Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Anniversary: Yuan Hongqi in Poems by Changming ©

Yuan Hongqi (袁宏启) is my father who died of heart diseases at my mom's arms in Jinzhou Central Hospital around 5:00 pm on 2 January 2012. Last Wednesday was his anniversary, when I was too busy teaching, helping students or communicating with PP's contributors to do something here. Now I am posting every poem I have written in commemoration of him since his death. Luckily, all these and other poems pasted below have been accepted or published by literary magazines, such as MOBIUS, PoetsWest, Asia Literary Review, CHEST, Fairy Tale Review, Grain, Istanbul Literary Review, Byword, Tower Journal, Syndic Literary Journal, Media Virus Magazine, Fortunates, Prairie Journal, Pyrokinection, Black Magnolias Literary Journal, District, Writers Abroad, Mixitini Matrix, Cynic, Lit Up Magazine, Literary Underground, Dialogist, Spirits, Red Fez and Westward Review.

These are the flowers I mean to put in front of his tomb in my native village (I have translated some of them into Chinese so that my father could understand when he reads/hears them in heaven)::

My Dates


[Actually, these dates are my fathers]

The Day Yuan Hongqi Passed Away

That was the day when my father died
Before finishing the longevity noodles
Mom’s trying to feed him below our feet
On the other face of the planet, where
He had persisted long enough to allow
Us to celebrate another new year’s day
In Jingzhou as well as in Vancouver
When my brother’s only son managed to
Travel all the way to Grandpa’s dying bed
To report how he was doing in New York

This was also the time when I and Hengxiang
Felt like making love again after another
Cold war, when Iran successfully testfired
Two long-range missiles in the Persian Gulf
To deter the invasion to be led by Uncle Sam
And his running dogs, when the very first
Plymouth Neon was made in 2000, when JFK
Became a senator in 1960, when a stamped
Took 66 human lives after a soccer game
At the Ibrox Park Stadium in Scotland
Even earlier, and when God was taking
A long overdue nap, since he knew
All was well with this wild wild world

On that day, I became the oldest male
In my entire family, ready to take my turn
To deal with death in a masculine manner

Tomb Visiting: For Yuan Hongqi

Last year, before burying your ashes
Right beside Grandma’s grave site
(To guard her Buddhaship, as you had
Wished), I opened your urn for a peek
And found your biggest bone chip
Glistening against the January wind
As pink as a piece of charcoal

Now, too far to attend your anniversary
Like every other good Confucian son
Burning joss sticks and fake money
Lighting a huge pile of firecrackers
Before your tombstone, on Big Wok Peak
But I did make three loud kowtows
Towards the east, and in so doing
I saw a little rosy cloud drifting around
Like an inflated bird beating its wings
Along the horizon, amid evening glows
And wondered whether that’s your spirit
Still lingering between earth and heaven

What was it tightly holding in its beak:
A heirloom, or simply our family name?

[Although the poem was written early in 2012, it was round 10:30 pm on Saturday evening 30 December when my mom was conducting a traditional commemorating ritual in Jinzhou, China that I led my family actually to kowtow towards the east]





Recalling: For Yuan Hongqi

Wait a while!’ Mother would shout, ‘they say
There might be more showers this afternoon.’
So I recalled, from time to time
How he would turn a deaf ear to her
And continue, dragging out quilts
Sheets, pillows, blankets, padded coats
One pile after another
Like moving forests
Hanging them on thick ropes
Tied to deformed poplars or lamp posts
Not again! This old man of mine just wouldn’t
Want to waste a single ray of sunlight.’
And remembered, for nearly half a century
My dad had tried each time to empty the whole house
And sun-wash everything, more like a grandma
Than like a father, even during the Cultural Revolution
Now realizing how I have been haunted
By his stark image, smiling, in blue, ever since
He nodded his head to Mother for the last time
About 5 pm on January 2 last year
I find myself choked again with gratitude:

It was my father who gave me so many a chance
To smell fresh sunlight in my boyish nightmares

Kinship: For Yuan Hongqi

Yes, we are father and son, but so often
Did I doubt this simple small biofact:
We could never say more than three short
Sentences to each other when we met, nor
Did we meet more than three times per year
Before I managed to flee a thousand miles
Away from you, and later ten thousand away
From your village on this world’s other side

Like other Chinese fathers, you never said
You loved me, gave me a hug, or touched me
Unless it was a cutting pinch in the arm
Or a heavy hit on the butt, (always in surprise)
While my peers kept bragging aloud
About their great fathers, grandfathers
I looked down upon you, not because of
Your slight stature, but because of your
Smaller personality, constantly calling you
A Buddha outside, a Devil at home’
(Of course behind your back), so I used to
Feel guilty, fearing I could never shed
Any teardrops when you die, just as every
True Confucian son is supposed to

Unlike me and my son, with a big store of
Co-memories ready to share, to cherish
We were born enemies, karma-determined
In our former lives, just as you had explained
To my mother, (who would be busy filling
In each new crack on our wall, with a big pail
Of muddy mixture every time we met)

Yet ever since your death at the dawn of 2012
I have been haunted by your image, kindly
Smiling, and even sobbed my heart out
While dreaming last night: are you there, Dad?




