Tuesday 29 November 2016

China Journal 4

3 November

A quiet day, no excursions, just redrafting the book based on Daan's excellent advice. It all works better and hangs together more coherently. The risk in the third part is reduced by a short introduction. It is fascinating and exhilarating to learn.

We go to the usual 3 minute restaurant for lunch and sit outside this time because there is a shaded table, the sun is out and there is only the lightest breeze. We are facing the river. It is very smooth. A raft comes by, then another. The passenger on one raft is singing a song. The girls at the next table join in and wave. They don't know each other. Not something we see much in England. They don't know each other but love the song. Then a whole flotilla of rafts punts past. The butterflies are pairing, two black ones with white markings are fluttering next to each other, almost touching as if about to kiss. A little further on two more butterflies are similarly engaged, oblivious to the rest of the world. The waitress hesitates on the step as they tumble and flit before her.

One more day here then we leave and this will be a dream. The great sugar loaves that hedge in the area will seem unlikely inventions. The sense of being outside time will have melted back into time.
At 4 o'clock it's time to celebrate Alison's birthday. Merlinda has ordered a cake, Clarissa has painted a card and I have written a verse for it. Everyone has signed and now waits to surprise her as she comes down. The Chinese students sing a Cantonese song, then Happy Birthday in Mandarin, syncopated, then we sing our English version. The candle is blown out, the cake cut into pieces and consumed but first the Chinese students bring a dish of noodle soup, noodles being an emblem of long life.


Tonight a Chinese scholar and an English speaker scholar translator will arrive, ready to give us a talk on Chinese poetry tomorrow morning.

I still can't quite believe the book is finished.

4 November

10:20pm. The evening of the last night in Yangshuo. A sad thought since it has been so beautiful and productive.

The morning was taken with two talks on modern Chinese literature, a fascinating, almost enigmatic subject that sometimes dares to speak its name but can never be sure it is safe in doing so. We learned about the revival of classicism, about dedicated Party literature (no love stories except between the Party and the hero), the tales-over-dinner kind of story and many others including more avant garde experiments. I listened and made notes and hope to read some of the authors mentioned.

A Guide for Beginners

You know and I know but you also know that I don't officially know. Officially, you don't know I know either. Is that clear?

You can't do that in front of me. You can do it behind me but be aware there are others behind me. So don't do it.

What you say may be true but it isn't a truth we recognise, therefore it isn't true. Why don't you just write the truth?

The truth is complicated. Life is complicated. You are complicated and I am complicated. Let's keep it as simple as that.

That is allowed but not precisely in the way you want it allowed right now. Once you have done it it will have been allowed.

Both Clarissa and I had a bad night last night (I slept two hours at most) so we passed on the afternoon trip to another beautiful place and stayed here instead, working and sleeping, taking lunch by the river in beautiful hazy sunlight. The rafts glided down. I downed some tofu, Clarissa had a noodle soup, light food since it was partly our stomachs that had kept us awake. I drank jasmine tea, Clarissa opted for ginger. The butterflies billowed drunkenly around us. For the first time I really thought of these two weeks as an idyll. That is how it will seem once we have gone.

Then the party returned from the excursion and a group of Chinese artists arrived to put on a demonstration of painting and calligraphy. There was fan painting, landscape painting, the painting of a table and chair under the trees, with a chessboard laid out. After the demonstration we were invited to have a go ourselves so we did. The products of the evening were offered to us as gifts and I now have the calligraphic version of an old poem about the West Lake (about which I myself was invited write a poem five years ago while visiting the West Lake) and Clarissa has the head of the local art school's drawing of a landscape by our own River Li.

I also have offers from two, possibly three publishers for a selected poems in Chinese translation. That together with the prize and the finishing of Time Runs Out (my mother book) has left me feeling like one of the local butterflies, pleasantly tossed on the breeze in warm sunlight.

But a proper sleep would be nice since we are travelling tomorrow.


