Tuesday, May 19, 2015

STEEP TEA: Cai Yan

I wrote "Talking to Koon Meng Who Called Himself Christopher" in response to a challenge during the Poetry Free-for-all Apprentice Contest. The challenge was to write a poem using dialogue. I still remember vividly a conversation with a student when I was teaching in Chua Chu Kang Secondary School in Singapore. Koon Meng was in the Normal Technical stream (a vocational track). Once a student was placed in a stream, it was nearly impossible for him to transfer to a better one. Koon Meng's lament to me reminded me of Caliban's words to Prospero, which go something like, you taught me to speak and my only profit on it is to learn how to curse. It was clear to me that Koon Meng was bright; the stumbling block was the compulsory study of the English language, for which his home did not prepare him.

The poem tries to dramatize the fraught issue of English in Singapore by having Koon Meng speak in Singlish and the teacher-speaker in standard English. This difference was true to life, but also thematically significant. Singlish is still seen in some quarters as incorrect or inferior, but in Koon Meng's mouth, it is a lively and idiomatic patois. The poem does not rest, however, upon a simplistic division between native adaptation and colonial imposition, for Koon Meng wants to get on in life and love, and to do so he must "improve" his English. He adopts a Christian name "Christopher" for it sounds more cool. So the poem displays, I hope, not a false dichotomy, but a spectrum of imperfect adaptations of Singapore's colonial heritage, its economic and social advantages, but also its personal and cultural drawbacks. The poem speaks of ambivalence.

I learned of Cai Yan (T'sai Yen) while reading A BOOK OF WOMEN POETS: FROM ANTIQUITY TO NOW, edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone. The irony of discovering this long-ago Chinese woman poet in an anthology edited by a pair of contemporary American editors was not lost on me. Cai Yan was no stranger to cultural dislocation. She was already a widow when she was captured by the Huns during a raid on the Chinese capital. Taken north to a harsh and alien land, she became a concubine to a Hun chief and bore him two sons. 12 years later, she was ransomed by the Chinese. Her great joy at returning home was mixed with great sorrow over leaving her young sons.

The daughter of a famous scholar and poet, Cai Yan was an accomplished poet herself. Only two poems survive from the destruction that raged throughout Chinese history. Another poem, the most famous, is of uncertain attribution. This is "18 Verses to a Tartar Reed Whistle" (as translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, in the Barnstones anthology), otherwise known as "Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute." In the poem, Cai Yan speaks with raw emotion and telling detail about the anguish of being separated from one's home, and, then, being separated from one's children. The poem is also appealing in its self-reflexiveness. Each verse, or song, ends with a reference to the poet as a singer, her musical instruments and the emotion that the verse aims to evoke. For instance, the second verse ends:

As I sing the second stanza I almost break the lutestrings.
Will broken, heart broken, I sing to myself. 

The parallelism of Chinese verse reinforces the identification of the will and heart with the lute, and springs the sting - "I sing to myself" - at the end. 

For the epigraph to my poem, I took the self-reflexive reference that concludes the first verse: "I sing one stanza to my lute and a Tatar horn." The lute here is technically the zither. The Tartar horn is a reed pipe known for its plaintive sound. Cai Yan was a singer with two very different instruments, a poet of two mutually hostile cultures. I hope some sense of that is carried over into my poem, which orchestrates its Singlish in iambic pentameter.




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