Wing Tek Lum

Editor's Preface

In the standard Western narrative, World War 2 began on September 3, 1939, when the inchoate Allied Powers invaded imperial Germany. Putting the frame around the war this way, however, excludes from its scope the Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation of Nanjing, China; the victims, in turn, are excluded from being commemorated in the context of the greater war.  

The Japanese took control of Nanjing on December 13, 1937. Their occupation lasted for eight years. In just the first six weeks, the International Military Tribunal of the Far East reported that 260,000 civilians were murdered, though other sources place the number far higher. Iris Chang, in her 1997, The Rape of Nanjing: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, reports that during the initial weeks of the invasion, torture and bodily degradation was an institutional practice Between 20,000 and 80,000 women were raped; many of these were mutilated, or mutilated to death. Chinese men served as human targets in bayonet practice. They were often castrated. People were buried alive, roasted alive, hung by their tongues, or were immobilized and then attacked by vicious dogs among other practices (Chang, 4-7).

World War II (1939-1945): the hushed, just-in-case-you-forgot parenthetical date-range, does a double violence to these victims, to these people whose experience in life, and in death, will never be known, and may never be known of by those who believe they know their history.

Ezra Pound wrote that an epic is a “poem including history.” To put history into an epic is to turn it into History, a making-sense of history, a giving meaning to history in a cosmic movement from origin to ending. In an epic there is a gathering of the fragments, and a turning of these into destiny, will. Each unit of history in such an epic becomes a letter, which only takes its meaning as it joins with others and becomes word, sentence, book.

Wing Tek Lum, in his recently published Nanjing Massacre: Poems (Bamboo Ridge, 2013) reverses Pound’s dictum. This devastating collection of poems inserts the unquantifiable into history, and reminds us that history is not a synonym for truth. Lum refuses to be complicit in the notion that history can be meaningfully recounted. Lum offers another function for the poet. No longer the keeper of history, poetry now has a different, non-epic function, unofficial where the epic gives the sanctified story. Lum tells the stories of individuals.  

An individual is in many ways, the opposite of history. The individual: a fragment in the social record, but whole in him- or herself. In this book, the poem doesn’t keep history, but dwells alongside it, unquantifiable when measured against the surging narratives of world power, of individuals coalescing through time into impersonal social forces. Lum does not use poetry as a means to create historical meaning. History, here, is not something that makes sense, not something that fits together like one puzzle piece into the next creating a whole. It is not material for a poem. Rather, in these poems, history can only be understood in the context of the fragment, in the experience of being fragmented, in the experience of not making sense, in the experience of consciousness.  

Wing Tek Lum’s poems are about people who have been displaced not just in history, but by History, people who have lost not only their lives, but their ability to be commemorated. “The victims of war,” he writes, “especially those who did not survive, seldom have their experiences told…It is up to creative writers to imagine the stories of those who have been forgotten, whose existence may have been deliberately erased.” The poems traverse the margins of what we can know.  

Lum’s privileged vehicle for portraying consciousness is the photograph. Many of the poems are inspired by photographs. Yet all of them offer a photographic quality, and in doing so, they pit our own warmness of being against the cold eye of the camera.  

The fictional consciousnesses that are often portrayed in Lum’s poems remind us that something remains unsaid; the stillness of the camera’s product lies behind every thought that had to be constructed to represent the thought that can never be heard. Even as we hear the thoughts of a woman being raped, we know, her very “thoughts” as they are represented, signify to us that we will never hear them, and we will never know them. Even as he memorializes, he has us confront the impossibility to remember. The objects of everyday life, the “Beans and preserved plums, / salt fish, pickled cabbage, / dried scallops and baby shrimp, / bamboo shoots, pumpkin seeds,” do not so much as conjure up the people that consumed these things, as much as seem to sit unused, resounding not through history, but against history.

At times, Lum turns the camera back on the observer. He evokes the thoughts that we have no time to have even when we are alive, precisely because we are too busy living, reacting. We could say that Lum brings us to the origin of fiction, where the fictional portrayal becomes what life elides, but what underlies all meaningful living.  In “A Village Burial,” for example, Lum offers a description of the discovery (but by who?) of a group of decapitated bodies. There is an impersonal, objectivity as the voice of the poem methodically catalogs and reports:

they are wearing soldier’s uniforms,
ragged and caked with mud
shorn of their belts, one without shoes.
they have been decapitated.

