Friday 28 January 2022

'In the Same Light'? New translations of Tang poetry by Wong May

 Guest review by Daryl Lim Wei Jie

Wong May, the poet behind In the Same Light, a collection of two hundred Tang Dynasty poems in translation, is something of a legendary figure. Born in Chongqing, China during the Second World War, she subsequently moved to Singapore with her mother and siblings. After being involved in the fledgling poetry scene at the University of Malaya (now the National University of Singapore), she moved to America, attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1966 to 1968, and published three remarkable poetry collections in America, under the Harcourt imprint. She moved to Europe in the 60s and now lives in Ireland; according to the biography in this book, she paints under the name Ittrium Coey. In 2014, her fourth collection of poems, Picasso’s Tears, was published after a silence of 36 years. 

Wong’s migrations were on my mind as I read this book, which is subtitled 'From the Migrants and Exiles of the Tang Dynasty'. After all, the sense of belonging to a Chinese diaspora, and the complexities of that position, ties us – Wong , myself, and many others. (When Wong writes about “us” in her Afterword, it is clear she means and identifies with “us Chinese”). Wong can be situated in a long tradition of diasporic writers who have written poetry primarily in English, but have productively engaged with the classical Chinese tradition. (Malaysian poet Wong Phui Nam and his translations of the Tang poets come to mind, as do Singaporean Joshua Ip’s perverse anti-translations in his recent collection translations to the tanglish, and this reviewer’s own adventures with Bai Juyi.) As China increasingly enters the imagination of the West, sometimes on its own terms, and too often as lurid phantasm, one wonders if Chinese diasporic writers are drawn to Tang poetry as an act of cultural ambassadorship – not necessarily for China, but for broader Chinese culture(s). At the very least, China’s growing prominence seems to have sparked some introspection and (perhaps I speak for myself here) a desire to rediscover this heritage on our own terms. 

It may be unusual to begin a review by focusing on the translator. But one cannot help but notice Wong’s presence, even as she repeatedly disclaims it in the Afterword: “The translator should ideally be the missing person”, she writes; and elsewhere, “Poetry is what requires no translation”. Yet this extraordinary Afterword, titled ‘The Numbered Passages of a Rhinoceros in the China Shop’, is a magnificent, peculiar tour de force that spans nearly a hundred pages, and the book is transformed by its existence. It is probably why you should buy this book. In fact, I’d recommend that any reader start there, because the translations are imbued with fresh significance after the Afterword.

It is the key to the book; it is also somewhat beyond summary. In some ways it is a frenzied guided tour of a quixotic memory palace-museum like no other: Wong tells us about the Tang poets she translates, and offers interpretations and appreciations of their work. She also provides snippets of her own life; we learn that her mother was a Classical Chinese poet, and that the noted Singaporean calligrapher and poet Pan Shou was a familiar presence in childhood: “Uncle Pan, in whose voice I first heard Du Fu’s”. She curates imaginary display cabinets to accompany the poems: one, labelled ‘Specimens’, has “Cliff honeycomb, winter bamboo shoot, purple taro & corn, fiddlehead greens, vetch and wild chestnut. Foraging with Du Fu on the famine road.” Ezra Pound, that false friend of the classical Chinese poets, makes an appearance, of course; so does an interpolating illustrated rhinoceros figure, who provides laconic commentary on the Afterword. She discusses repeatedly a philosophy of reading and understanding poetry, exemplified in the Chinese words 入神 (rù shén) and 出神 (chū shén), the former meaning “to enter the spirit” and the latter meaning “to exit the spirit”. When reading, we are told, “one enters the world, or the world enters you.” At the end, we are ushered into a gift shop, where the Tang poets and their poems are paired with Western artists on souvenir tea towels, all of them “Made in China”. Here’s one: “Blue fields. Warm sun. Smoke rises where jade lies buried. Fat of some land. The blue fields of Li Shangyin shall always be Van Gogh, smoke semaphoring in cross stitch needlepoint kit, colour threads included”.

