The Literary Shanghai Journal


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Welcome to Literary Shanghai!

  Literary Shanghai is a community of readers, writers, and translators, Chinese and English, with a local and regional focus. Our goal is to bring our literary community together through events, workshops, and our literary journal. Read more.  

January Events

Sunday January 28, 7pm

Poetry: Alice Pettway & David Perry

Event Details


Beaton Galafa – three more poems

Beaton Galafa is a Malawian writer. He currently lives in Jinhua, China where he is studying for a Master’s in Comparative Education at Zhejiang Normal University. His work has appeared in literary magazines, journals, and books such as Betrayal, The Seasons, The Wagon Magazine, The Bombay Review, Bhashabandhan Literary Review, Kalahari Review, The Maynard, Atlas and Alice, South85 Journal, The Voices Project, Birds Piled Loosely and Nthanda Review.   


In Air


Let the bird fly

beyond clouds and the sun

that hang






and high


to places where thunders rest in summer.

So that when it tumbles to earth

its nose must dive into sands and whispers of rivers

its wreckage twined with bones and skulls of seas

for the fish and sea monsters to drink from its veins

and forever be the red strip of sea which the sun

bounces off.




Flow of Life                  


Sometimes we underrate ourselves

when mudslides revolt in our streets

wiping us off

the sun’s face

in our hundreds





Crawling, creeping, sweeping us clean

burying us


without rituals, without tears, without trial

To be trampled by the Creator




After horns announce the apocalypse.

In the distant east screams howl in the winds

As rivers burst in streets and homes

To carry with them logs, bodies, temples

Beyond seas and rivers of the mountain



like                  mustard seed

not even search teams will find them:

Sacred killings for the rain god

Drizzling along with hail and thunder.




Insatiable Well


This place is void

There was a well once

Where dust crams the seat

It rested from morning till night

Giving life to thirsty passersby

But death came knocking one dark night

The rest you will read on terrazzo at the grave.



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Beaton Galafa – three poems

Beaton Galafa is a Malawian writer. He currently lives in Jinhua, China where he is studying for a Master’s in Comparative Education at Zhejiang Normal University. His work has appeared in literary magazines, journals, and books such as Betrayal, The Seasons, The Wagon Magazine, The Bombay Review, Bhashabandhan Literary Review, Kalahari Review, The Maynard, Atlas and Alice, South85 Journal, The Voices Project, Birds Piled Loosely and Nthanda Review.   


Caged in a Flat World


The world can never be round

We could not have found all the gourds and drunkards

Swerved off in times of earthquakes and tsunamis

Or whirled to its edges by hurricanes

They would be dangling on threads of spiders

Praying for the tenderness in a mother’s hand

To lift them up from jaws and claws of darkness.


We wouldn’t have grown shells on our skin

After the blood baths from wolves,

We would just float in space

Our lives not tilting at the axis along with earth’s.

Or, our murderers would have washed down

To rot in deep sea caves at the world’s laterals.

Yet here we are, caged in this brutish world

Its ends so intent on getting us locked on its islands

Of war, murder and treachery.

With lies of horizons that stretch to as far as they can

And the end meeting the beginning. Where earth

Stands still.






is a dark cave in a river

that swallows scubas

with a thousand divers staring

at the bright shadows of the sun and its rays

hanging freely from splendour.






in love

there is just me.

and the many kisses I throw at the moon

when it flees the night in space

its lips iced with frost.

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Yu Yan Chen – translations of two poems by Zheng Xiaoqiong


Yu Yan Chen is a poet and literary translator. Her poems and literary translations have appeared in the US, UK and China. Her first collection of original poetry, Small Hours, was published by New York Quarterly Books in 2011. Her translation of The Chief Cellist, a children’s book by Taiwanese author Wang Wenhua, was published by Balestier Press. She currently resides in Singapore.


Zheng Xiaoqiong (郑小琼) was born in rural Sichuan in 1980 and moved to Dongguan City in southern Guangdong Province as a migrant worker in 2001. She is the author of eleven collections of poetry, including Women Migrant Workers, Huang Maling, The Rose Manor, Selected Poems by Zheng Xiaoqiong, Pure Plants, and Pedestrian Overpass. Women Migrant Workers (2012) has been hailed as “the first symphonic verse on women, work and capital in the history of Chinese poetry.” Her works have garnered numerous accolades including China’s Avant-garde Poetry Prize, 2006, People’s Literature Award, Zhuang Zhong Literary Award; the In-Presence Cutting-Edge Prose Award, and the Lu Xun Literary Award, among others. Some of her poems have been translated into German, English, French, Japanese, Korean, Spanish and Turkish. Her poems in Women Migrant Workers have also been set to music by American and German musicians and performed in a number of countries.  

Assembly Line


What flows on the assembly line is streams of people

From the east or the west, standing or sitting, in blue uniforms and white caps.

With names of A234, A967, and Q36, only their fingers go to work…


Some insert themselves to put on springs and screws.

They drift in and out of the constant flows of people and products

Like fishes, they pull customer orders, profits and the GDP

day and night. While their youth, vision, and dream

push the prosperity of the industrial age forward.


Amidst the factory noises, they carry a lonely existence.

Men and women flow into each other, but remain strangers.

They are constantly choked at the deep end. Only glues, screws,

nails, plastics, coughing lungs, and sickened bodies float on top.


The assembly line never stops tightening the valves of the city and the fate

Look at these yellow switches, red threads and grey products, the fifth carton

loaded with plastic lamps and Christmas cards, youth, Li Bai,

love that boils and cools. It recites quietly – oh, wanderlust!


Within its tiny confine, I catch a glimpse of the movable fate

and scribble down some poetry of industrial age in the southern city.