Butterfly net, sonnet. You’ll not succeed
in making butterflies of your own. Your blacks
and blues are frittered away. Your rhyme scheme lacks
the wings, the manoeuvrability. You feed
literature not this continual mobility,
this hurling and blundering, this mad flurry
of excitement by the river. You can’t hurry
nowhere in particular. You lack the ability
to shift and return and describe invisible air
with a flutter of caesuras. Why not just give up
in line eleven, break from the grip of meter
and tumble into something looser, unbuttoned, sweeter
than syntax, something without let or stop.
Why should your closing couplet not open like a palm,
extending freedom, voluptuous, luxuriant and calm.

Black, black, black and more black. All
flashed or fringed or filigreed, one bat-sized
fluttering force, all darkness, the rest surprised
into light, now sharp, now blurred into a ball
of random flaking looking to divest
itself of tags in sober Linnaean Latin
and shift gear into a realm of pearl and satin,
of flag and banner, flower, stitch and crest.
This fancy footwork won’t do. Counting feet
is boring with just two, three, four or five.
They beat against the air and are alive.
The best I can do is keep these verses neat.
The butterflies of hell are flecks of soot

that settle on my grossly human foot.

One of my favourite wayside signs. There were quite a few.

A Note on 'Song', a poem for Helen Suzman:
2.The Lever

The poem consists of three parts. The first and the third parts are reflections of each other and contain a repeated quatrain, one at the beginning the other at the end. The shapes and rhymes of the second verse are echoed but not fully reproduced in the second-from-last.

The first verse, a quatrain, is about activism itself, how an idea or movement begins with relatively few people who don’t seem to be accomplishing much until their activity reaches a break-through point when it becomes fully effective. The quatrain expresses admiration for such people. It uses the same rhyme with one repetition. Such repetitions are typical of song and I was aware from the start that a common song-like quality was the way to go.

From the buzzing of the first verse to a series of instances in the second whereby small, apparently insignificant acts lead to great unexpected effects, especially in the case of the feather and the sinking ship. The sinking ship has some relation to the old image of the state as a ship, in this case one about to go down.

The third verse looks for precedents, suggesting that this is how change has always come about. The misery of the poor and oppressed reaches a critical mass articulated by spirituals, anthems and rebel songs.

The fourth verse uses the example of the lever. The source is Archimedes who said: ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.’ He was referring to physical reality,  the laws of mechanics,  but the phrase has often been used in a metaphorical sense. The idea appeared in the middle of the poem and I decided to run with it. It wasn’t going to be there from the start.

The fifth verse (a partial mirror of the second) joins the image of hands applauding to that of the lever and fulcrum and refers to the sense of encouragement, the physical raising of the heart, which is the point of the verse as a whole.

Funnily enough I think it is the curious notion of the heart as a physical object that may be raised by levers and fulcrums is what makes the verse a poem. It is a faint echo of the Metaphysical poetry of Donne and Marvell.

The last verse is simply the chorus restated.

The poem aims to avoid the heavy-handedness and predictability of dull verse by leaning as fas as possible towards poetry, so that despite having an apparently strict form and firm rhymes, ideas should arise and develop organically. I genuinely didn’t know where the poem was likely to go (think of Robert Frost’s idea of surprise) but I did know what I think. 

I was recently asked in interview what the message of my poems was. My answer was that I don’t have a message and that (to echo someone else’s answer) if I did I would write a letter not a poem.

In the case of Song however there is a pretty clear message: persist, act together, you can do more than people think, you can change the world. Indeed I could just have written that. But by introducing form and imagery (an improvised imagery) I hoped the message might carry some of the freshness of discovery. Rhyme, stanza, imagery and wit can lend freshness. They can turn a message into an anthem or at least a kind of inner music. But it is the physical raising of the heart that is the discovered truth of the poem. It is the poem’s ‘nightingale’.

Nevertheless, I still feel slightly uncomfortable with it because I distrust simple messages. I began as a poet by distrusting the broad and simple, hoping instead to discover more complex, more contradictory truths, truths that actually were true. I wanted the nightingale in the middle of the dark wood not the rhymed prescription.

This poem is not about a dark wood: it is about people putting their shoulders to the wheel. But above all it is about levers that raise hearts.