One cannot help but beguiled by this performance: it’s entrancing, and entirely sincere. At times it overpowered my own scepticism about Wong’s easy comparisons between the Tang poets and the Western canon, such as parallels between Li He’s poetry and Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci, or King Lear and Wang Wei’s poetry. Perhaps more generally, as an Anglophone writer from Singapore who still feels with some heat the distinctions between the centres and peripheries of Anglophone writing and publishing, I am unable to agree to Wong’s proposition that the translator’s task is simply to “return the text to the body of world literature, the world in which all have our origin”. I can only aspire to such ecumenism, but my experience speaks against it, my heavy awareness of distinctions drawn repeatedly between the “local” and “international”. 

Moving to the translations themselves, one immediate question is: why this selection? In terms of the poets chosen and the number of poems translated, weight is given to the conventionally well-regarded, such as Du Fu, Li Bai, Wang Wei, Meng Hao Ran, Bai Juyi and Li Shangyin.* (Some others have just a single poem featured.) Du Fu’s selection is the most extensive, and sheds light on Wong’s intentions in selection: poems of exile and wandering, as well as poems about Du Fu’s well-known friendship with Li Bai, feature prominently. 

In the Afterword, Wong remarks that “In China … the image of the poet is indissolubly linked with exile.” The exilic condition of the Tang poet has been celebrated for centuries: the poet miles away from his family and home, due to war or banishment; who struggles to find home; who finds home in friendship with other poets; who finds home where there is poetry and wine. It is perhaps no surprise that emigrant writers, and in particular, the Chinese diaspora, have found Tang poetry so emotionally resonant. (We see this in Wong’s own concerns: her haunting poem ‘Sleeping with Tomatoes’ documents the tragic plight of fifty-eight Chinese migrants who suffocated in a van while being trafficked.) A poignant demonstration of this exilic condition is provided by the first poet featured, Liu Zongyuan, in Wong’s translation: 

Troubled by little

                        Haply a guest
                        Am I 

                        The tree haply
                        My host. 

In the translations of Du Fu’s numerous poems to Li Bai, Wong achieves a perfect balance between lament, longing and love: 

A thousand autumns –
                             We can cope with.

& yet
& yet to deal with the paraphernalia

Of this life
                As if one were dead,

            How friendless is that. 

Another theme is poetry itself as a subject, as shown in this Bai Juyi poem:


So my verse takes me
Far from the world’s mockery
       Singing madly
To the mountains 

It  worries me.

Also notable are two rare female Tang poets: Yu Xuanji and Xue Tao. Across the centuries, Wong May, herself a pioneering female poet, gives voice to Yu Xuanji’s frustrations and impossible ambitions as she looks at a list of those who have passed the civil service examinations:


                                    & how I hate the clothes
I stand in,
The cloth they are made of.
            They cover up much.

A woman’s poems too
Are something to hide?

Poetry alas,
& much more besides.

        Lifting my head
I went through
The list of names 

With plain envy.

Much of the striking verve of these translations can be credited to Wong’s style, and I would like to point out three aspects of this method: the use of space, the freshness of voice, and the willingness to go beyond the text.

The first is well-demonstrated by the examples above: space restores to Tang poetry the necessary emphasis and significance of each character, much harder to achieve in English. If we look again at Liu Zongyuan’s poem above, and compare it to another translation below, it is the inspired use of form that brilliantly conveys the forlornness of the scene, and restores emphasis to the two key words in the second line quoted here: (“guest”) and (“host”).

On the second point, Wong often draws the Tang poets far closer to us through colloquial diction, such as in (yet another) Du Fu poem about “Not Seeing Li Bai”:

Am I alone in loving that talent
Goddamn talent
One would wish on no man? 

This injection of contemporary freshness brings us naturally to the third point on going beyond the original text. If we revisit Bai’s Juyi poem on poetry (《山中独吟》; 'Singing Madly in the Mountains'), it is clear that the last line in Wong’s translation isn’t present in the original, but it is precisely what provides the translation’s dramatic effect.

Whether this translation aligns with the spirit of the original is possibly a matter of taste, but the surprise achieved by Wong’s startling transmutation of the original is undeniable. (Aficionados of Wong’s poetry may find it reminiscent of her verse, e.g. “Poetry / rots my teeth”.) 

I started this review with Wong May, and I wish to go back to her, because she is an inescapable presence in this book. 

