Reviews / March 2013 (Issue 20)

More than Meets the Eye: Sky Lanterns and The New Village

by Michael Tsang


Wong Yoon Wah, (trans. Ho Lian Geok and Ng Yi-Sheng), The New Village, Ethos Books, 2012. 155 pgs.

Frank Stewart and Fiona Sze-Lorrain (eds.), Sky Lanterns: New Poetry from China, Formosa and Beyond, University of Hawai'i Press, 2012. 227 pgs.

Despite featuring English translations which do not always succeed in complementing their original Chinese versions, the two collections under review still succeed based on the impressive qualities of the originals.

Written between 1996 and 1997, Wong Yoon Wah's The New Village is a bouquet of poems on his experiences growing up in a highly guarded Malaysian New Village. (Built in the 1950s during the waning days of British colonial rule in Malaysia, the villages were a programme of forced resettlement designed to stop residents from aiding and mingling with the Malayan Communist Party.) I consider The New Village a bouquet, not merely a collection, because some poems consist of several vignettes on a certain object or event which, in their arrangement, form a richly layered and authentic account of this segment of Malaysian history.

No one should read The New Village rashly. To do justice to Wong's turbulent childhood and to fully appreciate his powerful mediation of turmoil and youthful innocence, one must understand the history of the Malayan Emergency and the war between the British and the Chinese communists. Helpfully, the well-known Singaporean poet Edwin Thumboo delivers an informative introduction, providing key historical background of this period and other sociocultural contexts. Every poem in the collection is also accompanied by a note that supplies further information.

The poems early in the collection often extol the botanical beauty of the Malayan rainforests where Wong grew up. These works are extremely beautiful and imaginative. Wong is a master at metaphors; his imagery is vivid and can be easily visualised, allowing readers to envisage species unique to the tropics. Another technique Wong uses is juxtaposition. He particularly likes to put together adjectives that describe gruesomeness and beauty, as in "a tale of resurrection," which describes how prawn crackers are fried:

a small white lump
of lonely prawn-soul
tossed in turbulent tidal waves
struggled for a moment
then suddenly awoke
like a massive lotus blossom
after a tropical rainstorm
surfacing from its pond
or like a growing cloud
floating in the blue sky

Any pity felt for the prawn's personified soul vanishes at the beauty of its "resurrection."

In these early poems, one can sense Wong's passion for nature—a passion comparable to the British colonialists' love for flowers—through his careful observation and expressive descriptions of tropical plants. Take "pitcher plant" for example. This poem, one of my favourites, is subtitled "hanging a beautiful trap in the sky" and describes the titular plant thus:

because temptation
is a beautiful flower
I paint the distant rainbow on my lips
with the fragrant honey syrup in my mouth
and my smile molded into a blossom
the jungle shadows' insects
often mistake
my trap for a gaudy wildflower
they fly towards me, one by one
the struggles of a fly
stir the fine wine in to a pool of toxic liquid
the panicked rush of frogs, scorpions and rats
knock the wineglass into an abyss
only ants witness
the legendary drowning in a wineglass

This is a botanical femme fatale, enigmatic, seductive yet deadly—the plant's wineglass-shaped cavity a tomb for insects. In the accompanying note, Wong justifies the flower's deception as necessary for survival, and he compares the plant's harsh environment with his own: "likewise, only a long-suffering but hardy person like myself could survive in such an impoverished tropical land."

Unfortunately, the innocent child in awe of nature and the prawns' "resurrection" is soon thrown into the hardships of the New Village. When the collection's later works move onto these haunting experiences, the poetry becomes blunt, direct and descriptive (although there is much more in the works than initially meets the eye.) Strangely, perhaps, for a record of personal experiences, there is no outpouring of haunted memories. Instead, these later poems often adopt personae—of a villager, a colonial officer or a communist—and recount, in their diverse perspectives, humiliating body searches, betrayed friendships, political propaganda and horrid death scenes. Here are two mild samples:

RAF planes fly in from Singapore
the 93rd Battery rushes down from Kuala Lumpur
bombs and shells
plunge into the depths of the Pahang forest
exploding day and night
the only casualties are innocent mountain trees             ("mountain rain")

as Michael thirsts with the jungle squad guns
water spurts form the undergrowth
cool droplets on his body
explode into sudden bullets
Michael discovers this trickling moisture
is neither sweat nor spring water
but flesh blood ("spray and bullets")

The latter vignette almost has a sense of dark humour. Thus, once we scratch through the objective description on the surface, we feel the strong will of the villagers to refuse to be bothered by the warfare around them. In another poem, "a hand grenade in a tropical fruit basket," a mother tells her child that the heavy rifles in her room are "special presents/for a colonial Christmas." It is in this ability to find comfort and humour amidst suffering that one comprehends the villagers' courageous effort to keep life in the New Village as normal as possible. Through the latter part of the book, the reader comes to understand why Wong claims to be a "hardy" man; he is determined not to let his memories haunt him.