A Note on 'Song', a poem for Helen Suzman:
1. The Nightingale

Song was written on request for a magazine, The Liberal, to commemorate the death of the South African political activist, Helen Suzman who had worked tirelessly for black rights and was several times nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was, in other words, a commission and the poem is, what is referred to as an occasional poem, that is to say a poem written for an occasion.

The occasional poem is a problem from the traditionally romantic point of view according to which a true poem arises spontaneously from the heart or spirit and takes its destined but unpredictable course, carrying the discovered urgency of its undeclared and unarticulated mission. A poet may be inspired by listening to a nightingale but would not deliberately go out into a wood to seek out a nightingale in order to praise it for qualities he already knew it possessed. A proper poem has to be a surprise: no surprise for the poet no surprise for the reader, said Robert Frost and I think that he and Keats (the poet with the nightingale) were essentially right. A proper poem should arise out of a naked unguarded experience that elicits surprise in the imagination by extending the consciousness in some way. Poetry is not what one knows but an adventure into what one apprehends.

On the other hand it is customary to offer verses for particular causes or occasions: for births, for birthdays, for weddings, for anniversaries, for funerals.  People seem to feel that poetry, primarily as verse, is appropriate for such occasions. Its memorability, its concision, its perfect formulations seem to convey something of the ritual aspect of events.  There are times when poetry seems downright useful. Satires serve a political purpose. Song lyrics can maintain a community spirit: military marches, chants at football grounds, old campaigns and battles round the camp-fire.  Advertisements use rhyming and rhythmical forms to sell products. Verse may be used to explore rational ideas or describe processes. In all these cases the sense of deliberation, of precisely delivering what one knows, assumes prominence. Keats rejected poetry that ‘had a palpable design’ on us and preferred poetry that came as naturally as leaves to a tree. And it’s true: we don’t necessarily want rhymed advertisements for our views yet there is a kind of joy in the sheer sociability of occasional poems.

The poetry of unguarded experience provides adventure and excitement, ideally the shivers. The poetry of achieved purposes produces logical structure and satisfaction.  Both are valuable in their own ways

Song for Helen Suzman belongs more to the second category than the first, hence my original discomfort with it, even more in being represented by it as somehow typical of my work or being an instance of the best of it. But why should I feel that?  The poem, after all, has a clear function which is to draw attention to Suzman and to celebrate her work as an activist on a specific sad occasion.  Why, if I believed in he work - as I do - would I not want to do that? And isn’t it a delight to write something well-made for the sheer pleasure of writing it?

A Note on 'Song', a poem for Helen Suzman

I was encouraged to write this by Neil Bowen,  editors of the anthology The Art of Poetry. He said students would welcome it. So here goes, in two parts. But the poem comes first. Then the two posts.

for Helen Suzman

Nothing happens until something does.
Everything remains just as it was
And all you hear is the distant buzz
Of nothing happening till something does.

A lot of small hands in a monstrous hall
can make the air vibrate
and even shake the wall;
a voice can break a plate
or glass, and one pale feather tip
the balance on a sinking ship.

It’s the very same tune that has been sung
time and again by those
whose heavy fate has hung
on the weight that they oppose,
the weight by which are crushed
the broken voices of the hushed.

But give certain people a place to stand
a lever, a fulcrum, a weight,
however small the hand,
the object however great,
it is possible to prove
that even Earth may be made to move.

Nothing happens until something does,
and hands, however small,
fill the air so the buzz
of the broken fills the hall
as levers and fulcrums shift
and the heart like a weight begins to lift.

Nothing happens until something does.
Everything remains just as it was
And all you hear is the distant buzz
Of nothing happening. Then something does.

Monday 28 November 2016

China Journal 3

Mask by Clarissa!

Terrifying students!

Barbara and Larisa

Runar and Gudrun change genders and Barbara

Daan and Ravi as the night wears on!

