Jennifer Lee Tsai

Jennifer Lee Tsai

Tso Kin Tsai, my grandfather

after Ilya Kaminsky

When my grandfather was young, I believe he was a farmer in Guangdong during Mao’s regime – there was war on peasants. It was a foul time, black clouds menaced the sky, curses, 10,000 reports of darkness, deaths of humans, animals. People ate sweet potato leaves, tree bark, wild herbs. Mao said people ‘were not without food all the year round – only six…or four months’. Babies were abandoned. Many civilians died of starvation. Unspeakable horrors took place, brutalities beyond comprehension.

My grandfather escaped from China, came to Liverpool as a seaman on the Blue Funnel Line. He jumped ship. In this fair city, he worked in a restaurant, though everyone said he looked more like an actor in a black and white film. He walked as though he was compelled by some external force.

He had coal-black hair, perfect posture, an elegant body which moved like water does, sometimes still, sometimes flowing, often running deep. His earth-brown eyes were intense. They had witnessed things you and I could only have nightmares about. He was the saddest man I ever met. I remember his voice – how it conjured the sound of the erhu – a two-stringed instrument; birds chirping, horses neighing, maidens undulating in dance, the pain of sorrow.

In his fifties, Liverpudlians were kind to him when he visited cafés like the Kardomah on the corner of Whitechapel and Stanley Street. They liked him – this Chinese man in a trilby, long overcoat, polished black shoes. He would always tip generously because he knew what it was like to serve.

My grandfather died on the streets of Liverpool, the port city he loved. It was strangers, who rescued him from the pavement, when he fell, one bright afternoon, in March. His heart, (the Yang in the Yin-Yang system, shaped like a lotus bud), broke. His friends were the people around him.

Eight years after his death, I saw my grandfather in his best suit, sitting alone again in his favourite café with a cup of English tea, a slice of fruit cake. He was smiling (I had never seen him smile or laugh before). He invited me to join him, gave me a lucky red envelope with notes inside, told me he did not mind me writing about him in my future poems, in a language he had never learnt or could ever speak.

Dear Father

Where are you in heaven?
Won’t you write me a letter,
tell me what it’s like there?
The moon devastates with her light tonight.
I know you’re there, somewhere.
Pronounce yourself to me, one time.


Now, you have become an elderly monk,
wise beyond your years.
You are in your seventies,
clad in red and yellow robes,
You are so holy, unlike how you were.
I see that your hair has grown back
blacker than it used to be.
Instead of a pint or whisky,
your preferred drink is water
or chrysanthemum tea
though you still don’t eat much.
Your gauntness is worn lightly –
how weightless you are,
divested of any earthly desires.
Dear father! Forgive me, for I have sinned
mortally, with mortification.
There is so much I want to tell you
but can’t, so much to say and no time at all.
In your spare time (you have lots now),
you play dominoes with your friends.
You’ve made peace with your brother.
The flesh is weak, the body longs for ecstasy.
Tell me father, what becomes of the lamb
who was taken out for slaughter?


In my dreams, you visit, so serene,
leave a note in an ancient script beside my pillow.
I find it when I wake
but don’t understand what it says
and no one can translate its meaning
or message from the dead.


To speak of love is a jouissance in itself. But to speak of jouissance itself is another matter
Catherine Clément

These days
                             ecstasy eludes me
like much else

Winter trees –
                             observe their delicate symmetry
                                                                                             the architecture of their bodies stripped bare
of any artifice

My love, strip me bare
                                             see how tiny I’ve become
                                                                                                a bird without wings

the bones of my rib cage showing through for you

Let us reach skyward again like those trees
                                                                                             as pale light emanates from the sun

                                                         Scribble of a cloud

the clarity of cold

                                       This opening this page    a white space

                                                                                                                             an envelope to slip me in gently

Syncope, a moment of disruption – let us fall into this temporary dispossession

                                      return to see the real world look strange

JENNIFER LEE TSAI is a poet, critic and editor. A fellow of The Complete Works and a Ledbury Poetry Critic, she is also a Contributing Editor to Ambit. Her debut poetry pamphlet is Kismet (ignitionpress). In 2019, she was awarded an AHRC scholarship to undertake doctoral research in Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Liverpool.