● After hearing 阿綠 Ah Luk’s story about her mother’s painted self-portrait, and how it contained a secret package hidden within the frame, 陳之一 Chan Chi-yat finally gets to speak about his own astonishing news. As she continues to enjoy a cup of coffee in the Cesto coffee shop in Lam Tei Main Street, it is Ah Luk’s turn to be amazed when she hears about the out-of-the-blue email that Chan received after his dismal performance at the 2019 Cantonese Speaking Contest. And then there is a very strange incident involving a ladybird . . .
Here in the light of a garden my feet wear the sun’s high-gloss shoeshine. Counterfeit days behind me, I might just walk out on myself for a change, ringed pure and simple with Spring air where ladders of wild red gladioli flowers lean casual on cloud. When night inevitably falls sung in by the bottle cicada’s raw ceremonial, watch me dance in a full moon’s vast lemon ballroom.
For the past six weeks, I’ve been driving around the Swedish landscape with Tomas Tranströmer in search of a mystery. Human beings are like fällda bommar = “lowered boom-gates”, he decides. Whenever mystery show itself, the human response is to drop into sleep, completely oblivious of any enigma. There are glimpses of something uncanny at night, and in the shared arboreal silence of the forest and, of course, in dream, or more specifically in that intermediary state between waking and dream. But the final word of the poem is both its key-note and its conclusion: förgäves— “in vain”.
We cannot understand, but we must try to deepen our questions. This at least is one of the uses of poetry, our open-ended unanswer to everything . . .
Jag kör genom en by om natten, husen stiger fram i strålkastarskenet – de är vakna, de vill dricka. Hus, lador, skyltar, herrelösa fordon – det är nu de ikläder sig livet. Människorna sover:
I drive through a village at night. Houses loom out at me in the glare of headlights, awake and thirsty. Buildings, barns, road-signs, vehicles without drivers — now it’s their turn to dress themselves in Life. The human beings sleep.
en del kan sova fridfullt, andra har spända anletsdrag som om de låg i hård träning för evigheten. De vågar inte släppa allt fast deras sömn är tung. De vilar som fällda bommar när mysteriet drar förbi.
Some manage to rest in peace; others grimace as they lie there, tense, as if training hard for eternity. They don’t dare let go of anything, although slumber is so heavy for them. They are like boom-gates, lowered when the mystery sweeps on past.
Utanför byn går vägen länge mellan skogens träd. Och träden träden tigande i endräkt med varann. De har en teatralisk färg som finns i eldsken. Vad deras löv är tydliga! De följer mig ända hem.
Beyond the village, the road continues on a long way through forest trees, all standing there in silent mutual accord. Their colours are theatrical, the kind you see in open firelight. How clearly the leaves stand out, following me all the way home.
Jag ligger och ska somna, jag ser okända bilder och tecken klottrande sig själva bakom ögonlocken på mörkrets vägg. I springan mellan vakenhet och dröm försöker ett stort brev tränga sig in förgäves.
I lie down and will sleep. Unfamiliar pictures and designs graffiti themselves behind my eyelids on darkness’s wall. In vain, an enormous letter tries to force its way through the slot between waking and dream.
To me, poetry at its best, always gets the reader thinking about her own response to things. Resonant in itself, it can also create resonance in others and — by intimating rather than lecturing — allow discoveries to be made of their own accord, as if by magic.
This poem — literally “memory poem” [muistoruno] — is very understated in its presentation. What I take from it is a kind of double death, by which I mean that Immonen commemorates in her poem the death of certain kind of Dark Death, the grim imagery of the “black butterfly” and the “scythe” [viikate]. As she matter-of-factly points out, mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä = “people still die all the time”, but perhaps now without that mediaeval terror. The closing lines suggest a more natural-accepting attitude to death: from the butterfly and the cicada, we finish with cornflowers and sedge grass, things that meet the end of their living without fuss and as a matter of course. I think that is why the poem has yhtä | ruiskukan ja saraheinän kanssa or “the equal of the cornflower and the sedge-grass”, a thought that can take one back to Walt Whitman, leaning and loafing as he observes “a spear of Summer grass”.
An innocuous piece of structural language is crucial, I think, to an understanding of the sense of the whole poem. The phrase tälta osin is used with the meanings of “in this connection; to this end”, perhaps also “in this regard”. The opening lines thus read “The time of the black butterfly | is tälta osin over”, leaving us to ponder the question of what exactly in death is over, especially given the contradiction of the line that comes immediately after it, mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä = “but people are continually dying”.
I struggled with the what is to me the most striking image in “Muistoruno” presented in lines 4-5: “who have never taken the trouble | to raise their voices above the song of the cicadas”. According to my little Finnish-English dictionary compiled by Aino Wuolle, the verb viitsia = “to care to”, but the only example given for it is en viitsinyt = “I couldn’t be bothered”, which suggests an element of laziness or unwillingness. However, I have chosen (perhaps wrongly) to interpret the phrase as meaning something positive, along the lines of “who have never wasted their time complaining or lamenting about the terrors of death”. Also, from the little research I have done, I get the impression that kaskas is a kind of insect like a leaf-hopper, but a laulukaskas or “song leaf-hopper” is the usual term for a cicada. However, in the case of cicadas, the word “song” seems a bit misleading: “cry” or “screech” is probably closer to the mark.
There is another little piece of vocabulary used in the poem to great effect: yhtä = “equal”. From the short-lived cicadas calling from the tree-tops, we are plunged down to ground level, where the mown flowers lie. This down-to-earth-ness reinforces the kind of attitude Immonen wants to share with us about dying. As Mr Emerson, in conversation with his son, says about Heaven in the novel Room with a View:
“You will never go up […]. You and I, dear boy, will lie at peace in the earth that bore us, and our names will disappear as surely as our work survives.”
This means, death as an equalization with the Earth, and not an annihilation.
“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting”, said Robert Frost, and then followed this up with “Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it”. I think Immonen melts wonderfully well, and even across the language barrier is capable of carrying any patient reader along with her.
Mustan perhosen aika on tälta osin ohi, mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä jotka koskaan eivät viitsineet korottaa ääntään kaskaiden laulun yläpuolelle ja lopulta olivat yhtä ruiskukan ja saraheinän kanssa viikatetta vailla.
The time of the black butterfly is over — in one respect, but people go on dying nevertheless, people who never once cared to raise their voice above the cry of the cicadas and who — in the end — were the equals of cornflower and sedge-grass, sans scythe.
“喺我嘅歌詞入邊 | 令到大家覺得有一種嘅同在 | 覺得自己唔係孤單 | 同在嘅話 | 你就可以因此大家不如一齊起翻身 | 一齊同行 | 可以走落去 | 就啫係話，繼續有可能 | I hope that in my lyrics people will feel that there is a solidarity or a “being together”, and that they are not alone. Then, because of this, you can all get up again together, to walk together, to go on walking. That is to say, that there continue to be possibilities.”
In this short RTHK video, 周耀輝 Chow Yiu Fai speaks movingly of the song as solidarity. In the space of a few hundred words, set to three or four minutes of music, the song can speak to us, take us out of ourselves, even set us on a new path, as if we had changed key. Songs which speak to us deeply can also bring us a moment of brief respite from the ugliness of a world, the ugliness of 太多太多經濟及數學 (that is, “too much economics & mathematics”) which pushes up out of shape and cuts us off from all the potential beauty of the world.
There are some minor but very interesting grammar points in this short presentation. The use of “how” in English to form exclamations — How wonderful you look! — is replicated in Cantonese by 幾咁. And so, in the opening, we hear 無論外邊嘅世界 | 幾咁醜陋、幾咁不堪 = “no matter how ugly or how unbearable the external world is”.
In the 2 October post on 鄺雋文 Chun Man Kwong (aka 豬文) in which he spoke about Socrates, we heard the expression 百零二百 in 就好似呢個 hall 入便，百零二百人 = “just like here in this hall of somewhere between one and two hundred people. It crops up again here at 0:22 when Chow says 原來呢，我寫一首詞 | 百零二百字 = “when I write a song, it all boils down to a matter of a couple of a hundred words or so”. It’s obviously an expression any Cantonese learner would want to add to her repertoire!
Please scroll down for my transcription, English translation and notes. You can view the video here(subtitles in Standard Written Chinese only). Since it is a YouTube video, you can slow down the playback speed if you wish: at 0.75 and 0.5, the sound quality is still good. And remember, if you want the standard jyutping romanization or to check any of the Chinese in the text, please consult the Sheik Cantonese on-line dictionary.
Update: As of 14 November 2022, this video appears to have been removed from both YouTube and the RTHK website. You can listen to an audio file of it here:
● 駕馭 gaa3 yuh6 = ① to drive ② to control; to master | ● 幾咁 gei2 gam3 = How (followed by an adjective) | ● 不堪 bāt1 hām1 = usu. “cannot bear; cannot stand” | ● 填詞人tìhn4 chìh4 yàhn4 = (?) lyric writer; a lyricist (lit. “a person who fills in the words to fit a given tune”) | ● 抛出嚟 pāau1 chēut1 lèih4 = to throw out; to toss out | ● 角力 gok3 lihk6 = usu. “to have a trial of strength; to wrestle”
Chow Yiu Fai: Writing [文字] gives me strength. [It makes] me think that I can drive the world. No matter how ugly or how unbearable the external world is, I can at least control the world at the tip of my pen and bring it into existence [創造出嚟].
Caption: Top Ten Chinese Gold Songs | Chow Yiu Fai | Lyric Writer
When I write a song, it all boils down [原來] to a matter of a couple of a hundred words or so, but, as it turns out [原來], I can create a world of my own [with them]. Later, I cast it away [from me] [so that it can] try to test its strength with the ugly external world. As it turns out [原來], it gives me — a creator — the feeling that I have the ability to drive the world. That is an important thing.
I tend to regard my own creativity as both a kind of arrogance and a humility. By “arrogance” I mean [when all is said and done] [仍然] I think that the words I myself have written deserve to appear in this world [of ours] . . .
● 奢望 chē1 mohng6 = extravagant hopes; wild wishes | ● 自得其樂 jih6 dāk1 kèih4 lohk6 = be content with one’s lot | ● 恰如其分 hāp1 yùh4 kèih4 fahn6 = apt; appropriate; just right
. . . that they deserve to be listened to. [In my] wildest dreams [I believe that] these words are of use to some people. [In my] even wilder dreams [I believe that] these words can influence the world. But if you then go back to “humility”, this means enjoying the writing for its own sake: “Wow, what I’m writing is pretty good. Let’s hand it over so that the world can take a look.” If some people hear this song and are happy for a few minutes, or if they sing it as karaoke and forget all about the world for three minutes, then what a fine thing that is [都幾好呀]. Possibly we need that arrogance and that humility before we can go back to engaging in our personal creativity in an appropriate way.
● 有陣時 yáuh5 jahn6 sìh4 = sometimes | ● 呼應 fū1 ying3 = to echo; to work in concert with; to co-ordinate | ● 感應 gám2 ying3 = a response; a reaction; an interaction | ● 類似 leuih6 chíh5 = similar; analogous
Sometimes, I listen to what people tell me about a song: it actually [原來] did help them. So [I] think: well, well — there are some echoes of myself in what was written in the lyrics. As it turns out [原來] there are other people in this world whose responses to certain things are similar to my own. I hope . . .
● 同在 tùhng4 joih6 = to be with | ● 起翻身 héi2 fāan1 sān1 = (?) to get up again
. . . I hope that in my lyrics people will feel that there is a solidarity or a “being together” [同在], and that they are not alone. Then, because of this, you can all get up again together, to walk together, to go on walking. That is to say, that there continue to be possibilities.
Boots ate belts — buckle and all — while bullets crunched with the greatest of ease through billions and billions of guns (later, they used the bayonets as toothpicks). War-planes ate tanks and tanks ate planes — no one had ever taught them the difference and then submarines — buoyant with nuclear glory — managed to suck the whole life out of themselves through wide-eyed periscopes. Satellites ate radar and radar scoffed landmines while night-vision goggles gorged themselves on day-blinding flares. Medals ate mess-tins; tyres wolfed down trucks; and world-proof army-issue tents vanished down the mouths of bolt-holes and bunkers (or was it the other way round?) What was left — countless acres of military rust, rot and hate — was picked off by — no, you wouldn’t guess it in a million years! — was picked off by poppies. Poppies!
What an unforgettable Spring it was for all the flowers that year . . .
● 陳之一 Chan Chi-yat walks from Siu Hong Western Rail Station all the way to 藍地 Lam Tei, day-dreaming about various kinds of nonsense as he goes. Later, apart from enjoying the bustling ambiance of Lam Tei Main Street, he also witnesses a scuffle between two traders with stores on opposite sides of the road, which makes him think of the English writer F. D. Ommaney, who described just such a scene in his book Fragrant Harbour (1962). After his walk, he meets up with 阿綠 Ah Luk at the Cesto coffee shop, and finds out exactly what happened that day back in April she was called away unexpectedly during their meal at Tim Chai Ha Kau in Fanling.
We — adults of prolonged dry — have been found out by weather for what we deeply are: children of rain. Regardless of the science of the mock-solemn forecast, when drenching downpours start licking dust off the streets, instantly, the idiot spectacle rivets us, the wonder that needs no expert preamble: water — in effortless vertical seams — waterfalling down cloud. The sea, from its Remote Salt Splendour, sends us — or please RETURN TO SENDER — these exquisite packages of itself in miniature, messages to the inland, and to the glittering adventure of rivers, lakes, streams and creeks that, profuse and transfusing, add all their life to ours. It is a sober attendance watching for showers in cloudless cramped skies, segmented by air lines, by ambition’s architecture and at every point crackling with the irritated heat of engineering’s engines. Once we deplored those unscheduled interruptions; the skeletal coldness of flimsy, metal-ribbed umbrellas; the spatter-animation of turbulent, rubbish-filled gutters, but nowdays the nail-biting rain-wait readily consumes us. It is this fact of life (like the gift of fresh air, and like the selfless-active chemical transactions of the trees) which reminds — against want against wish against wealth against waste — of Planet Earth’s everywhere unsung elemental battler.