Friday, January 11, 2008


One of the first things that blew me away when I started reading a lot of contemporary poetry (back in the 80s) was the startling metaphor, especially the simile. There hasn’t been so much of that lately, at least in what I’ve been reading. So I had a sense of nostalgia as well as delight when I came across a poem by Juliette Chen in Premonitions: the Kaya anthology of new Asian North American poetry. “Tai Po Mei” has a former inhabitant returning to her old neighborhood. It’s raining:

In the pungent wet
the village huddles like a stray.

Like a stray! That’s both too cute, pathetic, charming, and works for me. The poem crams in a few too many metaphors. By the time the final line has the “Night fad[ing] like an old bruise,” I was thinking that was one too many. Maybe I just don’t like the old bruise.

Oh, here’s the whole thing:

Tai Po Mei

Came back to a discreet rain,
to the shyness of distant lightning
mussing mountaintops.
In the pungent wet
the village huddles like a stray.
Windows flicker with a firefly pulse.
The way dips in the dark.
Now and then a swaying bulb
spills silhouettes of dancing vines
on broken walls, plays its lurching light
over shards of snail.
This trail of shell leads home.
This is home then –
this black iron door
that clangs shut so finally.
This is real then –
the balcony rail under the hand,
the lights that rim the bay
like salt on a margarita,
fishing boats throbbing
to cicada rhythms.
In the night
a rising wind will usher rain
and send the mosquito net flying
like a surrendering flag or sail of mourning.
There will be music
in the agitation of bells,
in random notes struck by moths
alighting on the zither strings.
Like flowing grass
the wavering shadow of gauze
crosshatches the pillow case
to net the flutters of ragged wings.
Fossilized on a wall,
a gecko waits.
Waits for brazen birdsong to flaunt the day.
Waits for sunlight sparkling on jewelled web.
The mat has left its weave on the skin.
Night fades like an old bruise.


I find myself enjoying so much -- the “windows [which] flicker with a firefly pulse”, the “random notes struck by moths / alighting on zither strings.”

I still struggle some how “the wavering shadow of gauze” is “like flowing grass”, and “the lights that rim the bay / like salt on a margarita” had me wondering which country this village was in, whether margaritas are popular in Chinese (or Vietnamese?) villages.

The poem has a cuteness (the lightning mussing mountains, the vines dancing) and a chilliness (“the black iron door / that [prison cell-like] clangs shut so finally”), a too-muchness – really, both a surrendering flag and a sail of mourning?, and the plain observed detail – “the mat [which] has left its weave on the skin” that makes the whole quilt-like, flashy pieces sewn to gaudy pieces sewn to the already a bit worn. I like running my fingers over it.

No comments: