Poetry and Language of “Bridge People” | Language for a New Century

Posted by Karen Ng & filed under Books, Literature.

Detail from the cover of Language for a New Century | Photo: barnesandnoble.com
Detail from the cover of Language for a New Century | Photo: barnesandnoble.com

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Poetry can be scary. I think it’s one of those things that are, unfortunately, often taught poorly in high school, and so people try to never touch it again. It is admittedly boring circling metaphors and underlining similes, pointing out onomatopoeia and identifying personification. Poetry is language meant to make us feel, and while teaching poetic terms and definitions like metaphor or personification are important, it is also vital to move beyond that when teaching, learning, and experiencing poetry.

English is the only language I can read fluently, which is unfortunate because language fascinates me. It’s beautiful and utterly perplexing. Fortunately for me, translations exist, and while the crossover from an original language to English does not carry over all the meaning and beauty, there still exists something to experience. Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar is an experience that I would like to share.

Yes, this anthology is an experience. Here is an excerpt from the Foreword by Carolyn Forché:

“What the poem translates,” wrote Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “I propose we call experience, on condition that this word be taken literally—from Latin, experiri: the risky crossing…and this is why one can refer, strictly speaking, to a poetic existence.” The poems of Language for a New Century, whether composed originally in English or borne into English from another language, attempt this crossing: from experience to experience, culture to culture, world to world… “[B]ridge people”…live by choice or destiny in a realm suspended over a chasm of incomprehension, tethered neither to their birth countries nor to their adopted lands. (p. xxviii)

I love that term—bridge people. It might help when discussing the sometimes-ineffable concept of Canadian identity. Language for a New Century contains mostly poets of the Asian and Middle Eastern diaspora. I think that a lot of this literature can articulate 1.5- or 2nd-generation experiences. As bridge people, it is difficult to find a sense of complete belonging in the homeland of our ancestors, or in a new land where we are still searching for an identity or a comfortable niche. And so we exist as a kind of bridge between worlds. I think this is a term that can encapsulate a fraction of Canadian identity; Canada claims to be a mosaic, and America calls itself a melting pot. I’m not sure if we really are a mosaic, but the intention and the idea stands.

I would love to refer you to the entire book itself, but here is a small selection of five poems from the beginning of the anthology. Poets include Cyril Wong, who has been called Singapore’s first confessional poet; Dina Der-Hovanessian, a New England born poet and author of more than twenty-five books of poetry and translations; Fazıl Hüsnü Dağlarca, a prolific Turkish poet; Leung Ping-Kwan, a professor of literature and film studies at Lingnan University; and Ravi Shankar, an Indian musician and Hindustani classical music composer.


Practical Aim

After great pain, what would the body learn
that it does not already know of relief?

When that fire truck has raged past,
what do I rediscover about silence,

except that I would always miss it?
Do trees mind if it is the same wind

that passes through their heads everyday?
After the mall is completed, must we

remember the field it inhabits now
where we chased each other as children?

If my lover fails to wake me with a kiss
a third time this week, do I worry?

After the earthquake, would it matter if
no one saw two dogs from different

families approach each other
without suspicion, then moving apart?

As the workers wash their faces hidden
by helmets that beam back the sun,

should they care about the new building
behind them beyond the fear of it falling?

Does solitude offer strength over time,
or is denial of it the only practical aim?

If my mother cannot see how else
to be happy, is it enough that she may lie

in bed, convinced God watches her sleep?
After severe loss, what does the heart

learn that it has not already understood
about regret? When all light finally

forsakes a room, do we take the time
to interrogate the dark, and to what end?

Two Voices

Do you think of yourself as an Armenian? Or an American?
Or hyphenated American?
—D.M. Thomas

In what language do I pray?

Do I meditate in language?

In what language am I trying
to speak when I wake from dreams?

Do I think of myself as an American,
or simply as a woman when I wake?

Or do I think of the date and geography
I wake into, as woman?

Do I think of myself in my clothes
getting wet walking in the rain?

Do I think velvet, or do I think skin?

Am I always conscious of genes and
heredity or merely how to cross my legs
at the ankle like a New England lady?

