A cup of fine tea: Jason S Polley’s “Constituent Command”

January 17, 2015

Jason S Polley’s “Constituent Command” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #25 of Cha)

-This post is written by Zabrina Lo.
Zabrina Lo


Umbrellaphotograph by Jason S Polley

On 30 December 2014, I was watching with my family “Hong Kong Review 2014” on TVB Pearl, which began with the comment ‘2014 was a year of political reform’. Our initial response to the report was not an extended political discussion, but we did have quite a debate on whether it was wise for the summary of the Umbrella Revolution to take up about half of the show. The Revolution was not the only momentous thing, among many, that had happened in Hong Kong! Some of us remarked. Yet to me, a report of such unprecedented length suggested how undeniably significant the Revolution had been in the political history of Hong Kong. There was an outburst of political voices from numerous figures in our society – the student unions, the campaign organizers, the protesters in general, the parents and friends who became erstwhile friends or enemies, the government of course, the business sector, the transport sector, the professions and so on. Likewise in the domain of Hong Kong poetry, there was also an outburst of anger and desperation in many poems about and inspired by the Umbrella Revolution written by poets from all walks of life. I was reading the poems published under the title “Whither Hong Kong?” in Cha. I was expecting to be moved by some powerful lines or words, but in the end I was surprised that what hit me the most was an ungraspable feeling of irony. ‘Kei sat’, it was also a comical and satirical reflection mixed with a taste of subtle bitterness of losing a friend. Actually, maybe it was an honest confession of all such feelings in “Constituent Command” by Jason S Polley.

The appealing aspect of the poem comes from a sentimental tone to share a slice of his personal life. It starts off with ‘I have this friend / Former friend / Actually’. The topic is a very common one in life but at the same time it is unique to the poet. Unlike a lot of poems about the Revolution, the words in the poem are not condescending, academic or complicated. It is a confession from the poet to any reader. Yet, his willingness to share his personal life with the world transforms the Umbrella Revolution, which, by its nature is a political event, into a personal issue that does not only involve politicians, but also local citizens and international individuals who care about it and are interested in knowing more about it. This sensitivity in tone demonstrates the personal understanding and feeling of the Umbrella Revolution. It captures accurately what I believe to be the essence that brings most campaign participants together – the same lofty aim of pursuing democracy even if they may not know one another. At one moment, they become ‘friends’, they become one.

Ironically, through this conversation with his ‘new friends’ with whom he shares his story, the poet talks about the loss of a friend. Like the poet, I have had friends ‘unfriending’ each other on a lot of social media such as Facebook as they cannot accept each other’s political viewpoints regarding the Umbrella Revolution. Our society becomes so polarized, things become inexplicable and even peculiar. There are a lot of things about friendship that I am unable to comprehend since the Revolution. In the case of my friends, one of them ‘unfriended’ the other silently through Facebook but still talked to each other normally whenever they met as if nothing had happened. What is the point of ‘unfriending’ the others, and secretly, then? If Facebook represents what they think innately for they dare not reveal their thoughts outwardly, then does it mean that friendship has always been fake in our actual world? Has my understanding of friendship been wrong all these years? What is friendship? For what reason can individuals truly become friends? The poem echoes my thoughts: ‘Let’s actually return to the reason / The reason for the friendship forsaken’. In doing so he reflects by trying to decipher and make sense of the ‘reflection’ (‘pihsdneirf nekasrof eht rof nosaer ehT’), which unfortunately, seems hard to make sense of. One of the ‘keywords’ to sum up this realization of the actual relationship is ‘aken’ (from ‘forsaken’). The form of the word itself is shattered, which signifies the shattering of friendship. More significantly, the poet realizes that the action of forsaking friends is not just a single moment in the past (‘forsook’), the breaking up of the relationship is eternal (‘[fors]Aken’), the pain will linger on (‘Aching’). The first section of the poem is connected throughout by the graspable and ungraspable confusion – befriending strangers and unfriending friends, being blind and awake, making sense of things and creating greater complexity, shattering words and connecting feelings. All these are stirred up, created, made possible because of the reflective sense of the vocabulary ‘kei sat’. It is a common Hong Kong word that reveals what is beneath the apparent – the truth, if there is any.