And at the same time, the photographic objectivity yields now to an observer, someone who sees, and who feels, but who pushes past his emotion in order to give words to its origin. The observer seems to catch the moment before becoming overwhelmed by the horror of the find:

where their heads should have been, now empty,
the feeling of something missing, unnerving like a small pin boring through 
to prick the heart.

The camera-eye of the poem here now moves into the consciousness of the observer, and stops, sees, takes a picture of that.  And when the poem moves its lens back to the original scene, the reader is accompanied by an anonymous feeling—a discoverer—attached to no one, as if it were the camera itself:

each body is laid out on the bank,
and turned over onto its back,
and heads are pressed on top of the necks 
to see which fits.

Who is seeing this? In this poem, things happen, but there is no actor represented. The passive construction (“each body is laid out”; “heads are pressed”) offer us actions with no agent. Paralysis, not of the body, but of vision. We can see arms, we can see bodies extended out, but we cannot see eyes, we cannot see the part that sees: something always stands outside the visual field, something always escapes our sight. And as these detached bodies are absent in life, we also see our own absence, we see our own decapitation, the one that accompanies all perception.

And in this, the disparity between those who can see, and those who can no longer see; and yet, what they share, why they are commemorated.

In the impossible perspective that these poems offer, victim and reader both stand together

as if no one could breathe,
the moment before tears would well up.

-by Noam Scheindlin

Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking (New York: Penguin, 1998).
Ezra Pound, The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound.  (Norfolk, CT: New Directions: 1954).



"I had only one idea.. .not to
be taken like a rat in Occupied
 - Simone de Beauvoir,
diary entry for June 9,1940

A father pushes a hand cart
with possessions stacked so high
he cannot see where he is going.
A wagon drawn by a pony
transports a family
of three generations.
It is so crowded
that no one can sit down.
A grandmother
with golden lotus feet
lies in a wheelbarrow grimacing.
Barges are commandeered
to ferry trunks of antiques
and their curators upstream.
An automobile speeds out the gate
only to be found miles ahead
lying in a ditch, out of petrol.
The early risers
jostle their way onto a train
that never leaves the station.
A lorry is filled with deserters
their guns and ammunition
left in the barracks.
Sniveling children
are propped onto bicycles,
their parents
walking at their sides.
All around them
are others who know only
that they must now flee;
on foot, they move south,
they move west, traveling light,
carrying only hope. 


On the side of the road
a western style clock
stands upright
still telling time.
Farther down,
there are abandoned valises,
canvas dufflebags,
a wedding chest
inlaid with mother-of-pearl
and filled with silk,
ceramic cooking pots
swaddled in blankets,
a matching tea set
cradled in its own basket,
photograph albums,
bundles of old aerogrammes
tightly bound with string,
a rattan cage with porcelain cups
for water and seed,
its door now open,
its bird also in flight.


A large family argues under a tree.
The elders cannot continue on.
For half a day
they have been carried
on the backs of their grandsons.
But they are concerned
they are slowing down
everyone else.
They want to stay and rest
and tell the others
to go on ahead;
they will catch up later.
The youngsters also want to leave
but know they never will. 


Steamed buns, scallion pancakes,
sticky rice in lotus leaves,
small sacks of millet,
beans and preserved plums,
salt fish, pickled cabbage,
dried scallops and baby shrimp,
bamboo shoots, pumpkin seeds,
black mushrooms and wood fungus,
ginger root, almonds, pine nuts,
one thousand year old eggs,
a tin of sliced pineapple
and a tin of condensed milk
—these days worth
more than their weight
in jade or ivory or gold.


At night, we can hear
explosions in the distance,
the drone of airplanes
passing overhead.
At night, babies cry from hunger,
a woman sobs uncontrollably
fearing she will never
be able to go back.
At night, when lightning strikes,
there is no shelter;
the entire countryside erupts
in one loud thunderclap
that stuns us into silence. 


The days turn
into marches of endurance
not of speed.
Under darkness
the cold contends with sleep.
Even in our dreams
we trudge along the road,
no matter where it will lead.
We only stop
when a farmer up ahead
approaches with his family
to ask how many more miles
it would take to reach
the city of refuge they seek. 



