“Ma Le’s Bracelets” by U Win Pe

Ma Le’s Bracelets” is a story plotted around a Burmese husband’s domestic abuse toward his wife. The narrator reveals much more in the beginning about the husband Lay Than’s character: he is Westernized, self-indulgent and abusive. The wife, Ma Le, is revealed more indirectly, shown gradually rather than described outright. The narrator implies her exchange of food with neighbors, as well as her attachment to her bracelets, a family inheritance. When Ma Le’s husband sells the bracelets for money, he forces Ma Le to say that she lost them. Fearing his violence, Ma Le complies, but she can’t stop her tears or her rage from coming out, even if slightly. The story ends on an ominous note, as Lay Than sees his true character revealed in his wife’s eyes, an “I know you know I know” moment. More notably, the story elicits Ma Le’s irrepressible spirit despite her own efforts to quell it for her survival.

The story suggests on a larger level Burma’s indignation over British colonial rule, shaded by Lay Than’s Westernized behavior, and Ma Le, completely Burmese, who acts with grace and dignity, submitting to abuse without losing her humanness. The depictions of Ma Le’s attempts at complicity toward her husband are eloquent and revealing.

Compared to other stories I read recently, “A Husband,” by Prema Shah, and “A Blaze in the Straw,” by Guruprasad Mainali (1), it does not speak as directly to the concerns of women who experience domestic violence, but by framing it metaphorically still evokes the problem of abuse, particularly in post-colonial families. I count it among other South Asian stories that depict domestic abuse in a manner directly or indirectly raising consciousness about the issue.

  1. Hutt, M. (1991). Himalayan Voices : An Introduction to Modern Nepali Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press.

E. Powys Mathers’ “Black Marigolds” and Joan Grigsby’s “The Orchid Door”

I have already mentioned poet Joan Grigsby, who adapted Korean poems in accordance with her own poetic vision, in a previous post. On Brother Anthony’s site there is a page linking many of Grigsby’s freely adapted poems to some of the literal translations from which she drew.

Grigsby’s contemporary in England, E. Powys Mathers, did something similar with a Sanskrit poem called the “Chauraspanchasika,” which he adapted freely into a piece called “Black Marigolds.” This page offers a full text of “Black Marigolds,” including Mathers’ preface (linked from a physicist’s personal poetry archive here). The pages Translating: Bilhana 1 and Translating: Bilhana 2 discuss differences between Mathers’ free translation and more literal translations. This page has a complete text of Barbara Stoler Miller’s literal translation of the “Chauraspanchasika.”

I am interested in particular to discover the differences between these free translations and the originals: what these Eastern-minded poets conserved, and how they wove it with their own visions. This kind of study is different from that of occidental haiku or sijo. Those works are not directly grafted onto another poet’s vision, though some of them respond to Eastern poets. The grafted poems are distinctive to me because their essences are still partially derived from an earlier source. This kind of response of Western poets to Eastern work seems distinctive for two reasons: they’re leaning toward a different, perhaps opposite ideology, to their native system, however loosely or tightly they adhere to that system, and they are, in some cases, expressing more generally the emotional truth of an original than a literal translation into English can for those without extensive knowledge of the culture.

My interest in Grigsby stems from that first point: how she creates a cohesive feminist vision from traditional patriarchal works by inserting the female perspective into them, as with “Rainbow Sleeves.” And in Mathers, without having studied any Sanskrit poetry, I feel I have come suddenly close to complex aspects of Indian literature by reading “Black Marigolds.”

Two poems of bells and hills: Aaron Fisher and John Rollin Ridge

This morning, when reading The Way of Tea by Aaron Fisher (mainly prose, interspersed with some poetry), I was struck by this particular poem he included:

As the leaves of this tree are,
I too am made of the water, the sky, sun, and stars;
I share this essence with all the Ten-Thousand Things.
And in so doing, empty myself and my cup.
As tea, I am now free to transcend the moment,
Finding Heaven in a leaf.
I ride the cinnabar mists
Beyond the temple stairs
And blue peaks
To soar beneath the unveiled moon,
Glancing downward but once,
When the temple bells chimed.

I interpret this poem as the speaker feeling enlightened while drinking tea in a temple. The bond he feels between himself and the tea lifts him beyond the earthly trappings of the temple as he feels himself rising on a cloud of incense toward the mountains. He glances downward when he hears the temple bells chime, but he’s already beneath the unveiled moon: he experiences revelation apart from the temple itself, through direct communion with nature. So, I felt that Fisher’s work reflects something similar to American transcendentalism, which I realize is Asian-inspired in part, as is Fisher’s perspective. Something that felt more transcendentalist about this poem for me, more American than Asian, was the emphasis on the individual experience, while the speaker finds his position in the non-hierarchical collection of earthly bodies.