Wong has been a ghost in Singapore’s poetic canon, and as writers and readers have dug more deeply into our literary history, we rediscovered Wong, who was hitherto barely known, yet right there from the beginning, in the early post-independence years. (Happily, Wong is now featured in the online encyclopedia of Singapore poetry,** As we read, a few of us were increasingly taken, even a little obsessed, with her work, which seemed singular for its time. I found myself buying her out-of-print books second-hand, shipping them from America. One day, my order of A Bad Girl’s Book of Animals (1969) arrived. It was from a university library in South Carolina and I found, to my astonishment, that it was autographed (and dedicated to Denise Levertov). I am closer to this ghost now, having been one of the first people to have read these translations; having heard Wong May’s voice speak, as if directly to me, in the Afterword; having written this review. It may be the closest I ever get.  

‘Ghost’ is also apt because of the very last poem in this anthology, which is presented as written by an anonymous poet. In fact, the first two lines are well-known in Chinese contemporary culture: 



When you were born, I was not yet born; when I was born, you were already old.

You regret that I was born too late; I regret that you were born too early.

(Translation mine)

Extraordinarily, these lines were discovered on a Tang-era porcelain pot from the famed Tongguan Kiln in Changsha, excavated in the 1950s. The author of those lines is unknown, possibly a folk artist or poet of the Tang dynasty. Yet the remaining six lines in Wong’s translation are not from the original, but apparently a continuation by a contemporary Chinese poet, Cheng Dongwu. (Mysteriously, this is also the only poem which has the text in the original Chinese.) It is oddly fitting that this last poem, which bridges all the other poems and the Afterword, is in part by a contemporary author. That famed injunction by Ezra Pound, by way of Emperor Cheng Tang of Shang’s washbasin, comes to mind, an abiding inspiration and warning to future readers and translators of the Tang poets – “make it new”. 


A minor kvetch: one would have expected an internationally renowned publisher like Carcanet to have taken greater care with the editing, yet inconsistent and incorrect spellings of the poets’ names are rife: Meng Hao Ran is variously spelt “Meng Hao Ren” and even “Meng Haran”, for example.

** It may be instructive to compare her story and reception with that of another poet in a similar position, Wong Phui Nam, the pioneering Malaysian poet who was referenced earlier. In addition to sharing a surname and an interest in Tang poetry, both have, until recently, been written out of the history of Singapore literature in English, despite having been pioneering figures in the scene whilst studying in the University of Malaya in the 1950s and 60s. Like Wong May, Wong Phui Nam is also drawn to the exilic condition of these poets.


Daryl Lim Wei Jie is a poet, editor, translator and literary critic from Singapore. His first book of poetry is A Book of Changes (2016). He is the co-editor of Food Republic: A Singapore Literary Banquet (2020), the first definitive anthology of literary food writing from Singapore. His latest collection of poetry is Anything but Human (2021). His poems won him the Golden Point Award in English Poetry in 2015, awarded by the National Arts Council, Singapore.

Wednesday 19 January 2022

Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, an introduction to his Filipino poetry in translation


Kristine Ong Muslim recently translated Hollow (original title, Guwang), a collection of some of Arguelles's early poems written in Filipino. Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s works and interests encompass books, conceptual writing, translation, film and video, installation, found objects, and text-based experimentation and the poems in Hollow range from ekphrasis to Philippine history. One sample poem, "Deep Well" can be read in Asymptote [] and another, "Curse", in Circumference Magazine []

Here, in a guest post for the Translation blog, she offers the Introduction to Hollow, written by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III and translated by herself.

Monday 17 January 2022

A great year of reading ahead

Asian Books Blog is now reopen after the recent holidays, and we're looking forward to Chinese New Year.  Look out for a post from Nicky Harman on Wednesday, and whichever calendar you follow, here's to a great year of reading ahead!

Sunday 12 December 2021

Closing for Christmas


Asian Books Blog is now closing for Christmas.  It will reopen on January 16, 2022.  Happy Christmas to those who celebrate it, happy holidays to those who don't, and happy reading to all and sundry. 

Saturday 11 December 2021

The Whole Kahani Writers’ Collective, guest post by Reshma Ruia

The Whole Kahani Writers’ Collective provides support to writers of South Asian descent living in the UK. The Collective has just published its third anthology of short stories, Tongues and Bellies. Here, the Collective's co-founder, Reshma Ruia, talks about The Whole Kahani and its publishing programme.