The Distance



Pain is wearing out the clothes flickering in the light

as the dimly lit train roars across the dark night.


Our doors are open, towards the unspeakable years,

while the river rushes to a deeper source of our origins.


Light drifts in from every direction like snow. You read the old news

and the new tales in the papers, those published, distant happiness.


All alone, I plow through the snow, on the road to resentment,

when a tree falls down diagonally near me.


This is the strange land, the end of the year, I am taking a stroll,

searching for my lines and tone on the go.





在流水线的流动中  是流动的人







































(Reprinted with permission from the author)






















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Yu Yan Chen – a translation of “Twenty Centimeters to Spring” by Li Juan

Yu Yan Chen is a poet and literary translator. Her poems and literary translations have appeared in the US, UK and China. Her first collection of original poetry, Small Hours, was published by New York Quarterly Books in 2011. Her translation of The Chief Cellist, a children’s book by Taiwanese author Wang Wenhua, was published by Balestier Press. She currently resides in Singapore.


Li Juan (李娟) was born in 1979 in Xinjiang Province. She spent her childhood in remote towns in both Sichuan and Xinjiang. She used to work on the assembly line, but became a government employee at a later time. In 2007 she resigned to write full time. Her works center on her sensitive meditations while living among the Kazakh nomads of the Altay region. Her prose collections include Nine Chapters of Snow, Corners of Altay, My Altay, Please Sing Out Loud while Traveling through the Night, and Remember Little, Forget MoreCorners of Altay has been translated into French and Korean. She has also won a number of prestigious awards including the People’s Literature Award, Zhu Ziqing Prose Prize, Mao Dun Literature Prize, and Shanghai Literature Prize, among others. She currently lives in Altay, Xinjiang. 



Corners of Altay is a series of essays depicting Li Juan’s experiences in the Kazakh-speaking region of the Xinjiang Province in western China. In the 1990’, she and her mother, one of the few ethnic Han people living in the Gobi Desert, first operated a tailor shop, then a nomadic grocery store for their equally mobile customers. They would follow the herds in the summer, but they would fend off the winter by staying put in a temporary abode. This piece is about a pet rabbit as the season turns. 


Twenty Centimeters to Spring

Li Juan


We spoke in broken Kazakh to do business with our customers, and although they only understood it vaguely, we would always achieve what we wanted. It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak their language, as long as we were able to find a way to be understood, everything would turn out all right. Otherwise, we would have to rely on imagination to guess what they wanted.


At first, I had no idea how to use imagination to help, and getting one small item sold would seem strenuous. I had to point at items from one end of the shelf to the other and from the bottom up to the top, while asking, “Is this the one? How about that? This one? That one?”


After much commotion, all the customer wanted was perhaps a box of matches worth ten cents.


As usual, my mother enjoyed handling matters based on her understanding. Although I felt she had misunderstood things on many levels, what she did based on those wrong impressions often ended up correct, so I can’t really complain much.


Now let’s talk about the snow rabbit.


It was a snowy winter’s night. Although it was late, we continued to toil away quietly while hovering around the stove.  From time to time we would drift into a conversation about things that happened long ago. Suddenly the door was pushed open and someone came in with a thick cloud of freezing air and fog. We asked him what he wanted, but this gentle looking person couldn’t make himself understood after a long and convoluted explanation. We finally gave up on him and continued with our work. At last, he sank into deep thought and came up with a straightforward question, “Do you want a dzeren?”


“A dzeren?” We were surprised.


“Yes, a live dzeren.”


This time, we were even more surprised.


By then my mother and her apprentice Jianhua had begun to talk about where to keep the animal. Before I could respond, they had made up their mind that the coal shed would be the best place for it.


“What do we raise a dzeren for?” I asked.


“Who knows, let’s get it first.”


Having said that, my mother turned to that gentle looking person, “What’s your lowest offer?”


“Ten Yuan.”


We were taken by surprise for the third time, because ten Yuan would not be enough.  Although dzeren literary means yellow sheep in Chinese, it is really a wild animal as beautiful as a deer, which makes it much bigger than a sheep.


I immediately joined their camp, “That’s right, after we buy the yellow sheep, I am going to ask for some feed from Ahan, because he hasn’t paid us for the flour since spring…”


Our excitement delighted the visitor too.  In fact, he was almost proud of himself. Afraid that he might change his mind, my mother went to the counter immediately to get the money. She even added, “My good fellow, if you have more yellow sheep later on, please don’t forget to bring them to us again. We will want as many as possible. Don’t ever take them elsewhere. It would be a waste of time to do that, because besides us, no one else would want them…”


After paying him, all of us followed him outside for the yellow sheep.

A boy stood in the snow. His jacket bulged, and something was wrapped inside.


“Oh, a baby yellow sheep.”


The child gradually unbuttoned his jacket.


“Oh, the yellow sheep is white.”



This was what happened: in a snowy winter’s night, we bought a wild rabbit rather foolishly for ten Yuan. If it were other people, ten Yuan could have fetched at least three rabbits.


I started out this piece talking about misunderstandings, this was precisely the point.


Nevertheless, we had bought the rabbit and we were all enchanted by it, so there was no complaint. It was worthy of the ten Yuan we had spent! It was almost as big as a baby sheep, and therefore much bigger than the rabbits sold for three or four Yuan each. Besides, it was amazingly alive, unlike the ones sold to others, which were usually frozen solid.


It even had blue eyes. Whose rabbits have blue eyes anyway? (I learned much later that all of the wild rabbits have blue eyes. Only house rabbits have red eyes.) This species is also called the “snow rabbit,” as white as snow, so bright and shiny that if it were lying in the snow, there would be no way to spot it. However, I heard that as the weather gets warmer, the rabbit’s fur would gradually take on a muddy hue, which would blend in well with the Gobi Desert while running around.