Another element that appeals to me most is the sense of belonging imparted in the second part of the poem. There is a contrast in how people define their senses of belonging to Hong Kong – between the nominal identity as Chinese and the actual feeling of being a part of the city. First the poet questions the implication of the name of this city – ‘special administrative region’. This specialness lies in the unique Cantonese dialect which is ‘in danger’, presumably due to the promotion of Mandarin as the official language in Hong Kong at the expense of the local tongue. The coinage ‘special administrative region’ is nothing but just a name, what is truly special has to be felt in the poet’s five years of residence in Hong Kong. Similarly, when he reflects what it means to be a local, he realizes that even though he only speaks English in Hong Kong, he knows much more than some of those who speak Mandarin in Hong Kong. Officially, the latter are Chinese people and who supposedly, ‘nominally’, should know the basic yet important things about Hong Kong. He satirizes their ignorance by depicting how they mistake CY Leung, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, for ‘See Why Long’ and mix up his gender. The Mandarin speakers in Mong Kok mentioned in the poem witness the Umbrella Movement but they have no idea what they are seeing. The poet explains and defines, to readers, his true identity as a Hong Kong citizen for he does not only see what is happening in the city, he actually lives in the city and understand its pulses. He does not rely on the title ‘Chinese’ or ‘Hong Kong citizen’ to define himself as such. If the nominal way of treating things prevails in society, what about democracy? What is democracy then? This is his answer:

‘An irony schmirony symphony
A coughing choir cacophony
A conservation that kills

Pandas in plexiglas prisons prefer not to procreate’

It becomes an ironic, schemed celebration of the idea that deprives the freedom of the Chinese mascots, which symbolize Chinese people, in the name of protection. There is nothing the ‘pandas’ can do if they hope otherwise but to end their helpless fate by not continuing their lives. A ‘requiem’ of the mind, so to speak.

 Yet, to the poet there is still a glimmer of hope. The idea of ‘defence’ paradoxically juxtaposes with the words ‘peaceful’, ‘passive’, ‘pacific’ and ‘polite’, but this highlights the struggle between the ‘cold elites’ and ‘the cleaner publics of street-sweeps’. Umbrellas become a symbol, a force that ‘resist[s]’ the nominal democracy for the people to ‘exist’. To the poet, there is life in the requiem, the death. Similarly there is hope for democracy, as long as there are those who are ‘actually… / umbrellaing’.

With the fold of the Umbrella Revolution on 15 December 2014, there are those who claim that the uprising was a failure as no tangible changes to the political leader election system has resulted. However, there are those who argue that the revolution is a victory since it has ignited people’s courage to fight for democracy. Either way, Hong Kong poetry has witnessed a triumph in the recording and portrayal of this historic event in Hong Kong with very powerful weapons – words and ideas. “Constituent Command” is unlike a lot of Umbrella Revolution poems which are composed of passionate words as well as complex and colourful imagery. This poem captures the thoughtful reflection of friendship as a result of the uprising, the sense of belonging to a home called Hong Kong and the actual meaning of democracy. The poem delivers a generous amount of content with a powerful manipulation of the tones and literary devices. It is comical and tragic at the same time, demonstrating the poet’s sensitivity to both literary expression and the humanity engendered in the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong.

Jason S Polley is Associate Professor of contemporary fiction at Hong Kong Baptist University. He completed his PhD at McGill University, Montreal, in 2007. His research interests include Irish fiction, postmodern literature, comix and graphic novels, post-structuralism, and contemporary Indian fiction. He has published articles on women and property in John Banville, the Jonathan Franzen and Oprah Winfrey debacle, slum ideology in District 9, media machination in Watchmen, and critical race theory in Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders. His monograph is titled Jane Smiley, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo: Narratives of Everyday Justice. He has two creative nonfiction books: a short-story collection, Refrain, and a literary journalism novella, Cemetery Miss You.

A cup of fine tea: Reihana Robinson’s “After the Fall or the Power of Reading”

May 8, 2014

Reihana Robinson’s “After the Fall or the Power of Reading” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #23 of Cha)

-This post is written by Reid Mitchell.

We confess. At Cha, we are fascinated with literary and artistic transformations, how stories must change as they move from one form to another or one culture to another. One of the founding editors will teach a course on this topic; many of us have moved from our homes to foreign lands, fallen in love with cultures—and people—we are not sure we understand, and faced the problem of translation. Rehanana Robinson’s “After the Fall or the Power of Reading” reimagines Barefoot Gen (はだしのゲン/Hadashi no Gen).

Barefoot Gen has already been reimagined many times; he has appeared in manga, novels, television shows, anime, and films. Furthermore, he is the original author’s imaginative reconstruction of his own youth; Keiji Nakazawa lived in Hiroshima and survived its atomic bombing. His work has been compared to Art Spiegalman’s Maus, by, among others, Spiegalman himself—but it strikes me that transforming your father’s experience into a graphic novel is radically different than transforming your own experience into one.

Now that I have told you all this, let me add that none of this knowledge is necessary to feel the poem and its power.

The first magic trick that Robinson performs does not concern Barefoot Gen. Rather it is a transformation of the reader. She immediately identifies you, the reader, as reader, as the subject of the poem. “You are a child and you are reading / Barefoot Gen.” There is no setting for where this act of reading is taking place; you are to locate it in your memory of your own childhood. 

For Gen (after the fall) the Angels of Death flutter and storm
spilling and flooding first one city then

“After the Fall”—the phrase always invokes in me the idea of the Fall of Man. The Angel of Death first appears in western culture in Genesis, as the angel who kills the first-born of Egypt in the Passover story, and occurs in Christian and Islamic traditions. Here, however, the Judeo-Christian idea of The Fall is linked to the fall of the atomic bomb. That is not made explicit to you, the reader, if you do not know Barefoot Gen until the reference to the Enola Gay—although you may have surmised this when told that the Angels of Death flood “first one city then two.”

We also published this poem because of the strength of its language. It beats you on the head with forceful, even violent, verbs; we are told that “the Angels of Death use up verbs.” Indeed, they must as death, whether it completes an action, brings it to a stop.

what is to burn
what is to plunge
what is to kettle
what is to fry
what is to torque
to drill to sear to braise to bake to shrivel
to melt to blast to shrink to shadow
to suck to maim to bleed to horror

With “to horror,” the Angels of Death deform a noun into a verb, somehow stronger (because strange) than “to horrify” because it seems to mean to turn something into a horror. But the final deformed word is a verb, the verb “to live on,” so that survival seems the greatest curse.

Yet Barefoot Gen must be about survival.It is a story of what happens “after the fall” of Little Boy and Fat Man.

Robinson now decides to localize the poem—frankly, a decision I wish she had not made, as it pushes most of us away. She puts you, the reader, in Oriental Bay—which, Wikipedia informs me, is a suburb of Wellington, N.Z. (Editor’s note: Reihana is from New Zealand.) This is where your final transformation takes place.

you are no longer a child reading Barefoot Gen
You are wide-eyed and perplexed
under the innocent sky
Barefoot Gen

The subject of the poem, You, have become the subject of your reading, Barefoot Gen. This is of course what Aristotle calls for in is Poetics; it is the moment when Pity turns into Terror.

The transformative power of work of literature—not just to transform itself into other forms of literature, but to transform you, the reader—is asserted at the end of the poem, even if the transformation initially is bleak.It is a brilliant, daring maneuvere but we are left wondering—deliberately I suspect—whether Pity and Terror is enough. Bretold Brecht famously argued not only were they not enough; but that Catharsis was the enemy of Politics. After we become Barefoot Gen, where do we go?

Reihana Robinson is a writer and artist and organic farmer living on the Coromandel in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Her writing has been published in the USA, Asia and New Zealand. Aue Rona is the title of her first volume published by Steele Roberts, NZ 2012. Cutthroat, Landfall and Takeahe are a handful of literary publications to carry her work. Anthologies include Te Ao Marama and Notes to the Transalators. Contact: reihanarobinson.co.nz

A cup of fine tea: Nicholas Francis’s “Unpacking”

June 17, 2013

Nicholas Francis’s “Unpacking” [Read the poem here]
First published in Issue #19 of Cha.

-This post is written by Tammy Ho.

Books Twitch Anxiously On Unfamiliar Stands

Nicholas Francis’s poem ‘Unpacking’ put me in mind, not of the many suitcases I have disgorged and refilled, not the countless relocations and itinerancies I have performed between China and London with what one friend calls “your pursued émigré face”, but rather of a tutor I once knew, a now-retired, cigar-smoking German anthropologist who, in some fit of collegial alms, offered me a roomful of books.

“I would like to offer you my books,” he emailed. “And I mean all. The rest will be dumped.”

I had expressed my amazement, just in passing, just for grades, at the size of his library. He seemed to realise on the point of his retirement that they had brought him precisely nothing, and that the transfer might soothe this horrible wound before it opened. “Do remember there are two sets of shelves,” he added, and my trolley squeaked as I wheeled it cross-campus to his room.

I expected to find it empty but for books, gutted and blanched in the bluster of his exfiltration. Instead it was still ticking with movement, a computer monitor casting a gloomy blue across his files and objet d’art. I pushed the door and saw him sitting in this light, on the rug by the far wall.

“What will strike you immediately,” he said sleepily, “is that I’ve given most of the interesting titles away.”

I wheeled in and could smell that he’d been sitting here for some time. I saw our email exchange open on the computer between us.

“The translatable ones,” he said, “those which could mean something to another person, I’ve shed them like particles of skin. I left them on trains, with strangers and friends. You’d be surprised what people will give, or forgive, for a book.”

He spoke, as ever, in measured bursts and long pauses, as though convinced that everything he said should, and somehow would, be subject to record.

“What remains are the kinds of books that will count you, if you’re not careful, among their failures.” He stood stiffly. “But it is a happy and essential curse, I think.”

He moved to the shelves nearest his desk, smiled at me, picked out two between his fingers, separated them into either hand – ‘A Grammar of Motives,’ he read, and ‘The Constant Nymph‘ – and replaced them. “Interactive wallpaper. A flameless conflagration. Consuming nothing.”

His expression was stretched, as if he’d been listening for a long time to an arcane and inelegant joke, undeliverable in the present tense, and was now straining to understand almost everything he saw. He then began a monologue it didn’t seem prudent or appropriate to interrupt.

“These aren’t cult classics,” he said, “or curios that will drift back into print on warm afternoons. They are intractable nothings, obsolete even to their admirers. So old it is not merely uncanny to touch them, it is preposterous. The Sinews of Peace. The Age of Belief. The kind a prison or a charity couldn’t take. The Miscellany of a Poet. Books that depend on dying paradigms, their citations now scattered in some moot semantic ire. They would not be missed by the most pedantic archivist. This is worse than a fear of old clothes, old clocks, because these anxious blocks of ink are the clotted pulse of human action, of long-stale desire. And I want to fall on them, even now, I want to fall on them like Humbert falls on Lolita’s clothes. They are the most anxious words in the world. And none so insecure as the brotherless, the only-children of writers who tried it once and gave up in panic. Cathedral of Ants. Tristram Shandy. The Unpossessed. The Salt Eaters. Anyone can bang out one, Wodehouse said. The real test is three.

He looked exhausted suddenly, and eased himself back to the floor with a look of surprise, as though the rug had in fact been in pursuit of him. I, now licensed to move, walked behind him towards the skylight.

“Even the names of one-novel authors,” he said, “sounds as though they’re edging out of the window to their deaths. Pedro Paramo, Juan Rulfo, Countee Cullen, Lionel Trilling, Peter Aberard, Cynthia Ozick, Lola Leroy, Ed Luoma…”

I raised my hand and gripped the bar of the skylight.

“Can you hear it? Pocking the street with their consonant elbows and knees. Barbara Stcherbatcheff, Gwendolyn Brooks, Serge Gainsbourg, Henry Brailsford, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Carl Sandburg, Umtaz Shahnawaz, Gogol, Churchill, Whitman, Chekhov, Byron, Proust…”

Reaching up, I felt like a schoolgirl about to show her cleverness by asking the right question. The skylight opened with a crack, and we felt the familiar noise and light of the courtyard.

This Fiery Night,” he said. “The titles have an ancient unease, don’t they? A pale, squandered longing, rising in the night to type and falling back nervously by dawn. Ship of Fools. The Vagrants. The Young Visitors. Les Faux-Monnayeurs. Jews Without Money. The Insivisble Man, Our Nig and The Eleventh Virgin.

He spoke the last slowly and sarcastically, as if the words carried hilarious weight.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The Evening Land. People don’t write for acclaim, they write to ease their anxiety. Nothing inspires a writer like the confidence of less talented friends. But once done, each revolution embarrasses the last.”

I looked for some time through the open window, trying to breathe a brief minuet of sounds from the trees on the other side of the courtyard.

Le Devoir de Violence. The Broom of the War God. A Few Hours in a Far-Off Age—

I hardly noticed as he broke off, recalling something, and reached into his pocket to draw out a cigarette. I touched my trolley and moved towards the door.

“How I envy the novelist, Plath said,” he said. “The door of the novel, like the door of the poem, also shuts. But not so fast, nor with such manic, unanswerable finality. And there is an increasing market for mental hospital stuff.”

Nicholas Francis is an Anglo-Welsh writer based in Tokyo. His work is interested in exploring the borders between the modern and the pastoral, the formal and the formless. He has been published in a number of poetry journals including The DelinquentObsessed with Pipework, Parthian’s Nu Anthology and Cardiff-based Square. He is currently working on a first collection as well as translating a number of Japanese poets into English.

A cup of fine tea: Anuradha Vijayakrishnan’s “Suicide Note” (2)

January 1, 2013

Anuradha Vijayakrishnan’s “Suicide Note” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #10 of Cha, this poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010.) 

-This post is written by Tammy Ho.

Also read Tammy and Jarno’s previous Fine Tea on the same poem here.

The frog in Anuradha Vijayakrishnan’s “Suicide Note” occupies a staccato moment in time. He is the summation of all sadness, a hinge upon which absence and presence rotate, and beside whom Vijayakrishnan collects a panoply of grief:

To the frog at my doorstep that sang all night
To the cicadas that held unbroken vigil and would not sleep at dawn
To the rain clouds that held back till they burst

Is it possible that, even in clouds, the awe that accompanies such brooding sentience turns suddenly to unease and disillusionment?

Suicide is not the preserve of the cleverest animal, after all. Some breeds of Asian bear, holes drilled to their bladders, are known to mete self-destruction on themselves and their children. Rumours of rats, horses and dolphins in similar predicaments, drift down through medical journals and the lurid press, and scores of dogs, made cynical by their status and comfortable living, have leapt to their deaths from the Overtoun Bridge in Dumbarton. Bright beasts, of course, and humanised by disillusionment, but a similar impulse for voluntary self-destruction has been noted in strains of salmonella, which, witnessing the advance of a superior bacteria, cling to a cell wall and await inhalation by their host, happy in the knowledge that the force and potency of this ire will also obliterate its rival. Pea aphids explode beside a threatening bug, skin macheteing the air, termites cover their enemies with the sticky pith of their mortal bodies and small squadrons of the forelius pusillus ant stroll out to certain war happily as long as, in so doing, they seal their families safely in the nest behind them.

Vijayakrishnan seems at once to know, to harness, and to lose her position as head of the agency of shared grief on this earth, and lose it she must, to make her parting address:

To glow worms that gave me fire for as long
as it was needed
To the drenched clumps of grass that smell of moth wings
and butterfly love
To the golden deer that lingered just beyond
my window

If not quite a happy loss, it is a satisfied and comfortable one. Suicide, decriminalised in England and Wales in 1961, has left a semantic bloodstain on the collective lexicon. The BBC, the Guardian and Observer and the Samaritans, have abandoned use the word ‘commit’ in their references to it (language theorists have suggest we ‘create’, ’induce’ or ‘chose’, for fewer criminal connotations).