Sunday 5 December 2021

A Novel Education, guest post from E.S. Alexander

E.S. (Liz) Alexander was born in Scotland but now lives in Penang, Malaysia. She has written and co-authored over 20 award-winning non-fiction titles, while maintaining a successful freelance journalism career. Asked to describe herself in three words she typically answers: thinker; writer; adventurer. The order depends on her mood.  

Penang was “founded” in the late eighteenth century by a British adventurer, Captain Francis Light. Liz’s first novel, Lies That Blind, re-imagines what happened a few years after the new trading settlement was established. Aspiring journalist Jim Lloyd risks his wealthy father’s wrath to sail from Britain to Penang, where he becomes Light’s assistant. He hopes that chronicling his employer’s achievements will propel them both to enduring fame. But he soon discovers that years of deception and double-dealing have strained relations between Light and Penang’s legal owner, Sultan Abdullah of Queda, almost to the point of war. Tensions mount: pirate activity escalates, traders complain about Light’s monopolies, and inhabitants threaten to flee, fearing a battle the fledgling settlement cannot hope to win against the Malays. Jim realises that a shared obsession with renown has brought him and Light perilously close to infamy, a fate the younger man, at least, fears more than death. Yet Jim will not leave Penang because of his dedication to Light’s young son, William, and his perplexing attraction to a mercurial Dutchman. He must stay and confront his own misguided ambitions as well as help save the legacy of a man he has come to despise.

Liz’s credo is to write about what she wants to discover. Here she discusses what she learned during the three years she worked on Lies That Blind.

So, over to Liz…

Friday 26 November 2021

On Making Things Up: In conversation with Lila Matsumoto

Editor’s note: Lila Matsumoto’s new collection, Two Twin Pipes Sprout Water (a Winter 2021 Poetry Book Society Recommendation), is at once plainspoken and spellbinding – a sure antidote to the charged language of our times. We’re deeply grateful to Lila and her publisher for this short interview, which took place over email. 

Theophilus Kwek (TK): Congratulations, Lila – I thoroughly enjoyed reading Two Twin Pipes Sprout Water, and you must be pleased about all the positive attention the book has received! I wonder if you could start by telling us a bit about how this latest collection builds on your earlier work (either your first book and pamphlets, or your wider practice as an artist and musician)? 

Lila Matsumoto (LM): Thank you, Theo. TTPSW collects poems and poem sequences that were written over the last two years or so. Some of the poems were originally written for particular contexts, such as for a song for Food People  (a band I play in) or as a live performance with visual elements. It’s to the credit of my incredible publisher Prototype for helping me to produce a book that ‘houses’ these discrete pieces, and at the same time keeps the flavour of their original context through elements such as typography and illustrations.   

TK: Something that struck me from the very first section of your collection was how your poems deal with being a writer. Not only with the practice of writingbut the paraphernalia of the writing life – attending book launches, literary conferences, and the like. How would you describe your relationship with your own identity as a writer? 

LM: I would probably describe it as ambivalent! I have been thinking about the artifice of the ‘writer identity’, as well as the artifice involved in writing: making things up, embellishing, presenting life through uncanny lenses. When I was a student I worked for a few years at a book festival. Although I appreciated the context of coming together to have conversations around writing, I felt uneasy about the pageantry. Lauding writers is fine, but many of the events centred on the authors rather than on their writing. There also seemed to me an assumed alignment of the books’ texts with the authors’ personal lives. Books such as Rachel Cusk’s Outline series, Alice Thompson’s Burnt Island, and Lisa Robertson’s The Baudelaire Fractal guilefully and hilariously unpack and brew more trouble about the meeting points of writing and the writing life.

"[...] I saw her art for what it really was: not a punctilious crafting of rare materials, but a reckless haunting of obscure works, made flesh in modish lingo. It was a tricksy turn of pen, a vaporous bauble. But who am I to criticise – I, too, have a searing desire for recognition, and have committed textual crimes in the name of amour propre. I have plumbed my own life for material, dressed up its feeble outlines, and have stuffed descriptions of sensual delicacies in every chapter." 

(from 'In Order to Make Words Pleasurable')