Cha chaan tengs, local diners that serve comfort food all day, are a cornerstone of Hong Kong culture. At a cha chaan teng, you can order beef satay noodles for breakfast, a cup of milk tea stronger than any Starbucks coffee, lo mai gai (glutinous rice and chicken wrapped in a lotus leaf), and more. To many Hongkongers, cha chaan tengs evoke a sense of familiarity and nostalgia. Indeed, it was precisely these feelings that drew me, a Hongkonger living in America, to translate Chung Kwok-keung’s remarkable poems.
Chung wrote “The Cha Chaan Teng on Fortune Street” in 1996 about a Cha Chaan Teng he visited in Sham Shui Po while running an errand. He no longer remembers what the errand was for, he writes in a blog post, but “words have helped [him] remember concrete details of that cha chaan teng.” At the same time, he also wonders whether there is something about a place that is lost forever once it no longer exists, no matter what we write down. As evocative as the details in this poem are, from the “soft clink” of utensils to the “grease-soaked hair” of a waiter, the poem ends on a note of uncertainty, unsure of whether words can safeguard memory.
“Moss on a Smooth Rock” is from Un mar en madrugada (A Sea at Dawn), by the Uruguayan poet Silvia Guerra, published in 2018 by Hilos Editora, Buenos Aires, Argentina. The English version of this book is forthcoming from Eulalia Books in 2022.
Guerra’s work is notorious for its complexity, its concreteness of image and abstraction of thought, and its convention-defying syntax, capitalization and punctuation. With a long-standing interest in linguistics and psychology as well as a deep affinity for the natural world, Guerra’s poems go beyond the self in an effort to imagine the world from the standpoint of other beings, living and nonliving. For centuries, humans have assumed a monopoly on consciousness, even arrogantly denying the subjective experience of other mammals. But scientists are at last confirming what any dog or cat owner has always known: animals are not unfeeling automata any more than we are. But while only some creatures are proven to be sentient, can we be so certain that others are not? “How can we be so sure that plants feel no pain?” asks Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. What about rocks? Guerra dares to imagine they are.
For years, I have tried to describe the light: the dry, dry gold; the purple peaks of our horizon; the long-armed valleys sliding off the peaks. Craters tinseled after frost, glaciers before the recent years of drought. Late-afternoon glow over brown dirt walls, valley floors blasting green with sugar, and the black volcanic rock of the single mountain without snow. Light like liquid gold against the brown, radiant gold drizzled across the ridges.
And then I try to name a lack of light, the mist that isn’t gray and isn’t white and isn’t rain. Light through fog, light instead of fog, fog instead of light. The sparkle of dew along a leaf, even when it seems there isn’t any light at all. Light, and not-light, that you can get lost in. Light that misleads you, leads you on. The flicker of a flashlight through tent walls.
In my late thirties, when for a short period I lived in Moscow, I sometimes wondered if there were too many words in the English language. Longing and desire, for instance: was it really necessary to have both? Couldn’t a single, flexible word suffice? Maybe want would work. Not need; that was different.
Having plenty of words at our disposal wasn’t doing Jack and myself much good, in any case. We were at an impasse—my word for it now, though back then I might’ve called it a checkpoint. Jack would’ve have named it a choice-point, I imagine. At any rate, although neither of us was skittish about talking, we couldn’t seem to find common verbal ground, and our conversations had grown increasingly fraught. My husband wanted a kid; I wanted to want one, which wasn’t the same thing. You like adventures, Jack kept saying. You’re a curious person; you’ve always been open to new experiences. Yes, I kept responding, but this isn’t an adventure we’re talking about. We can bail out of an adventure if it’s not right; we can’t do that with a kid. What do you mean by right? Jack kept asking, and though I tried, I couldn’t give him or myself a clear answer. Right as in natural?As in obvious?As in doable?
If I had kept a journal in the early fifties, when I was new in New York, I would have marked the day on which I saw the basalt bowl in a store window in Greenwich Village. It was small, and had an in-curling rim and the finest matte black finish. It cost fifteen dollars, almost half my monthly salary, so I got back on the subway and went home. I could not get the thing out of my mind. I desired it. “Beauty,” Stendhal said, “is the promise of happiness.” There was the Saturday I took the subway to the Village, but my bowl was gone.
It might have been twenty years later when I could afford the large basalt platter with a rim that flattens outward. It was a handsome piece, but it did not redeem the thwarted love for that first small black bowl.
Two Men and a Truck are here to haul our
piano away to a nice woman’s house, who’s agreed to move it to own it, so her children can learn to play. An hour
early, two men in the truck pass a pipe
while on my open porch I read the sports page. I see ribbons of smoke peel
from the open truck window. The ripe
She is on her knees in the garden. The sun, as of yesterday, an hour early. There are no dead snails in the saucers of beer, though she has finally seen the pale-yellow cabbage butterfly. Searching the half-eaten mustards and turnips, she looks for the caterpillars and their eggs as if she were inspecting a child for lice. Extracts the first, hiding along the stem of the most mature start. Studying its curl on her finger for a breath, perhaps peering its translucence to judge it female, before she presses. Leaf by leaf plant by plant until her fingertips are dirty with the mess.