With such a clever disguise, why did it still get caught? Perhaps it was still not strong enough. It was absolutely outrageous for people to set traps – we couldn’t help but curse that gentle looking person whenever we saw the scars on the rabbit’s hind legs, which were clamped by the trap.


We found a metal cage, put the rabbit in the corner of the coal shed, and checked on it many times a day. All it would do was stay still in the cage, forever chewing on half a frozen carrot. Grandma visited the rabbit most often. Sometimes she even stole the popcorn from the shelf to feed it. She would say to the rabbit, “Rabbit, it is such a pity that you are all alone…”


Whenever I overheard those words, I couldn’t help but feel sad. All of a sudden, I could also sense the plight of this poor rabbit, and Grandma’s situation wasn’t any better either… It was always so cold. All she could do was to put on layers and layers of clothing, which made her bulgy and bulky. She hardly went anywhere except to hover near the stove all day long. Ever since we had the rabbit, she started to make trips between our grocery store and the coal shed. With her hands holding onto the wall for support, she would walk gingerly back and forth on the same path as she moved about the icy ground. Sometimes she would cover her ears with her hands, sometimes she would hide her hands in her pockets.


How dreadful the winter was!


Yet, how lovely it was to be inside our house, so warm and cozy. Even though the coal shed was dark and dirty, but it beat being outside in the freezing cold. We were affectionate with the rabbit and fed it whatever we ate. Soon it grew fat and languid, with its deep blue eyes shinier than ever. If anyone dared to suggest stir-frying our pet rabbit and making it into different dishes, we would not hesitate to hate this person.


We loved this rabbit to bits, but we didn’t dare to let it roam freely. What if it escaped? Without any food, it would probably starve to death in the cold. Perhaps it would be captured by the villagers again. In our mind, it would have the best life in our house under our care.


We loved the rabbit so much that my mother would often stick her hands in through the openings of the metal cage to stroke it slowly. The creature would tremble slightly, burying its head deep between its two front paws, while the long ears drooped down flatly on the ground.


There was no way for it to hide from us, because there was nowhere to go. But we didn’t have any bad intentions, and how could we have made it understand?


As time passed, the weather gradually got warmer. Although it was still cold, the worst part of the winter was behind us. To our surprise, we noticed some muddy furs on the snow white rabbit! Apparently, it could detect the arrival of spring much more sharply than we did.


Then one day, we discovered that this depressed rabbit had escaped and we were sad and surprised at the same time.


But how did it escape? Where could it have gone? After all, there was snow everywhere in the village; there were people and dogs everywhere; where could this rabbit go to hunt for food?


We searched around in the vicinity of the yard, until it took us far away from the house, but there was not a single trace of the rabbit. For a long while we would search anxiously in the snow piled high on both sides of the road whenever we went out. We even put some cabbage in an obvious place in front of our house, hoping that the rabbit would find its way back. Days passed, and no one had the heart to clear it away even though it had turned frozen solid.


Meanwhile, the empty metal cage continued to occupy the same spot in the shed, as though it were waiting for the rabbit’s return – as though it would one day reappear inside the cage, just as mysteriously as its sudden disappearance.


Then the rabbit really did appear inside the cage again…


It was about a month after it went missing. We had taken off our thick jackets and walked about light-heartedly, awakened to the thoughts of accomplishing a plethora of things. We took down the felts and the plastics covering the windows, rolled up the heavy cotton curtains hanging on the doors, and stored them underneath the beds to be used next winter. We even cleaned up the coal shed and straightened the pieces that had fallen off.


Then we saw the rabbit again.


Let me point out that the metal cage remained by the foot of the wall in a dark corner all this time. One would have to stare at it for quite some time in order to see any movements. If it were a rabbit with snow white fur, you would be able to spot it right away. Yet, we had been going back and forth for several days, before we realized that there was something alive inside. Still, I wasn’t sure, for it could have been something dead. It was curled up in the far end of the cage. And when I looked at it some more, I was able to make out its form. “Isn’t that our rabbit?” What used to be a coat of thick and smooth fur was by then thin and scattered. It was wet and dirty, and I couldn’t even make out its face.


I am usually afraid of dead things, but I worked up the courage to touch the rabbit with my hands. Its body was a bag of bones and nearly given up. I had no idea whether it was still alive because there was no sign of the rabbit breathing. I grew even more scared, for I believed that a creature about to die can be scarier than a dead one. As death descends on it, its soul is probably at its most volatile and most vengeful. I ran away quickly and told my mother, and she rushed back to take a look.


“Wow, why did it come back? How did it come back?”


From afar, I watched as my mother carried that creature, our rabbit that went missing a month ago out of the cage. She fed it some warm water by wetting its mouth, enticing it to drink, after which she succeeded in getting the rabbit to take the leftover rice porridge we cooked that morning.


I wasn’t sure how she was able to revive that snow rabbit. I didn’t dare go through the process with her, because watching alone was scary enough. I have little tolerance for death, especially those dying around me. It makes me feel guilty.


Fortunately, our rabbit won the battle and survived. Then it got stronger than ever before. By May, its fur had changed completely into the muddy color fit for Gobi and it hopped around inside the yard, chasing after my Grandma for food.


Now, let’s go back and find out what happened exactly. Since the metal cage we used to cover it only had five sides (which meant that the bottom side was empty), and since it was close to the wall, the rabbit simply started digging a secret cave. It was a rabbit after all, an expert at digging holes. The dark shed was filled with loads of random things, but who would have known that there was actually a hole behind the cage? We’d always thought that the rabbit escaped through the biggest opening between the two metal bars!