她总是拧着个大桶, 随时在你我之间的


Family Reunion: Once, and Forever

Yuan Hongqi, may your spirit, Dad, come
And join us from Pure Land in this poem
(Conceived in and dedecated to Vancouver)
With Liu Yu, my mother, who is paying us
A visit from the other side of the world
Let’s gather together behind these thin lines
Where I and Hengxiang Liao, my old girl
Have prepared a big dinner according to
Our own recipes. Please, sit here with Mom
Above my central metaphor. First, take a sip
Of Luosong Soup, our only family specialty
George Lai and Allen Qing, my two sons
Always love to drink, even Hyunjung Lee
(George’s Korean wife) finds it agreeable --
By the way, the young couple has finally
Decided to buy a condominium in Sunnydale
Now, try some consonance, and this assonance
Fried with Tofu, a course you never heard of
In your lifetime. Look, right beside you is
Julian Han Yuan, your most favored grandson
The pride of our family who’s doing his PhD
In New York, and across the table are Liu Yun
My brother and his current wife Chen Jing
Still working far away in Jingzhou, China

Dad, since you were a vegetarian, a Buddhist
Let’s have internal rhyme instead of wine, let’s
Celebrate our grand family reunion. Cheers!

[Towards the end of 2011, we had our first and last family gathering when my father was still alive. In terms of health and finance, this was a highly costly reunion, as George and Hyunjung had to travel from San Francisco, Julian from New York, and we - my wife, my younger and i,  from Vancouver all the way to Jinzhou in Hubei Province. Because of this trip, Allen's disc problem got worse and has never recovered, while I began to suffer from dramatically obvious symptoms of heart diseases such as HCM (?)]

Here are all the pieces I have written with my father in mind since I began composing poetry in English, which have all been published as well:: 

Well, Well, the Well
(for Yuan Hongqi)

In the lowest terrain of
My father’s native village
Used to be an old well
As deep as the memories
Of last century, around which
Boys would be running
At noon in summer
And girls dancing under the willow
At midnight, where my father
Often sat, listening to his sick mother
Telling stories about his unknown ancestors

The well finally ran dry
After God knows how long, and
Since electricity came across the hills
And ponds, nobody has returned to it
Except mosses and lichens that have colonized
The whole territory, where only my grandma’s ghost
Shines down from time to time
Trying to guard its walled-in secrets
Now as dry as its mouth

[This is a parallel poem based on an imagined experience.]


In my line of people, especially on my father’s side
There never seems to have been ample blood
Running within the arteries behind our Chinese chests
No matter how warm-hearted we actually are

As in the case of my father, who used to
Accuse me of being an ill-hearted teenager
My heart muscle is imbalanced
As one side is less infused with blood
Than the other, thus causing palpitation
Short breath, and a strong sense of
Tightness, heaviness or tiredness about life

To diagnose my cardiovascular defection
Neither an echo nor a stress test is needed
For I am keenly aware of my own doomed
Arteries that have been clotted
With too many syllables
Voiced or voiceless
And to make all these sounds flow out of my heart
Is already stressful enough
Nevertheless, I will keep pumping out these words
Be they ever so blood-soaked

[This is a parallel poem based on a puzzling health-related experience.]






Curse in Verse: An Ischemic Tradition*

As if this had been a family curse
You have all the symptoms of ischemia:
Palpitations, short breaths, irregular heartbeats
Although no test results show you
Having a physiological cause of the problem

While your family doctor keeps wondering
Why you do not have enough blood
Flowing around behind your Chinese chest
You know your heart muscle as a sponge
From which you have squeezed out
Too many of your blood-rooted words
Like your father, like your son

[While my dying father Yuan Hongqi has never been able to get his poetry published, my 16-year-old younger son Allen Qing Yuan, who suffers greatly from disc problems, has already had his poems appearing in a number of countries. ]





Like A Lamp

in Vancouver west
from time to time
you just cannot help yelling, yearning
for your father's humming
you fumble into musical halls
in pursuit of tunes
soft/hard utterances
you need this feeling
you need this contact
with origin
guiding your heart
like a lamp
along a forlorn road

[This is a parallel poem based on an imagined experience.]

