Xie Kunhua, Assistant Professor, Department of Chinese Literature, National Chung Hsing University
In his 1995 poetry collection The Edge of the Island Chen Li writes of islands and the world. Living in Hualian, on Taiwan’s remote east coast, the poet seemed geographically marginalized but in fact occupied a limitless space – with the vast Pacific Ocean on one side, Chen Li’s imagination knew no boundaries. Nine years later, Chen released Island/Nation (2014), another poetry collection. Although “island” appears in the title, the work is divided into three sections: “North Island,” “Dream Central,” and “South Country.” Now the poet is no longer writing about life on the margins; rather, he adopts the attitude of a wandering traveler, singing of the island of Taiwan. As peripatetic poet Chen echoes the seventeenth-century Japanese haiku master Matsuo Bashō, whose Oku no Hosomichi (“The Narrow Road to the Deep North”) chronicled his travels around Japan.
Poems in Chen Li’s Island/Nation are loco-descriptive, a form of topographical poetry, portraying locations and landscapes all around Taiwan: “Taipei Train Station,” “Sanchong,” “Diaoyutai Island,” and “Nanfangao” in “North Island”; “Dadu Mountain,” “Lugang,” “Taitung,” and “Hualian” in “Dream Central”; and “Love River,” “Holy Rosary Cathedral,” and “Kenting” in “South Country.” In Island/North Chen Li employs strategies developed over the course of his long career as a poet – “deconstructive symbol configurations,” 1 “homonymous transferred meaning 2 ,” and “erotic writing” – using these techniques to shape and arrange his poems. More importantly, a careful reading reveals that the content is supported by the writer’s personal experience and not simply derived from secondary sources. Perhaps this is because after Chen retired from teaching in 2005 he had the leisure to travel extensively throughout Taiwan.
Delving deeply into Taiwan’s landscapes, these poems offer much food for thought. For example, in “Legend in Eight Lines” from the collection The Edge of the Island, the poet juxtaposes the narratives of Taiwan’s various ethnic groups, setting them in a postcolonial context. In Island/Nation he goes a step further, writing in the Taiwanese (Holo) and Hakka languages, showcasing the colloquial speech of ordinary people in different localities around the island. “Taipei Train Station” is Chen Li’s concrete attempt to place writing in topographical space. Set in Taiwan’s most modern train station, the poem is a medley of voices – laborers, new immigrants, Chinese and Japanese tourists, businesspeople, Taiwanese (Holo) and Hakka speakers, all expressing hopes and desires in the context of a capitalist society – a vivid presentation of Taiwan’s diverse cultures and languages.
In counterpoint to the crowd’s clamor, Chen Li turns his sharp pen to politics in “Kaohsiung Consular” and “Formosa Magazine,” re-presenting scenes of Japanese colonial domination and postwar KMT authoritarianism, finding within them the power to resist oppression. Seen in this regard, the “slash mark” (/) in Chen Li’s titles – from Light/Slow to Dynasty/Sage – takes on even richer implications. Even though the poet points out in an afterword that he didn’t plan to continue using the slash, “…this book still has it – probably because the Tropic of Cancer passes right through my hometown Hualian! That invisible line vaguely joins north and south Taiwan, the subtropics and the tropics, like a ribbon floating across the island’s chest.” In contrast to the poet’s explanation, “Subtropic” even more abundantly expresses the mark’s symbolic value:
Seasonal winds give us a calendar
Automatically tearing off
Sub/tropics when it’s time. From the cracks
We see a latitudinal line
Chen Li’s poetry delves into the Japanese colonial and postwar periods, probing the postcolonial context of historical sites and ordinary places without reopening wounds or scars. And the slash is more than just a symbol of a latitudinal line that passes through the island of Taiwan – it is, moreover, the poet’s investigation of the nation on the island and the island within the nation, a crack that light passes through, and from which can be seen a homeland, a living place of return.
1Chen Li often inserts symbols into his “pictorial poems.” For example:
母奶 ●冷 ●熱
浮雲 ●大包 ●中包 ●小包
[Mother’s Milk ● Cold ● Hot
Floating Clouds ● Large ● Medium ● Small]
(Here “●” represents a button on a vending machine.)
The poet uses other symbols as well. For example:
（ 噓 ─ ─ ） ；
Here （ 噓 ─ ─ ）conveys the sound (噓 xu) of wind blowing across an empty plain.
Chen Li often uses homonyms to suggest other meanings. For example:
[Every very long night like tonight
Brings feelings of both starvation and satiation]
In the above lines the Chinese characters “蔓腸” (蔓mán, “to spread”; 腸 cháng, “intestines,”) are homonymous with “蠻長” (mán cháng), or “very long.” When read aloud there is no difference, but on the page the homonyms suggest that the “feelings of both starvation and satiation” are spreading through the poet’s intestines, that is, visceral.