More poems and contributor notes in Chinese feature
Sushi for Two
I want to be the seaweed that wraps you up;
Will you embrace my clumsy body?
Can you stand those bright sea urchin eggs on me?
Loving you, I have to love them too octopus, cucumber, and crab fillet.
Countless rice rolls of the past return to haunt us;
Plain tea or sake? Feels like facing a thousand crossroads.
Reaching for you, where you are soft and chewy I hit hidden spikes,
Claws of soft-shelled crab like spider legs playing for love?
Shedding layers of clothes, you stop as if shuddering;
Nearing the coiled core is like touching some pain buried deep.
With no idea how I taste, my rawness drives you away;
Your natural pungency, hot and mustardy, hurts me too
We fall silent, laid out side by side on the dish, like strangers,
A word or two perhaps, but the stomach feels queasy with old grievances.
When love is no more, evening meals are mere consumption of matter;
When home is no more, maybe only the souls of clams will give shelter?
From different cities we came, with different winters behind us
We enjoy each other's bright hues but what keeps us apart?
I chew, slowly digesting your deep sea fibre;
You go still in the noise as I melt on your tongue.
Translated by Martha Cheung
A Restaurant in Poland
Having reached Gdansk at daybreak
we soon realized a cup of coffee
cost several thousand zlotys. Exchanging that for U.S. dollars
seemed an impossible magic tug-of-war. Later in Warsaw
we searched especially for a cafeteria-style milk bar
feeling this way we could experience how everyday people ate.
From the simplest sour soup or the most unpretentious
breadis this how one can understand a place?
Having seen swans and magnificent churches, we found
a small charming restaurant over at the square; it served
authentic goulash soup and fried potato pancakes that tasted so good,
but the next time we could not find it. In the government-owned restaurant
with its stately architecture, behind the heavy curtain that was about
to fall, it seemed the evil shadows of history were there.
Can a change of government alter a soup's taste?
Until the lively sound of violins awakened us
in Warsaw's night market, in the new post-revolution restaurant
where the maitre said the place does not serve Hungarian red wine, only
a good French vintage, the specialty here is French cuisine;
trendy guys and girls applauded after the music performance
we drank sips of wine, looked at the mixed-up, refracted images in the mirror
and carefully chewed sweet carrots, bitter cabbage
Translated by Glen Steinman
Traveling with a Bitter Melon
I cooked it at noon,
sliced it, then stir-fried it.
It was delicious, a little bitter, a little sweet
carrying the good wishes you brought with you from another place.
On your way back you had it for company.
It must have gradually turned tender and soft beside you.
How did you carry it?
Did you check it in? Or hand-carry it?
Did it look about curiously in the plane? Did it
cry because of hunger? Did it get airsick?
I said it was raining outside; you said where you were
it was sunny, you were about to set off to my city
so you thought you could bring it with you, carry it
across different climates, different customs and manners.
I believed you when I set eyes on it,
thanks to you I saw its color so unique.
In what climate and soil did it grow and from what species?
This child from a poor family has grown into a body like jade;
has an endearing character, kind of a soft gentle white,
not dazzling, but glowing as if from within.
I took this white bitter melon with me onto the plane
and arrived at a foreign land, stepped onto foreign soil;
only at Customs did I wonder if anyone had asked you:
why isn't it green like most bitter melons?
As they examined its dubious passport, ready to stir up trouble
the innocent newcomer waited patiently, a heavy past on his shoulders,
while it remained endearing as ever, neither bitter nor sour,
but gently making allowances for those overworked and disgruntled
weary-eyed grim-faced immigration officials.
I took it with me and went on and on, like my words, further and
further off the mark, trying harder to be inclusive
because I didn't want to leave out any details, about how a bitter melon
tossed and turned at night, missing its mates,
gasping – was it torn by memories of that
familiar place under the melon-shed, by feelings some may find trivial?
You're so kind towards my clumsy language habits, when I asked:
when will you be back? You just said:
when will you go? One leaving, one
returning. You accepted the tenses I used,
tenses slippery and imprecise. I always eat bitter melons.
I ate one before I boarded the plane.
Why then did it come all that way back to my table?
Did it want to tell me the bitterness of separation? Of frustration?
Did it want to let me know it had a tumor? That its face
was wrinkled with loneliness?
That it kept having bad nights, kept waking in the early hours
and with open eyes waited for the arrival of dawn? In the rippling
silence, was it telling me it was illness that made it bitter,
or its inability to make whole the fragments of history?
Or was it the bitterness of being misunderstood by strangers,
of being misplaced in a hostile world?
It still looked so translucent, like white-jade,
so soothing the thought of savoring it eased one's nerves.
I was saying what everyone should say,
expressing amidst lucid phrases what I wanted to say
in confused sentences. Alone, I set the table,
the ocean between us; how I yearned to be with you
and share with you the refreshing melon.
There are so many things that do not live up to expectations.
The human world has its imperfections.
The bitter melon understands.
Translated by Martha Cheung