1 November
Yesterday was Halloween and Barbara, the Mexican playwright, got together with Ravi (Indian-American poet) to arrange a trip into Yangshuo city to buy drinks and nibbles and prepare for a party. The trip to Yangshuo suddenly became very popular and most people went and spent the afternoon there as well as dinner in an Indian restaurant. We stayed behind with a couple of others, I to write the penultimate section of the last part of the book, Clarissa to paint and to prepare for the party by making me a vampire mask (eyes and top of head the rest rudimentary make-up combined with natural aptitude). Larissa, the German novelist continued working, as did Katherine, the American short-story writer. So those of us left walked round to the 3-minute restaurant (je the restaurant that is 3 minutes away) and ordered something quick and fast, a sandwich and a sode in my case. Then back to the house to prepare.

We were fully choreographed to make an appearance downstairs at 8pm. Clarissa wore the garland we had bought from the old woman together with a veil and with a bit of mean make-up looked like a beautiful haunted version of La Cicciolina, but with clothes (again, photos later). The turn out was terrific. Everyone was there, Runar and Gudrun in reversed genders, Daan with a sinister Good Farmer mask, Merlinda as half a pirate, Barbara as a form of Catwoman, the students as various ingenious zombies, warlords etc. After an initial awkwardness the dancing began and picked up pace, continuing solid for three and a half hours to anything from Bee Gees to Bowie to Gangnam Style, to The Ronettes. To my own astonishment I danced solid, with full energy throughout, without sitting down or resting more than once for ten minutes of conversation, Clarissa (Bride of Dracula) likewise. Everyone admired everyone's costume and make-up. It was the most fun we had had for years. We were the last to pack up and pack away.

Although I felt fine when dancing, once in bed my right hip was so stiff and painful it took a couple of hours to get to sleep. My hearty congratulations to my surgeon, Mr Ali. We're through the MOT with flying colours. Next step: hip replacement.

This morning I finished the book about my mother, now provisionally titled Time Runs Out (first draft)!!! Actually finished!!! I had given up hope of it at times but being here and simply working and thinking and working again has done it.

I am inwardly opening bottles of champagne.

Now, after checking drafts, we'll see how the world takes to it.

Domestic Science GCSE Chinese style

2 November
Yesterday four of us went to a cookery lesson in the afternoon. It was at Cloud 9 in Yangshuo where we ate after the Mountain Song festival. So we got a taxi into the city, that dropped us at an appointed spot ready to pick us up again and walked the short distance to the restaurant. Jenny, the chef and tutor, sat us down, offered us tea, then told us the first step would be to take us down to the market where we would see where the ingredients were bought. So we set off down the street to the big indoor market where she showed us the various vegetables remarking on what each was and its role in this or that dish. In the meantime people buzzed around on motorbikes conveying this or that from place to place. Along the way we pass a fish tank was jammed with fish. Later as we progressed to the meat market there were chickens and geese and rabbits in cages waiting to be slaughtered and, right at the back of the hall, cats and dogs too. I won't describe the scene here only to say that this clearly was nothing extraordinary to people. Not all of us could look at this. The sight was hard.

From there straight to cookery. Aprons and hats on. Fourteen gas rings, seven on each side, the implements and ingredients laid out. We made three dishes, one featuring aubergines, one featuring cuts of chicken (we didn't have to slaughter them ourselves) along with peanuts and onions etc, as well as some dumplings that needed to be pinched into shape. Clarissa's were very beautiful in the conventional way but mine would surely have got a prize for their conceptual references to twentieth century art, being a mixture of Picasso's early cubist work and Dali's melting clocks. There was a touch of Rachel Whiteread too in the spaces between them, but perhaps not enough because a couple of them insisted on clinging together while being steamed.

Did it taste good? I reserve judgment on that. I have enjoyed finer gastronomic treats but as conceptualists are wont to say, it is the process not the product that really matters.

Otherwise writing and, occasionally, talking. The talking most usefully about the finished book since Daan offered to read it and did so with marvellous care. I should add he was extremely positive about it too. All his suggestions were good and right. So I have more hope now and a great deal of encouragement.