Thumboo writes that Wong has turned "the variedly rich, complex, textured, body of his experience—personal in origin, objectified by art—into the 53 poems of The New Village." The power of the poet's work, however, can be felt much more in the Chinese originals—thanks to Wong's mastery of Chinese poetics—than in the accompanying English translations. Except for a few well-translated moments, the English versions in general fail to illuminate the readers on the connotations of the Chinese originals. Although Wong's blunt and descriptive verse does not always suggest multiple interpretations—his Chinese diction designed more to allow readers to paint pictures in their minds and visualise the situations—the translators do fail to capture some of the double meanings which do arise. In "pitcher plant," one part reads "the tropical jungle is humid and tedious/washed each day by wind and rainstorms" (my italics). But Wong's original word, "洗劫" (xijie), consists of two Chinese characters meaning "washed" and "robbed." That the soils are not only being washed but also robbed of minerals heightens the plants' harsh struggle for survival. On several occasions, the translators also ignore useful quantifiers (also called measure words) in the originals. In "a tale of resurrection," a line reads "my sister used a pair of long chopsticks/to cast each lonely prawn-soul/into a wok of boiling oil," leaving out the Chinese quantifier for "prawn," "—缕缕" (yi lülü), which means "curly strand" and could have enhanced the sense of the prawns' sacrifice. Unfortunately, the translations do not do enough justice to Wong's powerful poetry.

Similar to The New Village, the biggest pitfalls for Sky Lanterns lie in its translations. This collection of "new poetry from China, Formosa, and beyond," according to its subtitle, features an impressive line-up of Chinese writers that spans widely across temporal and geographical space—from Tang poet Li Shangyin to famous contemporary poet Bei Dao, and from poets of the Chinese diaspora to those from mainland China to writers from Tibet. "Chinese" here thus refers broadly to shared indicators of ethnicity and culture, and certainly not only the People's Republic of China.

Despite its issues with translation, this volume is a thoughtful production. Apart from its wide temporal and geographical reach, the editors have also made an effort to maintain gender balance by incorporating the works of many female writers. I also appreciate their attempt to introduce less popular and well-known authors. Another one of the most prominent features of the collection is its excellent incorporation of multiple genres. Despite being a volume of "new poetry," the book in fact is more like a journal of the arts, containing four essays, a piece of fiction and 18 photos by the Chinese photographer Luo Dan. Luo's exquisite pictures capture some of the experiences of minorities living in China's Yunnan Province, introducing to the outside world some of China's rich but silenced ethnic cultures.

The essays in this volume are of excellent quality. "Ancient Enmity," Bei Dao's heartfelt call for writers to engage in a constant critique of sociopolitical systems and mundane use of language, opens the volume and serves as a timely reminder that literature is not only about aesthetics. "Rinchen, the Sky-Burial Master," a portrait of a sky-burial master by Tibetan writer Woeser, also stands out. The piece offers an honest reflection, not only on death and spirituality but also, through the author's encounter with the burial master, on the dearness of human acquaintance and friendship. Woeser writes that she has seen people leading "meaningless lives with no sense of belonging," but "on this seemingly unchanging—and yet seemingly ever-changing—Horra grassland," Richen "is simply Rinchen." This reminds me of the saying, "one only knows life through knowing death." As a dissector of corpses, Rinchen certainly knows death, and by extension, life: he respects, values and, therefore, gains life.

