We're excited to announce the first issue of a new online magazine of art and poetry: Decals of Desire. The founding editor is British artist and poet Rupert Mallin, and the poetry editor is British poet Martin Stannard, who lives and works in China (and who has been a guest here).
Martin Stannard used to edit joe soap’s canoe, a UK magazine that was the first in the UK to draw heavily upon the New York School, publishing among others Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Paul Violi, Charles North, and Tony Towle. One can expect a similar taste to show up in Decals of Desire.
The first issue demonstrates its commitment to both the visual and the written, and kicks off in stunning fashion by featuring 8 collages by John Ashbery, as well as a poem, and extracts from Ashbery’s 1968 essay on the avant-garde. Among other writers featured in the issue are Ron Padgett, Sharon Mesmer and Mark Halliday from the U.S., Ian Seed and Alan Baker from the UK, and Mairéad Byrne, who was born in Ireland, emigrated to the U.S., and now appears to be travelling…. But it’s not all “poetry”. There’s even a short play in there. Variety is almost all.
In terms of the visual arts, Decals of Desire will look back but also across to traditional, experimental and off-the-wall art forms today.
Featured in the first issue is the work of contemporary landscape painter Martin Laurance. Laurance’s work captures the crumbling English coastline through dramatic, captivating studies. The magazine also reviews The British Art Show touring exhibition – a show that claims to represent the “most dynamic” art produced in Britain today, but which probably doesn’t. There is sculpture, too: sculpture of the 20th century is often viewed in terms of form and mass. Decals of Desire outlines how sculptor Alberto Giacometti dealt primarily in scale and human distance.
Other articles include a sideways look at the Turner Prize 2016. Back in 1999 Tracy Emin turned the prize into prime time TV viewing but didn’t win. Will a female artist win this year? And whither the Avant-Garde? In this piece evidence of its existence and withering is found in contemporary dance and the ‘NO Manifesto.’ And in each issue an unusual artistic technique will be explored and the side streets of modern art history revisited.
Decals of Desire can be found at https://decalsofdesire.blogspot.com.
We're already looking forward to Issue 2, which will include a review of the Abstract Expressionism exhibition at the Royal Academy, an exploration of Catalan Contemporary Art, the Anglo-French Art Centre 1945-51 plus an abundance of poetry and regular columns – featured artists, Decals DIY and more.
Decals of Desire does not accept unsolicited manuscripts or poetry submissions.
"Now, what was it I had to do today?"
Now, I haven't been out yet - kept awake half the night by last night's epic thunderstorm, which has incidentally flooded half of London and the Southeast - but when I got up my social media was full of people talking about their voting experiences, and I've taken, as fast as possible which isn't that fast,a little sampling of the more interesting ones.
This may look one-sided. Very unfortunately, that is because I am not happy to relay the messages of the Leave side. Most of them just look like, if the person was talking to you, they'd be shouting in your face, turning red and spitting when they talk. And they just reel off these insane, incorrect 'facts'. Someone posted up an absurd leaflet that UKIP was circulating in Hemel Hempstead (a prosperous north London suburb):
So most of this is going to be more positive, like this:
Despite the rain
Grab your brolly
"I am off to vote for the first time in my life. Having been raised to believe in equality for all and helping my fellow man, woman and child, it seems my apathy has been overtaken by a desire not to let the LEAVE campaign win."
"I got a bit tearful in the voting booth. Feels so monumentally important."
"Voted and almost shaking as I posted the ballot paper through the ballot box. I voted Remain."
The poet Sean O'Brien on his trip to vote:
"A polling station in a community centre in North Tyneside at about 8.15 am. Bright sunshine. The usual slow-but-steady traffick, mainly of older people who always vote.The usual atmosphere of helpful, slightly embarrassed good humour among the officials, as if the whole business of democracy is slightly implausible. The sort of scene Orwell might have included in his catalogue of English moments. And next to all the electoral documents, a copy of The Daily Mail. This is presumably entirely accidental and coincidental. On the way back I meet a couple of neighbours alarmed at the possibility of a vote to leave. One of them says despairingly of her friends, 'I never knew so many of them were just so...so STUPID.' Let's hope she's wrong."
George Monbiot, the green journalist:
"I went over my cross several times just to make sure. I've never done that before."
A teacher: "The children at school all hugely energised by today's referendum and making cogent arguments for both sides - but the most compelling one of all was this:
Spain is in the EU.
Spain produces lots of strawberries.
Everyone loves strawberries.
"I voted at 7am. There was a stream of people as I left the estate where the polling place was. With 3-or-so-yards (sorry, metres) between them.
I then went shopping. I encouraged a woman worker in Sainsbury's to vote, even though she was going to vote Leave...
Mulling it all on the way back (the rain had almost stopped) I decided it the act of voting was more important than what you vote for. I think that should be sold big-time."
"After the gym I am going to try to help Labour campaign and redeem myself for having been so pathetic over the past months.
A first toe in the water."
An unnamed poet: "Off to vote LEAVE. No longer will this Proud Brit be shackled to the corpse of a tyrant bent on stealing our worglesnurfs." (Then: "Just breaking up the monotony of my newsfeed.")
"I have heartburn."
"[Hipster] Clapton is full of middle-class folks swanning about like they've taken the day off to vote."
"A friend's mother-in-law was leaning Leave but decided to poll her teenage grand-children and vote their wishes, as 'it's their world I'm voting on, I won't be living in it'."
A cartoon by Stephen Collins, not new but apt, illustrates the character of Michael Gove years before he made his now--famous remark last week that, "I think people in this country have had enough of experts." Used with permission; click for full size.
Editing in with two more stories:
"Conversation with Muslim owner behind the counter in the local shop: 'I'm voting leave,' he said.' You'll think a stupid reason. I don't like Turkey. I don't like Pakistan either. If Turkey joins they'll bomb England and and England throw out all the Muslims. And Pakistan, I don't like her, whatever her name is ... Wasi something?'
"I did say I didn't think Pakistan would be joining the EU anytime soon. I also said we shared intelligence about terrorists with the rest of Europe - which has prevented attacks - and it is almost impossible that the UK would decide to banish all our Muslims even after an attack. I said I was an immigrant and he said his father was an immigrant. He then announced very quickly that he'd changed his mind and he promised to vote Remain. But maybe he was just humouring me."
And a other friend says on the phone that as he left the polling station this morning, in leafy south London, he saw an elderly lady hobbling slowly along, shaking her head. As he went past her he could hear her, muttering over and over to herself: 'I still don't know if I've done the right thing...
Off out. More later. (And Sean O'Brien adds, just now: "I'm trying to spend the day working in order to stay calm, but I can feel another observation coming on.")
The Day Before the Referendum
Today is the day before the UK goes out to vote in a (thankfully) once-in-a-lifetime referendum on whether to leave the EU, or to remain in it. The atmosphere of the past few weeks has been toxic and growing more so, and it builds on certain types of toxicity that have been implanted in the national rhetoric throughout the tenure of the current government. The drift to the far right is not just America's problem; it's global. After a coalition government and then a brutal election campaign in 2010, in which the Conservative party tried to portray itself as caring, the rhetoric has drifted further and further to the right. The much-vaunted 'austerity' needed to get us over the crash of 2008 is still in place even though seemingly every economist in the world has said it won't work, can't work. But somehow, though people have even been dying as a result of its policies, the rich are getting richer and richer. And in the meantime, the rhetoric against immigrants has become somehow actually mainstream.
The idea of leaving the EU (the so-called 'Euro-sceptic' movement) has been around for decades. Certainly it has been the fond fantasy of many a conservative politician, though they are always vague on what they would do after. The economists are more of less united in saying that even though we are the world's fifth-largest economy, this is largely because of the EU and the City of London, and that if e left we would be plunged into a new, ten-year recession.
The country is becoming polarised in a way no one can remember since the darkest days of Margaret Thatcher: the Falklands War, the year-long miners' strike, the poll tax riots.
I'll be talking a little about that over the next few days, but for now here is a little meditation on the idea of Europe as an entity in the modern world, seen through the medium of an unassuming little typewriter. The European Union was begun after the Second World War as a way to keep European countries talking to each other, to create a shared purpose, enable cultural understanding, and prevent another war. Notwithstanding the wars that have admittedly raged round its edges in the Balkans, and the continuing heavy breathing of Russia, the bulk of the continent has had its first 70 consecutive years of peace since Ancient Rome. To that extent 'Europe' is a huge success. This first post can celebrate that.
The plucky little pan-European typewriter I've typed this post on was made not in 1955, as I write below (I then checked), but in 1950 when the memory of the War was still raw. England still had rationing in 1950 (and we're now in our sixth year of 'austerity' once again). And I'll leave it there. Now, for its soothing, imprinted, fixed-space characters...
Katy Evans-Bush is a New York-born poet and blogger who has spent most of her life in London. Author of two collections with Salt Publishing, her latest book is Forgive the Language, a collection of essays published by Penned in the Margins. Find her at baroqueinhackney.com
Thank you, Katy.
On the night of April 16-17, 1941, the Luftwaffe conducted a raid over London. Several hours after midnight, two bombs fell into Jermyn Street, causing extensive damage and killing 23 people. One of the victims, a well-known professional entertainer named Al Bowlly, had declined the offer of overnight lodgings in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, after having performed there the previous evening, preferring to catch the last train home. He was in bed reading when the parachute bomb went off outside his apartment building. His bedroom door, blown off its hinges by the force of the explosion, was propelled across the room, hitting him in the face and killing him instantly. He was 42 years old.
Though he is still well remembered in Britain, Al Bowlly’s name is not widely known here. Many know it only as a reference in the title and lyrics of Richard Thompson’s song “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven” (from which my title is taken), on his 1986 album Daring Adventures. Yet, for every American who knows his name, there are scores who have heard Al Bowlly’s music. His recording of Noël Coward’s “Twentieth Century Blues” was used over the main titles of the 1968 BBC miniseries (shown here on PBS in 1972) made from Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point. Stanley Kubrick used Bowlly’s “Midnight, the Stars and You” and “It’s All Forgotten Now” in The Shining (1980), and Steven Spielberg featured his “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” in Empire of the Sun (1987). Al Bowlly songs have been used in films as recent as The King’s Speech (2010) and Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight (2014). Everything Is Copy, Jacob Bernstein’s documentary film about his mother, Nora Ephron, which premiered on HBO premiere only four weeks ago, concludes with Bowlly’s “Love Is the Sweetest Thing” playing over the closing credits.
But beyond all doubt, the one person most responsible for keeping the name and music of Al Bowlly alive was the late Dennis Potter, whose enthusiasm for the singer bordered on the obsessive. In fact, Potter’s 1969 teleplay Moonlight on the Highway (the title of a 1938 Bowlly recording) starred Ian Holm as a sexual abuse victim whose own obsession with Bowlly becomes a psychological coping mechanism. Potter made use of Bowlly’s music in several other television dramas and serials, including his last major work, The Singing Detective (1986), but it is Pennies from Heaven (1978), the six-part series that is universally acknowledged to be Potter’s masterpiece, that makes the most prominent use of Al Bowlly’s records, fourteen songs in all. Long before we knew one another, my wife, Vicky, watched it when it was broadcast on PBS and was overwhelmed by both the drama and the music—so much so that she flew from New York to London shortly thereafter, partly to visit her then-favorite city, but principally to find, in those pre-Amazonian days, the otherwise unobtainable soundtrack LP. Years later, it was through her insistence that I watch the series that I discovered Al Bowlly.
A shilling life—there have been several—will give you all the facts, and so, nowadays, will a number of Internet sources. Born to Lebanese and Greek parents in Mozambique, Albert Alick Bowlly grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. Though trained as a barber, he spent his middle twenties touring various Asian countries as a singer with several bands. In 1927 he made his way to Germany, of all places, and in Berlin on August 18 of that year he made the first of what would be more than one thousand recordings, a performance of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” (which, like a good deal of his work, is available on YouTube). The start of the 1930s brought his breakthrough, when he began recording with the superb Ray Noble Orchestra and singing live with the band at the Monseigneur Restaurant, led first by Roy Fox, later—and brilliantly—by Lew Stone. The first half of that decade saw more than half of his entire recorded output. At the time, singers tended to be anonymous members of the bands with which they performed, but he became so popular that his name began to be featured on show posters and record labels. His wave crested in mid-decade, and after two years in the United States and recurring vocal problems, he wound up touring throughout Britain and recording when he could with a variety of orchestras. But, complicating the inevitable speculation about what would have happened if he had not been killed, the quality of his work remained undiminished. Among his most striking records are jazz settings of two Shakespeare songs, “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” and “It Was a Lover and His Lass,” which he cut with Ken “Snakehips” Johnson and His West Indian Orchestra a year before his death.
The best treatment of Bowlly’s art that I know of is the long entry in Will Friedwald’s Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (2010), a vast, opinionated, astonishingly informed, and frequently hilarious compendium. Friedwald calls Bowlly “one of the finest swinging jazz singers of any era, and like Django Reinhardt, one of the first Europeans to understand the blues…. He also was, like Armstrong and Crosby, a clear predecessor of Sinatra’s Swingin’ Lover style.” Needless to say, in a catalogue of a thousand recordings, there are many that are not worth listening to a second time—or, in rare instances, even a first time. Bowlly recorded his share of throwaway ditties and banal ballads, and outside of his work with Noble and Stone and the sides he cut with his longtime piano accompanist Monia Liter, many otherwise fine performances are hampered by off-the-rack arrangements. Yet from the beginning to the end of his recording career, Bowlly’s singing is consistently excellent. His clear phrasing, unerring rhythm, and warm yet flinty voice are unmistakable on every number. Friedwald concludes: “Bowlly is simply one of the finest spirits ever captured on record. With his slightly husky timbre that anticipates Tony Bennett as much as it echoes Crosby, he is a genuine, three-dimensional personality that speaks to us across the generations on shellac surfaces that spin at 78 rpm. Journalists at the time tended to use the term ‘crooner’ and ‘jazz singer’ as if they were interchangeable. In later years, this was proven not to be apt, but, in Bowlly’s work, the two roles are one and the same.”
