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Sestina
— A tribute to Elizabeth Bishop

Even the loudest thunder cannot shake the fruits

on the wampee tree, where raindrops one by one gather weight

and in an absent-minded moment suddenly fall, like days

shattering in a row. Mother looks up but still hears no sound

and suddenly raises a trembling right hand to draw a house

as if hoping, amidst a rising fear, to rebuild a dream.

 

Mother insists the man in black by her bed was not a dream;

even if bats invert night and day, wampee fruits remain fruits.

To stop memory’s layers from gradually leaving the house,

she salts the vegetables even more, giving each bowl more weight,

and keeps returning to the garden to pick up the sound

of gravel and falling leaves, locking them up like circled calendar days.

 

Father recounts how wood burned in stoves back in mother’s days,

coffins were placed on beams, steaming brown rice lifted dreams

from cracks. Mother could only write her name, relying on the sound

of other voices to read. She stayed in Guangzhou, where sour fruits

grew even after cicadas stopped singing. Grab some mud, its weight

a mystery, then a brick wall, aged green. Loneliness is our old brick house.

 

This thirteen and a half foot space is filling up like that house

on the field with poultry, with tables of dishes in disarray, days

connected by root and blood, and the deserted tables’empty weight.

“Go, go, go!” By chance, father repeats what mother utters in her dreams

then thunder swallows his voice, and on the wampee trees are fruits

even vultures wouldn’t eat. In the park, we hear only the rain’s sound.

 

When Mother returned, it was as if she hadn’t, making no sound.

The water in the well didn’t ripple, streaks of rain didn’t enter the house.

Then the rice cooker switches on, garlic fills the air. A wampee fruit

is turned over by the dust pan, then unpeeled bites of unpitted days,

then fresh water, a trench, plates stacked on plates, a bed without a dream.

It seems the steps we took have been retraced, adding no weight.

 

When thunder is at its loudest, does the sky press a certain weight

on the mortal world? The drawer opens suddenly without a sound,

the photo album flips open, sketches fade into grayscale dreams

of people in black who pass through the closet to bear up the house,

walking far away, becoming a gray mountain path that bears up the days

we got through with difficulty, fading out like wampee fruits.

 

“Bring it back.” In my dream, mother holds up ripe wampee fruits

and the sound of her voice tastes like rain. Must the accumulated days

of lightning storms carry such weight? In the rain stands a bright house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mosquitoes

I don’t know when we began eating at a nearby restaurant,

not wanting to trouble mother during New Year’s and other family gatherings,

 

until the time we spent in the old house grew shorter

and the mosquitoes swarming in from all directions grew fiercer,

 

forming a herd, ready to risk it all, flying so close I could

clearly see the space between their fuzzy antennae

 

and empty

stomachs

 

I slap, slap the empty air without pause. Mother goes about

as usual or gossips with us, utterly indifferent to a house full of mosquitoes

 

About time to set off, mother. But mother comes out massaging her belly

and says no, face dimmed by lamplight, her stomach is upset

 

Because perhaps, after seeing the white hair on her temples this afternoon,

she ate some of the vermicelli left out since breakfast

 

Why didn’t she warm it up why didn’t she microwave it before taking a bite?

Mother stayed home on the night of the winter solstice, refusing our company

 

I saw a sky of mosquitoes slowly, slowly land on the walls of the old house,

the kitchen counter, the chairs, the desks, the cups, the bowls, the chopsticks…

 

Time belongs to them, now. Over the phone, father says mother is asleep,

don’t worry, and my head starts to ache on the West Rail Line

 

as if I were in the old house with mosquitoes invading my skull over and over,

thin wings quivering at high frequency, piercing through a pain I had forgotten



View Original Work ↓

《六節詩》

—向畢曉普(Elizabeth Bishop)致敬

 

雷聲最響的時候也沒有驚動樹上的黃皮
雨水溜過一顆一顆,在末端凝聚重量
然後在失神的一刻倏然墜落,好像日子
逐一碎散。母親抬頭,還是聽不到任何聲音
偶然提起右手,顫顫指劃眼前的房子
像要在早前歷歷的怖慄中,重塑一個夢

 

母親那時仍堅持說,床邊的黑衣人絕不是夢
蝙蝠即使顛倒了日夜,黃皮依然是黃皮
她要提防纍纍的記憶逐一遠離房子
於是為菜肴下更多的鹽,為碗碟添加重量
不斷往返園門,撿回碎石與落葉的聲音
鎖起來,像月曆上,一個一個圈著的日子

 

父親又再重述,母親年輕時待在家鄉的日子
柴在灶裡,棺在樑上,糙米蒸出夾縫中的夢
那時母親剛學曉寫姓名,來信,須旁人讀出聲音
然後滯留廣州,蟬鳴過後,樹上還是酸澀的黃皮
抓一把泥,雨水中也不知增添多少重量
然後是磚牆,古得發綠,孤獨也像家鄉的土房子

 

如今這裡的十三呎半,也層層壘疊得有若那房子
田地在下,禽畜在中,根與血相連的那些日子
疊加一桌桌菜肴與狼藉,以及人散後空桌的重量
「去,去,去!」父親偶然也轉述母親的開口夢
然後給雷聲隱去,樹上是連飢鳥也不再吃的黃皮
在雨水中,諦聽園門內外,也只有雨水的聲音

