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— 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.









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



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


—向畢曉普(Elizabeth Bishop)致敬


















































Translator's Note

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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