Voice Clocks

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I like the peddler’s calls and tunes that emerge in a precisely timed manner as clocks do.

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The house I live in faces a broad and quiet thoroughfare, with a dear little vacant lot at the back. A typical day at home, except for the occasional phonograph records I play, used to be as still as the calendar on the wall. The passage of time was always silent and imperceptible–at best you could tell the footsteps of time on a clear day from the sunlight gleamed into the small room, and the beams’ width and brightness; or if there was mail during the day, and when the mailman rang the doorbell, you would know it’s 10:30 a.m.; or if your absentminded wife forgot her keys again, and when she called out your name outside the door upon return from work, you would know it’s already 4:00 p.m. Mere days after I moved my desk from the front room to the back room, however, I realized that many new clocks had been installed in my brain.

 

That’s thanks to the calls and tunes of the peddlers passing through the little vacant lot.

 

That vacant lot is the plaza through which the families in the rear rows come and go, where children play with sand and throw balls during holidays; beyond that, it’s almost an exclusive territory for the daily gathering of women and seniors from the vicinity. Those peddlers invariably appear in this small space right when they are most needed. After finishing the newspaper in the morning, as you become aware that you haven’t had breakfast, the voices of the peddlers crying their wares–“Soy milk! Pan-fried buns! Glutinous rice!”–pierce right through the window you have just opened and invite themselves in; and you know this is Taipei-style breakfast cried out in authentic Taiwanese Mandarin. You turn in a different direction, and may well hear a small car approaching slowly and its stereo playing pre-recorded cloying cries, “The most delicious Maxim’s bread, the most delicious Maxim’s sandwich, come get the most delicious Maxim’s chocolate cake, Maxim’s ice cream cake–!” When it’s time, these peddlers’ cries arise as punctually as striking clocks do.

 

Nevertheless, these “clocks” do not just repeat a monotonous tick-tock, or have a little bird pop out on the hour to announce the time with its cuckoo, cuckoo. Their style of announcement and the timing of their appearance are as full of variation and merriment as this human world. What they construct is not physical time, but the time of human vivacity, or more precisely, the time for states of mind. Take the guava-selling old papa who shows up after the oyster vermicelli. His crisp, folksy cries–only a few syllabi, albeit in measured, sing-song cadences–make you feel you’re back in classical Taiwan. Just listen to his stretched-out chants: “Salty—-guava; salty—-sweet—-crisp; luscious—-!” It is nothing less than the sound of heaven transplanted onto earth, a gem of Taiwanese Hokkien–as if the lives of the entire nation are being condensed, concretely and vividly, into that one tuneful cry. If you play it over and over in your heart, you will undoubtedly detect a rhythm as vibrant and interesting as that of the popular Taiwanese folk songs “Plowing with Water Buffalo” (Niu Li Ge) and “An Old Train Song” (Diu Diu Dang).

 

As the afternoon wanes and the briefly warmer weather turns cold again, the rising and falling tunes of the peddlers’ calls become even more colorful. All of a sudden, you get to savor the steaming hot “meat balls, pig’s blood soup, four flavor herb soup—-”, which abruptly cool down and turn into “taro cake, red bean cake, red bean rice pudding—-” or the freshly sweet and delicious “apricot kernel juice, creamy mung bean soup, icy Aiyu Jelly—-!” That old auntie selling shrimp custard probably has the flattest, plainest voice, yet every day a whole slew of adults and children dash out with their big or small bowls before even catching sight of her. Her shrimp custard, according to “custard gourmets,” is truly “number one in Taiwan with the best ingredients and the best taste.”

 

On windy or rainy days, naturally there are times when these clocks would stop, slow down, or mess up. They even play practical jokes on you. Sometimes when the day is as bright and beautiful as your mood, you suddenly realize the peddler’s calls that should have arrived already still haven’t. At moments like this, you would strongly miss, for instance, that old man selling roasted sweet potato who pushes the wheelbarrow and rocks the cast iron jar as he calls out “Ya—-kiimo!” You even worry that maybe he’s gotten a bit too old, or too tired, or has fallen ill, and is no longer able to come out and sell his wares. But just as you are suspecting, wondering, that familiar voice would pop up again.

 

These clocks of peddlers’ cries tell you not only the time, but also the day of the week and the season of the year. When the unhurried cart accompanied by the cry “repair sofas—-” passes by, you know it is the weekend again. The peddler who sells barley malt syrup and salty olive powder habitually shows up on Wednesdays; the one who sells toilet paper and the one who sells fermented bean curd both arrive on Sunday afternoons. Perhaps you just enjoyed hot herbal jelly last night, and today you suddenly hear the same peddler crying “cold tofu pudding!” instead–with this change in tune, you are alerted that spring has indeed come.

 

Clocks, daily calendars, monthly calendars–these jubilant peddlers’ cries jump and roll across the stage of everyday life. Like sunlight, green fields, and flowers, they add indispensable color to this lively city and world.

 

I like the peddler’s calls and tunes that emerge in a precisely timed manner as clocks do.

Bios

Chen Li

Chen Li (陳黎) was born in Hualien, Taiwan in 1954. He graduated from the English Department of National Taiwan Normal University. Regarded as one of the most innovative and exciting poets writing in Chinese today, he is the author of fourteen books of poetry as well as a prolific prose writer and translator. With his wife Chang Fen-ling, he has translated into Chinese over twenty volumes of poetry, including the works of Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Wisława Szymborska, Tomas Tranströmer, and Yosano Akiko. The recipient of many awards in Taiwan (e.g. the National Award for Literature and Arts, the Taiwan Literature Award, the China Times Literary Award, the United Daily News Literary Award), he has taught creative writing at National Dong Hwa University and is the organizer of the annual Pacific Poetry Festival in his hometown. In 2005, he was named one of the “Top Ten Contemporary Poets of Taiwan.” In 2012, he was invited to the Olympic poetry festival (Poetry Parnassus) in London as the poet representing Taiwan. In 2014, he was among the resident authors in The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

Ting Wang

Ting Wang discovered her passion for literary translation while studying American and British literature in mainland China. Her translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Iowa Review, Washington Square Review, and Your Impossible Voice. A native Mandarin speaker, she holds a PhD from the School of Communication at Northwestern University, and lives and works in the Washington metropolitan area.

聲音鐘. Copyright (c) Chen Li, 1989. English translation copyright (c) Ting Wang, 2016.