They marched the father away by the collar
to wash their uniforms the whole day,
tall tubs of hot, soapy water,
leaning over a washboard scrubbing shirts,
wringing out puttees to dry.
He knew he should be grateful;
others he had heard had never returned.
And he brought back a small sack of coarse rice.
So in the setting sun, his family of six
all squatted around the fire next to their tent
waiting for the rice gruel to boil down.
A passing soldier approached
pushing aside the wife.
He unbuttoned his trousers,
letting go a stream of piss into the cast iron.
The demon said nothing
as if just concentrating his aim,
a glint in the dying light.
Neither did the family, even the children,
their faces flickering against the night,
just staring wide-eyed, some mouths agape,
as if no one could breathe,
the moment before tears would well up. 



Four bodies lie slumped over
at the pond's edge,
one prone, the others on their sides curled up.
They are wearing soldier's uniforms,
ragged and caked with mud,
shorn of their belts, one without shoes.
They have been decapitated,
the spaces above their necks
where their heads should have been now empty,
the feeling of something missing,
unnerving like a small pin boring through
to prick the heart.
The heads are soon discovered,
floating, half submerged, in shallow waters
—no doubt dumped or kicked in.
They are waterlogged, rapidly decomposing,
one still with spectacles.
Each body is laid out on the bank,
turned over onto its back,
and heads are pressed on top of the necks
to see which fits.
It is hard to determine
which matches are correct
—the long, thin face perhaps
goes with the one with slender fingers,
or maybe another set can be paired
because of the same darker complexion.
They look like they belong, and yet do not.
Together they are loaded onto a two-wheeled cart
and pulled up to the mountains
to a burial pit dug in the hard earth
for all the recent dead
But it does not seem right
to cast these four so haphazardly
among the other corpses,
though some are also maimed, with severed arms,
their bellies blown out.
So one last attempt is made
to set them down gently,
to rejoin each head to its rightful body.
Hopefully then one of them at least
might be reborn whole,
to re-enter this desecrated world again,
to seek revenge for himself and his comrades,
rending apart these invaders,
hacking limbs, ripping out entrails,
crushing bone, and shredding flesh,
splattering every drop of their blood
across this wide, perverted face of hell. 



My mother tells me to be brave.
She fears for me, a young girl.
When she goes out
I must hide inside her wooden chest,
the one she brought from her home,
when she got married.
It is a black lacquered box
with a simple lotus on the top
inlaid in mother-of-pearl.
She takes out all the clothes and blankets,
then spreads out one
to line the inside for me.
She gives me a knife
and shows me how from the inside
to slip it through the crack
between the top and bottom of the chest
until I can feel the latch
and push it open.
We practice this several times
so I know I can get out by myself.
But she says I should not worry
because she will return soon.
Before she leaves
she places inside the chest
a small ball of rice,
a jar of tea, and another jar
for me to urinate into.
She also makes sure
I see that she has put the lock
in the bottom of the chest
so that I do not feel trapped.
I climb in and she closes the lid,
folding the latch over its pin.
It is dark and quiet
though I can peek through the crack
and watch as the shadows
deepen into twilight, and into night.
I quickly learn that I can sit up
and extend my legs completely
if I push my feet against the far upper corners.
Sometimes I turn over
and crouch on my knees.
To while away the time
I add and subtract my numbers.
I think about the weaving I was working on.
I finish off the rice
and wait for my mother for a long time.
I fall asleep, curled up on my side.
I dream about the crickets my father kept
inside a small gourd cage
that he often carried in the palm of his hand.
I used to help him scrape the bottom clean
and replace it with new loam and lime.
It had an ivory top
carved through with five round holes
to allow for air.
I remember they sang so sweetly. 



our old donkey
being nailed from behind
by a draft horse. 

How like a woman
braying pitifully
voice shedding tears 

small feet
thin face
and elongated ears 

bobbing up and down
her compact frame
sagging under the weight 

rump giving way
at each thrusting
yet holding her ground 

tinged with a sour smell
of transgression 

warm fluids
trickling down
her hind legs 

as if she does not know
what else to do
where else to go 

except always 
to suffer
our every bidding.

Wing Tek Lum is a Honlulu businessman and poet. His first collection of poetry, Expounding the Doubtful Points, was published by Bamboo Ridge Press in 1987. With Makoto Ooka, Joseph Stanton, and Jean Yamasaki Toyama, he participated in a collaborative work of linked verse, which was published as What the Kite Thinks by Summer Session, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa in 1994.