Making Tea

Without a famous name
These little shy leaves
Coming afar from my fathers farm
Deep among fluffy hills
Like sleeping giant pandas

Sowing a few in my crystal glass
I see them budding
Blooming in boiled water
Taking a slow sip
I fall drunk as if in a stupor
With a tiny taste of
All the freshness of spring
And a whole morning glow Making Tea

Without a famous name
These little shy leaves
Coming afar from my fathers farm
Deep among fluffy hills
Like sleeping giant pandas

Sowing a few in my crystal glass
I see them budding
Blooming in boiled water
Taking a slow sip
I fall drunk as if in a stupor
With a tiny taste of
All the freshness of spring

[My father enjoyed drinking thick green tea, but this is a parallel poem based on an imagined experience.]


Never have I been a handy man
With my hands so too clumsy
Even to hold a hummer right
As my wife often jokes about them
But from my old man I did learn
How to make my home hygienic
By taking all bed clothing outside
On a good sunny Saturday
Opening all the doors and windows
To replace the abused air
Or even to remove the whole roof
If removable
So that my sons can dream
A sun-fresh dream at night
Just as I used to be so crazy
About the golden smell of sunlight
[My father would never wasted a singly ray of sunshine, as my mom often says: whenever it was sunny, he would put everything outside to enjoy some sunlight. I used to hate this addiction when I was a boy.]

Name Changing

Confucius once said
If the name is not right
Language will carry no might
So my father created my name
By rearranging the sun and moon
Vertically and horizontally
To equip it with all
The forces of yin and yang
Dispersed in the universe

Since I became subject
To a totally different grammar
All people have complained
Or made fun of my name
So harsh and awkward
They conspire to seduce me
To adopt a familiar one
Like Michael in the powerful speech

But to retain the subtle balances
In the wild wild world I wander
To hold my fathers sunbeam
With my mothers moonlight
I fiercely refuse to change it
Even though I often feel lost
When the sounds I hear
Do not sound like my name at all

The White Goose

My grandfather was younger than my son
When he died of an undiagnosed disease
Somewhere in the Mid-South of China
So we have been told since childhood:
He did nothing memorable or forgettable
Left no picture of his or any handwriting
Not even one impression on my fathers senses
Since he was born after he passed away)
But he had bought a big white goose
To protect his infant son in his place
And a single-syllabled family name
Copyrighting every little poem
I have composed
In a foreign tongue

Twilight Hanyang County

Twilight Hanyang County
My father was eight
Yes, as young as eight
Maybe only seven
Burning with sweat
On his way to nowhere

In front of him a wild fellow dog
(He was a dog according to Chinese zodiac)
Was grumbling angrily with hanger
While dry grasses and leaves
Were swept from field to field
And rain clouds too heavy with dusk
Sacking down towards bald hills

Dying of thirst and heat
Both caused by an unknown fever
He dragged himself close to a pond
Smelling of rotten reeds and water buffalo shit
There he drank to his full
Wrapping his legs with fresh mud from the bottom
To keep himself cool for the night

The next morning he would continue
Wandering around outside his fatherless home
Like a premature vagrant

[When my father was orphaned at 13, he became a homeless boy travelling from Hanyang to Badong, Sichuan Province and then back to Shashi, Hubei Province, trying to find a job to make a living until 1949.]  

Ancestry Worshipping

No, we never planned it that way
But it so happened this seventh summer
I took my twelve-year-young son
To my fathers native village among hairless hills
In the far east end, the other side of the world
Which he had left as a starving orphan
And returned with me in the Mao suit
Like a magic-toyed boomerang
When we were both at Allens age
For the first times in our lives

Last time, my father forced the Little Red Guard in me
To kowtow, burn joss sticks and paper money secretly
For his parents, whose dialect had survived
Though I understood it only half-heartedly

This time, I cajoled my boy to grasp a handful of earth
From the grave of my grandma worshipped by villagers
(Her humaneness has supposedly made her a local deity)
And smuggle it to the backyard of our home in Vancouver
Like some foreign seeds prohibited at the customs

As we departed, again, our clan elder chanted:
Under the shade of a new highway
This old grave will soon be erased...