The hole dug by the rabbit was rather narrow, about the width of one’s upper arm. I put my arm in but couldn’t reach the end, so I took a hook used to clear the stove, but even that failed to reach the end. Finally, I used a wire and made a more accurate measurement. It was over two meters long, heading east towards the front gate. If the rabbit had dug another 20 centimeters, it would have reached the outside world.


That was unimaginable! When we sat around our table having a warm meal, when we finished a day’s work and began to fall asleep, when we once again found delight in new and fun things, discovering happiness as a result, that rabbit was busy digging alone in the underground, enduring hunger and cold, digging bit by bit with the same movement – the movement towards spring. For an entire month, there was neither day nor night for it. I had no idea how many times the rabbit had to confront its own mortality during that month. It had probably realized the impossible nature of getting out alive, but it continued to sense the approaching spring, however dire the circumstances might be. For that month, it would sometimes slowly crawl back into the cage, looking for something to eat within its confine. But there was nothing, not even a drop of water, except for a layer of icy frost on the wall. So all it could do was to climb up the metal bar and chew on the cardboard box on top of the cage. We discovered much later that the bottom part of the box, wherever it could possibly be reached by the rabbit had been chewed off. It was also eating pieces of coal that had dropped inside the cage. In fact, when it was found, the rabbit’s face and teeth were pitch black. Yet, we remained ignorant about the whole thing. It was only at the brink of its death, that we discovered that the rabbit was there all along!


Everyone says that rabbits are timid. But as far as I know, they are brave animals. They face their death without fear, even when captured or trapped. When our rabbit escaped into the hole, despite the hunger and dire circumstances, it remained calm and collected in the face of death. When confronted with life’s many changes, it trembled and struggled perhaps not entirely out of fear, but because it didn’t understand what was going on. What does a rabbit really know then? In a way, all of the creatures of this world exist beyond our comprehension. They elude us, and the communication between us was nearly impossible. No wonder my Grandma would say, “Rabbit, Rabbit, you are such a pity…”


How lonely our lives can be even if the spring has already arrived. Our rabbit, on the other hand, is joyfully running inside the yard, its two front paws holding onto my Grandma’s shoes, chewing and biting them like a puppy, as though it had forgotten everything. Compared to us, it seems much more adept at leaving the bad memories behind, and therefore much more capable of experiencing the deeper joy of life.
























































(Reprinted with permission from the author)


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Kanchan Chatterjee – two poems

Kanchan Chatterjee works in the Finance Ministry of the Government of India as a tax officer. He has been writing poems and haiku since 2012. His poems have been published in a variety of ezines. He received an honourable mention for his entry in the 2017 Eto En Oi Ocha haiku contest in Japan.




slow cold wind all night then
it dies at the daybreak . . .

three white ducks
chanting down the pond
someone pushes the handpump
gush of water

muffled cough, a kid’s cry

dampish firewood squeaks and burns
smoke – they’re preparing some tea

the old shopkeeper says
(rubbing his palms)
it’ll be colder
than yesterday . . .




you can hear the

and laughter
and a child’s cry
and a muffled cough
while you sip
your first chai and
the mynahs sitting on the
electric wires

the chaiwallah talks
about his son’s
marriage and the distant roar
of a tiger
he heard near Guwahati . . .


the nearby
sawmill comes alive
suddenly, the mechanical sound, monotonous . . .


you think
about the long gone train
that must be reaching home
in an hour or so . . .

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Kanchan Chatterjee – three poems

Kanchan Chatterjee works in the Finance Ministry of the Government of India as a tax officer. He has been writing poems and haiku since 2012. His poems have been published in a variety of ezines. He received an honourable mention for his entry in the 2017 Eto En Oi Ocha haiku contest in Japan.




the small dead branches


a nightbird sings and air hiss . . .

distant hum

of a long distance truck . . .


diwali happened a week back, a few

crackers still burst


looking up i see

scorpio, with antares, the fire star, burning orange; vega, in the center

of the sky




desolation ku


a mouse,
a half open window

the lights of the diwali night
the ks link road, desolate

will long be remembered. . .

late-rising moon

her side of bed
empty . . .






Keshavi signs the papers
is from Colombo
return her passport . . .

she smiles back
she works
in Unilever, speaks good

says she watches lots of Bollywood
stuff, Shahrukh, yeah

she will stay here for
10 days and
pray to Buddha
you know. . .

she won’t meet me at the
Sri Lankan monastery, I should come to
Colombo (flashes her smile)

turns away, waves back

she has a deep blue
pair of Nikes

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Chris Ruffle – “Evening Ferry”

Chris Ruffle has worked in China since 1983. He has written “A Decent Bottle of Wine in China” (Earnshaw Books) and contributed to “My Thirty Years in China” and “Letters from China” (Alain Charles).


Evening Ferry

Good. The boat was at the wharf, so he wouldn’t need to wait long. He flipped the plastic entry token into a basket and hurried down the broad gangplank, coat flapping. Actually he was not in a rush. He rarely was these days; business was quiet. It’s just that he did not want the gate to slam shut right in front of his face. The muddy river slid unappetisingly beneath the gaps in the rusted steel. The surface was slippy so his manly stride became an undignified waddle. Still, better that than a pratfall before the eyes of those already aboard. Carefully minding the gap, he climbed aboard.

It was rush-hour in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities, but the crowd on the ferry was thin. A two-decade building boom had added several rival bridges and tunnels to nudge the old ferry towards obsolescence. Growing wealth had also bought a surge in car ownership – a warmer and more convenient transport alternative on this cool evening in early spring. He remembered his first ride on this ferry thirty years before. It had been packed with people pushing bicycles or motorbikes, many of them heavily-laden. Once he had seen a pig strapped to the handlebars. Now his fellow travellers seemed mostly to be local tourists. They were not the cap-wearing, flag-following tourists of yore; this too had changed. These ones, dressed in sports-leisure clothes, lined the top deck, taking pictures of each other and the East bank’s towering skyscrapers. After a few minutes, the lady in a New York Yankees cap lost interest in her surroundings, re-inserted her earphones and started flicking through her WeChat messages. Emboldened, he took his own unsteady photo.