In the context of the book itself, this choice makes a lot of sense, since this piece functions to complement Fisher’s explanation of how tea works as a means to understand the Tao for a contemporary Western audience.

One of the first poems I puzzled over by Cherokee poet John Rollin Ridge came to my mind when I read Fisher’s lines. The speaker’s vantage point on the hill, listening to these ringing bells from a remote location, reminded me of how Fisher’s speaker was also removed from the source of the bells in his poem:


THE Sabbath bells are ringing
With clear and cheerful notes,
And from the steeple springing,
Far off the music floats.

To yonder mountains reaches,
The ever rising strain,
And Echo’s dying speeches
Repeat it o’er again.

The summer woodlands filling,
The solemn cadence rolls,
And through the leaves is thrilling
Like soft, pulsating souls.

The air with rippling motion,
Aeolian answers gives,
And like a trembling ocean,
Its outspread bosom heaves.

The far horizon sweeping,
Each tone majestic swells,
And all the world is leaping
Beneath the sounding bells.

‘Tis solemn, yet ’tis cheerful,
A clear and pleasant voice,
That bids the sad and tearful
Be hopeful and rejoice.
Let sabbath morns unclouded
Still hear these tones of peace,
For earth with woe is shrouded
When sabbath bells, shall cease.

Reading Fisher’s verses brought me back to this poem, which of course expresses a very different idea, in a completely different context. The speaker is listening to bells from a Christian church on Sunday morning, and the sound of these clanging bells is permeating everything around him: the leaves, even the wind. Here, the speaker portrays the sound as omnipresent, while in Fisher’s poem, the speaker glances briefly toward the sound, already spiritually connected through other means. It is as though in this instance the bells are the spiritual source: these man-made objects synonymous with God, who can be present on earth but is clearly distinct from it.

Ridge implies in the last lines that human-instituted religion is necessary for peace to reign. The speaker of the poem is not in the church, however, but outside, listening to the effect of the bells on the hills and seemingly finding a consolation in religious institutions. His perspective may not necessarily be opposed to Fisher’s, which represents finding peace through independent means, since Ridge’s speaker himself is not worshipping in the church, nor indicating a desire to do so.

I find in this poem a certain gratitude for the early Western churches that had sprung up, further “civilizing” the West, and perhaps providing a tempering influence against a more lawless past where he experienced violence or crime in his surroundings, especially if I place it in a Californian context. The poem is particularly interesting to me because it goes to such lengths to describe and draw out the permeating sound of the bells, and in the last lines, leaves the reader to imagine a land without their spiritual influence, briefly hinting at former darkness. So he is implying that religious institutions are necessary for humanity in general, though he, interestingly, is standing outside of that institution.


Additional Asian literature and academic links

In the past week, I’ve found many other additions for my various link lists:

Occidental writers in Asia

Joan Grigsby (1891-1937) Part Two: an occidental poet in Korea revealed through Brother Anthony’s extensive web resources.

Becoming Wu De: A Conversation with the founder of Global Tea Hut: interview relating the background of author Aaron Fisher, who lives in Taiwan and has written several books on tea and spirituality.

American poetry

Suji Kwock Kim: a contemporary Korean-American poet.

Burmese literature

Win Pe Mya Zin: contemporary Burmese writer’s Facebook page; will need a Facebook account to read his poetry.

Sadaik: blog about literature of Myanmar and its translation by author Lucas Stewart.

Modern Burmese Literature: article in The Atlantic by U On Pe relating information about Burmese literature from ancient times up to the present.

Burma (Myanmar): from Poetry International Rotterdam. Contemporary Burmese poets, poetry and articles about Burmese literature.

Japanese literature

Gendai Haiku: site about contemporary Japanese haiku poets and poetry.

Korean literature and academic resources

Japanese Poetry Persists in Korea, Despite Disapproval: article in The New York Times about Koreans interested in haiku poetry since the time of Japanese colonial rule; aesthetic differences between Korean and Japanese haiku also mentioned.

The Sejong Cultural Society writing page: Korean short stories and sijo poetry; encourages young American writers to explore Korean culture.

LTI Korea: Literature Translation Institute of Korea; has e-zines available for download, as well as resources about currently published Korean books and translation grants.

The Daesan Foundation: provides grants for those researching and translating Korean literature.

Doosan Yonkang Foundation: provides scholarships and research funds for Korean literature scholars.