As for the poems, Yang Lian's "Baby Girl" is particularly striking. It begins:

you're so small you're not worth that chill   water choking
pocket-sized lungs   pocket-sized explosions fresh and tender
you're so small you're not worth breaking   in an eyeblink
bloody streaks diffuse into red flowers   each one welcoming mother

The abortion being described seems so real, and the effect is heightened by the juxtaposition of the quick vigour of "pocket-sized explosions" and the slow flowing of "bloody streaks." As we read on, we learn that

tied to the womb   your eyes
closed to witness your final moment   your fate
is a chain of bubbles of denial   the wailing bulge of your sex
all of your organs stamped prohibited

you have to die   for the possibility of a younger brother
die right away …

The subject of critique (to observe Bei Dao's teaching)—the aborting of female babies in China and other parts of Asia in favour of males ones—should be clear by now, but the use of caesura (a pause in the middle of a line) and enjambment (a sentence continued on the next line) are the true gems of the poem. The caesura breaks the lines into different lengths, and this variation can represent a lot of different things: from labour pains to a mother's weeping elegy. The enjambment, on the other hand, lengthens the poem, as if the mother is trying to prolong her daughter's unborn life. This is particularly evident in the last two lines I have quoted. The phrase "for the possibility of a younger brother" could form a complete sentence with either the introductory phrase "you have to die" or with the succeeding phrase "die right away," yet the reader can choose to read both ways, further stretching out the experience. The multiple ways of comprehending the poem perhaps testifies to the mother's ambivalence and reluctance to murder her baby girl. Such mature use of formal stylistics is quite rare among the poems in this book and makes "Baby Girl" stand out.

Many other poems display a fervent love for life. Yi Lu's poem "Is There Such an Eagle" would read like a call for humanism if we substituted "eagle" with "human":

Is there an eagle who wants to squat down
pities a hen laying eggs in a straw shed
Is there an eagle who dares to scorn the sky
does not cry when it rains
Is there an eagle   who knows a bitter heart
worries for its sick baby   suffers from depression
says I'm so tired
Why do people always think an eagle is a male
Is there an eagle whose feathers flutter
lies on a hill   tells the grass
All my strength is exhausted
I can't fly the whole sky

If there were indeed such an eagle, it must be full of experience and wisdom. The direct speech adds a touch of sentimentality not always seen in Wong's poems in The New Village.

Similarly, Duo Yu's "The Last Darkness" contemplates the hardships in life:

the place lit by a lamp
is the village of God, but to reach there
still a forest to go through
you must be ready anytime
to carry my corpse out
light loves lamp
sparks love dead ashes
only great love
can love disasters

The speaker makes it clear that the great love between "you" and "I" and the sense of hope, exemplified by the lamp and God's village, are the only thing that can get any of us through disasters. Like Wong's works, this poem exhibits a determined toughness towards life.

The editors make it a point to avoid the "politics" of translation, believing that less is more. Clearly this is an unapproachable ideal, since in the conscious process of thinking how to translate less but tell more, the translator is already tampering with the amount of information that will be conveyed. Perhaps as a result of this strategy, the translations in this volume generally suffer from inconsistency. Sometimes, they are mechanical translations that sound unnatural in English, such as breaking up the phrase "一月弯刀" (yi yue wandao) into two components—"a moon a sickle" ("The Tibetan"). This image could have perhaps been more naturally rendered as "a sickle-shaped moon." 

At other times, parts of the poem are deliberately left untranslated, such as the parallel structure in "To Osip Mandelstam":

Today I'll bear your eccentricity
shoulder your innocence
heighten your tragedy

A direct translation, however, should read something like:

Today, is a day I bear your eccentricity
Today, is a day I shoulder your innocence
Today, is a day I heighten your tragedy

Although the English translation is more succinct (i.e. less is more), it loses the repetition and sense of ritual in the original. If, as the editor writes in her prefatory note, "[a] dish speaks most for itself when the chef chooses to stay in the kitchen," then I believe there is every reason to retain the parallel structure in the poem.

Another example of omission is the onomatopoeia in "Concerning the Weather, February 24…". The English translation reads "concerning wild cursive calligraphy of sea/writing and tearing non-stop." However, the Chinese original uses the words "嘩嘩" (wa-wa) to imitate the movement and sound of sea waves, and the omission bars the reader from fully appreciating the poem's sonic quality. There are also a couple of blatant mistranslations in the same poem, including miswriting "February 14" as "February 24" and "6.2 seconds" as "6 minutes and 2 seconds." Many other translations are also wanting, and their additions and omissions only contradict the editor's policy of keeping the translation simple.

Unfortunately for English readers, it would be best to savour both of these collections in their original Chinese. There is also more than meets the translation in the two volumes, such as their common attitudes towards life, which also do not come forth easily in the English versions. The originals, however, do not disappoint.

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