Thursday, 4 June 2009


On 4 June 1989 we were in Budapest. We had been there since early January and were to be there for months yet. The walls of the world we knew were falling in slow motion and by 4 June it was clear that nothing would be the same again. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie had been declared in February (Valentine's Day) and I remember our Hungarian friends asking us what it meant and what we thought. Sometime during that year I was asked for a hundred words or so by the TLS in response to it and I duly wrote them. I can't remember what I said. It seemed crazy and nonsensical but a very long way away.

Then came Tienanmen, the days of build-up, the awaited arrival in China of Gorbachev, the light-bringer, in the expectation of whose visit the students filled Tienanmen and built the foam and papier-mâché Goddess of Democracy.

In the meantime Hungary itself was building up to the state reburial of Imre Nagy and the great mass ceremony in Hösök tere, or Heroes Square. The headiness of that moment was amplified by the extraordinary, apparently impossible events in China.

And then it broke and the breaking ran through us like a flood of icy water. We watched on Hungarian TV, in black and white. Everyone knows this piece of film by now but no apologies for putting it up again. To see this for the first time was to see the reverse side of the world. Nothing could have been more moving, more uplifting, more tragic.

It broke and there was blood everywhere. Our eyes and fingers were sticky with it. Twelve days to go to our own version of Tienanmen. Suddenly everything that had seemed, unbelievably, to be decided one way, now swung back into uncertainty, anxiety, fear.. All it would take was a few tanks and a volley of bullets.

I was writing the title poems of Bridge Passages (some nice reviews on the Amazon link that I never got to see at the time) in 1989, a kind of poem-diary of the turbulence of that year. This poem, Chinese White, was the Tienanmen entry:

Chinese White

Do you remember that scene in Ashes and Diamonds where
the hero rushes forwards through the clotheslines and bleeds
to death among the sheets? Or was it
Canal (I can't remember now). A square
of white turns slowly red. The redness fades
to black and white. The picture is a composite,

a form of poster. The War, the Resistance,
something about betrayal, all mixed up
in a child's mind who didn't see
the war, for whom it is a haunting presence
of sheets and blood. An image hangs and drops
in a grey passageway or alley.

His name was Zbigniew, and he wore dark glasses,
and later he jumped from a train (a true life fact)
because, well, Poles are like that,
they get drunk, morose,
etcetera. The girl who kisses
the boy was blonde as always. Was it an act
of bravery him getting shot

or cowardice? We could look it up in books
but that is not the point (we pull our serious face)
but something in the falling, the how
and where of it. And so wherever one looks
the same old images return and find their place,
a square, an alleyway, a row

of ordinary houses suddenly still and hot
and people falling lying as if on a square
of film. You see the victim's head
as someone aims and shoots him, and you cut
to tanks or bodies or a sheet hung out to air,
a white square slowly turning red.

Zbigniew Cybulski was the man.

And he did commit suicide by leaping from a train.

The films were by Andrzej Wajda and I watched them in my childhood on our first or second TV. It was in fact Ashes and Diamonds and here is the very scene (first three minutes). He doesn't die quite there. But it is wonderful.

And then there are the tanks, and the single man in China. And on the 16 June I went along to our own great square of white with 200,000 other people and stood there in the bright sunshine.


Desmond Swords said...

I like this piece George, it has all the forward going impetus of something written at speed, the fizz plain to read (though saying that you might come back with an opposite account.)

I would be very interested if you could give a few lines on how it was composed - fast/slow, came out fully formed or a mix of draft and swiftness, please?

George S said...

It was written pretty fast, as most of my poems are, Desmond. I can't write slowly. When I get stuck I leave the poem, then start again when I am think I am ready and write fast again.

That year it was possibly extra fast. All the poems are in the Collected.

Thanks for asking.

George S said...


Perhaps just to say that it was the image of the white sheets in the film that started the whole poem. An odd memory, and then, just as the poem does, trying to recall it. The blood a kind of soiling.


Desmond Swords said...

Thanks very much George.