On his first trip, he had only taken the ferry to take a picture of the famous colonial architecture along the West bank. He had stayed on the boat when it turned around – there had been nothing on the East side of the river worth getting off for. This photograph, now rather faded, was still pinned above his desk. The old 1920’s skyline that it showed was now lost, dwarfed by the work of a new generation of empire builders and their architects.

At least the ferry still smelled the same; a hint of the sea above the engine oil and an ammonia-based cleaning fluid. Also unchanged was the practised ease with which the blue-clad crew member unlooped the rope from its stanchion and cast off into the stream. The propellers suddenly churned against the tide and he pressed his hand against a cabin window to steady himself. He caught his own reflection and was startled to see how much he stood out, in his grey suit, long, frayed raincoat and dark glasses. “Daddy, look, it’s an old foreigner.” The child was quickly shushed by the father and distracted with something more interesting – a passing barge heaped with sand.

He could have taken a taxi, of course, but his office looked right across at the club where the lecture was taking place. Even considering the ferry’s leisurely pace, the taxi would not have been any quicker, having tunnel traffic to contend with. Also, after a day at his desk, staring at a computer, he fancied a walk in the almost fresh air. A heron slowly laboured overhead. The return of bird life meant that the government’s attempts to clean up the river must finally be bearing fruit. You wouldn’t want to fall in, though.

One developer had thought it was a good idea to convert the whole side of his gold-mirrored edifice into a giant LED screen. This had already been turned on, although the sun was still setting in a pinkish glow over the Bund. The 40-storey high, pixilated advertising sporadically declared “I heart SH”. As the boat passed mid-river, he could make out the old clock tower above the Customs House, which showed that it was almost VI o’clock. Plenty of time. He opened his briefcase just to double-check that he had brought the invitation. The title of this evening’s talk, to be held above the Prada showroom, was “The Death of American Capitalism”. In his guise as “hedge fund manager” he would certainly be in a position to play the devil’s advocate. It would be good for an argument.

The sound of the engines suddenly cut, as the pilot used the speed of the current to slew around and approach the landing-stage side on. There were more people waiting on this side. They pressed up against the bars of the gate impatiently, watching the passengers embark, passengers who had just come from where they wanted to go. As a ferry veteran, he knew where the door started to open, so was first off, striding towards his date with dialectics and a glass of red wine.

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Tim Tomlinson – “This is Not Happening to You”

Tim Tomlinson was born in Brooklyn, and raised on Long Island, where he was educated by jukeboxes and juvenile delinquents. He quit high school in 1971 and began a life of purposeless wandering that led to purpose. He’s lived in Boston, Miami, New Orleans, London, Florence, Shanghai, Manila, Andros Island in the Bahamas, and Cha-am, Thailand. Currently, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Deedle. He is a co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. He is the author of the chapbook Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, the poetry collection Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire, and the forthcoming collection of short fiction, This Is Not Happening to You (due late summer, 2017). He is a Professor of Writing at New York University’s Global Liberal Studies Program. He’s an avid scuba diver with just under 300 logged dives, and a 200-hr Yoga Alliance certified yoga instructor.

This is Not Happening to You


You are now in the proximity of Extra-Strength Tylenol caplets. Don’t trust your shaking hands, bend to the kitchen counter, dip to the spilled caplets like a dog to a puddle. Tongue several up, a half-dozen, never mind the recommended dosage. At this point, to consider recommended dosages would be a category mistake. Recommended dosages apply to children or adults and you, you remember head-poundingly, belong to neither category. You are a headache, an extra-strength headache, nothing more. Focus, do not multi-task, be here now.

The fridge, the half-quart of Old Milwaukee, crack it . . . and linger briefly in that reassuring skershsh, the audio anesthetic of it, the promise of its wet sizzle. Lift the can, tilt back your head, and pour the lager heavily over your tongue and onto your sawdust-dry throat. Feel the caplets pebble past the uvula, scraping the parched ringlets of the esophagus, hear them “plip” into that vast vat of Saturday night stewing in your guts on top of Friday’s vat, Thursday’s vat, the vats of your weeks and months and lifetimes in New Orleans. The Old Milwaukee chills your sternum, its crisp cold bubbles ping wetly in your skull. Slowly it stills your trembling fingers until they hang from your wrists inert as gloves. In your eyes gather pools of relief.

With relief begins perspective. Rather than unpuzzling the night, better to consider where you just were, only minutes before the Tylenol accomplishment: the dining room floor amidst overturned furniture and scattered Tylenol caplets. Many good people have been found on floors: William Holden, Lenny Bruce, Janis Joplin. Good company, all, and isn’t Sunday a day for company?