If you don’t know Al Bowlly’s music but your curiosity has now been piqued, I advise you to take this simple test. Go to YouTube and listen to the following: “All I Do Is Dream of You,” “Love Is the Sweetest Thing,” “Over the Rainbow,” and the stunning “My Woman.” It will take about ten minutes, and, in all likelihood, one of two things will happen. Either you will decide that you simply don’t carry the gene for Al Bowlly or else you will be instantly hooked, a lifelong fan. My money is on the second one.
 Sid Colin and Tony Staveacre, Al Bowlly (London: Elm Tree Books, 1979); Ray Pallett, Goodnight Sweetheart: Life and Times of Al Bowlly (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount Ltd, 1986); Ray Pallett: They Called Him Al: The Musical Life of Al Bowlly (Duncan, OK: BearManor Media, 2010; this volume contains a complete discography).
 Several two-disc Bowlly sets are available on CD. The one in AVC’s Essential Collection series (2007) is the most comprehensive, and also has the highest proportion of top-drawer material. For those who want more, there is The Al Bowlly Collection (2013; four discs, 100 tracks).
Tuesday morning, December 2, I flew back to Phoenix after six weeks in France. For most of that time, I was in Marnay-sur-Seine, a village an hour southeast of Paris, but I had early on reserved a room in the city for my last night, which as it happens was about a block and a half from the Bataclan. Monday evening, walking back to the hotel from dinner, we saw a crowd of reporters and many many police vans parked in front of the concert hall, and moments later, Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, in town for the opening of the UN Climate Talks, arrived in a small motorcade. He stepped out, made a sort of awkward silent survey of the crowd, and placed a single white rose on the pile of flowers and notes and candles that continues to grow. (Continues: I was also in Paris one week earlier, and had to walk from the Gare de l’Est to the Gare de Lyon, a route that permitted me to visit the Place de la République, and to follow the Rue Voltaire, and to pass the Bataclan—sites where (and very near where) murder had happened and where memorial was happening: it had rained, the candles were mostly out, people were putting their signs and letters in plastic report covers to preserve them (“Long live life!” “We are all the same!” “Everyone against hate!” “Solidarity with refugees!”); the flowers were limp and damp, and between November 21, that first visit, and November 30, my second, the offerings kept growing and spreading higher and deeper.) Tsipras seemed uncomfortable, he looked around helplessly, he got back in the car. Maybe it all took 90 seconds.
Just before I saw him, I’d walked up the alley that I’d seen in a video the day after the attacks: you may’ve seen it too: a Le Monde reporter across the street films the side wall of the Bataclan, where for a while a woman is hanging by her fingertips above the street. One watches it thinking she is going to fall two stories onto bodies lying beneath her in the road. Then someone pulls her back up inside, but you can still hear shots in there. It’s awful. Two weeks later, there was a cardboard sign below the window where that woman had held on with just her hands, a sign reminding passers-by that the French values of liberty, equality, and fraternity had been fought for and forged with acts of terrorism. A small crowd had gathered to read it. The sign was not removed or damaged, as I think it would’ve been in the States. People read, they looked at the flowers, they walked on.
The response to the attacks most everywhere I went over the last weeks was both somber and bracingly, defiantly life-affirming. Also, people seem sure that such attacks will continue. In the posters and letters left at the memorials and in all my conversations, I saw much less anger and xenophobia than I expected. I was struck by the French sense that the only way to reject—or refuse the rejection, the annihilation enacted by the killers—is not by negative but positive means: let’s go out, let’s live, let’s love each other (and ‘each other’ struck me as very broadly defined—I know that the far right has tried to make divisive use of the attacks, and yet what I almost exclusively saw was a resolute and passionate commitment to multicultural—vibrantly cultural—France, reinforced now by the national electoral rejection of the National Front). In Marnay, a tiny town whose residents completely seduced me in their sidestepping of American-style consumerism, in their deliberate collaborations on happiness—embracing the arts, taking care of the community, cooking together, hatching business plans for endeavors that will keep the parties afloat and (also, especially) contribute some loveliness to Marnay itself—they are making their lives with all the emphasis on quality of relationship not quantity of consumption.
On the morning of France’s national memorial, November 27, Marnay’s mayor, Nicole Domec, had invited everyone in town to come to city hall to watch the proceedings together. Just over twenty people came. Nicole wore a sash in the colors of the Republic, as did her vice-mayor, and there was much kissing and handshaking and warmth in the greetings as we (both visitors and long-time town residents) assembled in a semi-circle around a flat-screen television. Nicole welcomed us, explained her belief that in watching the memorial together, we were reaffirming the crucial values of the nation. About ten minutes into the televised ceremony, the door burst open and a black cat pranced in, jumped up on the windowsill, and began to preen. A girl of 10 or 11 looked at her mom, looked at the cat, and went to carry it outside.
The cat spent the rest of the hour trying to return to us, pressure at the door, scratching at the wall. As the ceremony concluded, the crowd at Invalides in Paris began to sing the Marseillaise on tv. A few lines in, someone in our little room began to sing too, and then we all did, together, not resoundingly but in quiet, shaken, mournful voices. I learned that song probably in junior high, always found it a little scary, actually—and stirring—and as we sang in the stone council room I thought of a line from the speech Hollande had just delivered: that we would be faithful to the very idea of France, which he then defined as an “art de vivre” and a fierce desire to be together. After we sang, we kissed each other again, and confirmed plans or embraced friends or thanked the officiants (probably all of the above)—See you later. See you soon.
It began as quickly and unexpectedly as falling down a rabbit hole, or passing through a mirror—an e-mail arrived, out of the blue, from one of the previous holders of the position, the critic Christopher Ricks. The subject line was “An Inquiry,” and it was characteristically brief:
“It came to me that you would be an excellent professor of poetry at Oxford. (Geoffrey Hill has not long to go.) Would this possibility interest you?”
An American poet day-dreams of course about certain prizes, recognition, or positions, however implausible, but the Oxford Professor of Poetry simply is not one of them—it seems such the exclusive purview of British and Irish men. In its 300 years, it has never gone to a woman or indeed as far as I am aware, to anyone outside of the British Isles. It had never crossed my mind.
But I said yes I’d give it a go, and we were off.
All at once, I found myself in a sort of Wonderland, and in a horse race (I would say a caucus-race, but not everyone will be able to demand prizes), as well as a literary-political game of chess. I was standing in a unique election, a mixture of that rarest of things, direct democracy, and one of the most rarefied: only Oxford graduates (and other members of Convocation) may vote. The position was established in 1708 by Henry Birkhead, who founded it on the notion that “the reading of the ancient poets gave keenness and polish to the minds of young men.” It was originally only open to clergymen from Merton.
According to The Guardian, “Soyinka’s backers have been keen to stress that they consider the post more like an honour to be bestowed than a job to be applied for.” I want to say the exact opposite—yet that’s too facile. Maybe instead the office could be described as an honor to be applied for, a job to be bestowed. For all its grandeur and prestige, the post is, in essence, the oldest and first Poet in Residence in education. Certainly I have been applying very hard since the middle of March.
Numerous rules have been changed since the scandal-ridden election of 2009. To get on the ballot used to require only a dozen nominators with Oxford degrees; now it takes fifty. We hunted after the requisite nominators for a couple of weeks (among them Tobias Wolff, Christopher Ricks of course, Adrian McKinty, Chlo Aridjis), followed up on their filling out and mailing of the nominator form (which could not be scanned or faxed), and collated before sending them to the Election office. In an abundance of caution, we ended up with 73.
Perhaps the most significant change to the process, however, is that in the last election on-line voting was introduced. (The use of paper ballots was costly, and one had to vote in person.) Overseas voters were a factor last time, but this time will be, I think, more so. It remains to be seen how social media and the internet will change the nature of the election. I suspect surprises lie in store.
It’s been an intense roller coaster too: reaching out to the press, reading virulent blog posts (note to self—do not read the comments), asking major academics and writers for support. But also exciting, even moving--generous endorsements from publications such as the TLS, and highly-regarded and popular critics such as Mary Beard and Amanda Foreman. You learn who your friends are (and foes) in the literary community. You might tower over the treetops, or find yourself at the bottom of a treacle well, three or four times a day. My immensely supportive husband, John Psaropoulos, who is a Greek journalist (though UK citizen) already run off his feet with the “crisis,” has had to do a lot more cooking than usual and more supervising of long division at homework time. I have been living for months on a diet of jittery adrenaline and arcane Oxford gossip.
The principal job requirement is a lecture a term, though the professor should also do something else—a reading, workshop, meeting with students. But the qualifications (the candidate “must be of sufficient distinction to be able to fulfill the duties of the post”) and job description (“to participate in the wider intellectual life of the English faculty to encourage the production and appreciation of poetry”) are vague; the job is yours to define. Being a poet is not a requirement, and indeed some of the best professors have been critics. The current holder, Geoffrey Hill, a vigorous octogenarian, has been delivering rousing old-testament jeremiads to standing ovations. As a matter of policy, however, he does not meet with students. Seamus Heaney, who was professor when I was in residence, delivered compelling and humane talks; it turns out you could book an appointment to meet with him and discuss your poems, but either I didn’t know it at the time, or I couldn’t work up the nerve. Other professors, Robert Graves and W. H. Auden for instance, would meet students at cafes or pubs. I would aim to be a Professor in that approachable mold. And I would hope that, as the first woman, and maybe almost as important, the first American apart from the naturalized citizen W. H. Auden (Rober Lowell lost to Edmund Blunden in 1966), I would also serve as an encouragement to others.
Most of all I kept thinking, as I wandered through Oxford this past week (I was there to give a reading at Rhodes House), what a curious and curiouser turn of events the whole matter was. As a young and insecure American graduate student twenty years ago, Oxford intimidated me: I felt awkward, that I didn’t belong, I was out of my element. Now I seemed to be collegially accepted, claimed even, staying at the Lodgings of the Principal of my old college, collaborating in the campaign with my former tutor, having a strategic coffee in the Senior Common Room in Christ Church, meeting with students at the Eagle and Child (watering hole of the Inklings—C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, etc.), attending a dinner at high table. Had I made it somehow, a pale anonymous pawn, to the far end of the chessboard?
Walking through the gorgeous gardens of Lady Margaret Hall, in their full glory at the beginning of June, by the banks of the Cherwell fringed with doilies of Queen Anne’s lace, I was ambushed by a bewildering mixture of melancholy and joy, gratitude and wonder. I would sometimes take a turn on the path and feel a stab of—not of nostalgia, since surely a place of brief sojourn in my youth could not be called home—but chronalgia, as if the soul of the young woman aspiring to be a poet, and the soul of the poet I had become, passed right through each other, coming and going.
It’s been disappointing to see that one major English newspaper in particular has made a narrative out of a two-man race—which I suppose is true in the sense that the two front-runners are men. But it is also an exciting and historic time for women in Oxford. The university recently appointed its first female Vice Chancellor (nothing Vice about it—this is the head of the university), in the Oxford’s eight-hundred some-odd years. And St. Benet’s Hall, the last all-male college, just voted to admit female students for the first time. Maybe good things come in threes.
It’s been a wild ride, full of thrills and confusion, bemusement and vexations, anxiety and hope. But anything is possible as we run round and round towards the finish line. With only days to go before the end of voter registration, and only three weeks until the end of the election, right now my odds at Ladbrokes are five to one.
A. E. Stallings, Athens
(ed note: Find out how to register and vote for A. E. Stallings here.)
There’s a new Language Movement in town.
I remember when Charles and Bruce began publishing L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, how their writing made me think of language in a new way. Whether I’m in Australia, or on a reservation in South Dakota, when people say they are talking “in Language,” what I know is that they’re talking in their Mother Tongue. To these folks, English is not Language, English is the way you get along. Language is who you are, words that have been passed down through generations.
“Language Matters” is the first nationwide media recognition of the Language Crisis, which is not just about languages, but cultural diversity. It’s about global homogenization, the Pringleization of society, about cultures being steamrollered under globalization. The growing call to action for language preservation is a drive to see the cultures of the world through a lens of understanding and respect, of seeing the world through a cultural lens, not just a political one. The problem is that in this era of the consciousness of literacy, in this world of hard science, endangered languages and cultures are disadvantaged; if you don’t have the quantification, the metrics, you don’t really have something to say. Quantifying languages is complex (I’d like to say impossible, but I can’t). This is where the poets come in.
Four years ago, when we started “Language Matters,” people were saying there were 7,000 languages in the world. Now there are 6,000, not because we’ve lost that many languages, but because now that these numbers are really starting to count for something on the political table, linguists are beginning to hedge. It’s hard to know exactly how many languages there are, and harder to enumerate speakers. It’s not like counting the number of pandas. In the prologue to the motion poem “Khonsay,” where each line from a different endangered/minority language, we split the difference, say there are 6,500. And the reason I used the “endangered/minority” construct is because linguists also disagree on the at-risk level of many many languages.
When I was in Wales asking people if they spoke Welsh, there were people with a junior high level of vocabulary who were quite proud that they could speak Welsh. Others, who were absolutely fluent, said they couldn’t really speak it. They were hanging out with people who were born into the language, who knew more slang.
The only thing everyone agrees with is that huge numbers of languages, languages that have been around, usually, for millennia, are dying out right now.
When I tell people we’re losing half the languages on the planet by the end of this century, unless we do something about it, they never ask “how many languages is that, exactly?” Instead, their reactions are always “yes, let’s do something about it.” And again, this is why I think that participating in the Language Movement, helping to protect all languages, is part of the job of the poet in 2015. It’s a movement to protect the diversity of languages in the world. A movement to give respect to all languages. A movement to appreciate that each language has its own poetry, and is an important part of an Ecology of Consciousness.
Digital Consciousness connects us all. But are we listening to each other? Are we respecting each other’s traditions? It’s great to have “Language Matters” find its way out into the world, four years after David Grubin and I had that lunch. When I was working on “The United States of Poetry” with Mark Pellington and Joshua Blum, Josh, who gave me a dictum about TV that I’ll never forget. “The first rule of making a television program, is to get it on television.” The national broadcast of “Language Matters on PBS is the end of that quest, of that story.
Which means it’s the beginning of the journey. Now that people have seen the show, what about the call to activism inherent in it? So I ask all you poets out there to live like Natalie Diaz, and help your own Language find its way into the world. And if that Language happens to be English, well then you don’t understand the part about what Language is. Help me get this program into places where languages are struggling to survive and a screening of the film will give cred to the work. Find languages around you and learn from them. Take seriously the role of the poet as a protector of language, not just a user.
There’s nothing like writing a poem, to take words, each one with its own history, multiple meanings, and build a sculpture of meaning. It’s a gift, the words that come to us. People have sparked these sounds, people have laid down their lives for their continuation—language is the essence of humanity, and poetry is the essence of language.
Working with linguists has allowed me to see language from the other side. The collaboration of science and art is good for everybody. If you never could understand the people who come up to you and say they can’t understand poetry, I recommend your going to a linguistics conference and try to understand what those people are talking about!
But to me that’s what the future holds. Sit through a lecture in a language you don’t understand, listen to the poetry of a language you’re trying to learn, place yourself in a situation where English is useless, learn what Language really is. This is the clarion call of our time. This is why Language Matters.
Put earbud in west ear
Put other earbud in east ear
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice
Recorded yesterday, Mt Borredale,
In Amardak, you’re the Last Speaker
Hear? Your voice doesn’t sound so good
You sang good, but the recording was no good
Could you sing now, Charlie, please?
Charlie nods. Charlie listens
Clapsticks, didj, now your voice, please - Now
Now Charlie listens
OK Charlie, we need you to sing Now
Charlie nods and listens
Now Charlie listens
Cue Charlie – listens
Jamesy tells Charlie
Get headphone splitter
Jamesy puts on headphones
Charlie and Jamesy listen
Clapsticks, didj. Charlie’s voice
Jamesy sings a little
Jamesy looks at Charlie
Charlie looks at Jamesy
OK? Charlie listens
OK, Jamesy now speak Iwaidja with Charlie
OK, Charlie listens, Charlie nods
OK Jamesy looks at Charlie
OK clapsticks in fingers
OK Charlie listens, didj
OK now. Now Charlie sings
Asking Charlie Mangulda, the Last Speaker of Amurdak, to overdub his performance from the sacred site of Mt. Borradale, was one of the most complex and unnerving directorial moves—to me, not to him—I’ve ever had to do. John Tranter, our local sound guy, is just a dynamite practitioner. But recording Charlie’s voice, two, cracking clapstick players, and a bulbous didgeridoo on a cave’s platform under an ancient painting of a Rainbow Serpent, proved to be too much for our top-of-the-line digital equipment. This poem tells the story. I won’t repeat it. I won’t even tell you what Ma barang! means, I’m sure you already know. And if you don’t know, then you really do already know.
What I do want to talk about, briefly, is the opening lines. In Amurdak, Charlie’s language, is one of the very few instances where you can actually see a difference in consciousnesses between languages. The idea that some languages are more primitive than others is simply cultural prejudice: you can say anything in any language, and every language has a full syntax and grammatology. But in Amurdak, Charlie doesn’t know his left from his right. This concept, which until the 1960s was thought to be universal, actually doesn’t exist in a few languages. The way Charlie designates direction is simply and solely through cardinal directions. And it’s been shown that it doesn’t matter where speakers of these languages are placed, they are automatically oriented to the compass points, so that they can say of the choices, “I’ll take the one on the southwest.”
Now, you could infer from this that Amurdak people don’t see themselves, each one, as the center of the universe, where left and right is always and only consistent to the person speaking. Instead, the Amurdak people—or in this case, Charlie, the Last Speaker—is simply a point standing somewhere on Earth. But that’s just an inference. Or maybe a poem.
One more thing before we close. When Charlie was translating the creation myth of Warramurrungunji, he listed the dozen or so languages that the Goddess dropped, thus bringing humans to the place she had created. Somehow, under the disturbing lights of the camera, with the intrusion of the microphone, Charlie remembered three words of a language that linguist Nick Evans, an expert on cultures of Northern Australia, didn’t know he could speak. And when Charlie mentioned Wurdirrk and gave Nick some words, it was the first time that this language has ever been recorded. That’s correct. I think this was The Apotheosis of the whole shoot of “Language Matters.” I could see the headline in the Times: Documentary Crew Discovers Lost Language.
The words Charlie spoke translate to: “I want to listen to you,” “yam-digging tool,” and “give me fire.” The first thing that was apparent to Nick from these three words is that they are unlike any other language, which means Wurdirrk is not a dialect—without these words, we never would have known that.
As a poet, I’d like to say one more thing about the words. If you triangulate from them, what you have is a whole culture. “I want to listen to you,” the essence of the community. “Yam-digging tool,” the basis of the community’s relationship with the earth and it also means “digging deeply into the meaning of something.” And “give me fire,” the essence of light, of heat, a great song title, and the best joke in the book.
For “gimme fire,” I envisioned Charlie as a little boy, these strange people coming out of the darkness late at night, shivering and cold, needing some of this precious fire for light and heat. Later, Charlie would give me the deeper meaning of this idiom. Hey buddy, you got a match?
“Foneddigion a Boneddigesau! Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd!” The Welsh is slow and halting, pried off the page, the performance knowing and with flair. If I do say so myself.
I am saying it myself.
It’s me. On stage. Stomp, 2012, Vale of Glamorgan, Cymru (Welsh for “Wales”).
The Stomp (Y Stomp, in Welsh), is the National Poetry Slam of Wales. It is part of the annual Eisteddfod, the national cultural festival of all things Welsh. As I say in “Language Matters,” “It’s a lot like the state fairs in the US, except that instead of prizes for pies or pigs, the prizes are for poetry.”
The first Eisteddfod was in 1176, when Lord Rhys invited poets and musicians from all over the country to compete for a seat at his table. You could sing for your supper, and then get fed. Winning was an entree into the house of the Lords, and a golden meal ticket for the winning poet. The chair you pulled up to the table was a special Bard’s Chair, and to this day, the prize for the winning poet in the Formal Category is a Chair. Hand-carved by an artisan, the winner gets to take the Chair home, sit in it, and write more poems. In Welsh.
For me, as usual, the whole thing started at the Bowery Poetry Club, when we hosted readings by Welsh poets as part of the Peoples Poetry Gatherings, 2002-03. That’s where I began to feel the intensity around this ancient Celtic language. Whenever I bring up Welsh in New York, the response is invariably, “Well, what about Irish?” While the Irish fought and gained political independence, they did so in English. The Irish language is now much more endangered than Welsh. The Welsh never fought for independence, but rather cultural parity, and today Welsh is considered the only endangered language to have come off the endangered language list. It’s a success story by any metric, which is why it got its place in “Language Matters.”
One of the poets I met at the Club is Grahame Davies, who writes in both Welsh and English, and whose work and being was crucial in my decision to study Welsh. Grahame lives the fire and rigor needed to keep this ancient language alive. The fire is contagious, and to prepare for the film, I flew to Wales and began my own formal and informal study of the language.
Grahame picked me up at the Caerdydd (Cardiff) Airport, and we headed for breakfast with Elinor Robson of the Welsh Language Society. I confessed my dream to them, and we all laughed over a full Welsh. What? I, who didn’t even know enough to fly to Manchion (Manchester) to get to Gog Gymru (North Wales), who couldn’t say Blaenau Ffestiniog (the slate-mining town where I live in Wales), let alone spell it, who hadn’t even met Dewi Prysor! was proposing that I participate in next year’s Stomp! I, who didn’t know from “hwyl” (aloha), was going to write and perform a poem in Welsh -- all for this documentary I was making for PBS.
And as you now can see on the front page of the live-stream at PBS.org, the fantasy came real, all duded up in lucky Tibetan cap and Mexican guayabera, taking on all comers at Stomp 2012. “Ladies and Gentlemen! My first line of cynghanedd!” I am saying, to translate the first words of this post. And it really was the first cynghanedd I ever wrote.
In the film, the line is followed by a raucous audience response, Stomp cards held high—unlike the U.S. Slam, at the Stomp the audience is the judge, and they judge by holding up different colored cards to indicate their favorite poet. Watch as I collect a brotherly hug from Dewi, my mentor, friend and Stomp opponent, also an award-winning novelist and Stomp-winning poet, whose current job is translating episodes of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” into Welsh.
The cynghanedd is what separates formal Welsh poetry from free verse; in fact, it is what separates Welsh poetry from any other poetry in the world. There are six different forms of cynghanedd, and to win the Chair, you must write a poem that includes sections written in each. Each form has its own rules, here’s a general description the poetic device Marerid Hopwood, in her handbook Singing in Chains: Listening to Welsh Verse, describes as “consonant chime :” to create a cynghanedd , a line is divided into three sections, a double caesura. The middle section is thrown out. The two sections left, must have all their consonants (except the last) match up. In other words, the vowels, and of course in Welsh, Y and W are always vowels, are immaterial. The sounds we use to make rhymes don’t count.
Now from here things get a little complex. Sometimes there is internal rhyme, sometimes rhyme line-to-line, sometimes both—but let’s just leave it at that. The extraordinary thing is that a Welsh audience can hear the cynghanedd, applauding an especially good one, and be quite aware of a poet trying to slide something by. As an American poet writing in Welsh, even in the Stomp, to come up with a cynghanedd was quite a feat.
(Hopwood’s title is of course a line from “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. The irony is that while we think of Thomas as the Welsh poet, in Wales he’s often not even considered to be in the top tier. Why? Because he didn’t write in Welsh. In fact, many people think that a lot of Thomas’s power comes from his having heard and digested the sounds and rhythms of Welsh poetry as a youth, and then using these Welsh cynghanedd forms in English. For your further elucidation, another poet who used Welsh forms and sounds was that old Jesuit and inventor of sprung rhythm, Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Quick cut back to breakfast—Grahame and Elinor waving goodbye, I’m training/bussing it to Nant Gwrtheyrn, the Welsh Cultural Center, where I will begin my formal study of Welsh. Flashback to Stanza Poetry Festival in St. Andrews, Scotland, six months before, where another Welsh poet, Sian Melangell Dafydd, replies to my comment that I want to learn Welsh by saying “there’s this magical place in Llyn…” Flash forward to Grahame Davies’ brillant Everything Must Change, a novel that is a mash-up of the Welsh language protests of the 60s with the bio of Simone Weill. Flash further forward to my two weeks’ immersion at Nant where my Welsh teacher Llinos Griffin is prodding the Cymraeg (Welsh language) out of me, saying “You, know, you really should meet Dewi Prysor…”
…And what was your first line of cynghanedd, Bob? you’ve probably been wondering. “Yn ysgwd yn fy esgyrn.” Which, as you can see in “Language Matters,” I learn how to pronounce as I drive our van (my full title: host/driver) through scenic Wales, and which the show’s storyteller/line producer, Sian Taifi, also tries to instill in me by having me sing the words.
Besides Sian, Dewi and Grahame, the film also shows me learning with David Crystal, Europe’s most famous linguist, and Ivor ap Glyn, poet and TV host/producer. The line translates, “I am shaking my bones,” and as you can tell by my rendering, I really was.
The Stomp is a variant of the US Poety Slams, and I’ve done enough Slams to know that grabbing attention at the top is crucial. So I asked Dewi to teach me something that would bust through in case anyone at the Stomp should heckle my mispronunciation or lack of mutations, (Mutations! The bete noir of the Welsh language. Did you notice back a-ways how cynghanedd mutated to gynghanedd? Not a typo! In English and French we often elide one word into another by dropping the last letter: singing to singin’, eg. In Welsh, you “mutate” the first letter of the incoming word, so that, for example, if you are going to Bangor, you would say im Mangor, the B of Bangor mutating to an M. Which of course makes driving in Wales even more fun.) So the title I came up with for my Stomp masterpiece is: Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg! which, lovingly translates to “Fuck Off! I’m a Fuckin’ Welsh Fuckin’ Learner!”
Not only would I be trying to turn my lack of Welsh into an advantage by begging for the sympathy vote, but I’d also be paying homage to the colorful language the Stomp is known for, especially as used so expressively by my mate Prysor and the training camp he established in Blaenau (The Queen), with occasional side trips to Llan (Y Pengwyrn) and Tanygrisiau (Y Tap) -- three major pubs in three parts of town. It’s also worth noting that there are no indigenous curse words in Welsh; like Ffwcin, they’re all borrowings from bully English.
Playing between orality and literacy is one of my favorite areas of poetic exploration. In fact, it was how I got involved with Endangered Languages in the first place. Of the 6000 languages in the world (I just love saying that!), only 700 are written down. The Welsh oral traditions, from the Celitc storytellers and Druid poemmakers all he way to today’s Stomp, has been crucial to the language’s survival. And it was through my investigations into the roots of hiphop poetry (hiphop IS poetry!), that I first came across the Language Crisis.
Having established myself as an appropriately iconoclastic bardd Cymreig in the poem’s title, I felt it was important that the first line of the poem reverse field and show my respect for Welsh culture: “Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr,” imparts to me a mythic status, as I identify with the deepest image of Welsh mythology: “I feel like the Red Dragon entering into battle.” You may have noticed that Wales is the only country with a Red Dragon on its flag: the symbol of Wales, sleeping underground next to the White Dragon (England), waiting only for the Apocalypse to disinter, and then emerge victorious in the ensuing battle royale. Wow.
I straighten out this lie in the next line: “Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp.” “Actually, I’m just a stupid American poet trying to hold me own in the Stomp.” Another secret of Slam success: flip the script! Set up a high image, and then undercut it with your own vulnerability.
The next lines reference my aforementioned debt to hiphop. Hiphop is part of my lineage, too—for a while there in the 80s my tag was the Plain White Rapper. To write this section took painstaking work at the Blaenau llyfrgell (library) with a correlating a rhyming dictionary and a Welsh-English dictionary—why oh why is there no rhyming Welsh-English Dictionary?
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
My address? The definition of randomness
The contradiction of definition!
This also gives a nod to the course I’ve developed at Columbia, “Exploding Text: Poetry Performance,” using extra-literary means to add even more meanings to a poem via collaborations with film, dance, theater, et al.
After this jangly, dirty, provocative opening, I felt it was time for some “real” poetry, and being a “real” poet myself I knew just what lines to use: steal them, from a couple of great poets.
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
I was truly hoping someone in the audience would out me here (I should have had a plant!), so that my next barrage, taking personal blame not only for my plagerism but also for every crime ever committed during the horrific triumph of Capitalism known as US Imperialism would have more resonance:
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH Parry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
This is followed by the lines from “Language Matters.”
Cynghanedd, defended from the orality of the skalds, has been an integral part of Welsh has survived. Hopwood confesses at one point that she believes you can only truly write cynghanedd in the language that evolved in tandem with the poetic form: Cymraeg (Welsh). In essence, her whole lovely how-to is actually nothing but a piece of propaganda for the perpetuation of Welsh.
Cymru, the Welsh word for Wales, means Us, The People. “Wales” is a Saxon word, what the Saxons, the first conquering invaders of Wales, called the Celts there—“The others,” “Those guys over there.” Isn’t it time for the world’s nations to be known by the name that their people call themselves?
And now, the Grand Finale:
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
in My Big Head of Dreams
It’s true that my relationship with Welsh is a lot like having a lover—you have to give everything and there’s always more and thank goodness it’s never enough. But my head of dreams – in English I wanted this to be my big head, big enough to hold all these languages and the idea that somehow or other that this piece of theater, sacrificing myself on the pyre that is the Stomp, would show my love and respect for Welsh, that I would go to his extreme in order to bring my own personal touch to a documentary that is all about the essence of humanity, which I believe language is, but which can also be talked about in theories and data where it’s possible human contact may be lost.
Of the 12 poets who made it to the National Poetry Slam, Dewi and I were the first two names out of the hat. We went up against each other, splitting our supporters’ votes, and giving the first round to some brilliant whippersnapper poet who had somehow made cynghanedd a mode of conversation—brilliant! As if Byron were crossed with Frank O’Hara, say.
Because we were knocked out in the first round, the crew was able to shoot a wrap-up, right then and there, full of loss that meant nothing, and surrounded by a language that had taught me important truths that would infuse the whole film. And my life.
After the wrap, the crew really wanted to hit the road. I felt bad—for the poet to leave a reading early is bad form, in any language. But it was already late, and our flight back to the States was at 8:00 the next morning, and we had to drive to Llundain, and the Welsh sky was already ablaze. And my big head was full of big dreams but no way sleeping.
The poem and translation below are published in my most recent collection,Sing This One Back to Me (2013, Coffee House).
Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg!
Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr
Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
A dach chi’n gwybod pam?
Mi dduda’i thach chi pam!
Achos -- mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!!!
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
Foneddigion a Boneddigesau!
Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd:
“Yn ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”
Mae’n wir wyddoch chi –
Dwi YN “ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”!
A dach chi’n gwbod pam?
Achos fy mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Fuck Off, I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner!
(That’s the Title)
I feel like The Red Dragon In the Middle of Battle
stupid American poet in the middle of the Stomp
Want an apology? No possibility!
My address? The definition of randomness (The contradiction of definition)
And you know why?
I'll tell you why!
Cause I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner, that's why
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH arry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!
My first line of cynghanedd!
“Shaking in my bones”
It’s true you know
I AM “shaking in my bones”!
And do you know why?
Because I’m a fuckin Welsh fuckin learner that’s fuckinwhy!
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
In My Big Head of Dreams
How Sir Launcelot Was Known by Dame Elaine
by Aubrey Beardsley. Illustration for a 1894 edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur.
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (Part One)
The story of King Arthur is Britain's foundation myth as the story of wandering Aeneas accounts for Rome's origins in The Aeneid. The real King Arthur was probably a sixth-century tribal chieftain, whose exploits were magnified into legend and codified by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (1136). Geoffrey depicts Arthur as a powerful king who resists invading barbarians and Imperial Romans alike. We first hear of the Round Table in a late twelfth-century poem.
In discussions of the English national culture, it is wise to keep the Arthurian virtues in mind. Knights were brave, generous, loyal, stoical, eager for adventure, and always prepared to save a lady’s honor. And at the same time, that paragon of knighthood, Sir Lancelot, always seems to be cheating on his lady, Dame Elaine, with no less a personage than Guinevere, the wife of the King.
There is but one emphatically Christian episode in the Arthurian tales, and that’s the quest for the Holy Grail, the sacred vessel with magical properties from which the savior drank at the Last Supper. Galahad, son of Lancelot, is of such purity that he alone among the questing knights beholds the Holy Grail. But Arthur himself has Savior-like powers. Though death in the persons of three gracious ladies shall take him away in a barge, he will return to rule after recovering from his wounds in the mystic Isle of Avalon.
The adulterous liaison between Lancelot and Guinevere is the central episode of the Arthurian saga in either of its most eloquent versions. Sir Thomas Malory told the story in prose in the waning days of the Middle Ages; Le Morte d’Arthur was published in 1485. Alfred, Lord Tennyson rendered the tale in the fluid blank verse of Idylls of the King, which he wrote in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Malory can still be read with pleasure. Tennyson is intermittently sublime.
In both, Sir Lancelot is the epitome of chivalry, the warrior Arthur loves and honors most, who would be flawless were it not for his adulterous love of his liege lord’s lady. But that is a grievous fault in a community based on male fellowship and the ideals of courtly love, and it leads ultimately to a civil war and the doom of Camelot.
The story of how Arthur alone can pull the great sword Excalilbur out of the rock is as crucial in Malory as the contest between Odysseus and the suitors at the end of The Odyssey. The feat establishes Arthur's kingship and confirms the power of Merlin's wizardry. In Tennyson, the magic is palpable: Arthur is crowned by the sword itself, rising from the “bosom of the lake.” On one side of the sword is written “Take me,” on the other “Cast me away!”
King Arthur draws the sword from the stone.
Source: Charles H. Sylvester, Journeys Through Bookland (Chicago: Bellows-Reeve Company, 1909)
I was in 10th grade when I read “A Refusal to Mourn,” by Dylan Thomas. Perhaps like many boys my age, I was stymied by the opening sentence. It wasn’t until years later that I came to understand. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to be a guest-blogger for Ideasmyth, a creative consultancy where Victoria Rowan presides as the fabulous Creatrix-in-Chief. It was in one of my entries for the Ideasmyth blog that I put down some preliminary thoughts on how this Dylan Thomas poem, and that sentence, worked. I then developed those ideas into a short paper I delivered earlier this month at the West Chester Poetry Conference, in a critical seminar on Dylan Thomas led by the excellent and estimable poet R. S. Gwynn, or Sam to those who know him (you can visit his Facebook page here).
My blog entry for today includes a few excerpts from that paper. But please bear with me. I love grammar.
“A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” is Dylan Thomas’s monument to an anonymous girl who perished in the firebombing of London during WWII. If you accept the poem’s denotational gloss, Thomas says that he will never cry or pontificate over the death of this girl. Such is his “mighty vaunt,” as Seamus Heaney called it, but as mighty as it may be, the music of the language is in counterpoint to the title and is clearly the orchestration of a monumental sadness. The sorrow is in the syntax. It is the tortured, hyper-dramatic utterance of a poet keening operatically. I’d like to look at how the orchestration works.
The poem is divided into four six-line stanzas, each rhyming ABCABC. Working across these four stanzas are four grammatical sentences, the first of which may be the strangest, most tortured sentence in twentieth-century poetry:
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child's death.
The round Zion of the water bead! (My friends and I in 10th grade went around repeating this phrase, for no other reason than its odd, emotional conviction.) In basic terms, the sentence says that he will never until the apocalyptic end of time mourn the girl’s death. On the page, however, it’s not that simple. The sentence is 83 words long and top-heavy with a massive adverbial clause (in the excerpt below, it is set off in brackets). The adverbial clause contains 52 words, including a 10-word adjectival modifier nested inside. The grammatical subject of the sentence, “I” occurs in line 10 (highlighted in yellow below), more than half way through, followed by its two main verbs, “let pray” and “sow” (underscored below). This opening torrent concludes with another multi-word adverbial modifier (set off in parentheses below), at the end of which is the word that signals the key idea of the poem, “death.”
Never [until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn]
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth (to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child's death).
In its contortion, the syntax conveys the tumult of anger and sadness the speaker feels facing the girl’s obliteration, even as he claims that he will never cry for her. The energy pent up in this crazy syntax reflects, to some degree, the horror that generated the expression. Let’s look at how this mega-sentence draws to a close. Here is the schematized subject-predicate phase of the sentence:
[I] shall [never] let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth (to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child's death.)
The phrase “to mourn / The majesty and burning of the child's death” is an infinitive verbal phrase functioning as an adverb, modifying the two main verbs, “let pray” and “sow.” We see, therefore, that this massive opening sentence of the poem begins with an adverbial construction, and it closes with the same kind of construction, albeit shorter, at the end of which is lodged the central phrase of the poem, “the child’s death.” The positioning is significant. This phrase is located in a grammatically less powerful syntactic unit, an adverbial phrase, which limits its rhetorical punch. Thomas showcases the phrase but subtly limits its power. Secondly, that phrase “the child’s death” is grammatically buried at the bottom of a vast sentence that is heaped upon it. The syntax, we might say, sets up a linguistic equivalence for the child buried under the rubble.
For all its teetering at the cliff, the meaning of this psychotic sentence is, in fact, construable, and the sentence is grammatically correct. It is a masterful demonstration of control over grammar and meaning. Thomas acknowledges, in the poem, that flesh and bone are subject to disintegration, but he simultaneously demonstrates how the poet, taking a stand against mayhem, can integrate his material into a life-affirming verbal structure that coheres. The determination to write something this complex and the effort involved in getting all the parts to settle and putting all the right words in the right places to rhyme is an act of love and a gesture of survival, maybe even triumph, which puts this poem on the side of life.
Here’s an audio clip of Dylan Thomas reading “A Refusal to Mourn.”
My thanks again to David Lehman and Stacey Harwood for having me back as a guest-blogger this week.
Earlier this year I was put to thinking about lines of poetry that meant a lot to me. This began when the poet Gerry Cambridge, who edits a fine, international literary journal in Scotland called The Dark Horse, asked me and several other poets to write brief essays on particular lines that had shaped us. So I wrote a short piece, published now in the current issue of The Dark Horse, about this line from Thomas Wyatt:
Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind
The line had an effect upon me during my adolescence when I was just starting to see how language could light you up and open the doors of the heart and mind. Of course, all poetry seeks to hold the wind, a thought that imparts beauty to this line. So I wrote my appreciation for The Dark Horse. But in doing so I realized it was impossible to zero in on just one line of poetry. I decided, therefore, to go back and select more lines from other poems that have, in one way or another, put me on the path.
… Mark here below
How tame these ashes are, how free from lust,
That thou mayst fit thy self against thy fall.
So I would have had him leave,
So I would have had her stand and grieve,
So he would have left
As the soul leaves the body torn and bruised,
As the mind deserts the body it has used.
I should find
Some way incomparably light and deft,
Some way we both should understand,
Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
(W. B. Yeats)
Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl
Under headlands in their windy dwelling
Because the Adversary put too easy questions
On lonely roads.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
It pleases me to stand in silence here.
Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.
There are more, but that's for another time.
Many thanks to David Lehman and Stacey Harwood for inviting me back as a guest-blogger this week.
I recall reading somewhere – maybe someone can help me with this – that ancient druidic rites, or perhaps they were Welsh bardic initiation rituals, included the following. You had to lie in a trough of water on a cold night, wholly submerged and breathing only through a straw, and compose in your head a long poem in a complicated meter. The next morning, you had to emerge from the water and recite your poem.
I earned my MFA in the early 1990s from a reputable institution. I am, therefore, a Master of Fine Arts. Anyone who has earned the degree should take careful note of this particular passage from The White Goddess, by Robert Graves. In my tattered edition, the passage appears on page 457:
“Who can make any claim to be a chief poet and wear the embroidered mantle of office, which the ancients called the tugen? Who can even claim to be an ollave? The ollave in ancient Ireland had to be master of one hundred and fifty Oghams, or verbal ciphers, which allowed him to converse with his fellow-poets over the heads of the unlearned bystanders; to be able to repeat at a moment’s notice any one of three hundred and fifty long traditional histories and romances, together with the incidental poems they contained, with appropriate harp accompaniment; to have memorized an immense number of other poems of different sorts; to be learned in philosophy; to be a doctor of civil law; to understand the history of modern, middle and ancient Irish with the derivations and changes of meaning of every word; to be skilled in music, augury, divination, medicine, mathematics, geography, universal history, astronomy, rhetoric and foreign languages; and to be able to extemporize poetry in fifty or more complicated meters. That anyone at all should have been able to qualify as an ollave is surprising…”
Best of all is that “appropriate harp accompaniment”! He made no mention of poetry workshops or lying in troughs of water all night.
Words become words because we need them. I don’t know what they are before that—impulses, energy, trilobites, Hydrogen—who knows. But once they become words, I believe in them, the power and the glory of them. Even the ugly ones—those terrible angels of our mouths—beating like dark wings from our throats—savage, nigger, half-breed, chink, faggot, indian, redskin. We built them—like bombs—with our need to break each other.
I am drawn to the words that hurt me most—No.—I mean to say: I am not afraid to put into my mouth the words that hurt me again and again. The people who first gave them to me didn’t always tell the truth, so I take them in and spit them back out—the bones of them, the parts nobody wants to talk about now—and I tell them my way because I got tired of choking on them.
History is the name of the greatest American lullaby. When we know the words to it, we feel like better people, church-going people. We feel like we have learned something. Worst of all, we feel like it is over. This is what history really means to most white people: It is over.
It might as well be the title of all the history books in high schools across the nation—
Teacher: Class open up your It Is Over text to “Chapter 2: We Fucked The Indians Again But Jim Thorpe, So It Is Over.”
Tommy: Didn’t we read that last week.
Teacher: No, Tommy, last week we read “Chapter 1: We Fucked The Indians But That Was A Long Time Ago Which Means It Is Over.” This new chapter has blankets in it, and Hotchkiss.
No, the worst part is that when we memorize the words to History, we get sleepy. Our eyes are lulled close. Just like at the end of “Rock-a-bye-baby” nobody asks what happened to the baby because they’re already asleep.
What is my point? Words carry within them the dark things we have done and the dark things those dark things continue to do. It is important that we know our words better than anybody else.
This is what I tell my students: Every word. And not just that word, also the word it was before. And the word that word was before it became the word you are using. Know those words the way they were when they first meant themselves. The beginning of language must have been something else—each sound like an entire song—a want we wanted so badly that it began like a lightning spark in our minds and rushed downhill to the lamp wicks of our tongues where it lit into a word. Fire, someone said for the first time in the universe, and for the first time in the existence of the ear, someone heard, Fire—how it must have burned.
So if every word is Promethean, why shouldn’t I rivet them all to the rock and tear them open?
What a gift: to know every word a word has ever meant.
What a wound: to know every word a word has ever meant—
Our word for policeman translates to the people who rope you, and our word for jail is the place you are roped. It’s the same word we use to describe roping cattle.
The US government used to rope Mojave children, sat on horseback and lassoed them like animals. They put them in the back of wagons or made them walk behind their horse all the way to the boarding school, leaving their mothers wringing the hems of their dresses in grief. My Elder teacher told me this: Grandma used to say that after they rounded up Momma and the other kids and took them away, all the dogs ran in circles in front of the houses and ran up and down the river banks crying and crying because they wanted their kids back. Those poor dogs cried and cried and cried. They went mad with crying. Today, when we talk about the law, the police, the justice system, we are talking about those men on horses who roped our children and took them away. We hear the crying. It is not over. It is happening again and again in those words.
School, or huchqol hapoove, means the place they put and keep children. And they did—they took Mojave children, their best shot at crushing us. And once there—nyayuu hapoove is our word for closet—my great grandmother was given a switching and locked in a closet for the day when she was caught speaking Mojave.
Language is nothing if not violent—No.—Language is silent when it is not violent.
Our word for metal is ‘anya kwa’oor, which means it has a golden light. Metal came to us first in a prophecy, which translated roughly goes something like this: It will come across the ocean and land here. It has no head, no arms, no legs. It is oval-shaped. It will move through us up our shorelines. The metal that was prophesied was not the metal of pots or pans or rakes—it was a bullet. Anytime we speak of metal, we are speaking of the way it first came to us—sometimes by going through us the way bullets have always done.
So when I say know your words, I mean the ones that have shaped your mouth and your page. Look at them, listen to the things they have endured, the things they have done. Even if they are one part memory, they are also another part living. Maybe what I have been trying to say is that when you walk into the room of your poem and hear History playing in the background, you find that poem, you look that poem in the eye and say, Wake your ass up.
I first met John Glenday in person while walking a portion of the Great Glen Way from Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit, Scotland in 2012. We had only a single mutual friend and poetry in common as way of introduction. After walking the fourteen miles along the gorse-studded trail, above the Loch Ness, I arrived to the Glenday household where John and his wife, Erika, had already prepared a sign that captured their lovely and playful hospitality: Quiet--American Poet Sleeping. What followed were several days of lively and thoughtful conversation about poetry, place and our political landscapes. One of the many things that intrigued me in our conversation was the different sense of inhabiting land. I have long thought about the way in which particular geography and language intersect. John Glenday, as you will see, thinks seriously about this intersection without allowing it to limit his poetic range.
John Glenday was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1952. He is the author of three books of poems, the most recent, Grain (Picador, 2009) which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for both the Ted Hughes Award and Griffin International Poetry Prize. His second collection, Undark, was also a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. His first book, The Apple Ghost, won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award in 1989. He was appointed Scottish/Canadian Exchange Fellow for 1990-91, based at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. He lives with his lovely wife, Erika, and their children in Drumnadrochit in the Scottish Highlands.
LG: To begin with a rather wide-ranging question: What kind of connection do you see between place and poetry? Could you talk a bit about the link between your home geography and language? Has the knowledge of your family residing in the same area for over 800 years had any impact on your writing?
JG: Poetry holds on to a place in the same way a plant does – it takes nourishment from the land it was rooted in – what else can keep a poem alive? But when I talk about place, it is irrespective of time. So for me the poem is also an archaeological examination – it digs down among the post-holes and potsherds and grave goods for evidence of how life was once lived. What else is poetry about? The fact that my name has been associated with the Scottish county of Angus for generations and generations accentuates this for me. It tells me that whatever I write casts a long shadow. But I am not territorial in my writing, so I’ve happily adopted Scottish Islands, mythology, non-existent places. They’re all grist to the mill. One of my earliest poems ‘The Apple Ghost’ is a simple description of a house in Nairn, Scotland, as I saw it at the time. The narrative of the poem was inherent in that house. All I needed to do was write it down.
The Apple Ghost
A musty smell of dampness filled the room
Where wrinkled green and yellow apples lay
On folded pages from an August newspaper.
‘My husband brought them in, you understand,
Only a week or two before he died.
He never had much truck with waste, and
I can’t bring myself to throw them out.
He passed away so soon…’
I understood then how the wonky kitchen door,
And the old Austin, settling upon its
Softened tyres in the wooden shed,
Were paying homage to the absence of his quiet hands.
In the late afternoon, I opened
Shallow cupboards where the sunlight leaned on
Shelf over shelf of apples, weightless with decay.
Beneath them, sheets of faded wallpaper
Showed ponies, prancing through a summer field.
This must have been the only daughter’s room
Before she left for good.
I did not sleep well.
The old woman told me over breakfast
How the boards were sprung in that upper hall;
But I knew I had heard his footsteps in the night,
As he dragged his wasted body to the attic room
Where the angles of the roof slide through the walls,
And the fruit lay blighted by his helpless gaze.
I knew besides, that, had I crossed to the window
On the rug of moonlight,
I would have seen him down in the frosted garden,
Trying to hang the fruit back on the tree.
From The Apple Ghost (Peterloo Poets, 1989)
LG: You’ve talked to me about place as being connected to person and certainly, many of your poems seem to address a person or sentient being even as the poems are rooted largely in some kind of place. Give us a sense of your own—and maybe the European—nexus of place and person. Perhaps, you could also talk about names? Given that Scotland is a country associated with clan names and places like Loch Ness (which you live near), do you think there is a special sheen in names and naming in your own work or that of other Scottish poets?
JG: I’m not sure, Lea. Names are such slippery things – remember what Paul Valery said: ‘to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.’ Names can come between us and the world, they can delude us into categorizing instead of appreciating. But they also change me, I believe, from an innocent bystander into a material witness. They do this by forcing me to look in an analytical way rather than simply to see. It is essential, as an artist of any kind, to look in a penetrating manner at the world; to question it by observing it. Most names cast long shadows too – Mine comes from a small glen in Angus which in Gaelic means ‘the Glen of the fast flowing water’. So I can trek up into the hills and look down on my surname. I do this in the poem ‘Glendye’ of course. There’s not much there now – sheep fanks, heather and gorse, a thread of water. I like to imagine they are in me too. I also have the same name as my father, which I viewed as a blessing, and then a curse, and then a blessing.
by that flinch in the Water of Dye
where its wersh soul swithers
through the Bog of Luchray
and on towards the Dee,
there runs a certain gentleness
of ragged stonework in an old sheep fank,
where a flush of broom pushes out;
and if you happened to lie in its doubtful lee,
come early spring, you might just hear
the wind clambering through, fluting
a note or two from a threadbare melody,
for nothing but its own sake.
--From Grain (Picador, 2009)
LG: In your book, Undark, you have a series of poems about the U.S. Civil War. Could you talk about the genesis of these poems. I believe they come out of photographs? Talk about the process of writing about place and subjects that aren’t “your own” and yet, are so much your own. “Artillery Horses Under Fire” seems a poem that you are intimately connected with or at least, you’ve rendered it as such.
JG: All the Civil War poems are shamelessly appropriated from Shelby Foote’s brilliant book, or form Whitman’s ‘Specimen Days’. I’m not worried by this. After all, you can usually tell from the title what a poem is not about. All the detail of the world – the terrible events, the pointless waste of lives, the bravery and self-sacrifice are all just ways in which the world is telling us how we work. The world is always doing that. The poet’s duty is to appropriate fact and fiction for the benefit of poetry. So in the poem you mention, it was the way the artillery horses would stand firm in harness while they were being shot that troubled me; and then I remembered how Union soldiers, advancing into gunfire over open ground, would turn up their collars and hunch their shoulders, as if they were advancing through rain, rather than lead. It is this tiny detail of the world that tells us a little of the big workings of things. If we can focus on detail and describe that, we can say more about the horror than any mere accumulation of statistics can do. So, in summary, these are not poems that try to be ‘American’, they are poems trying to talk about people, and how they live. The world will carry on giving us the clues – remember what happened to the glass negatives taken by Brady and others during the Civil War? Remember this, along with the Crimea, was the first war documented in photography. Those glass plates were sold to nurserymen after the war – the people were sick of images of the killing, they had no stomach for them. Can you imagine greenhouses glazed with the inverted images of the dead? What is that saying to us about us?
4. Artillery Horses Under Fire
That slap the minie balls make when they strike
sickens the heart. Sounds just like pebbles
smacking into mud.
Mostly they fall straight off, then struggle
up again, shivering and stiff, but strangely
quiet till the next round comes.
Some simply twitch their flanks or slash
their tails across the wound , staring ahead.
You’d think it was a blowfly at them,
nothing more. I remember at Cold Harbor we watched
as the last from a team of six stood firm
in harness with five bullets in her side.
She toppled only when the sixth ball sheared
through bone. Not one was spooked, nor ran;
but then, the living were left limbered
to the dead. We could hear the rebels cheer
as horse after horse dropped through its traces,
kicking the caisson sides.
They hardly make no sound—that’s what I hate.
Die as they must, God damn them.
I don’t know. Some beasts act more like men.
--From “Whitman's War" in Undark (Peterloo Poets, 1995)
tear-like orange was there like a clove
of garlic melting in my mouth. It wasn’t
a time for complaints and nobody
murmured a word of discomfort. It was
the silence of refugees longing for an identity
foreign to this tiny, floating, motherless city.
–Kit Fan, ‘BN(O)’
A fortnight ago, a story about rumour’s power to fuel a whirlwind of nationalistic indignation, stoked online and then as quickly averted, played across the news channels in China. The trigger was a photo circulating on the Chinese-language internet, which seemed to show an act of recent vandalism. In a piece of iconoclastic violence uncannily reminiscent of the faceless Buddhas in the Mogao Caves, the heads had been knocked from several of the mustard-coloured Buddhas sitting in teal niches on the glazed exterior of the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom, one of the most treasured buildings in Beijing’s Summer Palace. Was this the work of mindless vandals?
A couple of months earlier, another furore had broken out among Chinese netizens when a photo emerged of a carved stone relief inside the famous Luxor temple in Egypt: one of the 3,500 year old statues had been defaced across its torso by a Chinese tourist’s incised graffiti, sparking a hunt to shame the person responsible for so tarnishing China’s global reputation. The perpetrator had made the rookie mistake of scratching out his full name, and before long the crowd-sourced force of one of China’s increasingly notorious Human Flesh Search Engines had tracked him, a fifteen-year-old boy, to his home in Nanjing.
It looked like it was all happening again, this time on Chinese soil, until the Summer Palace’s curators came forward to explain that no modern vandals were involved. The restorer’s glue responsible for re-affixing the reconstructed heads onto the Buddhas’ necks, expanding and contracting with the seasonal temperatures, had caused them to fall off again. In fact, the ceramic heads had been smashed over a century earlier, in 1900, when an army of allied foreign forces marched into Beijing to respond to the Boxer rebellion.
The story was not, it turned out, about modern morals at all, but rather was part of a historical narrative about China’s ‘century of humiliation’ familiar to all Chinese school children from their history textbooks. The ruins of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, ransacked by British and French soldiers during the Second Opium War, are a symbol of foreign imperialist aggression which the Communist government are keen to keep fresh in people’s minds. As Julia Lovell explains in the opening pages of her recent history of The Opium War, tales of China’s past sufferings under feudalism on the one hand and foreign imperialism on the other are a crucial part of the current regime’s narrative of its own rise to power, and thus its legitimacy. What English school children learn about Beijing’s looted Old Summer Palace, reduced to marble rubble by British troops? For the Chinese authorities, those Beijing ruins are an important spur to patriotic feeling – a reminder of the nineteenth-century wrongs against the Chinese nation that were only symbolically put right when Hong Kong finally returned from British control in 1997.
I only partly understood it then, but I spent the first eight years of my life, in Hong Kong, living in the shadow of a countdown. The Joint Declaration of 1984 – the agreement between Beijing and London that started the clock on Hong Kong’s eventual return to China – was signed when I was a year old. That number, 1997, loomed everywhere – was the subject of so many of the adult conversations I listened to half-comprehendingly from below. Many Hong Kong Chinese started looking for an exit strategy, especially the middle-class, which my father had watched grow so numerous in the decades since he first arrived in the colony in the ’60s. In the years leading up to the ‘Handover’ of 1997, three quarters of a million people emigrated from Hong Kong (some unofficial reports suggested even higher numbers), out of a population of six million. These people’s fears tell us something about colonialism’s paradoxical legacy in Hong Kong. Would the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ approach to the island’s gradual reintegration into China end up eroding the freedoms put in place by the British?
In his poem, ‘BN(O)’, from his first collection, Paper Scissors Stone, the Hong Kong-raised poet Kit Fan who now lives in the UK, looks back on a curious phenomenon of the pre-handover years: the British National (Overseas). The class of BN(O) was created in response to the question of what would happen to the people of Hong Kong after the return to China, but actually spoke more to British anxieties about immigration from their former colonies. Not the same thing as citizenship, BN(O) status didn’t grant right of abode in the UK, and needed specifically to be applied for. In the poem, Fan recalls standing, in 1987, in the long queue to register in front of the British Consulate, ‘at the junction of Supreme Court Road / and Justice Drive’. His grandmother peels and segments an orange, handing him the pieces one by one as they creep forward in line. The fruit’s sourness in the mouth is a taste the speaker indelibly associates, in later years, with the feeling of being ‘abandoned / by two countries, between two continents.’
My family left Hong Kong in 1991, with six years to spare, but a Chinese friend whose family stayed on a few years more, before leaving for Australia, recalled the empty desks that would appear each week in his primary school classroom, every empty chair marking another emigrated family. When Chris Pattern, Robin Cook, Tony Blair and a mournful looking Prince Charles lined up on the red podium at the exhibition centre in Wan Chai on the night of 30th June 1997, my parents watched the ceremony not in real time but on the VCR in the lounge. The video player is long gone, but I think the tape is still in a box in the garage.
I watched that footage again for the first time this April, on a writing trip to Hong Kong. In the Hong Kong Museum of History, although there are one or two displays covering post-1997 events, the last room before the exit is a twilit cinema where you sit to watch the film of the Handover ceremony on a loop. I was there at the tail end of the day, just before closing, and I so was alone when I sat down to watch it. Stray details struck me: Prince Charles’ lugubrious ears; the strangeness of the fact that the Prime Minister we sent was Tony Blair, who somehow feels like a figure from too recent memory to have been involved. I found myself unexpectedly moved by the experience, less by the video than by the news clippings from all over the world covering the event, which had been pasted onto the cinema’s walls. In the screen’s half light, I got up and padded around to glance through articles and editorials from The Times, The New York Times, The South China Morning Post, and many others I don’t recall. I suddenly had a feeling of how momentous that night in 1997 had been – as, among other things, a symbolic end to the British Empire. That was my history, my origin, my explanation. I blinked to stave off silly tears.
Wandering round the history museum’s exhibits, I spotted a white sign next to a wooden crate which had been used to store black balls of raw opium as they sailed from the fields of British India towards China’s southern ports. It described the morning when British troops first planted their flag at a place on the island’s coast which came to be called Possession Point. On 26th January 1841, Sir Commodore James Bremer, rear-admiral of the Royal Navy during the First Opium War, took over Hong Kong island, though The Treaty of Nanking did not formally incorporate the territory into the British Empire until the year after. As the Union Jack was hoisted at 8.15am, a gun salute from the harboured war ships rang around the otherwise empty bay. Away from the lines of royal marines and a few visitors from the mainland, the ceremony was observed by a handful of hawkers: the island was almost uninhabited at the time.
I was staying in Sheung Wan, an area on the northwest of the island. It was not on my mental map of the Hong Kong of my childhood, and perhaps I never went there then. I had chosen it because it was quite central, and because there were some good deals to be found on short-term sublets. The roads in Sheung Wan wound in parallel along the hillside, which climbed eventually up towards the Peak, meaning that if you wanted to cross from one hill-hugging road to another you had to walk down a ‘ladder street’ made up of a multitude of narrow steps. Some days before my trip to the museum, on one of my late afternoon walks, I had noticed a sign that read ‘Possession Street’, and mentally filed it as something to look into. It turned out that the front door of the block of flats I’d been staying in on Hollywood Road was about twenty feet from Possession Point – or at least where historians now suspect it lies. A small area of greenery crossed by pebbled paths called Hollywood Road Park now marks the site. Because of the land reclamation which has crept the coastline further and further into the harbour, Possession Point is now marooned, lying several hundred metres away from the current seafront. When I asked my mum what she knew about Possession Point, she said she had read about it in a history before I was born, but it seemed to her nobody was ever really interested. She made an effort to find the place – in those days there was no salmon pink signboard marking its location – and when she eventually tracked it down, further inland than she’d first thought, it was the site of a public lavatory.
During my Easter on Hollywood Road, I would go and sit on a bench in the park overlooking the fishpond, which reflected a red-columned pagoda capped by a tapering green roof that looked like the stem cut off an aubergine. The orange carp seemed happy enough, but the pond’s population of terrapins was struggling, as the park’s designers hadn’t incorporated any little islands or rocky outcrops for them to sit on. When they wanted to emerge into the dry, they had to arduously clamber up twenty centimetres of green plastic mesh protruding vertically from the water, designed to hold in the water lilies. When they made it to the top, the terrapins had to balance, without falling off, so that their ventral shells seesawed on the top edge. I watched one terrapin the size of a makeup compact heave himself up a few inches and then plop back several times over the course of ten minutes. When he finally made it to the summit, a heavier, soup-bowl sized companion bounced onto the plastic net nearby, flinging the little one back into the water. This was the place where it had all started, the hundred and fifty year history of British Hong Kong.
Reading about the Opium Wars that Easter, I would come across details that seemed to reach forward into my life. The two Scottish magnates of the nineteenth-century opium trade, William Jardine and James Matheson, secured a prominent role in the histories with their canny trading. I had heard their names as a child under the guise of Jardine Matheson & Co., a powerful Far Eastern trading house, or ‘Hong’, which grew up around the two Scots’ opium profits. Having expanded out of opium into a variety of trading areas, including insurance, Jardine was the company my father came to work for when he first moved to Hong Kong in the ’60s.
Or there was Yin Je, who would come to our Midlevels flat to cook during the day, and from whom I learnt whatever smatterings of Cantonese I had as a child (Fi di sic la! Hurry up and eat your dinner!). She would turn up each morning in an amah’s sam fu, or pressed uniform of starched white tunic and black trousers. It was only years later I discovered she had sewn those clothes herself: when she was first sent to Hong Kong, aged eleven, to live with an aunt, she had earned money by doing piece work with a sewing machine. At that time they lived in one of the many tin hut shantytowns that pressed the Hong Kong hillsides. It was only later, after she had started work as a cook for an ex-pat family, that they were moved to one of the new resettlement estates – blocks of flats built by the government after a series of devastating fires spread through the ramshackle hillside shelters, killing many of the recent immigrants who squatted there.
Yin Je had been sent to Hong Kong, my mother told me, because her family had fallen on hard times. Her father had been the son of the head of the village, and so their family was the richest in the area. But one year, when times got hard, the villagers resorted to growing poppy. In Yin Je’s village, men and women all laboured in the fields. But Yin Je’s father, knowing how to read and write, was deemed unsuitable for physical labour, and so his appointed part in the venture was to do the numbers. It also fell to him, as an educated man, to test the village’s product. He got hooked (my mother’s word) and finally sold his fields and house to feed his habit. When I came back to Hong Kong for the first time, for a fortnight, aged 17, my mother and I met Yin Je at a food hall deep in a part of Kowloon I didn’t know, where the hills outside were covered in lush green ferns. She had forgotten whatever small English she used to know, and I had done the same with my scraps of Cantonese, so the two of us couldn’t really communicate any more. Her black curls had silvered in the intervening years, and she suddenly looked very small. I felt bad when, smiling, she handed us a round blue tin of those sugared Danish biscuits you used to get in the ’90s. We hadn’t brought anything.
Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road has nothing to do with California, and in fact predates the settlement of the American Hollywood. The first road ever to be constructed in the nascent colony, in 1844, it seems it was named by the Governor after his family estate back in England. The many antique and curio shops that still line it had their origins when Hollywood Road was still on the coast. Foreign sailors would try to hawk the artefacts they’d picked up in China before sailing back to Europe. Until I asked her about Possession Point, I never knew that my mother had lived near this area of the island when she was small, and would walk along Hollywood Road on her way to school when she was five or so, playing hop skip jump on the many concrete flights of stairs that wind off the main drag. She remembered the antique shops, some of whose windows now display prancing terracotta horses and rare carved jades excavated from mainland tombs, with a price tag only for tycoons. My mum also remembered the various coffinmakers who still have workshops there today. I had never seen a Chinese coffin before I peered in under the garage-like metal shutters, where the light-wood coffins, clover-shaped at each end, would park while the craftsmen were still carving or lacquering them.
My stay on Hollywood Road happened to coincide with the Qingming Festival (Chingming in Cantonese). Also known as the Tomb Sweeping Festival, or the Day of Clear Brightness, it is the day when Chinese families go to their ancestors’ tombs to care for the grave, pulling its weeds and adding fresh flowers and offerings. On the pavement outside the buildings, people had set up blackened metal tins or little braziers, orange flames licking up from inside. They would stand by, feeding offerings into the fire, including Hell money in vast denominations (‘Bank of Hell, $100,000,000’) for their ancestors to spend in the afterlife. (The currency of the Underworld usually strikes foreigners as resembling the notes from a monopoly set.) In the narrow backstreets of Sheung Wan, I came across several shops selling paper votives. Their wares ranged from basic necessities (socks, polo shirts, baskets of dim sum) to modern luxuries (iphones, speed boats, Ferraris), and even a four-storey mansion resembling a paper Barbie house. All were constructed in three dimensions from printed and folded card or tissue. I couldn’t help chuckling to myself when I spotted a lifesized gold watch that read ‘RLOEX’ across the dial. Perhaps the afterlife has its copyright enforcers too.
That day on Hollywood Road you could see the whole history of Chinese funeral offerings – from an emperor’s tomb-stowed terracotta horse in the antique shop window, to the 3D paper roast suckling pig a waitress or taxi driver might burn for a hungering relative. Walking through the streets on Qingming, passing the smoking braziers converting a descendant’s proffered love to ash, I felt very much an observer to these rites. I have never fed a wad of banknotes into a can of fire, or left a saucer of apples in front of a joss-sticked shrine.
...foreign to this tiny, floating, motherless city.
My mother’s abandonment as a baby means that, other than her, I have no Chinese family, no ancestors to whom I might give sacrifice. She told me once how, when she was very small, her adoptive mother had sublet for them a room in a flat rented out by another family. Her mother slept in the tiny room, while she was put out in the corridor, to curl up in the opened trunk that held the other family’s winter clothes. She fell asleep each night seeing, in the darkness, the smoldering orange tips of the joss-sticks bedded in the sand of the other family’s ancestral shrine. In a world where your ancestors deserve worship like gods, what happens to people who have none?
[My apologies – after a gruelling flight from London to Beijing yesterday (a journey I’d made in the opposite direction a few days before, coming home for a dear friend’s wedding), I found myself feeling somewhat discombobulated by my ping ponging of time zones. And so I’m running a day behind (or ahead?) with these posts which, appropriately enough, have just acted out the very West-East transit they describe.]
At the turn of the twentieth century,
the monk appointed by himself caretaker
of the sacred rubbish was persuaded
by Aurel Stein that the explorer should be able
to load up his ponies and
‘Don’t miss me too much today’
two years later the cave was empty.