Today's distraction was a bike ride to Moon Hill, that needs special description. I'll do that tomorrow morning. Meanwhile the arrangements for my literary prize event are becoming grander by the day. I feel myself shrinking under them as the weight grows. God help me if I ever take myself seriously. The exciting thing is the book I have just finished not the ones I have already written.

Friday 25 November 2016

China Journal 2

Zhang Yimou's spectacular begins

24 October
Yesterday a longer walk in the morning up to the bamboo raft station. The river is shallow in places, only calf-high but the rafts can only go one way, with the stream. When they get to the their destination the rafts have to be loaded on to trucks, the tourists on to a bus and the staff onto a smaller bus and they return by road. Meanwhile the great black butterflies with blue spots of startling luminosity, and others, the coppers, the brimstones, the tiny whites, and the black and white ones like a dedicated bunch of Newcastle supporters.

We take a quick shared one course lunch at one of the three restaurants, after which I speak to my student translators who come with questions - they are all sweet pretty student girls - then return to work followed, in my case, sleep (another heavily broken night) before going with the others to Yangshuo to see the great show directed by Zhang Yimou, who orchestrated the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and won a Golden Bear for his work in film.

In the event it was a marvellous spectacle of a little over an hour, enacted on the river, to a vast Chinese audience, with a cast of hundreds, mostly local people in magnificent costumes. It was a little like watching the Olympics opening ceremony, breathtaking, beautiful, costumes in gold, in silver, in blue, a cast of a hundred peasants rowing through red silk waves, an enormous moon with a woman dancing on it, a pair of lovers meeting, countless figures perfectly choreographed to music now traditional Chinese, now very western cinema track - and all this with a range of the real illuminated sugarloaf mountains behind as backdrop. Individual figures were tiny, even from where we were, which was only some seven rows from the front. It was the individuals that carried the story - something about love and the masses and the nature of rule as I understood it - but apparently the story is hardly there anyway though there are references to stories already known in China.

I am very glad to have seen it especially in the circumstances of a hot autumn night in a crowd of spectators that looked chaotic but very quickly assembled in their numbered places.

The Picturesque

On Natural Beauty

The more picturesque 
the view, the more a picture
of the real picture.

Variation on Heaney

Here is the picture of a spade -
I'll dig with it.

26 October
Being in a hurry to finish the post before setting off on an hour and a half's bus ride to Guangxi Normal University, I forgot to add that after the Mountain Songs we all went to Cloud 9 restaurant and the singers came with us still in their full costume. We sat in groups around tables with the usual Lazy Susan in the centre while two of the female singers sat at each table. The princess and her colleague sat at ours and continued improvising, singing us welcome songs, but also with impromptu songs addressed to us individually. They toasted us by offering us a slice of orange then later by clinking tea glasses. In real life they work on farms and in shops. Merlinda, the Philippine-Australian poet sang them a song back in a beautiful low alto voice. We also said goodbye to the students who have been accompanying us and welcomed some new ones.

Back at the hotel/centre for an hour or so then the bus ride to Guangxi. A guided tour of the university, founded in the 30s, but with a lot of ongoing building. Walked through the stadium with lots of student runners and joggers, through orderly ranks engaged in group physical exercises, and another group grasping large red fans.

The reading to a very full class in a very well equipped congregation hall. Fascinating to listen to three of our fellow resident writers, Larissa, Daan and Ravi. The first time we have heard each other. I read on 6th November in Guangzhou. Afterwards a tiny girl student comes rushing up. You look like the BFG, she giggles. You all smily. I decide to take it as a compliment.

The drive back suddenly hits a wall of fog. Soon after, a truck going down the wrong side of the carriageway comes right at us, braking just in time.

27 October
In which the internet packs up for a few hours and we find that everyone has gone off to a restaurant we don't know, as a result of which the staff offer to run us out there on two battery-powered motorbikes and we ride pillion, without a helmet of course since I have not seen one helmet in China, up the dark road to the place where the others are seated round a table outside, but we are fitted in and join the food melée while making civilised conversation after which we walk back down talking and talking and getting back and having a beer and talking until a big spider appears on the ceiling when two of the party leap up in panic and scuttle spider-wise off to bed.