Company requires food. On the kitchen counter, an avocado, or what remains of it. How quaint: you—or someone—had taken pains to militate against hunger, a condition that would arise only in the future. Evidence that some level of maturity’s been achieved. You are not hungry now, at this very moment, but this object, this avocado, it intrigues, it calls to you. On inspection you discover that one side of this avocado is grooved, its green skin gouged, its soft yellow flesh ridged. Ridged, you speculate, by what appears to be a pair of teeth not your own. A rodent’s teeth? You measure the groove against a book of matches. It is a wide groove, matchbook wide. You are not an orthodontist, not an oral surgeon, nor have you earned any graduate credits in zoology. Still, you feel qualified to venture a second speculation: this groove was not made by the teeth of a mouse, or Bugs Bunny. Find the flashlight. Is it under the sink? Poking about, banging into objects, you imagine rat teeth sinking into your knuckles. Forget the flashlight, light a match. Light two matches. Now poke past the insecticide canisters and find a rat trap. The rat trap made with glue. Many French Quarter rentals come replete with rat traps. Peel open carefully, set the trap glue face up (not like the last time) where the avocado had been, there where a patina of rat fur subtle as tooth plaque laminates the formica. Set it snugly against the formica ledge, but allow the crack between ledge and counter to breathe. In order for the trap to succeed, everything around the trap’s milieu must appear normal, so you must provide passage to your housemates the cockroaches, who will press up through the crack onto the ledge and scitter-scatter across the rat trap, leaving at least their scent, perhaps the coffee-ground speckles of their droppings, and these reassuring signs will encourage the rat to venture into the sticky shallow La Brea of his destiny. You are thinking like a rat, cautiously, selfishly, and horizontally sniffing out possibilities in front of your bloodshot beady eyes. Satisfied, you can anticipate results.

Now: you have worked. You have arisen to find a problem in your home, two problems—your head, the avocado—you have addressed them, and they have been dispatched, with prejudice: a thirst has been raised. This thirst creeps up from your stomach and down from your lips, two separate thirst-fronts creeping, creeping, creeping like desert sand in steady wind until they join at the throat and provide a satisfying discomfort—satisfying in that this fresh discomfort introduces a new challenge, a challenge you now meet with the new Old Milwaukee you are cracking. Oh, that stinging in the throat, that dry desert sand washing back whence it came, cool oases irrigating your eyes. Ahhhhhh, you think, the poetry of ahhhhhh. So very fucking ahhhhhh. You are confronting problems. You are meeting them on the playing field of life and the problems are trailing, nil to three.

Like life, you find Sunday, too, is a problem and you have constructed strategies to address it. On the surface, one might find your strategies formless, shapeless, random. But isn’t that precisely the point? Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Bodhi swaha! On Sunday one awakens to problems one can count on—blue laws, headaches, the crossword puzzle; and problems particular to each specific calendar occurrence of Sunday—today’s grooved avocado comes to mind. In this sense, Sunday is both a comfort and a challenge. A character is defined, you recall reading, by its struggles with challenge.

Now there is the challenge of your hunger, a vestigial drive at this point, a habit more than an urgency, but there is strength in ritual, comfort in repetition, meaning in tradition. What tradition might you employ then against your hunger?

The avocado.

Inspect the avocado. Can you salvage the ungrooved portion? Can you cut the groove out from the soft ripe yellow flesh, excavate it in a sense, then scrape your own choppers against the flesh’s green shell? You can’t see why not, can you, and you’re the only one looking (unless, unaware, you are observed by the rat or its minions). So ask yourself: should you be reluctant to place your teeth near where the rat dragged his?

All god’s chilluns gots teeth, you’re thinking, even Mr. Rat.

And don’t you hear the rats each night, gnawing their teeth clean on the rafters in your attic? Wouldn’t dirty teeth fail to leave clean grooves?

Convinced of the viability of said avocado, you look for a clean spoon, a clean knife, anything to avoid actual contact with the remnants of Mr. Rat’s spittle. A bit squeamish, perhaps, but you don’t know Mr. Rat personally, you don’t know his habits with floss. With spoon in hand, look for the dish soap. Failing that, look for a scrub. Where might a scrub be? Ask yourself, and be honest, are you really that hungry?

Reschedule the avocado.

Wash down more Tylenol.

Engage the outdoors.


Up Dauphine Street, paw through the late afternoon humidity, a humidity that hangs like a shower curtain.

Ah, Vieux Carré, you talk a lot, let’s have a look at you. Think I busted a button on me trousers, hope they don’t fall down.

On the sidewalk the hymn of flies on redolent dog droppings baking in the sun with a metallic aromaticity. Consider the regularity of said dogs, the solidity of their stools, the satisfactions the dogs must anticipate every time they assume their pinched posture. Try to recall the last solid stool you passed. Is it your bipedality, you wonder, or your booze that prevents you from experiencing the pleasure of that most canine release?

Avoid the carcasses of roaches the size of harmonicas. Avoid carcasses.

Approaching the corner of Dauphine and Touro, you discern the sickening deposits of last night’s bacchanal percolating throatwards. Clutching the sticky trunk of a banana tree, you hurl. Violently, agonizingly, remedially. Even as you discharge, you think. You are thinking, you are a thought machine. It’s a juxtaposition this time that commands your ideation, the juxtaposition “pink-green vomit and brown-black Louisiana loam.” You are not certain if “loam” is the correct term, horticulturally speaking. You are not certain if horticulture is the correct term. You are certain that you don’t give a fuck because although your gastro-intestinal distress has been somewhat alleviated by the reverse peristalsis, your head now hurts worse. A bit of a pain in the Gulliver . . . And there in the pink-green, brown-black gloop of yester-eve you spy the barely dissolved, barely discolored Extra-Strength Tylenol caplets, the very things that enabled this excursion. Two conflicting impulses obtain: disgust at the puke and desire for the objects of relief that lie therein.

Some persons, you reflect, many even—that vast horde of unstout souls, might, at this time, experience the first stirrings of remorse, depression, self-recrimination. Not you. This is not happening to you, it is happening to the Undiscovered Genius, the character you’ve created to play you in the tragicomic farce you know as “your life.”  The talents of this Undiscovered Genius have yet to manifest in any recognizable form that might ultimately be remunerated by an institution, a governing body, a critical faculty, a network or publishing house, or rewarded by an adoring public. Its nebulosity, you understand, is part of its genius: the suspense! What form will it finally take, you imagine the public you have yet to seduce wondering? As far as forms are concerned, you have already conceded painting; painting is a form for which you demonstrated little if any aptitude. This was evidenced early on and most acutely by the F you took, and deserved, in ninth-grade Studio Art, the year you gave painting the brush. Singing, dancing, the violin . . . these, too, have been purged from your schema. You are practicing the process of discovery through elimination, one step at a time.

