A Cup of Fine Tea: May Dy’s “We”

October 25, 2012

May Dy’s “We” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #18 of Cha)

-This post is written by Benjamin Huang.

May Dy’s “We” ponders questions of travel and memory, history and desire. One sultry day, the speaker recalls a trip taken with her lover to Angkor Wat, the decayed ruins of which have led her to contemplate the dissolution of their relationship.

The poem opens with a prosopopeia: ‘The season cannot make up its mind, / It lingered in monsoon without parting with the sun. / Rain fell from the glowing sky’ (L1-L3). Already in the poem’s first stanza we are presented with indecision, paralysis, and separation. This meteorological condition reminds the speaker of an ‘impromptu trip’. Yet this casualness is belied by a reminder of mortality: ‘Where you said my fingers were like candlesticks, / They’d melt in the heat’ (L5-L6). Human flesh will itself dissolve in a grotesque anti-birthday celebration.

At the time of the trip the relationship is already over. ‘You weren’t afraid to have your heart broken’ (L7), the speaker says. She then describes her own heart as a timekeeping piece whose very operation rips her flesh: ‘Mine had in its place a clock that turns / In between bones and nerves’ (L8-L9) She had hoped that the passage of time might have brought relief. Instead, watching ‘Mango-skinned youths’ walking ‘on red dust’, she realises that the past never really is past; it is always revisited: ‘Watching them I learned time / Did not promise closure, disappearance is / The afterthought of grief’ (L12-L14).

After this she employs a striking metaphor: ‘And love is a finely carved stone’ (L15). Yet the stone does not signify permanence, but only the illusion of permanence. And the illusion is part of the cruel mechanism that continues to rip her flesh: ‘Sacred make-believe, immovable / Handmade for this clockwork heart’ (L16-L17). We must note that the ruins at Angkor Wat are Mahayana Buddhist, two of whose primary tenets are that permanence is an illusion and that attachment leads to suffering.

The seventh stanza turns to the ruins themselves. Dy alludes to four enormous carved stone faces at a temple at the site, which belong to a ‘venerable king’. Despite their being stone and reaching for ‘The heavens’, they are ‘reflected in a pond’ — hence, the king’s attempt to create a lasting monument to himself is shown to be something ephemeral and illusory. This futile gesture is parallel to the speaker’s own failed attempt to find something solid and permanent in their relationship: ‘I thought I held ours in my empty hand, / It was only you and a passing cloud’ (L20-L21).

She reflects that perhaps whatever a relationship is can only be constructed from the broken debris of what once was: ‘Perhaps this is what being together means, / Creating life around ruins, from stones, / Subsistence by thought alone, / Completion is monumental’ (L22-L25). Unity can only be achieved retrospectively, through memory — although any attempt at memorialisation is itself doomed to dissolve into a reflection or disintegrate into ruin.

The speaker despairs of any possibility of reconciliation or harmony. ‘We walk in as fragments and halves in spite of ourselves / Often I asked whether two sad people / could still be sad when they’re together’ (L26-L28). We then arrive at an epiphany: ‘I like to think I found the answer / In a new land, under strange weather. //We slipped on damp earth, / Gone on a boat ride to the other side. / Palm on palm, lotus eye, / The pleasure is in the falling’ (L29-L34). ‘Falling’, here, of course, first refers to the literal act of falling — ‘slipped on the damp earth’ — a treacherous misstep. But it also means ‘falling’ as both an emotional and a metaphysical experience — ‘falling’ as in ‘falling in love’, and ‘falling’ as ‘falling from innocence to experience’. So the poem’s conclusion suggests that even a failed relationship has some sort of redemption, due to the mere fact that it transports one to a different state of being — a ‘boat ride to the other side’. As painful as its consequences may be, the fall itself comprises a sort of joy.

Also see “A Cup of Fine Tea: Greg Santos’s “Siem Reap, Cambodia””.

May Dy  removed the beginning and end of her full name, Zeny May Dy Recidoro. She is taking up Art Studies (major in Art History) at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. After winning the Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Literary Prize for poetry in 2011, she was encouraged to write more poetry and since then, her poems have been published in qarrtsiluni and Red Poppy Review


A Cup of Fine Tea: Ricky Garni’s “The Tarsier”

October 21, 2012

Ricky Garni’s “The Tarsier” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #18 of Cha)

NOTE: Also read a creative response to Ricky’s “Literal Translation of Korean Ideograms” here.