Otherwise quite a lot of work done during the day and a filmed interview answering two questions in the afternoon, the first about multiculturalism in my own work and the second about the place of research in writing poetry.

We both enjoyed the motorbike ride. Perhaps we should get motorbikes.

Thursday 24 November 2016

China Journal 1

View from our balcony at Yangshuo Mountain Retreat

The River Yulong right by the retreat

21 October
5pm, the first day in Yangshuo and the sun is out. Rivers, rivulets, ponds, rapids down which bamboo boats carrying tourists, dip and right themselves. A large carp in a tiny pond. A big black butterfly the size of a small bird, flittering round near the hibiscus. Above us those extraordinary limestone outcrops, karst, clothed in trees but revealing sheer rock faces, scarred and holed. It's about 25C. We are all getting acclimatised. I wrote for an hour or so this morning then lay down and fell asleep. Then we had a short walk in the heat.

Tonight the formal welcome dinner, outdoors on the terrace.

Travel Notes

Outside, the mountains blunted
by the soft darkness.
We are all alone
in the spaces between words,
in breaths, in commas.
Before early dawn.
The vast terrain of China
as dark as the sea.
One bad sentence ruins
the book, he says, our young aesthete,
breathing the night air.
Everything passes,
says the clock but nothing does,
nothing quite passes.

22 October
Last night a walk round the city, Yangshuo County. Buzzing and crammed, the main shopping drag packed solid with shops and stalls, blaring music, often live, with some demonstrations of crafts, a VR lounge, bars, the music mostly westernised as are the clothes, a mixture of China and America (call it Chimerica) but with an air of Kuala Lumpur meeting Grafton Street. We sit in a bar and drink a beer, are photographed as amiable curiosities. Boy sings Chinese pop-ballads feelingly to a guitar.

Have sketched two poems, written a journal and added to the book about my mother. Clarissa painting.

‘The Future of Nostalgia’

The future of nostalgia was resolved.
We’d had enough of it. No more dreaming
of grandad’s underpants or mother’s bra.
It was the end, there was nothing worth redeeming.

This was Chimerica where everything was trade 
and free as air, the air of yesterday.
Nostalgia was the present remembering itself.
The present was past and wouldn’t go away.

Lord, let us live in a shower of cheap light.
Let’s trade our bodies as once we traded fur.
Let us be lost in streets without a map.
Let’s be ourselves by being who they were.

22 October
Off air much of yesterday. Took an after breakfast walk while it is relatively cool down the cycle path. Tremendous variety of butterflies from the bat-sized blacks, to smaller by still large blacks with brilliant blue flashes and still others blacks with white fine brocade edging. Also copper coloured ones with delicate patterns, some some yellow ones like Brimstones, and a few tiny whites.

Black Butterflies in Yangshuo

shreds of burning cloth,
smuts, flakes of soot, a black flap
studded with medals

if you are the ghosts
of the river, the river
must be in mourning

sinister as bats
in a movie, you reveal
nothing, hide nothing

the jewels you wear
on your black wings shimmer
before you settle

troubadors of night
where are your instruments. your
inaudible songs?

see the hibiscus
thick with black hordes. is it death
that you are bringing?

such variations
on one simple theme of black,
spots and striations

could you be the soul
torn loose of flesh, set to dance
to no clear purpose?

wholly enviable
condition to be alight
without pain or grief

a grand finale
of black butterflies, the rain
jewelled, falling.

The bamboo boats come in flotillas, essentially punts propelled by pole. They descend the miniature rapids and right themselves. Small zebra-striped fish dart and hide in the clear shallow water of the river. People pass on electric mopeds.

Work for the rest of the day with a break for lunch at the nearest restaurant, down the path, just a couple of minutes away. Interesting to hear the female writers speak in defence of boys and men. That would be counter-revolutionary talk in the U.K. But they have sons and worry about them.

More work, then dinner at the second restaurant along where they speak some English. It isn't a group arrangement but we are all there so it feels a little more formal but the conversation is very relaxed.

We walk back in the dark. Little or no reception. Maybe it's better in the morning.