Masculine Haiku: A Poet’s Family

Head and heart both bald
He’s not pulled out one single line
Except his surname

Using no poet’s lathe
He shaves off his young manhood
With an e-razor

Like son, like father
His voice has begun to break
All for poetry’s sake

To his great credit
He’s published two finest sons
Among his fine poems

The Death of a Chinese Widow
            (For Li Juying)

In a remote Chinese village
On a forgotten winter night
A 38-year-old poor woman
Tried hard to sit up noiselessly
Put aside rather than on her padded clothes
Crawled out of her frameless bed
And resolutely drowned herself
In a broken wide-brimmed water jug

Behind herself she left neither worth nor words
Except three teenagers who had been
Bullied and looked at with slanting white eyes
By their fellow villagers
(who bore the same family name)
Ever since their father died
Of an untreated disease
13 years before

Years later, her children understood
Why she killed herself
In a water jug on that night
Many years after she had been suffering
From a painful
But not fatal disease

Years later, her only son told me
Why my grandma
Chose to drown herself almost naked
On that cold night

[My father was choked with tears every time he said he was never able to perform a son's loving duty, since his mother committed suicide to save family resources when he was only 13 years old. So, he insisted in having some of his ashes divided to be buried beside her tomb to do so. We honoured this wish of his, and to express my feeling, I wrote the above poem to commemorate my grandma.]

While most of the above poems are based on literally true experiences, my father and family have a rich store of interesting stories or experience and even legends, which I wish to write into something narrative in the future. Here I just want to mention 4 important biographical facts about my father::

1) He was born after his father's death to a very poor peasant family in a hilly remote village called Shisanbao (十三堡) in Hanyang County, Hubei on 15 November 1934 (Chinese calendar). If he had been unable to survive the first week after birth, his mother would have killed herself readily together with his two elder sisters, since a family without a male would be bullied, looked down upon or made to suffer in every possible way. Luckily, my father survived because it was believed that my grandma followed a Daoist fortune teller's advice by keeping a big goose to guard my father's spirit. For this reason, none of my family members is allowed to eat goose meat. 

2) My father received only about two years of intermittent private education. When he began to work as a secretary for the Organizational Department of Songzi County, he had great trouble writing a report or drafting a document. When his superior used a red-inked pen to correct every single sentence he had written, my father cried hard in private, not because his superior treated him harshly, but because he felt deeply shameful of his writing skills. Since then, he began to study as hard as possible. Once he stayed in a filthy public lavatory three hours, forgetting to stand up and get out because he had been trying to memorize Chinese characters. 

3) During the Cultural Revolution, when I was in grade 6, I happened to read a official document one day, which I thought was so well written that I memorized a few phrases from it and told my father about the article later. To my great surprise, and to his great amazement, the author turned out to be no other than him. That was the only time and only thing I felt really proud of him about.

4)When he was young, my father had a secret dream to become a writer. He spent a lot of time finding a good pen name for himself - Bi Ying, meaning something like 'a firefly in the blue,' but he was never able to use it, because he never got anything, even a single poem or story published. He never revealed this to anyone of us, but my mom found it out. In order not to hurt him, we never mentioned this to him when he was alive.  

This is the place in Shisanbao, where my grandfather's house used to be, but now it has become a pond, where there are a lot of frogs calling at summer night. Photo taken by Changming in the summer of 2007.

Add caption
My father was burning paper money in tribute to his beloved mother in front of her tomb stone. Local legend has it that my grandma became a Buddha because of her kindness and goodness, shortly after being buried at Rabbit Mouth Ridge, a place where, according to a travelling fengshui specialist at the time, one would, if buried there, have highly talented writers among one's offspring. Ironically, my grandma happened to be  buried there simply because no one was willing to carry her body further to a more decent place then without anyone to pay for the funeral service. Now the Ridge has become the most popular burial site for the whole village, although so far the village has never produced even a college student, not to mention Canadian and American Masters and PhDs as in the case of our family. Photo taken by Changming in the summer of 2007.

My father's graveyard in Lianhuadang Village, Gong-an Country, Hubei Province. (This is the place where Changming grew up and attended junior high school.) My father said his mother-in-law treated him like her own son, so he wanted to be buried beside her tomb to carry on his filial duties. Picture taken by my cousin Liu Youming in the summer of 2012. 


Yuan Hongqi 袁宏启(1934-2012), author of Changming Yuan and Liu Yun, also known as Debao 得宝(nickname), Dan Qi 旦启(Buddhist name), and Bi Yin 碧螢(pen name), was born in an impoverished hilly village in Hanyang, Hubei Province and received fewer than two years of private education. Orphaned at 13, he worked as a shop apprentice until 1952, when he became a civilian government worker. Married to Liu Yu in 1956. Positions held included: a secretary at the Organizational Department, Secretary of Babao District, Deputy Director of Educational Department, Deputy Director of Agricultural Bank of Songzi County; Senior Accountant and Chief of Accounting Section of Jingzhou Agricultural Bank.

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