–Caleb Klaces, ‘The cave is woken up’
At the close of my second post, I left you with Li Bai’s famous poem, ‘The Moon at the Fortified Pass’, which imagines how the wind which beats at the battlements of the Yumen Pass in Gansu has already scoured a thousand miles of desert before it reaches that point. The elements have eroded the four-feet deep ochre brick walls of today’s Yumen Pass to a dilapidated softness – as though destined to collapse back into the surrounding sands – which it can’t have possessed in Li Bai’s day, when it bristled with soldiers guarding China from westward hordes. Stretching away on either side of the pass are distant, marooned fragments of the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC) Great Wall, now just a few feet high. Built from tamped earth and reeds in the absence of a resilient local stone, they are a thousand years older than the crenellated bulwarks of the Ming Dynasty wall tourists saunter along near Beijing. On the afternoon, two weeks ago now, we filed through the squat doorway that broaches the Yumen Gate, jostled by a stream of eager Chinese tourists, the air hung unbearably still – the desert’s oven-like expanse relieved by no wind. But when the wind does blow in that corridor of the Gobi, it blows from the West. In other words, the winds noted by Li Bai follow the same route across Central Asia from the Middle East as the eastbound caravans of 2000 years ago, which would have had to pass through that very juncture, where we were stood, on their way to Xi’an and other Chinese cities to trade in silk and precious goods.
We had originally planned to track further back along this stretch of the Silk Road, from Gansu on to Xinjiang province. Xinjiang, whose name means ‘new border’, is the furthest west of China’s provinces and also the largest – its vast reaches of desert account for almost 20 percent of the country’s total area. Despite a recent and growing influx of Han Chinese, its inhabitants are mostly members of the Uighur ethnic minority, whose Turkic descent and Islamic faith mean they have more in common with the peoples of Central Asia than the Chinese heartland. We were interested in the city of Turpan because of its importance as a stopover on the Silk Road, but modernity intruded (as it does) by way of a reminder that the troubles facing China’s western border regions in Li Bai’s poem are still very much a present concern. In July this year violence once again broke out in Turpan’s streets, partly in remembrance of the Xinjiang riots of July 2009, in which hundreds were killed. In an effort to quell the ethnic unrest, the central government cut off communications and the internet in an effort to stay the flow of information in and out. As July wore on, we scoured the internet back in England, noting the trickle of photos showing tanks and troop-bearing vehicles lining the roads, which had made it out via twitter and a few news outlets, pondering whether it might still be possible to go to Xinjiang. That is, until our domestic flight into Turpan was cancelled a few days before we were due to travel, barred along with all other routes in to the region. That decided that.
On the long drive from Dunhuang out to the Yumen Pass, we whisked by an ‘Ethnic Minority Cultural Park’. From the photo-heavy signage, it seemed to offer Han tourists, there for the Silk Road sites, the chance to stop by and watch specimens of the westernmost few of China’s famous ‘55 recognized minority peoples’ engage in traditional cultural activities, from dancing and sporting colourful costumes to playing typical instruments and carving folk handicrafts. We had already encountered something of this that morning, when we found the route out of our Dunhuang hotel’s front entrance flanked on both sides by twenty pretty local girls wearing elaborate jingling headdresses and skimpy turquoise bikini-and-harem-pant-type outfits. They all adopted wafty poses and smiled (no teeth) while a besuited tourist-trade delegation padded past them into the carpark. By the time we passed between their ranks a few minutes later, they had already gone slack, looking rather bored. Our driver said that you could see Mongols and Kazakh immigrants, among others, in the Dunhuang ‘Ethnic Minority Cultural Park’, but when I asked if there were any Uighurs inside, he was distracted by an overturned motorbike that had clearly skidded to the roadside some minutes earlier. After that, I didn’t have the heart to ask him again.
The main reason for making the trek to Dunhuang (which really is in the middle of nowhere) is to see the Mogao Caves. The Mogao area’s several hundred individual temple-grottoes, which are decorated from floor to ceiling with painted murals, have also earned it the name ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.’ Along with the material goods transported along the Silk Road, another foreign import to China that arrived along those continent-spanning routes was, of course, Buddhism. The Mogao Grottoes are not the only such painted caves in the region: various sites survive where monks and merchants, adopting the practice from Indian Buddhism, sponsored as an act of piety a cave to be cut out of the cliff face and painted with scenes brought to life from the written sutras.
What makes the Mogao site unique, however, is the sensational rediscovery in 1900 of its so-called ‘Library Cave’. A smallish cave (you can only peer in through a grille, as the guide’s torch wavers through the gloom), it had remained sealed for centuries, filled to the roof with thousands of manuscripts on paper, silk, hemp and bamboo, all hidden behind a carefully repainted wall. The manuscripts’ ‘discovery’ is usually credited to the British explorer Aurel Stein, who hearing rumours of their existence, rushed there to purchase thousands of the scrolls, shipping them back to the British Museum in London. But in fact it was a Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu – he had arrived at the caves while wandering through a famine and appointed himself their caretaker, sweeping out the in-blown sand each night – who helped pull down the patch of wall another monk had noticed rung hollowly under his tapping pipe. Amongst the batch of manuscripts wending their slow way to London was a volume called The Diamond Sutra, which would later be identified as the oldest printed book ever found. It was the unfortunate Wang who presided over their sale to Stein and the succession of foreign collectors who arrived in his wake – a fact which continues to grate upon Chinese patriotic sensibilities, as was clear from the wire of emotion in our guide’s voice as she pointed her frail torch into the Library Cave’s hollow dark. Stein conducted the negotiations in broken Chinese and could not, in fact, read the scrolls he was acquiring.
...two years later the cave was empty.
The story of the Library Cave makes up one strand in a sequence called ‘16 Airs’ from the first collection, Bottled Air, of British poet Caleb Klaces. (Klaces might be known to American readers because of his role as curator of Like Starlings, an online space for collaboration between US and British poets, whose conversations often have a transatlantic flavour.) Bottled Air is a book of poems whose brilliance and variousness makes me regret the need to pick out here just one small tile from their mosaic. Describing the origins of these poems in an interview, Klaces stressed that he has never been to China. His imaginations of Mogao were mediated entirely through Aurel Stein’s journals and the other books on the subject he could find in the Texas university library where he went to work at the time. I find this so interesting – the question of what it means to summon a place in the mind solely from one’s read experience of it. The same thought occurred to me as I processed along the Mogao cliff-face, filing behind the other tourists to pass in and out of one cave after another, eyes dazzling in the desert sun after the accustomed gloom – Bottled Air in my rucksack all the way.
Klaces’ poem, ‘The cave is woken up’, opens by comparing ‘Waking cut into managable pieces / by the snooze button’ – its troughs and hikes of consciousness – to the lookout towers spaced along the Great Wall. Intercut with the narrative of Mogao’s rediscovery, the poem’s other overt subject is a long distance relationship – a Skype call (‘Don’t miss me too much today’) across the Atlantic between the speaker and a girlfriend who is ‘always finding secret caves / in metaphors’. Klaces’ oxymoron, ‘sacred rubbish’, in the passage from my epigraph, at once reveres and dismisses the Library Cave’s contents. It is entirely characteristic of the book, whose tone is at once laconic, flat, and intriguingly multilayered. Whose words are these? Is the colour we’re getting here (‘sacred rubbish’) an ironic insight of the speaker’s – voiced with a century’s distance from the colonial unconcern of the European collectors? Or does ‘sacred rubbish’ subtly focalise the thoughts of one of the historical figures in the poem? Aurel Stein, who purchases the trove for a mere four horseshoes of silver? Wang Yuanlu, who allows the treasures to leave China for a song? Or could it be the monks who sealed the cave a millennium before? Their motives are still not understood, but it is thought they closed off the cave either to protect its precious cargo from Muslim invaders riding from the West, or alternatively because the Library Cave’s contents were fragments, useless scraps of sutras, which were only stowed away because they couldn’t bring themselves to burn them.
So preciously vulnerable are the Mogao Caves that tourists cannot be trusted to wander them alone. You must join a tour, so that your guide can unlock the climate-controlling metal shutter doors (donated in the seventies, our guide said, by a rich Hong Kong businessman) and check the carbon dioxide detector dial just inside the lintel to see if excessive touristic breathing is today at risk of mouldering the frescoes to oblivion. Only then will she gesture for you to shuffle through the threshold. When Aurel Stein saw them, the caves’ cliff-face exterior had partially collapsed, leaving their precious statue-sentried vestibules exposed to the elements, with ladders the only means of communication between each hole. My husband Marc and I were part of the only English-language tour group that day, and found ourselves tagging along behind a modest busload of twenty or so middle-aged Israelis. (Even though his Hebrew no longer stretches much further than his Bar mitzvah portion, Marc takes a certain professional pleasure in identifying Israeli tourists when we happen upon them abroad.)
Our guide spoke rapid English straight into our earpieces, which startled because of its frequent invocation of a highly specialised theological and art historical vocabulary (Asparas, Bodhisattvas, lapis lazuli, oxidization), which sat strangely with her lack of basic fluency elsewhere. She would preface all of these choice terms by giving the word in Chinese, then would say, several times over, ‘Do you know...Bodhisattvas?’, or ‘Do you know...oxidization?’ The effect of her repeated ‘Do you know...’, ‘Do you know...’, was to make my idling mind begin to imagine that Oxidization, like the various members of the Buddhist pantheon, was a personified entity whose acquaintance one might hope to make. As it turned out, her strategy was an effective one, and no doubt learned from hard experience, because many of the Israelis hadn't met Oxidization. So there would follow a period of susurration in which the more fluent English speakers would try to translate for their companions what was going on. This pleasant Babel lingered especially long after the guide explained why so many of the seated Buddhas and other painted figures appear to have black skin: the lead white pigment, ground by the original craftsmen so many centuries ago, had oxidised on prolonged exposure to the air and gradually darkened to black.
I thought I knew what was coming when one lady finally asked the guide whether part of the Buddhist community of Mogao had come from Africa. Perhaps she had in the back of her mind the Ethiopian Jews famously evacuated to Israel in the ’70s and ’80s. In many ways it was a fair question, given the trans-continentally cosmopolitan variety of peoples who passed through Dunhuang on the Silk Road. Among the manuscripts in the Library Cave were discovered not only Buddhist scriptures, but writings in many different languages and from several different religions – Daoism, Manichaeism, even Nestorian Christianity. Several leaves of prayers written in Hebrew found in the Library Cave have allowed scholars to conclude that Jews were among the many groups who traded along the much-trodden road via Dunhuang. In fact, Marc and I had gone to seek out the still-surviving descendants of these Silk Road Jewish traders the summer before, when we took a detour from following the route through China of the seventeenth-century Jesuit Missionary, Matteo Ricci, to stop at the city of Kaifeng. Kaifeng lies right across the other side of the country from Dunhuang, at the Eastern end of the Silk Road – and was even the capital of China for a time. Ricci never visited Kaifeng himself, but in 1605 received an emissary from the head Rabbi of their small community – previously unknown to Europeans – who wanted to negotiate with him towards their conversion to Christianity. Otherwise, he feared the dying out of their non-Chinese traditions.
After many generations of intermarriage, the Kaifeng Jews looked Chinese in appearance, but still practised many customs (sometimes without quite remembering why), such as the avoidance of pork, which marked them out from the rest of the Chinese population. Searching the dusty alleys behind one of Kaifeng’s many mosques, we eventually stumbled upon ‘Teaching Torah Lane’. A lady about my age and who self-identified as Jewish, Guo Yan, welcomed us into a side room in the house she inherited from her grandparents, which happens to sit on the site of the synagogue built there in 1163 (the synagogue’s footprint is now largely covered by Kaifeng’s city Hospital no. 1). The room serves as makeshift shrine to the place’s Jewish past, its back wall bearing a painted scroll mapping the lost synagogue’s various courtyards – to my eye, its architecture of red wood columns surmounted by colourfully tiled roofs looked like a Chinese Buddhist temple. Guo Yan’s dream was to raise enough money to have the synagogue reconstructed, not as an active place of worship – she didn’t believe the government would allow that – but as a kind of garden-cum-museum with live demonstrations (‘Ethnic Minority Cultural Park’?) of the city’s Jewish past. We bought a leaflet from her for a few pounds. In 1851, European missionaries in Kaifeng purchased a Hebrew Torah scroll, one of the fifteen thought to have originated in the city – the remaining Jewish descendents were happy to sell it to the foreigners as no one could read it anymore. It now resides in London, in the British Library.
One of the most extraordinary things about the Mogao frescoes, oxidization aside, is the continuing brightness of their pigments – the intactness that came from being so long forgotten by the outside world. And so the examples of their deliberate defacement, when you come upon them, are all the more striking. In 1921 the Dunhuang local authorities were confronted with a flood of incoming Russian soldiers, fleeing the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. They decided to house them temporarily in the Mogao Caves:
The emigrants wrote their names all over the statue,
carved genitals into its mouth
and cut out its eyes. “The kind of shit people do
to find out where they are”
(Caleb Klaces, ‘Emigrants deface the caves’; you can read an earlier version of the poem, which differs only by a few words, online here)
In one of the caves we entered, decorated with thousands and thousands of two-inch high Buddhas, crosslegged in their painted niches (the pattern reminded me of English wallpaper), the Russian refugees had used their nails, or perhaps knives, to scratch out the faces of all of the tiny figures they could reach. Our guide explained that they were after the gold leaf that once shimmered over those thumbprint-sized visages. I wasn’t sure about this explanation; I wasn’t sure one could so confidently infer the motives of such iconoclasts. In my academic work as a scholar of Renaissance English literature, I’ve been interested for some time in the history of Reformation iconoclasm – the waves of destruction of Church art, in the 1530s and after, that followed on from England’s conversion to Protestantism. A host of little churches in Norfolk contain painted rood screens of Christian saints sporting exactly the same type of damage as the Buddhas in Dunhuang: whole faces, or sometimes just eyes, scratched out with a neatness of outline (like a kind of reverse colouring-in) that seems to belie the passion involved in such a destructive act. The paradox is, of course, that the iconoclasts seem to believe that the pattern of pigment on the panel before them holds forth an eye, a face, which could suffer hurt, even as they seek to demonstrate the image has no hold over them. Sacred rubbish.