 

母親回來的時候,像沒有回來般不發任何聲音
水井的漣淪也沒動,雨痂也沒有走進房子
然後電飯煲按了掣,蒜出香,箕側翻出一顆黃皮
然後是沒有剝離的咀嚼,連皮帶肉的日子
然後是清水,渠溝,碗歸碗碟歸碟,一床無夢
離去的步履也像回來,沒有增添更多重量

 

雷聲最響的時候天空有沒有一定的重量
打在人間?抽屜突然打開了,沒有聲音
照片冊也打開了,人工的描色褪回黑白的夢

一襲一襲都是黑衣人,穿過衣櫃,揹起房子
揹起那些不易走過也已走過的日子
走遠,成一道灰色的山線,淡去,一如黃皮


「帶回去吧。」夢中母親捧出剛摘的飽滿的黃皮
聲音中有雨水的味道,風雷光影交相鬱積的日子
是要繼續承載那重量嗎?雨餘中一座明亮的房子

 

 

《蚊蚋》

 

不知從哪時起我們不想母親操勞

逢年過節便到附近的酒樓吃飯

 

所以留在老屋的時間便比以前短

從四面八方湧來的蚊蚋便比往常兇

 

都像豁出去的樣子,成群蚊蚋飛到我可以

清楚看到牠們毛茸茸的觸鬚和空腹

 

的距

 

我不斷往空氣拍打,拍打。母親如常走過

間或跟我們閑話,渾然不覺滿屋是蚊

 

要起行了,母親。母親卻揉著肚子出來

說不去了,燈火漸暗的臉,說剛拉過肚子

 

可能是因為,鬢上未染的髮腳露白,今天下午

吃了一些,早餐未吃完擱在那裡久了的米粉

 

為甚麼不溫熱呢為甚麼不用微波爐叮呢?

冬至夜母親一人留守在家,拒絕了我們

 

我看到漫天蚊蚋很慢很慢地落在老屋的牆上

櫉上、椅上、桌上、杯上、碗上、筷子上…

 

時間是牠們的了。父親在電話上說母親睡了

不用擔心,而我在西鐵快線上開始感到頭疼

 

好像回老屋一次便多一次蚊子侵進我的頭顱

高頻震動的薄翼刺穿一種遺忘了的痛

Translator Notes

As a reader, I was drawn to these two poems by the Hong Kong poet Chung Kwok Keung for the ways in which they explore a mother-son relationship in poignant, warm, and vivid ways. As a translator, I was also struck by how Chung both includes and invites translation in his creative process, particularly in a poem such as “Sestina” that renders a traditionally French form so beautifully in Chinese.

“Sestina” appears in Chung’s latest poetry collection, A Bright House Standing in Light Rain (2018), although it was written years earlier. The poem is a tribute to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem of the same name, and similar images recur in both: the rain, a stove, a mother, a house. Both poems are also thematically connected by a sense of impending grief. Yet Chung’s poem stands on its own, and is remarkable for its detailed sketches of vivid scenes, as well as the different levels of sound that penetrate the poem’s soundscape. Due to the conciseness and compactness of the Chinese language, each line is able to carry more weight such that—as is written in the poem—every stanza “one by one gather[s] weight.” Translating a sestina very much resembles writing one—one hopes to avoid bloating stanzas, using extraneous words, or forcing end-word placements. Chung himself (who has also translated sestinas before) has written about the form’s intricacies, and the challenges it poses in translation. I found maintaining the poem’s form through the transformations and transposals of translation instructive for both the craft of composing and translating poetry.

A mother figure is also at the center of “Mosquitoes,” which appeared in Chung’s poetry collection Everydayness (2012), among a group of poems influenced in part by Seamus Heaney’s Clearances, an elegiac sonnet sequence he wrote in memory of his mother. Formally speaking, “Mosquitoes” is a ‘lighter’ poem that “Sestina.” It is even playful in the way it puns on the insect (the sound the microwave makes is a “叮” ding, which is also the character that denotes a mosquito’s bite) and uses onomatopoeia (“拍打,拍打” pai da, pai da, “slap, slap”). And yet, the poem also gathers weight in its own way, and becomes full of loneliness and nostalgia as the speaker draws a connection between the buzzing, nagging presence of mosquitoes he cannot ignore, and his feelings towards his home and his mother. The boundaries between mosquitoes, mother, and memory often seem blurred in the poem, such that the emotions associated with all three sting at the same time, and with familiar urgency. For the speaker, escaping the past is impossible—mosquitoes pierce through a pain he thought he had forgotten.

As is the case with many of Chung’s poems, “Sestina” and “Mosquitoes” evoke feelings of tenderness that—like the local wampee fruit and familiar buzz of winged insects—sing of home. Both poems use form and sound in careful, deliberate ways that demonstrate Chung’s attention to detail and his ability to strike a chord in readers’ memory. A fearless, experimental, and honest writer, Chung is a formidable force in Hong Kong’s contemporary poetry scene.


May Huang

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