Friday, April 18, 2014


Reading poems by Gu Cheng --a prior vague memory of his short life, killing his wife, his own suicide, but didn't know of his high reputation in China. Ouyang Yu would probably dispute it? He's certainly not one of the hundred contemporaries in Ouyang's anthology, In Your Face (Otherworld, Melbourne, 2002) --but he is a reference, an image, in the poem of one who is --Xu Jiang's The xiao jie at Dongdan (translator's note : xio jie = little sister, prostitutes).  I liked those poets, poems, when I first read the anthology, and right now Xu Jiang's impresses me as the kind of poetry I'm thinking my way into as the feeling of writing poems stirs inside me again.

Preamble : On the inordinately long bus ride into the City this day (the trains at Clifton Hill bizarrely unable to proceed down the line in either direction --imagine scores of passengers suddenly having to seek other transport, running across the freeway to the Queens Parade bus & tram hub) I read the poems of Dimitris Tsaloumas, --Helen Nickas's selection for the French edition (in which I'm astonished to find myself quoted in her introduction, in French so I cant really read it) --Un chant du soiree, published 2014, Orphee / La Difference, Paris. It's the book Petr Herel mentioned to me a few weeks ago when he popped in to the Shop and said it was a good translation as far as he could make out. I, of course, read only the original English, though Dimitris's earliest poems would have been translated from the Greek, followed then by the poems he wrote directly into English --the couple of decades he seemed to have accepted English language & life in Australia, in Elwood, alternating six months in Australia & six months on his beloved Leros in Greece. But not at the last --one day he dramatically claimed English wasn't the language nor this the place he wanted to be poet of or in. I read his poems on the stop start crawl from Clifton Hill through North Fitzroy & then Carlton & finally the City, and liked again the local settings, appreciating, again, how his classical poems, mythological & historical, have a similar purchase, --the parochial elevated to the Elysian & the Elysian made accessible, colloquialised --a switch of reference but the same tone of voice, --his tongue in one cheek & then in the other --chasing the same morsel around his mouth, doggedly. I quote here, Of Trees and Birds :

Three are the hardy trees that haunt
the space of my obsessions;

the cypress, pointed sharp in starlight
gathering shadows of friends long gone,

piercing the song of nightingales,
the break-of-day exuberance of larks;

the poplar, tremulous of yellowing leaf
in a far island's marshy cove

where September cranes land on their flight
from the oncoming snows of desolation;

the gum, its vastness of land and horizons
and sun-struck screeching birds that mock

the stubborn traveller who staggers on
trusting the certainties of maps.

I remembered some of the poems I wrote in The Red Book (1981-83) --naturally, another unpublished collection, still in handwritten exercise book, though at one time I began typing it, airmail-thin paper easily punctured by heavy handed typing, long lost now I think. The Red Book wasn't so much a parody of social, even socialist, realism but a redeeming of a bad idea by the lyrical & anecdotal of the higher literature. One poem imagined my own mum as its reader, the poem written for her to understand, intended to explain itself while holding a tone & shape which seemed true to poetry when it was done :

the rooster is bigger than the tree it's perched upon
the rooster is the rooster as the tree is the tree
nothing more a name could give to me

sky is blue
ground is white
houses village this terrain
snow pillages what spring'll regain

rooster is whatever rooster seems to be
ordinarily rooster's on its farm
out of harm's way
where's the farm you say
surely rooster's lost
and where is village come to that
& why's there snow on the longest day of summer?

sun's refraction above the hills
rooster's beak cued for crowing
metaphor & allegory might not at all
be blowing through
what breeze there is doesn't ruffle vermillion-red
yellow brown black & blue

you see through eyes which know what to see
does rooster see through our dreaming?
we groom our dreams & leave rooster to its crowing
what is is what it is & also what it's seeming
tree dreams its rooster whatever its human
coming & going

So now there is Gu Cheng (collections published by Copper Canyon & New Directions) & Xu Jiang --Xu Jiang's poem about working girls jumps with topicality yet is elegiac-- "it's knock-off time for them / the morning breeze in beijing was so gentle, blowing / across the faces of the harvesters / another night of labour / as gratified as gu cheng or hai zai [another suicided poet] / having just finished writing their immortal poems". I feel it's my kind of poem! --the language, the sound. As for Gu Cheng --five years of exile, predominately in Aukland --imagine that little house on a little island, the Chinese poet in New Zealand? --five years a lifetime and New Zealand another universe. At the last, October 1993, in the letter he wrote to his parents, this philosophy : "We have now returned from America, via Tahiti, to our small island in the sea. With that sudden change of winds, I have a better understanding of people now; I bear no hatred or resentment. To be separated, in the furthest corner of the world, is not easy; that people can be born and be together is the fortunate thing. Whether life is good or bad is really only a state of mind." (translated by Joseph Allen, Sea of Dreams : The Selected Writings; New Directions, 2005) --what equanimity! --but immediately followed by his atrocious act.

What is Xu Jiang's poem but a homecoming? --"at dongdan, i knew my life was light  / in that instant, waking up from all my wasted and tormenting / hours" --the "xiao jie, (in fact just women)" --that is the fact of the xiao jie, --thunderclap half-hidden in the bracket as Ouyang Yu translates it, --the otherwise diminutive or qualification 'just' is here the crucial foundation of the poem, the poem-of-perception --and not surprising 'so dazzling that i was shocked' --because 'grrrrls' aside, it is the way of seeing that's conclusively justified --the humility (as I'd say) of it, open sesame to golden treasury of world given up to poetry --the fact of the world, --& 'humility before the fact' first principal in my book, the which becomes 'The Book' through the years I've used it. Xu Jiang's poem ends : "i was lucky to encounter you at dongdan / and in that instant / i experienced the long-forgotten call of poetry again"... Touche! We shall see...



Rob Schackne said...

Hi Kris,
Catching up on my reading. Inasfar as contemporary Chinese poetry is read and discussed at all, Gu Cheng is well known in these parts, the big Chinese cities. This said, his work seems to have been "harmonised", i.e. his tragedy as an admonition against taking up poetry, with vague warnings against the journey West and what pernicious reefs are unencountered. So yes, pretty damned relieved that it all didn't happen here on native soil. (On another matter...I've misplaced your email address...and I wanted to send you this recent little poem, which for some reason set me to thinking of you!)



These dinosaur rivers
the wheels of chariots
the so-called joy of angels
leaving on a marvellous spree
hammerhead & inside loop
(the details aren’t important)
if my memory serves me well
the devils hide in the crannies
where the angels get short sticks
meanwhile by the riverside I sit
arms-length & long spoons divided
supping with a band of demons
looks like the wind is picking up
dark clouds now are sailing past
the spokes have turned inward
don’t know how long this will last.

© 2014 Rob Schackne

collectedworks said...

hi ROB, I cant remember if i saw this at the time... sorry... Thank you for the comment & the Wheel poem... Can well imagine the 'tragedy as [excuse for] admonition against taking up poetry' by certain authorities... Ive been distracted by Shop biz.. try to get back into normal writing life soon! My best email is,
Cheers for now,