As the new year rolls in, there are a lot of reflective pieces being published about ‘the hellish year that was’ and the profound lessons we ought to take from it. I don’t feel that I have any deep revelations to add to this. In fact, I’m not sure that I have any real perspective on this year yet - there is not enough distance from it. There has been so much need to constantly adapt from day to day and I am still swimming in that stream. The arbitrary demarcation of Earth’s fresh orbit around the sun hasn’t changed that yet for me! Like a lot of other performing artists, the structure of my life has rapidly unwound. I am still just putting one day after the next, trying to do things that are meaningful. Perhaps that’s all one can ever do.
It has been a long time since I’ve added to my poetry page, but recently I have written a couple of poems that I would like to share. The first poem is influenced by Matsuo Basho, in that it is a passage of prose with connected verses (some of them haikus, but not all). I wrote it yesterday after a visit to Trin Warren Tam-Boore - a park just north of Melbourne’s CBD.
The second poem is called Exocarpus Cupressiformis - the botanical name of the so-called ‘native cherry’ or ‘cypress cherry’. I encountered it on a recent camping trip to Budj Bim on Gunditjmara country in western Victoria. We had gone there to see the ancient eel traps - the oldest aquaculture structures in the world - which have recently received UNESCO World Heritage status. Our Gunditjmara guide referred to these small red berries as “cherry bellart”, but I was struck by the oddness of that colonial naming convention that calls something “native…” then attaches an imported concept from far away. For me, this naming convention seems to distil a profound moment of transcultural discomfort and awkwardness. Something I can relate to as an Australian with Chinese-Malaysian and British parents!
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I received an extraordinary gift from Rose this year - a calligraphic rendering of the Teh (鄭) family generation poem. In Chinese culture, some families have a poem or song, whereby every child in a generation is given the next word of the poem as a middle name. My sister and I, and all of the cousins in Mum’s Teh clan have the middle name 時, which is transliterated in Hokkien as ’Sze’ or ’Su’. Our family had lost track of the poem in recent years, but in 2019 it was rediscovered by my Aunt in Canada, whom we affectionately call Lady Bird. The poem consists of 35 characters in total and my generation is the 11th character. If each generation had children at about the age of 20, a full cycle of the poem would take about 700 years, and our Teh family naming tradition has been going since at least the turn of the 19th century. However, as these traditions are ancient, the Teh's may in fact be the midst of a second or third cycle! Imagine if in 500 years, our Teh ancestors with the middle name 昌 chang are still treasuring this ancient heirloom from all the way back in 2020!
The poem is divided into seven lines of five characters, which are read from top to bottom, right to left. This style of poetry is called 詩Shí and first emerged during the late Han (漢) Dynasty, around 200 AD. Like a lot of ancient East Asian poetry, the style is very pared down, with the layered meanings of each character given space to speak their ambiguities and nuances. I have made a translation to the best of my ability.
天朝秉仕功 The Heavenly Kingdom presides over our meritorious service,
世家名萬有 Our noble family’s fame is universally known.
時聘考懋文 Time appoints our old and splendid culture to be our teacher,
立志存忠孝 We are resolved to remain loyal and filial.
仁義乃致祥 May our benevolence and righteousness therefore deliver us good fortune,
詩書能耀祖 The classic books and poems can glorify our ancestors,
積德慶其昌 We do good works in celebration of our prosperity.
The piece was created by the extraordinary Peiling Tsai a calligrapher, designer, artist and storyteller from Taiwan. One can sense her deep understanding of the significance and meaning of these texts in her stunning work. On her website she writes:
暇瑕 / xiá xiá / is the core of my studio, which represents “perfect
imperfections in life.” This is the most beautiful thing we could learn from
the universe as human beings.
I feel honoured to own one of Peiling’s works. You can see more of her extraordinary work on Instagram or on her website.