The final stanza of Klaces’ last Mogao poem, ‘Emigrants deface the caves’, switches scene entirely, leaving behind the desert of Dunhuang for what I think must be the South American waterfall that starred in Werner Herzog’s 2004 film, The White Diamond:
Nobody had ever seen the cave behind the water.
“Please don’t show it in your film”,
requested the elder tribesman. “We would rather not pry
where the swifts go. It is their place,
The cave behind the water. Herzog’s water-veiled cave is that of Guyana’s Kaieteur Falls. But the segue here reminded me of the Water Curtain Cave (Shuǐlián Dòng) from the Chinese novel Journey to the West, the thought of whose secret space used to enthrall me as my mum read to my six-year-old self about the Monkey King’s early days, happy in the cave behind the waterfall. Journey to the West ultimately tells, of course, the legend of how the Buddhist Scriptures were brought eastward from India into China. In The White Diamond, Herzog puts his camera behind the sacred falls and watches the footage himself, but does not show it to the viewer:
But how could he not take a camera
through the falls, just once, to turn
on himself, to star in what wasn’t really there?
When the Jesuits arrived in China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they considered paintings of the Virgin and child to be among their most powerful tools in the quest for converts. (The Crucifixion – the execution of a lowly slave – seemed to go down less well with the Chinese audience.) But it wasn’t so much the content of the paintings as their style – endowed with all the ‘realism’ Western linear perspective and chiaroscuro could afford – in which they placed their faith. The technical devices of European painting demonstrated its clear superiority to the unshaded flatness and misshapenly proportioned figures the Jesuits saw in Chinese painting – and thus couldn’t help but capture the minds of Chinese converts with its awesome verisimilitude. And yet this idea of depth – of penetrating through the painted surface into the receding world of the work of art behind – is enshrined in the famous legend of the artist Wu Daozi. On finishing a spectacular mural for the emperor’s palace, the Tang dynasty painter clapped his hands and disappeared into a cave within his picture, whose mouth sealed itself behind him before the emperor could follow. Scratching away at the murals’ gilded surface, perhaps Mogao’s Russian guests were trying to emulate Wu Daozi – to open up a hole in the painted surface and follow him through.
If I could get a mansion with a thousand, ten thousand rooms,
A great shelter for all the world’s scholars, together in joy,
Solid as a mountain, the elements could not move it.
Oh! If I could see this house before me,
I’d happily freeze to death in my broken hut!
–Du Fu, ‘My Thatched Cottage was Torn Apart By Autumn Winds’,
trans. Mark Alexander
Just over a week ago I found myself in the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu, standing in front of the thatched cottage of Du Fu. Du Fu 杜甫 (712-770), along with Li Bai 李白 (701-762), is of course the most celebrated of Tang dynasty poets. Looking over the vaguely Disneyish contours of his Chengdu cottage, with its low eaves and hummocked thatch, it’s hard not to think of the famous poem of his that begins with an Autumn gale stripping the straw from its roof, to leave his children rained on in their beds. Written when Du Fu was 50 years old, that poem builds up to a final vision picturing a mansion of ten thousand rooms in which (depending on how the translator deals with 士 shì) all the world’s scholars, or all the world’s poor, might shelter together. So impoverished was Du Fu around this period of his life that one of those children died of starvation. His official position had, scholars suspect, fallen foul of one outspokenly critical poem too many. After the Tang dynasty found itself riven by rebellion, Du Fu had fled the then capital of Xi’an, wandering across a devastated country until, weak and sickening, he reached the southwestern city of Chengdu in autumn 759, then spent the next year working to build his simple thatched hut by a stream.
The most important discovery of Picken’s musicology career was his ‘rediscovery’ of Tang court music, which had once been thought lost because it survived only in scraps of documentation. In his search for the lost Tang music, Picken’s instincts led him to Japan – whose highly conservative culture has preserved so many aspects of ancient China – and then to Japan’s remaining ancient temples. One day, he had a flash of inspiration: what if he took the recordings he had been making of the monks’ chants and sped them up? What he found was that the monks’ austere drones transformed, when played back at double speed, into a lively rhythm that might furnish the dancing of an evening at the Tang court. When he compared this living musical relic to the scraps of Tang notation, they appeared to match. And so the Tang music once thought extinct, Picken managed to reconstruct to the point where it could be performed again.
This delightful fable of accidental preservation and unexpected recovery stayed with me. So when I came to read Prynne’s 2012 introduction to the Chinese translation of his Selected Poems – a talk reprinted in Cambridge Quarterly’s issue on China and the Cambridge English Faculty – I recognised it immediately. Within the prefatory talk, Picken’s is not only a story about history’s losses and gains; it’s a parable to take into the difficult process of translating a poem from one language into another, which involves its own tallying of gains and losses.
A few weeks ago I went home to visit my parents, so that I would get to see them before my next long stretch of travelling. Later that night, the house quiet except for the hum of the fridge, my mum brought down two books from upstairs – one was her secondary school Chinese poetry textbook, the other was a Hong Kong-printed copy of the 300 Tang Poems, which she had bought a few years later. I needed to trace the eye-scrunchingly small characters down the page with my index finger, working across from right to left in the old way. She would pause to help me with the characters I didn’t yet know, or where I couldn’t recognise the traditional equivalent of a simplified one. And so we read together – her reading the words in their Cantonese pronunciation, me sounding them out in my English-stilted Mandarin. My Chinese studies have not yet stretched to Cantonese, whose eight or so tones make it a more musical language than Mandarin, but also an even more fiendishly difficult one to learn. I read somewhere that Cantonese is likely closer than modern Mandarin is to the ancient pronunciation of Du Fu and Li Bai. The sonic effect of that midnight reading was lovely in its own right, as the sounds in the two different dialects crossed paths, sometimes almost overlapping, only to diverge again, as if harmonising with one another.
I’ve seen those two books on the shelf as long as I remember, so it moved me to be able to pick them up and read from them, albeit haltingly and with much help. Because of their place in my mother’s early life, the books themselves already feel like precious survivors. But during that reading session, two further relics emerged from the tanned pages of the 300 Tang Poems. When the book was new, my mum had fashioned it an impromptu dustjacket from a cheap inkwash print bought off a stall, by now an interesting piece of ephemera in its own right. I had looked at its design of grey ducklings on a reed-edged pond many times, pulling it off the shelf as a child – it was the only thing in the whole volume I could understand. But that night, for the first time, I noticed a folded, much-yellowed rectangle of paper tucked into the dustjacket’s inside edge. When I pulled it out an opened it, it turned out to be a form, neatly filled in blue ink, which my mother had needed to submit, aged 11, to apply for her Hong Kong ID card. The over-neat, childlike English script wasn’t my mother’s handwriting, but apparently that of a ‘cousin’ – not a real cousin, but a granddaughter of the old woman she’d been left to lodge with at that time while her adoptive mother went out to work.
The second relic I recognised immediately as of my doing. It fell out when I flicked through the poems: a serrated-edged leaf of about two inches, pressed to an unnatural flatness, and desiccated to a purplish brown. I’d gone though a phase in Hong Kong of picking samples of the local flora when taken for walks, to stow in selected books around the flat. I think I had got the idea that this was the sort of thing little girls in England did. My parents eventually put a stop to it when it was discovered I had ruined an encyclopedia of the animal kingdom – whose colour prints of tapirs and whale sharks had filled my rainy afternoons – by crushing inside it a particularly large and succulent tropical bloom picked up outside our block. The deep pink nectar had seeped through several pages on either side, cementing them together. When I started at my primary school in England, they liked to have us learn classic poems off by heart. I’m not sure if the teacher thought she was being a wit when she assigned me – a recent arrival from the tropics – Browning’s ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’. As it was, the poem’s warnings about the ‘gaudy melon-flower’, and its inferiority to restrained English blossoms, had come too late for this particular colonial child.
Where the purplish serrated leaf had sat undisturbed, for what could have been twenty years, between the pages in my mother’s copy of 300 Tang Poems, it had left a mottled ghost of itself. Before closing the book that night, I slotted the folded yellow form into its dustjacket niche, then placed the leaf carefully back on top of its printed shadow.
That day in Chengdu, when we had finished looking round Du Fu’s cottage, and I had photographed his supposedly replica desk, we strolled onward to another of the city’s famous parks. At that hour of the afternoon it was full of Chengdu’s elderly, seated with thermoses of green tea at the outdoor tables within the sprawling precincts of the park’s teahouse. Most were playing Mahjong, their quiet chat periodically punctuated by a fevered clacking as a table ‘washed the tiles’ (xi pai), all hands digging in to shuffle the plastic pieces around the centre of the table. As we followed the park’s bamboo-arched avenues, we came across an old man who was using one section of flagged path as a giant piece of paper for ‘ground calligraphy’, or dishu. Dipping his outsized brush – it was somewhere between brush and mop – into an old can filled with water, he used that ‘ink’ to trace out characters onto the path. Their scale turned the act of writing into a movement involving not only the hand, but the whole body, like a kind of dance.
I had heard about this ephemeral art of ‘ground calligraphy’, but had never seen it. It apparently had its origins in the public parks of Beijing in the early ’90s. One might read too much into that putative date and place of origin, but it made me think of the theme of transience and disappearance that runs through Chinese contemporary art of that decade. The work of one artist, Song Dong, sprang to mind particularly. He had begun as a painter at an early age, but after the trauma of events in Tiananmen in 1989, he ceased work for some years, before returning as a purely conceptual artist. In 1995 (perhaps inspired by the old men in the Beijing parks?) Song began to keep a daily journal, which he would write out in water on a large flat stone. Their putative record vanished faster than the days themselves. The following year, on a freezing New Year’s Eve night, Song performed a piece called ‘Breathing’. He lay down in a totally deserted Tiananmen square, face to the ground, so that his lips almost touched the pavement. Over the next 40 minutes his clouded breath played over the concrete flag, its vapour cumulatively freezing into a thin sheen of ice, which lasted for a few hours but was gone by morning.
Almost at the same time as we discovered the elderly Chengdu calligrapher, a posse of student physiotherapists out on a team-building exercise had already engaged him respectfully in conversation. He teased them about their difficulty understanding the traditional script, or fantizi, of his artwork. Their generation, unlike his, had grown up only ever knowing the Mainland’s simplified Chinese script, first introduced by Mao in 1956. Eventually he handed over his brush-mop to one of the girls, who giggled and tried to refuse. The whole group laughed as she tried, jaggedly, to write out her name’s three characters with the unfamiliar instrument, which suddenly seemed as clunky in her hands as it had been deft in his.
In the midst of this intergenerational exchange, I asked the old man whether the lines he had written were those of a poem. He replied that it was a very famous poem by Li Bai – but in the old man’s thick Sichuan accent (which for me was verging on incomprehensible) it sounded more like Li Bei. When I got back that night, I identified the poem as Li Bai’s 關山月 (guan shan yue), ‘The Moon at the Fortified Pass’. The old man had only managed to get to the fifth line before being distracted:
The bright moon lifts from the Mountain of Heaven
In an infinite haze of cloud and sea,
And the wind, that has come a thousand miles,
Beats at the Jade Pass battlements….
China marches its men down Baideng Road
While Tartar troops peer across blue waters of the bay….
And since not one battle famous in history
Sent all its fighters back again,
The soldiers turn round, looking toward the border,
And think of home, with wistful eyes,
And of those tonight in the upper chambers
Who toss and sigh and cannot rest.
Written at a time when the Tang dynasty was at war with Tibet, this poem’s terrain is the Chinese empire’s vulnerable Western borders. Many of the place names it invokes are not, relatively speaking, that far from Chengdu, in neighbouring provinces at the country’s western edge. By utter coincidence, the ‘Jade Pass’ Li Bai describes as beaten by the thousand-mile wind is in fact the Yumen Pass in Gansu province, which we had visited just days before. A fortress guarding a gap in the Great Wall outside the city of Dunhuang, it served as a vital conduit for trade on the Silk Road. And so, a few days before we met the calligrapher in the Chengdu park, we had stood sweltering inside the shell of Li Bai’s ‘Jade Pass’, trying to imagine what it must have been like for the ancient soldiers to be stationed inside that hellhole of heat and dust.
In a further little twist, googling this Li Bai poem on the English language internet mainly brings up results associated with Chow Yun-fat’s role as a suspiciously Orientalist pirate captain in Pirates of the Caribbean 3, who recites (in Cantonese) its last four lines during the film. But the reason English language newspapers were so interested was because the poem was cut from the version of the film screened in China itself, along with almost half of Chow Yun-fat’s 20-minutes of screen time. Hollywood films are regularly censored in China for sex and violence, but it seems likely that the Chinese government takes special exception to what they perceive as retrograde Hollywood representations of Chineseness. I was tickled to read that the scene, towards the start of Men in Black 3, where Will Smith ‘neuralizes’ the gathered crowd of Chinese onlookers to the chaos in New York Chinatown was also cut in China, possibly because it was taken as an allegory of Chinese government censorship as an attempt to induce mass amnesia. If the scriptwriters had really been that on top of their covert political allegorizing, it might have been a better film!
I didn’t get the chance to quiz the old calligrapher any further about the poem, because we had a date later that afternoon with a two-week-old baby panda called Hesheng, in whose company I shall leave you now...
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.