Vijayakrishnan’s reader can witness a growing escape in this death, pain now a memory, auto-termination leading calmly to equilibrium and a renewable peace:

To the leftover noisiness of this marvellous day
To the shining lights of the neighbours and their last
ashen cigarettes
To broken glass trails that will show the way to strangers

The poem ends where we began: the frog, now exhausted, and a human life in the balance. It is as if Socrates has sipped of his hemlock, feels it slowly drowning his feet and knows it will head for his heart, but slowly enough to deliver his final dialogue on the immortality of the soul:

To the quiet beating of my amazing heart
To my shaking hands
To blue ink and black and bruises that may or may not heal

Anuradha Vijayakrishnan was born in Cochin, India. She completed her Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from Calicut University, Kerala and her postgraduate studies in Management from XLRI, Jamshedpur. A trained Carnatic singer, she lives in India/UAE and pursues a full time corporate career while writing both fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared inMagma, Asia Literary Review, Mascara, Indian Literature and Nth Position. Her poem The epiphyte speaks from Magma 44 is due to feature in Magma‘s anthology that commemorates its fifteenth anniversary. In 2007, Vijayakrishnan’s novel Seeing the Girl was long listed for the Man Asian Literary prize.

“Shi and the Ten Stone Lions”: Riddle or Nonsense?

November 11, 2012

Editor’s note: We are pleased to announce that we are launching a new direction for A Cup of Fine Tea. In the past, we have devoted this column to critical analysis of works that have been previously published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. With this post by poet Red Slider, however, we are expanding Fine Tea to include critiques of classic Asian works. In “”Shi and the Ten Stone Lions”: Riddle or Nonsense?”, Slider provides a provocative interpretation of Yuen Ren Chao’s classic, “Shi and the Ten Stone Lions”. “Ten Stone Lions”, which is constructed entirely out of Chinese characters that can be transliterated as ‘shi’ in English, tells the story, in the form of a riddle, of the poet Shi. Although the piece has generally been characterised by scholars as a linguistic exercise demonstrating the difficulty of translating Chinese into other languages, it has also been seen by many as a ‘poem’. According to Slider, however, few, if any, critics have offered a thorough reading of “Shi and the Ten Lions” as poetry. In his essay, Slider not only seeks to address this oversight, but also uses critical poetic analysis to provide a convincing solution to Chao’s riddle. -Tammy Ho

“Shi and the Ten Stone Lions”: Riddle or Nonsense?
By Red Slider

A solution-set to the riddle of Yuen Ren Chao’s classic, “Shi and the Ten Stone Lions” (above), has eluded scholars, poets and general readers ever since its first public reading in Toronto in 1977 (and its original design, possibly as far back as 1934). The story, which is constructed entirely out of Chinese syllables which can be transliterated as “shi” in English and which was designed as a linguistic exercise and a demonstration of problems in phonetics and translation from classical Chinese, is referred to as ‘poem’ or ‘verse’ by practically everyone. However, at least as far as I can tell, no serious treatment of the work as a ‘poem’ has yet been undertaken. Instead, any quick online search reveals that the narrative of “Shi” is most often dismissed as ‘silly nonsense’ or treated to sarcasm or wildly improbable interpretations — this despite the fact that Chao was a gifted and renowned scholar, for whom poetry was an obvious interest and talent. In the last line of the narrative, Chao challenges us to explain the matter of the story and solve the riddle of “Shi”. By treating the work as a poem and using the ordinary tools of poetics and an appreciation of metaphor, perfectly plausible meanings for the story of the poet Shi’s strange odyssey are easily discovered, as are possible solutions to Chao’s riddle.

Purpose and Synopsis

What follows is somewhat superficial treatment of Chao’s work as poetry, written in hopes that it might stimulate other poets and scholars to take a second look at “Shi and the Ten Stone Lions” as an offering of competent verse, as well as continuing to see it through its already established character as a linguistics demonstration and exercise.

