Red Flower, Chinese Silences

Review of Jenny Tseng’s Red Flower, White Flower (Marick Press, 2013 (Translated by Mengying Han and Aaron Crippen) and Timothy Yu’s 100 Chinese Silences (Les Figues, 2016) by Cyril Wong

Writing as a racial minority can be riddled with deep-seated ambivalences that inevitably inform–or sometimes dominate–one’s aesthetic choices and thematic concerns. At a more superficial level of cultural subjectivity in the context of poetry and its interpretation, one person’s cliché could be another’s timeless source of profundity. Depending on your social conditioning and your literary biases, a reader has to face multiple challenges of reading from and beyond one’s preferences while also remembering that such preferences have already been shaped by one’s own cultural position. Any pretension to “greater objectivity” can become synonymous with snobbery, arrogance, or unintended and unchecked racism very quickly when making a decision about whether certain artistic works are “good” or “better” than others, particularly when cultural differences and inequalities have not been taken into fuller consideration.

Reading Jenny Tseng’s and Timothy Yu’s poetry from the point of view of a racial majority in Singapore, where I never had to face the complicated pressures of addressing “Chinese-ness” in my writing as these Asian-American authors have assuredly been required to as par for the course, I had to check my prejudices at the door and navigate through their poems with (I hope) a more inclusivist and broadened perspective. In Tseng’s Red Flower, White Flower, alternating between poems in Chinese and English translations, the speaker frequently addresses a “you” that borders rhetorically on the apostrophic mode. The poems are often about love, the figurative or temporal distance between loved ones, and the desire to bridge that distance through words. To my mind, when reading the poems in Chinese, an overwhelming sense of melodrama does not occur in the same way as when I am reading the poems in English; sometimes, the reverse may also happen.

In “Stem of the Hybrid Perpetual”, for instance, not just the title but lines like “Throat of happiness, / singer of flames, music / of red & white … Suitor of heaven, / child of earth … ” fill me with ambivalence regarding their naked effusiveness and predictable imagery; elements that are somewhat tempered (not by much, at times) when re-encountered in the Chinese version. Perhaps poems that present an unexpected idea coupled with the convincing authenticity of personal feeling simply make a deeper impression on me as a reader, like “I Only Write Love Poems for Strangers”: “I only write love poems for strangers & fools … for apples that redden then fall / to their knees … None of them love me. It’s okay. / My poem wants to love / if it wants anything.” That paradoxical dimension of love as both irrational and essential is captured whimsically, more plainspokenly, with yet a painful yearning pushing against the seams that both grounds and lifts the poem majestically at the same time.

Was it necessary (stemming from having to cater to a particular demographic of American readers, perhaps) to sound more “on-the-nose” or descriptively effusive in the English versions of some of these poems? Was such effusiveness inevitable in English, but rendered more distant by the ideogrammatic nature of the Chinese rendition? Such concerns, coupled with further nuances of subjectivity across individual readers within any given culture, have bearing on how the poem “works” or is understood. Sometimes, a more evocative alliteration evident in the Chinese pronunciation is merely captured (less impressively) as repetitive or hypnotic in the English version, such as the line, “a river / flows / a river flows / to empty” in “Elegy Traveling South on the Pearl River” (vowels extend more meditatively to convey a river evoked in the Chinese text). Translation can be a compromise. But sometimes for Tseng, in both of the English and Chinese versions, a near-perfect balance of ineffable insight, imagistic succinctness, emotional restraint and philosophical thoughtfulness is struck in either language, like in the poem “Legacy”:

Did you ever dream you could walk
watching dolphins & seals
while he lies dressed in a cheap suit,
deep in the coast of the same sea?

You are free. You have
time to bury your suffering,
to walk by the sea.

In comparison, Timothy Yu’s 100 Chinese Silences is more forthright, more adversarial and deliciously bitchy, in tackling prejudices surrounding “Chinese-ness” in Western-centric poetry than about conveying the delicateness of bridging differences between English and Chinese poetic modes or frames of thought. American poets from Ezra Pound to Billy Collins and even a translator like Eliot Weinberger (known to me primarily for his translations of Bei Dao’s poems; having met Bei Dao, I had been assured by the poet himself that Weinberger is, in fact, his “favourite translator”) are skewered–not without irony–for their literary essentialisms in Yu’s funny, acerbic and lyrically-charged writing. Specific poems by American poets, like Billy Collins’ “Monday”, are yanked down from their high horses while Yu plays up familiar stereotypes to comedic and mordant effect. In Collins’ absurdly racist poem, “Chinese poets (are) looking up at the moon”. As such, Yu writes in sarcastic response, “The Italians are making their pasta, / the French are making things French, / and the Chinese cultivate their silence … ” As Yu is inclined to rant, he carries on relentlessly, ” … what Crocodile Dundee is to the Australian … so is silence to the Chinese … “.

Sometimes the irony feels too much or the criticisms too unwavering: Yu is anything but silent about the stereotyping he encounters, not just in poetry but in real life; in “Chinese Silence No. 26”, for example, he jokes, “(If) you have an Asian wife / maybe she’s not just a gold-digger”. To communicate “with Chinese silence” is Pound’s idea. So Yu, perhaps too protractedly in every poem, commits the opposite of verbal restraint in his inclination to mock and scold, but not without having something epic, something monumentally layered yet poignant to say about the migrant experience too; in “Chinese Silence No. 62”, Yu writes, “We come from every boat that’s turned / away … our words / a mute graffiti before the barrack’s burned … to whisper words / like wind through the American grain … “.

Yu’s poetry is not mere wind, but a howling hurricane blowing dramatically across the American literary landscape, descrying and decrying racism and stupidity while making us giggle and marvel at his metaphors and imagery in equal measure. These are poems to be read out loud (as rants often are) and with plenty of implicit eye-rolling to enjoy between stanzas. But the best poems, to my mind, are those that reveal the poet’s private struggles with cultural ambivalence in the midst of attacking or addressing injustices committed by another writer, such as in “Chinese Silence No. 77”:

… watching your poems grow
Nostalgic about us
That we discover it is
To ever become
One hundred percent American …

My mind’s not as silent as it used to be either.
There is all this ching-chong chatter.

None of us can shake our Chinese lives.

I mean American: I meant fake:

The fractured quality of the lines, the ironic neutralisation of “Chinese-ness” and “American” or their necessary confusion as similar notions, as simply artificial, incomplete or “fake”, the giving up on any possible sentimentalisation regarding the harmonious co-existence of cultural differences inside the poetic speaker’s mind, all of these elements make the poem both tragic and uncompromisingly funny. My other favourite pieces in Yu’s collection similarly make me hurt to laugh–and make me glad for it, while also leaving me begging for more. 


Cyril Wong is a poet, fictionist, and critic in Singapore. His last book of poems, The Lover’s Inventory, received the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize.