Myths of the T Century

Tan Chee Lay

A. The Birth of History

in the wake of retreating forces
a witch with the flu
has seduced a feverish king
the sly cards are strewn over the floor
lacking only
a king of hearts MADE IN CHINA 
the witch’s broom flew long ago
into a militant white sky
no one sweeps the floor      which is scattered with falsehoods 

the diabolical crystal ball
flaunts not the queen’s wrinkles
but the emperor’s
new clothes 

history is stranded
on a lone rain-drenched island
the only mailbox of mine
contains your final letter:

            the rain in the desert is in danger of erasure
            there is the heat of the sun and the chill of the dunes
            when rain and sand mingle
            a sheet of quicksand is spread on the ground
            holding a conference of heavenly bodies
            idealism and illusion are fused in incest
            this holy convention’s so-called yearning
            is the thirst of saints
            and the gaze of commoners

finally I realized
freedom is the sardines in a can
still caught between ethics and laws
gasping desperately
even after the can was opened
what’s more,
the enemy breeds cats



I. Losing Childhood’s Favor

childhood dreams 
are parched as the well
in our Quanzhou home’s courtyard
it was not the function of the water faucet
to quench longing’s thirst

I cannot find a wishing well
for the coin I smuggled from my hometown

when childhood dreams awaken
reality and desire turn traitor
capturing a cat
buried in a rubbish heap,
it chomps ravenously
on news headlines
amidst naked words,
pictures of missiles
taste the fishiest

its rotund belly reminds me
that whether they are black or white,
cats remain the nightmare of mice

when childhood dreams die
stony coins and sable cats queue to offer incense
while the photograph on the headstone
steadily yellows


W. The Death of Idealism

please don’t think that sending a registered letter
on the fourth of June
entails a postscript of gravity and guilt

my mailbox has long been locked, barren
in it rests one letter only
severing bonds with the postman
in its last breath

of course
once you were the mist drifting at sea
I was an Italian sailor’s ears
compulsively listening, quivering in the wind
and when I diverted my vessel towards life
there were  pirate ships      storm      cyclones      whirlpools      perilous shores
routes already determined
waves compelled to heave

you must acknowledge
that those raped by civilization are no longer virgins— 
they conceived at dawn      miscarried at dusk      hanged themselves at midnight
fate will not raise a bastard
who does not know his real father

I worry that the baby unable to find a breast
will, amidst her howls, see through
the maternal instinct

I woke in the wee hours of the third of June
ideals are as inescapable
as a sailor’s rope            a hunter’s bow
the waves are fierce            brutality has spread
the sailor is engulfed            the hunter cuts his own throat
these endings inevitable, like you
ideals are bobbing in death’s sea
your backward glance a raft a thousand miles away
floating      growing more      and more      obscure

dawn the fifth of June
I was a boat carrying a crucifix
let those of the air confess to the winds
let those of the sea collapse with the waves
let those traveling by ship answer to
reflections in the sea

in the straits of postmodernity
there are no so-called stateless waters
while wooing ideals in desire’s tempests
between you and me
is all there is


A. A Testament Reborn

time congeals—
it is as if I have been dreaming forty-six years
and one day wake with a start
to discover an islandful
of wet dreams

slimy Sense challenges
pallid Reason
to chess at the apex
of the zeitgeist’s pyramid—
everyone surrounding them
whether they are standing back
                        waving flags
                        or rubbing salt into wounds
seems to be witnessing

my testament is a voting slip
reincarnated on recycled paper
five millennia old
on it, a scarlet flag
springs to life!



N. Nadir/Nirvana

from the lessons of history
we can infer
that after the crimson snow has melted
the tree roots of this country
need time to laze in bed

as that chilly dawn retreats,
spring winds approach
but my melancholy is like cotton fibers
about to be dispersed
by the wind
when my wind vane fails to register your draughts
it will forever point towards the path
we last left

we believed blindly
that the end of the Qing dynasty
was sand was dust was soil
among the burial goods
there was even a bible

so there is also
a God
for this Republic

yet after pedigrees and pigtails ceased with Confucius 
and before the coming of Jesus
the steady practice of benevolence
was still not enough
to enter paradise together
besides, that communion cup
you lost as a child
wandered along the Long River
following its eighteen meanders
your descendants
will have to lap at
their holy water

I hear a new church has been built
on a bank of the Yellow River
every day the bells
begin to batter at the nerves
supporting the tail bone of my soul
dawn and dusk remind me
of the limbs which throb
this chapel baptizes memories
every Saturday night of that year
finds it deserted
even God and Confucius
have fled together

at parliamentary sessions
Satan flashes me a grin
revealing by accident
a shameless mouth
devoid of teeth

translated from the Chinese by Teng Qian Xi

“W. The Death of Idealism” was first published in Some Kind of Beautiful Signal: Two Lines World Writing in Translation Vol. 17.