The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Translations” is a poem in three parts that considers the ways in which provocatively descriptive language influences and reflects attitudes toward cultural communities located outside of conventional representations of life in the United States. Speaking with the thoughtful, reflective voice that is characteristic of his work, Wing Tek Lum begins the poem with the word “Ghosts,” a focal point for an exploration of the manner in which the terminology chosen by a people to describe themselves may differ significantly from the words used by outsiders to refer to them. The first lines of the poem recall the innocent pleasure of a child’s delight in the thrill of the supernatural, a series of images evoking the harmless fun of “running around in/ old bedsheets,” enjoying the reassuring comic-book fantasy of the friendly Caspar, and then “marveling at/ the trick/ camerawork” in a television show about Cosmo G. Topper. These familiar, pleasant vignettes from popular culture are placed in sharp contrast with Lum’s adult perspective on ghosts as the second section of part 1 begins with the word Gwái, a Chinese term for “demon” or “devil.” The transition to a term loaded with negative connotations introduces a darker, more sinister element to the poem, which Lum amplifies by references to “Shaw Brothers horror/ films” and “rites of exorcism” before concluding the section with a cryptic comment about “Old Demons who wear/ white...

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“I have always been slow in my verbal skills,” Lum commented while discussing his processes of composition. “Since the fourth grade I have resigned myself to plodding along with the written word,” but then he realized that “by nature poets choose their words carefully” and that what seemed like a limitation could be an aspect of his strength as a writer. Rather than the “razzle-dazzle of the flow of words,” Lum’s poems often provide what he calls “epiphanies of passion, of something deeply-felt” that he deems “important to share.” Consequently, Lum has emphasized “the clarity of the image” so that in a poem such as “Translations” the political element that he has always recognized in his work emerges from the juxtaposition of the images that he presents.

The controlling image of “Translations” is that of ghosts rendered first in terms of a child’s delight with features of a magical cosmos then darkened by the adult’s realization that there is a component of psychic danger in horror films and exorcism rites. The establishment of the twofold nature of the ghost phenomenon enables Lum to begin to examine the ramifications of the ghost/Gwái polarity, a division in which the demon’s “white skin” is a disguise camouflaging its nonhuman behavior or attributes, an inversion of the friendly nature of Caspar, whose white ghost form covers a humane disposition. This doubling of the human/devil image expresses...

(The entire section is 537 words.)