Baby steps, increments, walk before you run. These are the building blocks of emotional maturity, psychological wellbeing, if not wisdom. You are, for the moment, satisfied, undissuaded. You retrieve the Tylenol caplets. Demurely, you palm the caplets along your shorts, then mouth them. And you take comfort in the fact that there is nothing that hasn’t been seen in New Orleans, nothing that hasn’t been done. You proceed, head held high, the caplets dissolving, toward the avenue.

At the Li’l General, the beer is buried in the back. Grab two forties. Rip a bag of pork rinds from the wire rack. Rip another. Pinch some hot sauce from a shelf, deliver it to the transvestite who works the register. Do not acknowledge her wink. Do not acknowledge the privileged glimpse she affords you of her newly acquired and, objectively speaking and all context removed, perfectly lovely cleavage, cleavage that, you must admit, sometimes has you imagining improper intimacies. Do not acknowledge the warm stirrings of your loins. You are a man, you come from an era before sex drives became gendered norms. You have no norms. You are instinct. Instinct with boundaries, and this realization carries you back to your earlier speculations re: maturity, psychological wellbeing, wisdom.

With a look of concern, she says, “Sugar Pie, are you going under?”

You tell her a man’s gotta have breakfast.

“It’s suppertime, Sugar,” she says, ringing you up, her long nails clacking on the register’s keys. “Besides, pork rinds and hot sauce do not a breakfast make.”

Technically, you tell her, it’s brunch.

Ignore her offer of brunch.

The New York Times is stacked by the door. Grab one.

On Esplanade, you field strip the paper. The News, the Region, the Week in Review, Business—they all join the beer cans and go-cups and chewed ears of corn bulging from the wire mesh trash basket. Garbage you are happy to leave behind.

Ah but time will tell just who has fell, and who’s been left behind . . .

The rest awaits your scorn at home.

On the avenue’s median, a bearded man walks two giant schnauzers in the shade of the sycamores. This would be you, you reflect, if you had a beard. You, If you Had a Beard, you think: there is a title. You, if you had two schnauzers, you if you had a life. You if there were living things whose welfare depended on you.

The leaves of the banana trees hang like wet towels over the heads of the frail humans who pass below in the fogs of their own biographies. Slow traffic idles by as if it’s arriving from the 1950s. You have arrived from the late 1960s by way of the Reagan ’80s. A life bracketed at one end by Question Mark and the Mysterians, Debbie Gibson at the other. Your once reckless idealism slowly turned to cynicism and that, you can’t for the life of you remember when, turned into despair. Despair was the last feeling-state you recall inhabiting. You recall it, like your long-lost evacuations, with a certain physiological nostalgia. Now you are a drunk, and the feeling-range that that lifestyle affords is either: working well, or not working well. When it’s not working well, its failures are the issue. When it is working well, there are no issues. And isn’t that a reasonable definition of freedom? Not that you’re a particular advocate of reason. Or freedom, for that matter. You may have been once, one, or the other, or both, since, in your thinking they don’t appear to be mutually exclusive. But these are Sunday afternoon ideations under the sagging banana trees of the Vieux Carré, two years into Reagan’s second term, a tickertape of monkey-mind nonsense, really, something to occupy the restless coconut on your shoulders while you step around dog droppings and over the thick roots pressing up sidewalks.

On Frenchmen St., the pedestrian traffic lingers before pottery shops and thrift shops and schedules for bands at Snug Harbor. On a lamppost, the announcement of a new play: I Found a Brain Inside My Boyfriend’s Head. Check the name of the playwright—do you know her? Have you balled her? Balling—that other vestigial drive. A woman is just a woman, you’re thinking, but an ale, a cold ale, even a warm flat stagnant ale, an ale with a fly floating in its scuzz, an ale torpedoed by cigarette butts, an ale impossible to distinguish in color and general rancidity from the urinal in Coop’s, that ale can save your life, and has.


You start at the Arts & Leisure, and the groans begin. That should have been you in the “Conversation with the Filmmaker,” you in the “Profile: Up and Coming”—if you had had the connections. Just look at the names: Redgrave, Coppola, Lennon . . . does anyone start out on their own anymore? Who the fuck did, like, Adam know, back in the garden? Fucking Yawveh?

Sauce up a pork rind, swallow some ale, turn the page.

Move on to the Book Review.

The groans resume.

That should have been you doing the review. No: you being reviewed, you creeping up the “New & Noteworthy,” responding to earnest questions with transcendent irony. If you hadn’t been stuck in a public school. If you hadn’t quit the public school. If your parents read books instead of watched television. Toss the Book Review, toss Arts & Leisure, toss them the fuck across the floor to . . . ah, yes, the TV.

Surf the narrow range of TV channels. A gospel show, an evangelical event, local news figures chatting, a couple of Cajuns fishing, reruns of reruns. You mute the box and stand in front of your record collection, that vast catalogue of the best of mankind. What music do you need to hear? What gnossiènne, what ètude, what Concerto in H-moll will create the correct adjustment to the afternoon’s numbing malaise? But now you discern another noise . . .

. . . a scraping . . . from the direction of the kitchen . . . et voila!

Monsieur Rat (suddenly, you hope momentarily, he has become French), asquirm upon his bed of glue, pinned from the narrow underbite all the way to the asshole. Only the tail and one rear leg, working furiously, remain unstuck.

He is long, slender, gray. Obviously guilty. Still, you interrogate indirectly.

