The Cat at My Friend's House
When you opened the door for us,
astonishingly you stood upright, motionless,
You inspected our colossal luggage
and we also noticed
the snow white fur on your belly panting up and down
and that you are a male.
We drank tea.
There was a pot of ancient cactus on the windowsill.
We were told when you are tired
you take a nap there,
but you never seemed sleepy
and your body was always a tense steel spring.
We didn't dare meet your eyes.
Your right eye was a flaming red
and the other was crow-black
and they both radiated a blue fire at night.
You were crazy about all kinds of lines,
shoelaces, table legs, and the chain
which you pulled, almost severing my neck.
There was a moment when I was pointing at an old painting
and instantly your front paws were hanging on my forefinger.
Later when I was eating
that finger felt incredibly heavy.
As we entered night you went completely nuts.
You put your head into slippers and threw somersaults.
Then, like an arrow you shot across
the table between us and our friends.
You bent your body into every terrifying position.
Then with a loud scream you leaped onto the piano
and the keys plunked a series of sounds like divination coins.
The clock struck
and the wall started to shake.
The first night all night
you squatted beside our pillow
when we were making love
and groused deep inside your throat
like a moribund old man suffering from asthma.
Your eyes were ghost fires
emitting curses that terrified me.
I gazed back at you
and never fell asleep.
When we were leaving,
again you opened the door.
This time you were expessionless,
but when I got on the train
I found all my poetry manuscripts
were bitten to pieces.
In this life I will find no way to clarify
if you loved me or hated me,
but sometimes in deep night I cannot evade you
if the day before was dark and deadened.
--Zhang Zhen (translated by Tony Barnstone)
Publishers still send me review copies of books, most of which I give to the public library. But I keep a few for myself, like the one from this poem is taken: Chinese Erotic Poems, a title in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series. Maybe I kept it because the book was about three things I don't know much about: China, erotica and poetry. I still can't claim to know much about them, but I can say I've made a start.
The poems in this collection date from 600 BCE to the present, a reminder that the Chinese had a flourishing civilization when my ancestors were still painting themselves blue and worshiping mistletoe or something. I chose to post here one of the contemporary ones. Zhang Zhen was born in Shanghai in 1961; she got her Ph.D. in Chinese literature and film from the University of Chicago and now teaches film studies at New York University. I like the felineness of her cat, which is clearly more than a cat. It's interesting to compare Barnstone's translation with that of Newton Liu, here.