In a storm do I think of lightning
striking? Or white knives dripped
into my great aunt’s sisters’
sisters’ blood?

Do I think of my grandfather telling
about the election at the time
of Teddy Roosevelt’s third party,
and riding with Woodrow Wilson
in a Main Street parade
in Worcester?

Or do I think of my grandmother
at Ellis Island,

or as an orphan in an Armenian village?

Or at a black stove in Worcester
baking blueberry pie for my grandfather
who preferred food he had grown
to like in lonely mill town
cafeterias while he studied
for night school?

Do I think of them as Armenian
or as tellers of the thousand and one
wonderful tales in two languages?

Do I think of myself as hyphenated?

No. Most of the time, even as you,
I forget labels.

Unless you cut me.

Then I look at the blood.
It speaks in Armenian.


Whichever neighborhood has no clergyman
I shall die there.
Let no one see how beautiful
Are all the things I have, my feet, my hair.

In the name of the dead, free and immaculate,
A fish in unknown seas,
Am I not a Muslim, heaven knows,
Yet no crowds for me, please.

Don’t let them make me wear a shroud,
In sky safeguard my darkness from misery,
Don’t shake me as I go from shoulder to shoulder,
For all my parts are fancy free.

No prayer can turn my remoteness
From the other worlds into a reality.
Don’t let them wash my body, don’t:
I am madly in love with the warmth inside me.

Translated from the Turkish by Talât Sait Halman

Postcards of Old Hong Kong

The pictures we sent off have been touched up
images of scenes we never experienced
                                     On the back,
I’ll send my greetings, in that space
were I to tell my deepest anxieties and worries
would they among endless strangers go, before
curious or indifferent eyes, bleaching the sepia
lighter and faint, until those old-style teahouses in Happy Valley
Flower stalls along Lyndhurst Terrace, hawkers of all sorts
like the old woman spinning threads at a branch of tree
gradually fade
              From mass-produced pictures
I pick and choose, wondering how to convey news of me
I don’t want to sensationalize the huge fire at the racecourse, or the typhoon
that sank the cruiser in the harbor. I’m not a tourist
scribbling at the margin of a disaster scene:
“We’re off to Shanghai for a jaunt!” I’m no
smart broker or colonial officer, engrossed in sending home
exotica: opium-smoking, long-plaited
gamblers, songstresses, Kung Fu masters, rickshaw pullers.
I flip them over, disgusted. True,
they exist, but I’d rather not use them to
represent us
            At the picture border I wrote
hasty words straying sometimes into Kennedy Town side streets
the first Chinese school in Morrison Hill, the reservoir where
China-bound ambassador-laden horses stopped and drank.
I’ve always wanted to ask how history was made.
Lots of people tinted the pictures, lots of people
named the streets after themselves, statues were
put up and taken down. Amidst overflowing clichés
I wrote you a few words, crossing set
          How do we, on gaudy pictures of the past
write words of the moment? Stuck in their midst, how do we paint ourselves?

Translated from the Chinese by Martha P.Y. Cheung


There’s nowhere else I’d rather not be than here,
But here I am nonetheless, dispossessed,
Though not quite, because I never owned
What’s been taken from me, never have belonged
In and to a place, a people, a common history.
Even as a child where I was slurred in school—
Towel head, dot boy, camel jockey—
None of the abuse was precise: only Sikhs
Wear turbans, widows and young girls bindis,
Not one species of camel is indigenous to India…
If, as Simone Weil writes, to be rooted
Is the most important and least recognized need
Of the human soul, behold: I am an epiphyte.
I conjure sustenance from thin air and the smell
Of both camphor and meatloaf equally repel me.
I’ve worn a lungi pulled between my legs,
Done designer drugs while subwoofers throbbed,
Sipped masala chai steaming from a tin cup,
Driven a Dodge across the Verrazano in rush hour,
And always to some degree felt extraneous,
Like a meteorite happened upon bingo night.
This alien feeling, honed in aloneness to an edge,
Uses me to carve an appropriate mask each morning. 
I’m still unsure what effect it has on my soul.

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