-This post is co-written by Tammy Ho and Benjamin Huang.

If you read the Wikipedia entry under “Tarsier”, you will find that the facts conveyed in Ricky Garni’s poem about the animal are true. The tarsier is, indeed, native to Asia. It is small and carnivorous (in fact, it is the only extant primate which is purely carnivorous) and each of its eyes is equal in size to its brain.

What is striking about this poem, however, is that it does not merely describe its subject. Nor is it a simple catalogue of facts. Instead, it situates the natural world within a field of human associations.

Attempts to understand the tarsier quickly run up against the surprising and unexpected. To begin with, the tarsier ‘sounds so french. / it’s really from asia’ (S1). This alerts the reader to the discrepancy between surface and substance; the tiny animal is not at all what it sounds/seems. ‘[T]he tarsier eye is as large as its brain’ (S3). This unfamiliar body structure (to us, anyway) confounds our normal perception of proportion and size. We are also told that the creature ‘likes to go out at night and is oh so furry’ (S4) – it is a nocturnal predator but it is oh so cute and cuddly.

Thinking like a scientist doesn’t get us far in understanding the tarsier because suddenly ‘you see his cute little pink nose and can’t think like a / scientist’ (S7). The animal knows how to bewitch. And by invoking ‘the scientist’, Garni suggests how even the supposedly most clear-headed people are helpless in the face of the tarsier and cannot comprehend it objectively and reasonably. This unknowability wears a double aspect. On the one hand the tarsier is ‘cute’ (S7), but on the other it is ‘crazy’ (S9). It is ‘tiny’ (S7), yet it is merciless toward its prey – ‘it eats the meat of insects’ (S5) and ‘make[s] the insects scream and die’ (S12). For some readers, these lines will undoubtedly be associated with the stereotypical Asian femme fatale.

Being an animal, the tarsier is naturally excluded from human discourse – ‘try to make a tarsier apologise / it’s impossible / just plain impossible’ (S10). (If we continue with the femme fatale metaphor, however, these lines may assume a different meaning.) Worse, the tarsier transforms humans into its prey, especially since the reader is asked to ‘imagine being an insect’ (6). The speaker warns: ‘you don’t hear its scream as it jumps toward you / but make no mistake: it jumps toward you’ (S8), the ‘you’ here unmistakeably referring to humans rather than insects, although at this point there is a conflation of the two. Contemplating the tarsier is a dangerous act, for it leads toward self-destruction.

The last stanza (which is also ‘the point of the tarsier’) is haunting: ‘they make insects scream and die / and have big green eyes filled with trees’ (S12). Regardless of how we interpret the tarsier – literally or otherwise – the last image we have of it is that it has devoured its victims and other living creatures. What is reflected in its large brainy gaze is an eerily impersonal nature, in which the tarsier remains as cute and cruel as ever.

See a tarsier munching a cricket here.

Ricky Garni  [website] is particularly fond of manhood for amateurs. His poems appeared in Everygreen Review, Sixth FinchThe BakeryReprint Poetry and many other periodicals. His latest work, 2% Butterscotch, was released in 2012. His first, Peppermint, in 1995. 


A Cup of Fine Tea: Ricky Garni’s “Literal Translation of Korean Ideograms”

July 13, 2012

Ricky Garni’s “Literal Translation of Korean Ideograms” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #16 of Cha)

Note: Also read a discussion of Ricky’s “The Tarsier” here.

-This post is co-written by Tammy Ho and Matt Shoard.

Sufficient time has now past, and the matter no longer so culturally sensitive, for the circumstances surrounding the providences of author Ricky Garni (whose poem “Literal Translation of Korean Ideograms” appeared at Asian Cha this March) to be made public.

Cha’s dissemination of Mr Garni’s poem online coincided with a visit to London by the Korean Ambassador Choo Kyu Ho. While tending to consular services for Korean citizens at the Korean Embassy in Westminster, Mr. Choo had occasion to read Mr. Garni’s poem on a vacant computer screen at the offices in Buckingham Gate.