“So tell me,” you begin, “you like avocados?”

The rat wriggles with a violence that vibrates the trap, its fear rippling from ass over ribs.

You wonder at its slender physique. Wouldn’t the meat of an avocado, with its generous fat content and abundance of carbohydrates, wouldn’t it flesh out a little rodent, fill in the valleys between the ribs?

“Maybe you’re the wrong rat?” you say, and the rat just wriggles. “Still,” you suggest, “you wouldn’t be in a fix like this if you hadn’t done something wrong, sometime somewhere. Am I right?”

You turn on the faucet, and the sound of the water rushing further animates the rat’s anxiety.

“Relax,” you tell it. “You’re not guilty, you won’t drown. How do you like it, warm? Hot? Cold?”

With a broomstick you nudge the rat closer to the sink. Its contractions become more violent.

You watch the sink fill. It is dirty. It will be dirtier. Make a note to move before it needs to be cleaned.

“What do you think?” you ask the rat. “You ready? Meet this shit head-on, get it over with?”

The rat’s spasms cause the trap to bounce slightly along the formica.

“Ah come on,” you say with exasperation, “work with me on this.”

Now it is shitting.

It continues to shit when it hits the water, a dirty ink the color of charcoal trailing out its ass like a streamer from a party favor.

“Hey,” you tell it, comfortingly, “you gotta go, you gotta go.”

You watch it struggle, watch it wrestle its fur from the glue—a shoulder, maybe a leg—but as soon as one part’s free another is stuck. You place the broom handle at the trap’s corner and press the trap under. The struggle slows, becomes smaller. Spasms, shudders, tiny bubbles. No disrespect intended, but a measure or two of Don Ho cross the endless jukebox of your mind.

“Aloha,” you tell it.

Et voila—Monsieur Rat est mort.

You look at it there below the surface, its sharp tiny teeth, its long black whiskers, its innocent eyes, and damn if that’s not a grimace of horror you see on its face.

Suddenly there’s a part of you that’s not so glib. You can feel it, there, just under your ribs. A kind of mammalian identification, a kind of dread, a kind of premonition. But in the same instant that you feel it, it disappears. Poof! Gone. It’s not happening to you.

You grab your hat, the crossword puzzle, a pen.

“Be cool,” you tell Mr. Rat.

You’re ready to go out.


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Nan Zi (Lee Guan Poon) – “Expressway” (translated by Shelly Bryant)


The English translation of this poem was first published in the programme notes of A Melody named Memory, an event on October 7, 2017 as part of The Arts House’s Poetry with Music series.


Nan Zi (Lee Guan Poon)
the wind through our sleeves
greeted by the sound like roaring waves
sounds ringing in the ear canal
the trees, a wall of green
seen from speeding cars
looking like they will soon collapse
the wheels are an untiring monster
the body of metal
devouring endless miles of road
relentlessly running on
our hands
tightly hold Fate’s steering wheel
what we want to throw out
is not just today’s weather
only an unknown puzzle
can spark our interest in exploration
the fast-moving scenery
fills our eyes
it hits us rhythmically
the monster’s metal bones
the lights like giant pincers
pushing the fog to a halt
drinking enough oil
all that distance
all bowed down
waving the white flag
20 February 1981
from  Nan ZiBiological Clock, 1994
incorporated into secondary school Chinese textbooks in the 1970s
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Poetry, Translation, Uncategorized

Wu Mu (Teo Sum Lim) – 新加坡组曲 (translated as ‘Singapore Suite’ by Shelly Bryant)





The English translation of this poem was first published in the programme notes of A Melody named Memory, an event on October 7, 2017 as part of The Arts House’s Poetry with Music series.

Singapore Suite

Wu Mu (Teo Sum Lim)
– Smoking Barrel –
the Gurkhas hold the hot smoking barrels
aimed coldly at me
with the language of the British colonial government
that year at the Kong Hwa School on Guillemard Road
exploding at the boiling point
(killing is terrible –
the two retreating student leaders before the barrels
like two abandoned, fleeing defeated foes
their crumpling girlish images mesh into mine
refreshing memories now lost half a century)
the group cannot go headless
I choose to walk out on the conflict
to stand and face this turbulent, fearful age
the schemes and oppressions
              of the British colonial government
where the century’s loudest clamour was raised
before the students’ puzzled eyes, I hold my hands high
with this weak flesh
a kind of sacrificial expression
I walk toward these mercenaries
I walk toward the hot smoking barrels they hold
I walk toward purgatory
– Building the MRT Tracks –
outside the house, outside the expressway
highrise buildings and all the civilised construction
accompanied by an unrestrained sound
of continued building
building history, building
of concrete and reinforced pride
the bloodline of a leonine nation
huge palm fronds piercing the clouds
the note sounds unendingly
spread south to north, west to east
such a rugged character
building the MRT tracks, rich in time and space
each section of track pulsing
each cylinder overlaid
      with unparalleled confidence
9 June 1986
first published 13 June 1986 in Lianhe Zaobao • Nebula
– City –
the city wakes from sweet morning dreams
the yellow streetlamps rub sleepy eyes
and corridor lights doze
at rest, red night lights warning flying planes overhead
as neon’s glow is suspended in the rising light of dawn


the HDB flats sown, then renovated every five years
on hard earth, the sound of pile drivers can hardly wait to ring
the jackhammer rushes to join the chorus
the lights have faded, but the birds
     in the branches have yet to open their mouths
the long waves of sound sink heavily into earth and skin
there where our Indian compatriots drum and sing
at the corner of the community centre,
and someone contends with the city’s main tune
for the sake of something called Asian cultural values
in the bold morning
giving a final pull
14 November 1988
first published 8 December 1988 in Lianhe Zaobao • Art City
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