The Academy of Korean Studies: research institute aimed at promoting Korean culture and literature overseas; includes the Jangseogak Archives, containing records and books pertaining to Korean history.

American, Asian, and Southeast Asian literature link list

I organized a link list to be featured on my main page, compiling all of my browser bookmarks for online resources of the American, Asian, and Southeast Asian translated literature I have found within the past few months.

“scruffy sparrows” from Favor of Crows

scruffy sparrows
chatter outside the bakery
raisin scones

Gerald Vizenor, Favor of Crows

Common and perhaps worse-for-wear birds center an outdoor scene. The rumpled sparrows contrast with the sleeker concept of a baker’s shop, while their chatter invites personification. Then, the viewer’s gaze falls on something heartening, perhaps on the other side of the bakery window in a more exclusive space, where all is cozy. Does the chatter of the sparrow center around the scones, maybe a favorite treat of theirs, since they have gathered here before?

By mentioning the human-like “chatter” of the sparrows, the speaker invites the viewer to regard the world through their eyes as, just for a moment, the speaker, and reader, both gaze on the inviting scones.

The briefly-sketched scene evokes empathy in a shared desire for comfort and warmth between human and animals, and tenderness in its charm, while also keeping the desired object at a distance. Will the sparrows have a chance to taste the scones? Will a human hand offer them a bite, or will someone leave a few crumbs behind in a discarded wrapper?

“Rainbow Sleeves” from The Orchid Door: Ancient Korean Poems

The book online: HTML, PDF

According to Brother Anthony’s site, The Orchid Door is a book of poetry by Joan Grigsby adapted from Korean originals. The poem “Rainbow Sleeves” below is from this collection.

Rainbow Sleeves (Anon.)

Her rainbow sleeves are gay as golden wine
Poured from a silver flask to porcelain bowls.
Between the guests she moves. Their wet lips shine.

Their eyes grow dry and hot as burning coals,
Watching her bend to pour their perfumed wine,
Watching her rainbow sleeves above the bowls.

One gives her amber beads like honeyed light,
Another, coral drops for her to wear
Like folded peach buds in her ears tonight,
While one sets bright blue feathers in her hair.
Gay are her sleeves!
Yet, in the lanterns’ light,
Her face — a peony flower — reveals despair.

The description “rainbow sleeves” recalls the brightly-colored striped sleeves of the traditional Korean women’s hanbok. The fixed cheerfulness of her sleeves is analogous to the joy-inducing quality of the wine she pours. She gives, while her guests, apparently male, consume the wine, as their “wet lips,” suggest.

The guests’ eyes, “dry and hot as burning coals,” suggest their desires for consumption have turned to the server. Their shining lips and burning eyes lend a darkened contrast to the innocent vibe the server projects. Hoping, probably, for favors, the guests bestow the server with sumptuous gifts. The gifts, however, only serve to adorn her beauty and enhance their pleasure in observing her. As “one sets bright blue feathers in her hair,” she is transformed into a bird, albeit a caged one.

The speaker reiterates the woman’s bright sleeves before revealing the “despair” of her “peony flower” face, a condition the false brightness of her adornments and the lewd encroachment of her “guests” has suggested.

The overall situation and “rainbow sleeves” remind me of the old English poem Greensleeves.

A new Courtly Sonnet, of the Ladie Greensleeves.
Alas, my love, you do me wrong
To cast me off discourteously
And I have lov-ed you so long
Delighting in your companie

(Chorus)Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight
Greensleeves was my heart of gold
And who but my Ladie Greensleeves

I have been ready at your hand
To grant whatever you would crave,
I have both waged life and land,
Your love and good-will for to have.


I bought thee kerchers to thy head,
That were wrought fine and gallantly
I kept thee both boord and bed
Which cost my purse well favouredly


I bought thee petticoats of the best,
The cloth so fine as might be;
I gave thee jewels for thy chest,
And all this cost I spent on thee.

The speaker of “Greensleeves” continues to list his expenditures on the lady, who will not bestow favors despite accepting his gifts. Meanwhile, the green of her sleeves suggests gaiety or promiscuity misconstrued by the speaker. In both poems, the woman’s colorful sleeves serve as a false indicator of joy in contrast to her disconnection from the male admirer(s).

Yet, “Greensleeves” retains her independence, while “Rainbow Sleeves” wades through nights of despair. The fixedness of her costume and position suggest that she is locked into her dilemma with no hope of escape.

It also suggests, in a broader sense, the falseness and spiritual barrenness of a society structured entirely around exchange of materials and services.