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Translator's Note: The Chinese Mother’s Lullaby


I chose to translate this poem by Biddy Jenkinson because, while achingly lyrical and mesmerically beautiful in the original Irish, its lyricism goes hand in hand with a very sinister subject matter.

Having, like the poet herself, brought four children to adulthood, I still find the whole subject of the socialization of young people a genuine conundrum. Mine were each so different, the proverbial chalk and cheese, that what worked for one would have been an absolute disaster for another. I know well that all children appreciate structure, but I still have enough of an ineradicable anarchic streak in me to bridle when faced with anything enforced.

I know socialization is necessary, because, pace Margaret Thatcher, we all live in societies. Each society also has a taboo area, a funny bone, a cultural hot spot, which you criticize at your peril. In Ireland it used to be the Catholic Church, in Turkey the army or Kemal Ataturk, in Switzerland it was the banks, in Israel the Palestinian question. So long as you kept off these subjects you could have very interesting conversations, but woe betide you if you had the temerity to be critical of the status quo on these issues. All hell broke loose. You could find yourself ostracized or even in jail.

Even this may be all very well. But what if a society ascribes to, or even enshrines, behavior that many would accept as grievously inimical to basic human rights, such as we now see "suttee" as it used to be practiced in India, footbinding in China, or to this very day female circumcision in parts of Africa? And we don't have to trawl through exotic locations in time or space to find cases in point, what with the terror caused by the totalitarian regimes of Fascism and Communism, or even the MacCarthy witch hunt against the latter in the last century. Not to mention the excesses of nationalistic and dictatorial regimes around the world to this very day. How much right does one have, as a parent, to inculcate in children attitudes that will make their life easy, instead of, as the apocryphal Chinese curse has it, interesting?

This poem lays no blame on the mother. It doesn't preach. But her moving incantations as unreliable narrator are as damning an indictment of all insults to personal liberty as I have yet to come upon.—NND


This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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