A tentative specualtion, but it seems to me that a swift consonantal and assonantal grace manifests itself in the fully birthed poem - or any piece of writing written on the hoof.

There is an un-belaboured quality, reflecting the *joy of fitting poetic frenzy* in the Amegin text, when the mind is up and running smooth as a baby's effortless gurgling and murmerings, a cerebral elasticity to what's written.

Amiri Baraka in an interview with Kjali Dial at, talks about learning to trust an inner rhythm:

The whole point of developing the skill is so that the words fly on the rhythm. You feel the rhythm before you know what you’re talking about..

This is what i sense myself when flying on it and recognise in others, roughly equating to the notion of sound and sense having a relationship at sub-conscious level. In bardic practice the most complex and challenging meter was dán díreach, which literally translated is art-straight or straight art.

Every syllable had to have set and strict assonantal or consonantal relationship in a specified order and though i am still to work out fully what they where, i have a creative-hybrid-interpetation, that it relates essentially to what Baraka is on about when he says flying on the rhythm and can see it in what i think's the swift stuff. For example:

Do you remember that scene in Ashes and Diamonds where
the hero rushes forwards through the clotheslines and bleeds

ashes - rushes -- clotheslines - diamonds -- scene - bleeds

This is the genral ball park of dan direach, where the pattern of sonic relationships is at its fullest, inter-line chiming and ryhming and all sorts of deft touches which seem to out themselves when the poetic fizz and frenzy of imbas (poetic inspiration) is on us and we are purring like a bentley.

Zbigniew Cybulski

"He was running to catch a train bound for Warsaw. As he jumped for the already speeding train (as he had often done), he slipped on the steps, fell under the train, and was run over."


I noticed this dan direach tendency in another filmic poem of yours from Reel: Noir, interline concordance between pancake and ashtry.


The one note of Hope today, for many was Obama in Cairo. He seems the first American leader in my time, who talks straight and honest.

Thanks very much G.

conche - word ver

Poet in Residence said...

George, At the time the daughter of my next-door-but-one neighbour was a student at Peking University. It was with great relief that we saw her come home unscathed. You can imagine the worry her parents had.

Desmond, as you probably know there are extremely complicated and firm rules about Welsh poetry, or more correctly poems written in Welsh (Cymraeg). I've forgotten them all now, but sometimes I have the feeling they surface unseen and unbidden, usually when I'm in full and urgent flow. A brace of CAMRA's 4.5% can trigger the creative mood in the Land of Song. Hence the ban on Sunday opening. Raise your voices in church you heathens!

George S said...

Ah, but I have a distinct memory of being on a field course in Wales when I was seventeen or eighteen, and leaving the centre with a few others for a drink. It was Sunday. The nearest pub was shut, of course, but someone suggested we go round the back.

And of course it was open, and of course there was a bunch of people happily drinking there. They looked very guilty. For a few moments.

Still thinking of going to China. Clarissa was born there and I was actually awarded an unasked for, but distinctly handsome travelling grant by the Society of Authors some ten years ago to go anywhere I pleased. Unspent (but worth less now alas). Other trips kept getting in the way.

And it is facinating - to respond to both of you at once - what rules can do, or perhaps what rules encapsulate by way of a kind of wisdom.

My general take on it is that they liberate, not enchain.

(Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, /Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea"

One of yours, I believe, Gwilym.

Poet in Residence said...

"Slept at night in a dog kennel
But nobody chained him up."

I think 'chain/s' is Dylan's favourite word.

We may now imagine bold young Szirtes abroad in dry-Sunday Wales a-drinking and revelling like a backroom criminal "until the Sunday sombre bell at dark".

It would probably be an hotel bar you were in - as "resident or bona fide guest" - that was the usual modus operandi or loophole employed

Maybe you could spend your holiday voucher on a pub/church crawl in Wales - research into Dylan Thomas and his pals I mean.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Zbigniew Cybulski - strange that. It is, probably, the first time in like twenty years I see somebody remember him. I thought I am one of the last people liking him.