According to the testimony of co-workers at the Embassy, Mr. Choo acted with “disbelief” and “barely contained rage” at Mr. Garni’s interpretation of certain Korean words. In his poem, Mr. Garni had interpreted ideograms for the word “No-Ryok” (hardworking) as a man folding chair, for “Ae-Jong” (sincere love) as a man dancing with a television set, and for “Yook-Goon” (military) as a religious frown protected by municipal lighting.

Mr. Choo’s distaste was allegedly such that he was unable to complete his visit with the consulate in London and returned to Heathrow to take an immediate flight home, without notifying his hosts.

Panic-stricken British diplomats, unable to reach the offices of Asian Cha sufficiently quickly, instead traced Mr. Garni to his North Carolina address, which is easily found online. They appeared to be intent on a programme of “character conflagration” against Mr. Garni, both online and in correspondence with the British Embassy in Korea, to which Cha was by now a correspondent witness.

E-mails from the British diplomats suggested that Mr. Garni’s poem was not the work of an ordinary Westerner, but of one with an abnormally enlarged corpus callosum (the region of the brain responsible for creative thinking). The poem, they claimed, was the result of an elaborate test – similar to the Rorschach “inkblot” test – staged by members of the Korean Embassy in London in allegiance with Cha and the Institute for Neurological Integrity (INI), in order to secretly assess the size of Mr. Garni’s corpus callosum and then remove him from the creative industries.

As an act of assuagement, Mr. Garni was transported by the CIA – apparently following encouragement by British foreign affairs officials – to a correctional facility within London’s INI.

But reaction from Korea suggested that Mr. Choo was entirely ignorant of Mr Garni’s poem, and very probably hadn’t seen it. The truth of his withdrawal from the Embassy, supplied by his administrative assistant in the following days, was that Mr. Choo had received bad news from home on his mobile phone, which drew him instantly to the nearest vacant computer, and to his email account for corroboration.

Mr Choo’s hasty departure and, in all probability, his appearance of “disbelief” and “barely contained rage”, were testament, said the Koreans, to the seriousness of the news he had received. He had closed his email account and repaired to Heathrow, leaving “Literal Translation of Korean Ideograms” blinking on the vacant computer.

In order not to compound their embarrassment, both the Embassy, the Foreign Office and the INI, have since maintained the story of Mr. Garni’s enlarged corpus collosum and his necessary removal to palliative psychological care for several weeks. Today (13 July), they released the following statement:

“Mr. Garni’s psychological coordinates, broken thinking, buried preoccupations and unhealthy motivations have not, until now, been subject to study. Ostensibly to generate a work of poetry, but actually to form conclusive evidence for the Institute of Neurological Integrity, Garni was presented with Korean hieroglyphics for what is known as a “creative writing prompt”. The INI believed Garni not only to be exceptional in the size of his corpus collosum but also, and as a consequence, to be a uniquely-placed danger to contemporary poetics, and to international literary interventions more generally. Indeed, the earliest reports of the INI have concluded that

Garni is ‘dangerously poetic’.

Some sceptics consider our tests pseudoscience, even suggesting they breach patient ethics, but we maintain they produce results with a validity greater than chance, and that areas of dispute (inter-rater reliability, the verifiability and general validity of the test, bias of the test’s pathology scales towards corpus callosum) are negligible. In this instance, we believe Garni’s responses provide direct insight into illogical, incongruous or incoherent aspects of his creative life.

Invariably with subjects whose cultural preponderance precludes the recognition of Korean Ideograms, the suggestion of enlargement in this area of the brain is erroneous. There may be a broader cluster of variables used to interpret Garni’s case, and tests are ongoing.

Previous reports have indicated that undesirable responses to ideograms were observed at higher frequency in the normal artistic population than in the non-artistic normal population, and this positive correlation in Garni suggests that corpus collosum enlargement in the normal population might be related to other poetic anomalies and offensive creativities.

Treatment here is as nascent as the diagnostics, but we are advised they include: re-creative programming, long walks, short bicycle rides, and intensive primetime televisual stimulus.”