The next section will briefly outline three solution-sets to the riddle of interpreting the English text of the story. Chao ended his story by asking what its meaning might be. Yet a serious answer to that challenge seems to have escaped students and scholars alike. I present three fairly accessible interpretations that keep well within the bounds of ordinary interpretive technique. Not treated in this essay, but also suggested is that an additional focus on the work as one of the earliest examples we have of Language Poetry may be warranted as well.

Finally, a more detailed presentation of the metaphor used in one of the solution-sets is offered to illustrate that the work is subject to such interpretations in a thoroughly consistent and understandable way, and that further examination of it as a work of poetry may offer benefits that have hitherto been overlooked.

Solution-sets to “Shi and the Ten Stone Lions” (“The Lion-eating Poet in the Stone Den”)

In the full essay from which this paper has been excerpted, three solution-sets (interpretations of the English translation of the story) are discussed. The first, which I will discuss in detail below, treats the entire text as a metaphor for the poet and the process of writing poetry. A second solution-set (not treated here) examines the story as ordinary romance — poet is lonely, poet gets girls, poet insults girls, poet loses girls — and sees the work as a short and not too sweet cautionary tale about poets and their romantic fantasies. The third solution-set (also not discussed here) interprets the story in terms of traditional Chinese symbolism as a species of creation myth: ‘lions’ as protectors/guardians, ‘water’ as chaos/origin and so forth.

The First Solution-set

It is no stretch to presume that Shi, the poet in the work, is doing what poets do best — making poetry. Regarded in that light, one solution-set to the riddle of the “Ten Lions” is very close at hand. Shi appears to be someone engaged with poetry, as well as being represented through the construction of the poem we are reading. With a poet at the helm, it is a safe bet that the story will vector to one of the things poets are most intimately connected with: language.

This particular poet lives in a ‘stone house’. Within the realms of poets and poetry, this can be seen as an easy metaphor for the ‘house of language’ — the labyrinth of the poet’s own mind, where poets generally live, have always lived.

Shi’s principal occupation, then, is to ‘hunt’ words, bring them ‘home’ and ‘dine’ on them. We also read that there are ‘servants’ in Shi’s house. If the ‘stone house’ is the poet’s own mind, what could these ‘servants’ be that tend the house of language? His pen, ink and paper perhaps? His glasses, maybe. His voice, certainly. His thoughts, absolutely.

Otherwise, Shi seems to be alone, with his own thoughts. There is no hint of wife or family; no other voices seem to intrude. It is not hard to imagine him surrounded by old tomes and crumpled paper. He is looking for something to eat; something he particularly likes, swears he will get.

What do poets like to eat? Why, words of course. Delicious words; magnificent words, perhaps ‘lions of words’ if they get lucky. For some reason, he seems to want ten of them (from which it might be deduced that he is hungry but not gluttonous. Ten, after all, is a rather modest number of premium words for a poet).

Where does the poet hunt for these ‘word-lions’? At the ‘market’ — perhaps representing the places that words are most likely to be found, such as dictionaries, thesauruses, other books and writings, his memory. His shelves, desk, and books piled all around him on the floor make for a perfectly good marketplace for hunting words. Then, ten beautiful, golden, powerful words suddenly appear in the ‘market’.

The poem provides a precise time that he goes to the market, but we attach no special significance to that other than that it contributes to the concrete timbre of the poem and offers another opportunity to employ ‘shi’ terms. One might conjecture that ‘ten’ may have some special symbolic importance (see below). But that is only speculation and unneeded for the metaphor to do its job. We do know the poet has hunted ‘lions’ before (he ‘used to go to the market…’). Did he find other word-lions on those occasions? The story doesn’t say. But if he is a poet of any worth, we might presume so. Not all of his previous poems could have been so spare as to contain no word-lions.

