Leung Ping-kwan, Travelling with a Bitter Melon. Selected Poems (1973-1998)

This collection brings together poems written over 25 years
and serves to illuminate the contrasts and the development of the poet’s
thought. Most of the poems are lengthy and composed in a free form approaching
that of prose.

As Martha Cheung and Rey Chow observe in their preface, Leung
Ping-kwan talks of simple things in simple language. Rey Chow tells us that what
the author himself appreciates in the works of others “is usually not a felicitous
phrase or an appropriate comparison but rather the manner in which an entire horizon,
an attitude to speak, reveals itself amid the most quotidian observation and the
most ordinary use of language” (p. 9).

This remark suggests that Leung Ping-kwan could be compared
with the French poet Antoine Emaz, who also attends to the anodyne detail and
underlines the beauty which normally escapes attention, expressing them in the
simplest and apparently most accessible language. In his “Krakow history
museum”, Leung writes that “In the everyday people make their living,
there is a lively spirit”. But any possible comparison with Emaz surely ends
there, for Leung Ping-kwan’s poetry is both deeply rooted in traditional
China and buffeted by the cosmopolitan currents of modern life.

The collection is almost completely chronological, and is
divided into eight sections whose titles express the author’s favourite themes.
In the first section, “Cicada chirps” and “Lotus leaves” give
voice to his attachment to traditional Chinese culture, the small events in life,
and the unremarked beauties in nature, which are also to be detected in food and
cooking. The author pays particular attention to the latter in “Foodscape”,
while his “Journeys” contains reflections on changing places bordering
on detachment. In “Old cities”, “Beyond the walls”, “Museum
pieces”, and “Re-mapping”, the author’s historical and political
interest in the different cities and countries of the world is clearly apparent,
along with his strong sense of commitment.

Leung Ping-kwan’s poetry also reflects his life in Hong
Kong, a city which both preserves Chinese tradition (having avoided the ravages
of Chinese communist politics) and has for a long time been engaged with the materialism
of contemporary society. Placed between the past and the present, between the
Hong Kong where he has lived since a few months after his birth, the US cities
where he pursued his studies, and the European cities which he has visited, Leung
assumes the stance of a traveller observing daily life just as though he were
discovering a new country: he is always close at hand, attentive, curious, and
at the same time detached. His poetry is actually very concrete; the details and
objects described emanate their own light, as does the atmosphere of particular
places, and the relations between living beings. But it is not only a poetry of
images, for sounds too have their place, present in a diffuse manner or silently
conveyed within the sonority of the words, while the predominant colour seems
to be a matching brown.

The highly sensitive detachment of the traveller of the early
collections later turns towards the political commitment of a poet concerned by
all that he sees, in whatever country, and whatever the history which it has undergone.
Behind the anodyne sentences and the minor events, there are many hurts to be
revealed to us. Through this approach, the reader is put into closer touch with
the sufferings of others: “[…] We also have our fears, the tourists photograph
the remains of an immense cauldron (used for torture), while we imagine quite
other hells” (“Tiger Balm garden”). While Leung nearly always retains
the allusiveness of traditional Chinese poetry, he never fails to make us understand
movements of revolt, sometimes derisively, but always with great tenderness (for
example: “Why isn’t the bus here yet? Behind us history is soy sauce
red”, in “The Imperial Palace”). He conveys to us the sufferings
of people subjected to authority, whether in mainland China, Poland, or Hong Kong,
particularly in the sections entitled “Beyond the walls” and “Re-mapping”.

Landscapes or cityscapes, descriptions of modern life or evocations
of the past, this poetry (which the preface writers classify as post-modern, although
it has none of the latter’s characteristic grey and lifeless negativity)
is outstandingly modern in its timelessness and freedom from reigning fashions.
As Leung himself observes, a Hong Kong writer should not be too bothered by such
concerns, given the very small readership that he encounters. His work is lyrical
in its celebration of the details of daily life and in its evocation of a diverse
and multifaceted future. Without any pretentiousness it raises all sorts of questions,
from the humdrum to the most metaphysical (on the identity of countries deprived
of their history through war, on memory, and on language), but it is never austere
or static. The poems arise from within a dynamic of ceaseless encounters and crossovers,
“forever on the margin, forever in transition” (“Images of Hong
Kong”, p. 322). They are in perpetual movement, without a preconceived goal
but simply seeking to seize hold of a privileged moment. His world is one of evanescence,
where everything changes, passes, and is renewed, where all that is built is destroyed
to be built again, as in the remarkable poem “Beyond the walls” (p.
192): “A wall crumbles and another  wall comes up”.

The key word in this collection is without doubt ouran,
“by chance”: the goal is to seek out precisely what is fortuitous, contingent,
and lasting only long enough to be noted and memorised in a poem. In this vision
of the world, where the evanescence of things of classical poetry coalesces as
though in a shared whirlwind with the rapid changes of the modern world, every
person and every thing still has its own place and existence, even the least noticeable
bitter melon. In this respect, Leung insists on the importance of eating and meals,
not so much in response to a tradition which sees in eating the need to devour
and to express a certain aggressiveness, but rather as a way of suggesting a moment
of sharing.

This is very well expressed in the title of the last poem
which is also that of the whole collection: “Travelling with a bitter melon”.
In this poem, through his tender attention to a bitter melon given to him during
his travels, the poet invites us to reflect on the fragility of human relations,
the separations and reunions, and the boundaries that must be crossed to meet
again: “Alone I set the table / the ocean between us, how I yearned to be
with you / and share with you the refreshing melon / There are so many things
that do not live up to expectation / The human word has its imperfections / The
bitter melon understands”. Even a bitter melon holds a meaning that stretches
beyond itself. In the same way, thanks to this poem one is reminded of the painting
by Zhu Da (eighteenth century) called “Melon and moon”, whose foreground
is occupied by the full roundness of the melon while behind it there is an empty
circle; here too there is a close attention to simple things, a metaphysical meaning,
and also a political one, since the melon represents fidelity to the dynasty that
was replaced by the Manchus at a time when the painter was living in exile, hidden
in a Buddhist monastery.

This poem emblematically draws together the author’s
reflections on travelling, food, living beings, and the experience of life, and
so it represents the central principle of his work which ranges, in Martha P.
Y. Cheung’s words, “from the poetics of discovery to the politics of 
intervention” (p. 34).

Translated from the French original by Jonathan Hall

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