The fact that much of the phrasing of the statement is identical to Wikipedia entries on the Rorschach Test is further proof, at least to editors of Cha, that much of the case has been inflated. Everyone at Cha and the wider creative community in London remain hopeful of Mr. Garni’s imminent release and return to creative life in North Carolina, of an apology from the Embassies and the INI, and a de facto pardon to Asian Cha. Mr. Choo’s next visit to the UK is scheduled for mid-November – an opportunity, we hope, for final explanation and for the situation to normalise.

Meanwhile, you can read Mr Garni’s now-infamous “Literal Translation of Korean Ideograms” here.

Ricky Garni  [website] lives and works in Carrboro, NC (USA). He is particularly fond of manhood for amateurs. Some of his poems appeared in Sixth Finch, Red Lightbulbs and Reprint Poetry


A Cup of Fine Tea: Kathlene Postma’s “Chinese Box”

July 1, 2012

Kathlene Postma’s “Chinese Box” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #16 of Cha)

-This post is written by Stefani Kuo.

The title of Kathlene Postma’s poem “Chinese Box” gives the reader an expectation of a description of a physical box. This expectation is however frustrated by the poem, which is about learning Chinese. Still, the title suggests the difference between cultures as seen through their boxes: a Chinese box is certainly different from a ballerina music box, for example. The Chinese box also provides a metaphor for the rigid shape of the written Chinese characters, an idea that the poem expands on. This rigidity is also demonstrated in the structure of the poem itself, which is divided into two groups of seven lines, each consisting of three couplets and a single line.

In the poem, we are presented with a persona who is practising calligraphy at night (L8). She compares the process of learning Chinese calligraphy to another Asian art form, origami: ‘I have folded and refolded until the seams are intimate’ (L1). The pen strokes of Chinese writing and the steps of paper-folding are both ordered in specific sequences, which lies at the heart of both calligraphy’s and origami’s beauty and precision. However, the persona does not seem able to master her hand movements. Upset, she compares her failure to bring Chinese characters to life to an inability to ‘make a frog that leaps or a crane / that flies’ (L3-L4). For the persona, Chinese writing is like a ‘labyrinth, maze and code’ (L4) – the image of a labyrinth or maze recalling a piece of very creased paper after it has been folded and refolded.

The persona, frustrated, puts aside her writing and begins to contemplate the structure of the Chinese language. She thinks that Chinese words are ‘like small cities across the page’ (L15) divided into ‘straight streets’ (L6). The ‘cities’ simile is particularly inspiring and effective – while the box shapes of the characters hint at a kind of very organised and uniform cityscape (the boxes have the same height and width), within the boxes, there is a variety of strokes and movements, suggesting a bustling city inside the confining, larger structure.

The second part of the poem tells us about the teacher, who lives across the ocean (L8) and is portrayed as patient and forgiving (L11). While it is night in the student’s city, in the tutor’s country it is already the following morning: ‘You are ahead / of me always, morning tea in hand’ (L8-L9), the drink acting as a quintessential symbol of Asian culture. Although these lines clearly refer to the two different time zones that the teacher and student inhabit (Asia will forever be chronologically ahead of the West), the lines also suggest that the teacher’s level of skill will be forever unattainable to the pupil. The lines may also speak to the persona’s perception about the greater sophistication of Chinese characters compared to English letters.

This sense can also be felt at the end of the poem, in which the persona describes her own writing as ‘a flourish of loose lines’ (L11), which are not disciplined like Chinese boxes. More tellingly, she compares her English writing to something ‘a child could write, one vowel set after the other, / beads upon a string I drape across your screen’ (L12-L13). These lines highlight her belief that English-writing is relatively straightforward – the equivalent of a child stringing a bracelet out of beads. Still, there is a simple honesty and directness in this image, which speaks to our universal desire to make something and to communicate. This leads to the final line of the poem, which emphasises the equality of communication between the teacher and the student: ‘You reading me reading you’ (L14). These lines can also be expanded out to speak to the wider cultural exchange between east and west, which if not always perfect, is still valuable for its own sake.