In any case, on this particular day, he not only finds one lion at the market, he finds ten at once! He takes out his ‘arrows’ (his pen?) and ‘kill[s]’ them (takes them into his mind; puts them on paper). Many of us know well the feeling of words skewered on the tip of the poet’s pen. The poet then takes his lion-words ‘home’. His stone house (of language) is wet, we are told: the floor dripping with emotion perhaps at the prospect of capturing ten great words? Tears, joy and excitement maybe? As any poet can tell us, it can get very wet (plain sloppy, in fact) when one finds ten perfect words on one hunt and brings them home. ‘Wet’ is a very good descriptor for what goes on in poets’ minds at the first blush of the creative process making a new poem.

The poet can’t eat his fresh words quite yet, however. They’re still in his mind, in a mess of damp sentiment and structureless, disassociated flux. It’s time to dry things off — to put his lions on the page and ‘eat’ them. He calls upon his servants (remember those?) They will work and rework, edit and revise, until the poem takes shape and the floor of his house of language is quite ‘dry’ once again. When the work is finished it’s time to ‘eat’ his lions, to savour the new poem.

Alas, after all that work, the lions have changed. The thrill is gone, too. All that effort drying (editing/revising) things out has also taken something else out of his meal. The very ‘lionic-vitality’ that was in those words is now gone. The ink is dry, and so is the poet. His once fresh words have turned to stone — durable, perfected, memorable perhaps. But stone, nonetheless; immobile on the page, used up and hard as rock. They are no longer the delicious lions (fresh meat= fresh words) he so desired; the once supple and ephemeral things that had rolled so deliciously on his tongue.

When one considers the material itself, the ‘stone’, from which both the house of language and the processed lions are made, the metaphor gets even tighter. ‘Wetness’ now figures as a solvent by which words are slipped loose from the stone walls of language, shaped into meanings and finally reworked as poetry, until they are ‘dry’ (used) and rejoin the general schemas of language, once again, as stones (at least for the poet who employed them.)

What is appealing about this solution-set to the riddle of the “Ten Lions” is that it is consistent with another interpretation that would view the entire work (in all its stages) as Language Poetry. For Shi, the poet, it is an exercise steeped in spontaneity, serendipity and vitality, followed by the application of effort, regulation and formality (drying out) which finally severs the poet from his original work and from all trace of any nourishment or enjoyment (voice and subject) that he might get from it. Not much different than taking a deeply nuanced set of Chinese characters, hacking off everything but their transliterated sound and then pasting them back on the page to see what you’ve got. In the end, the poet’s poem has become just another ‘perfected’ product; one as processed as Velveeta and as devoid of life (to its author) as stone. 


As you can see, it is not difficult to discover a very appropriate and consistent metaphor for the meaning of the story of the ten lions, and plausible solutions to its riddle. Using metaphors quite within the range of the story’s elements, and without introducing extraneous terms, contradictions or making improbable substitutions (e.g. ‘water buffalo’ for ‘lions’, or describing the lions as ‘wet clay’ turned to stone when ‘dried’), the riddle posed by Yuen Ren Chao is a valid challenge for which good replies exist but, as far as we know, have never been given before.

Most importantly, I believe it establishes that the narrative story (along with the processes of its construction) is indeed a poem, as it has so often been called by linguists as well as publishers and readers. Only the real attempt to examine it as a poem, rather than as an exercise or demonstration, has been missing.

My hope is that this little introduction will encourage other scholars and poets to reexamine the case of “Shi” as poem and Yuen Ren Chou as poet (along with his brilliant renderings of “Jabberwocky” in Alice in Wonderland), and to give him is due as an important contributor to the project of poetry, as well as for the contributions he made to many other disciplines and for which he already enjoys considerable reputation.


Excerpted and adapted from the essay, “Shi and the Ten Stone Lions – A Reappraisal” ©Red Slider, 2012, All rights reserved. A copy of the full essay, including the two additional solution-sets to the riddle, can be obtained by making a request to the author at red@holopoet.com

Red Slider, poet/writer lives in Northern California. His work has appeared in numerous print and online publications. He is active in many social and community projects directed towards creating positive change and new realities of sanity, health and sustainability for the people of world. Additional works may be viewed at his websites www.holopoet.com and poems4change.org–