard the bones cast up on the shore.'

Now you turn to my side, slipping your hand here onto my plain
    bony chest, relaxed into our nakedness and wakefulness.  'I put my
         hand on top of yours.'  The shriek of a motorbike’s muffled behind the curtain.

Suddenly we're here again, unafraid of storms or caves.
     The world smells of dark, thick, flammable tar.  Listen.
        Pit-pat.  This isn’t my heart.  Pit-a-pat.  How can it be a harbour?

(First published in The Wolf.)

Ghost Letter

Dear Father –

To speak is to blunder but I venture
since the pen is for saving things
from chaos.  This moment I call
the present, in the midst of a storm,
in the winter of my years, I open
my mouth, breathe lightning
to reply to you, as the ink is open
to the pen, the pen to the hand,
the hand to the heart.  The door
you shut, the truth stuck
in my throat, a sentence you left
unfinished.  Without elegance,
metre and rhyme, I write, as closely
as I can, from this dark room
to the moment I call the past.
The rain has finally come.

Images, not words, float around me.
They are eyes staring at me
into which I am forced to stare back.

If you once saw a bullet
hit a bird, I was the stranger
who built the heart.

Where’s home?
A stunted apple tree, a mossy stone?

I have lived, like you, a life
of barely believable vacuity.
I still want to paint.  My best paintbrushes
were all eaten up by moths.

Mother died three months after you.

It’s only now I am convinced
that the problem of the Phaedo
is whether the soul is of the same nature
as things that are born and die.
It fills me with pity that you of all people
should be unable to read such a beautiful thing.

But Heaven, I hear, is a sequestered place.
This austere afternoon will end
before the last drop of tallow
swallows the candlewick.

Yesterday, a mason mended
your garden walls with new bricks.
The world is only a half-
way house; though unbeheld,
it’s foliage softly adds –
Your belated daughter
Katharina Pompilia
This 21 May, A.D. 1669
(First published in Paper Scissors Stone.)

"Chinese Poetry" (in translation)

‘Last night’s wind rose / under last night’s constellations.’
And you weren’t there. You came from a small village where mountain

    after mountain after mountain held the spring fog.
    You returned for a visit by bus.  To study ‘holding

forth’ (what Confucius called ‘gentleness’).  ‘Warm and soft / heavy
and broad: / the teaching of poetry.’  You yourself couldn’t say why

    you were here again.  The family sitting opposite you
    in the bus was reading a brochure about the place

you were born.  ‘Withered wisteria, aging tree and dusk crow /
Small bridge; water flows by people’s homes / Old road, west

    wind, thinning horse / The sun’s in the west /
    We, torn apart, are scattered near the land’s end.’

You were once well travelled.  From the North to the South, you’d climbed
all the ‘famous’ mountains.  Now you were lost in your own.

    The road smelt of wet wood and mushroom.
    Your trainers went splish-splosh in the mud.

‘A pinch of rice / a sip of water / lie down / my arm / for a pillow /
Like this / Like joy / in loneliness … / Like me / this moving cloud.’

    You paused on the missing beat.
    You tripped on an unstable stone.

You hurt your knee but not too badly.  You sat down. The strokes came together
into characters:  ‘water / flow / heart / no / chase / clouds / here /

    mind / slow’.  It is Tu Fu, you thought,
    in English.  As good as it could be.

‘Could be’: the way this language fostered possibility in the past tense.
The way you were spelling everything out and keeping your lips

    tight, your mother tongue.  Sitting here,
    you found the stream and the clouds.

‘The heart has no wish / to keep pace with the stream.
Clouds move slowly in your mind.’  And ‘in your mind’

you thought they were slow, yet could they be
moving even slower than you thought?

Nothing seems to resolve, but then ‘nothing’ is a resolution.
You sat here.  And so it was.   Letting the stream run and the clouds move.

    山窮水盡疑無路   柳暗花明又一村
    You walk on.  The traveller’s left behind.

(First published in The Rialto.)
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