Kathlene Postma‘s poetry, short fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various literary reviews, including RattleHawaii Review,Passages NorthWillow SpringsLos Angeles ReviewBeloit Fiction Journal,Natural BridgeGreen Mountains Review, and Fugue. An essay of hers was designated a “notable” for an issue of Best American Travel Writing. She has taught in Sichuan Province and Central Turkey. She edits the literary magazine Silk Road and teaches creative writing at Pacific University in Oregon.

A Cup of Fine Tea: Salvatore Attardo’s “Workers Disturb My Sleep in Beijing”

June 21, 2012

Salvatore Attardo’s “Workers Disturb My Sleep in Beijing” [Read the poem here] (First published in Issue #14 of Cha)

-This post is written by Tammy Ho.

Dear Salvatore,

You’re looking nice, son. You have become, in your way, like the pictures of Lennon in Rishikesh – sadness in the right eye and anger in the left – and still at an age when your hair looks practicable, more than practicable, in the morning. Well done.

Your other enclosure, the poem. Yesterday, I placed it in your sister’s hand. I thought it might be the dock leaf she needed, asleep or half asleep for five days, only soup on her lips, and spoonfuls at that, no showers, no conversation. I placed it first on her sighing sweater and she breathed it away, so I tried her hand and she closed her fingers around it. When I came back from a walk, your sister’s eyes were open and her lips moving. I stood over her and she didn’t notice me. But I could hear your poem, clear, on her breath, just the first line, over and over and over:

“I hear the workers chattering late…”

Last week she could still speak quickly, a mouthful of pickled eggs – ‘Everyone in Beijing has been moved, Father,’ she told me, ‘the buildings are broken down and thrown back up and I was touching the glass walls of the town and the water rang with blackness from god knows where. Chesterton was right…’ Since her return, she has talked about Beijing often. But by the next morning, she became so ill; she was frowning, mouthing nothing, dryly crying.

“I hear the workers chattering late right near / my window.”

Last night, your mother and I spent the evening online, trying to understand your sister’s ‘Chesterton’ reference, with no luck. A way, I suppose, of diverting our helplessness, but nothing. Your mother then chattered herself to sleep while your sister drummed at the walls with her soundlessness:

“I hear the workers chattering late, right near / my window.”

But you, Salvatore, you cause your mother and me no distress. Hair like licorice, shirt like a marshmallow saved by a child for its fondest friend. Forget Lennon, you are Sherlock Holmes, leaning forward and smiling, telling young Gilchrist it is human, quite human, to cheat for the prize, to steal into your tutor’s room to find the answer and later, discovered, to kneel before it, lean your arms across it and weep. Your picture says everything we could hope to hear and your poem is at this moment cupped in your sister’s hand like a bird, its heart racing.

“[F]inding sleep with China outside, / teeming with land and people.”

‘Teeming with land…’ your sister is now saying. At least she is saying something. The art soothes the artist, surely.

Perhaps you are Picasso. Picasso, leaping from the car and telling Marie-Therese she is hurting your soul with her beauty, that you are Picasso, that you want to paint her, that artists are merely ambulance chasers and practised drunks, but you will do great things together, and then you are sleeping together within a fortnight, Salvatore. A fortnight.

“In the morning, I realise. In the morning, I realise…”

Your mother told me this morning that I’d grown another handsome inch since I hit sixty-three (just as you turned twenty-five). ‘Long and lovely’ was her phrase. She said she could imagine a teenage girl, too young for me, pointed my way on the train and giggled to her friend and blushed. Another, anorexic she said, brushed my leg and apologised four times. Four. Maybe your mother pities me, or is embarrassed of me even. Maybe I’m a disease, a scuff on the female lens, on the smooth concourse of human symmetry and sympathy, and by extension of this unlikely thought, on wonder itself, on your sister, on her wide eyes and clear voice as she faces me now at the breakfast table:

“[T]hey had been planting a tree.”

‘I want to see that tree, Father,’ your sister is saying. They had been planting a tree. They had been planting a tree. Say ni hao to Beijing for us three.

All my love,


Salvatore Attardo‘s poetry and translations have appeared in several magazines, including Limestone, Jet Fuel Review, Marco Polo Quarterly and the delinquent. He has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is currently at work on a book titled Complex Manifolds and Other Riemann Surfaces: Love Poems.