Sparrow-mumbling in China

As many of you will already know, April is now over, and with it, the solemn blend of duty and monosyllables that is NaPoWriMo. Why, then, am I still labouring toward a closure few will care enough about to read? Partly obstinate compulsive disorderliness – a xenochronicitous inability to distinguish the timely from the tardy; and partly a sense that there is a shape in these drafts I’d like to carve out properly. A three part unit, not exactly sequence, not exactly not, in which the following is roughly the middle part.

I very nearly did it all – one a day as the days kept insisting on passing – and, though my excuses aren’t the point, there is a point in recording what happens in that intense process, as the day’s more or less casual discoveries sink into the imagination, entering into dialogue with yesterday’s and the week before’s, and continuing themes emerge in a kind of miniaturised, hothouse version of your usual way of working. But here are my excuses anyway.

I was in China for a festival that combined translation, themed conversation and readings in an astonishing, super-stimulating overloading of all the senses. The festival was in Yangzhou, on the northern shore of the Yangtse, a city upon the ancient canal that linked the north and south of China, and so a place poised between often warring elements, with its own very distinct cuisine, music and customs.

Its location and topography feature in several classical poems by the likes of Li Bai and Du Mu – especially the twenty four bridges over the Slender West Lake – and it is the site of the Daming Temple, associated with Jianzhen, the monk who brought the Risshū sect of Buddhism to Japan. Here I encountered for the first time the fascinating Song Dynasty writer, official and monk Ouyang Xiu, whom I’ll write more about later, a mentor of Su Dongpo, who I’d first learnt about in Penglai, in Shandong Province, eight years before.

Given that, as well as a number of old friends from that earlier trip – Yang Lian, Tang Xiaodu, Xi Chuan and Zhai Yongming – the poet Polly Clark, who’d set my first trip to China up, was also in Yangzhou, it felt like a number of cycles were completing themselves. Add to that almost constant busy-ness (besides the need for regular banquets), an inability to get on Facebook to post anything, plus the usual densely-packed accumulation of urgent academic duties to be completed as soon as if not before the jetlag wore off on my return, and you’ll perhaps nod indulgently at my month’s incomplete haul.

(I am giving a mercifully incomplete account of the trip, which also included a period in Nanjing, and on which we were accompanied by the poets Yu Jian, Sean O’Brien, Joachim Sartorius, Arthur Sze, Jiang Tao and Yang Xiaobin.)

The remaining dozen or so poems are almost done – though enough are still at the hazy sketch stage to delay the third posting for a few more days – and there are several translations I won’t be including in any case, as they are earmarked for elsewhere, but the shape of this section, its continuities and discontinuities in relation to the previous bunch, is now more or less clear…


Noodles in Schiphol

The whole upper restaurant floor pulsates
as a single body as I sit to satay noodles
served in a white cardboard four point crown pot:

food from the mirror realm of US TV,
film as the reflection you cannot enter, proximate
as the emptiness below your airplane feet.

How gratefully we enter the silence between lives,
sleep between raw fish sheets in Sushi Hotel,
nibble at oil portraits in the airport gallery.

I stare at magnetic tiles of skaters, blue on white:
the same figures lined our old sold fireplace,
make my eyes, like that house’s windows, house the past.

Airports are where we become information
no-one needs to know but someone must transmit.


Earplugs in Transit

The sound of blood inside your own head
like the chirruping of crickets on a hot night,
eye mask as the curtains on an open window.

The desire for endless flight through the roar
of darkness as though waking during surgery
or betrayed by the primitive stasis of early

interplanetary travel, the drugs or cognac keep
your panic at bay, contemptating days cocooned
as though your thoughts were liquefying,

forming into the logic of another species as
you plummet, the route between worlds a well,
the sticky wings of new ideas bruising up

against the tight wrapping of your sheets,
dawn a blinding rip along the shutter’s base.


The Tribute to Spring

(a version done with Polly Clark)

Autumn is Nature’s prime, and Spring,
when the calendar hears the moon

and master poets from the four corners
cram into the Slender West Lake;

washing winter’s luck away
they knock on Spring’s door;

looking up at lapis air
and down into the shifting green.

Seize the wine cup carried on clear streams,
speak the verse scooped out of time.

The air defies all limits,
the earth whispers intimacies.

Magna Mater
all is in your folds, equal in your favour:

each thing is just itself
each brings its part of joy

just as the classics show

what Wang Xizhi launched at Lanting
Wang Yuyang continued in Hongqiao –
a thousand year feasting
leaving simply the poem.


Visiting Monster Island during the Tang Dynasty

Our redcoat gondoliera circumnavigates
an oxbow island while our hands float
towards the refilled cups of rice wine.

We have become that bowl the poets set
upon the waters at Slender West Lake
when spring was at the throat of Winter.

It is snowing willow down upon the blossom
just as Li Bai will tell us tomorrow in a poem
now being chanted in unison by kids in uniform

but we do not understand – we giggle in
the peach-flavoured morning drunkenness,
recite our own over-amplified verse back;

all of us just this side of kitsch, just that side
of pissed. Our students stand between the trees
intoning into the snow and glare of dynasties –

the future is Tang, the future is wicker.
Spring arrives, hilarious and far too easy.


Notes on the Poet

The first bad poet is the poet who is pretending to be a poet. The second bad poet is the poet who is pretending not to be a poet. The third bad poet is the poet who doesn’t know we are all already poets. The fourth bad poet is the idiot who thinks we’re all already poets.

The first good poet is the idiot. The second good poet is the poet who is pretending to be an idiot. The third good poet is the poet who is pretending not to be an idiot. The fourth good poet is the poet who thinks we’re all already idiots.

The first good idiot is a bad poet…

A poet is an idiot with a large vocabulary.
An idiot is a poet without a vocabulary.
The vocabulary is a large idiot.


Crossing A Bridge in Yangzhou

The girl on the bridge in giant mirror shades
like a bow of water tied to her face
clutching the outsized handbag she can anatomise

and we cannot, has one heel raised so the knee
points inward, and is waiting. Behind her
the twenty three remaining bridges of Yangzhou

as enumerated by Du Mu bore her too much
to turn her head even to pass
these few seconds in which we all appear

in the frame before her eyes
crossing to where, for now, she will not go.


An Informationist Guide to Yangzhou

‘A thousand families in the town
teach their daughters music first.’

The Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou
were Qing Dynasty painters who rejected
the formality of traditional style
in favour of quick, small-scale sketches.
Like this.

One of the 24 bridges of Yangzhou
is 24 Bridge: built of white marble,
the bridge is 24 meters long and 2.4 meters wide,
with 24 parapets and 24 steps.
Hence the name.

In the 45 section Guangling San
associated with the area and ascribed to Xi Kang
(one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove)
the second string of the guqin
is retuned to be in pitch with the first.

As the five strings correspond
to different aspects of society
and the first 宮 (gong) links to 君 (jun) or ‘master’
and the second 商 (shang) to 臣 (chen) or ‘subject’
this is considered radical.

The finest block-print, carved in pear-wood,
can only produce 200 copies before
the millipedal limbs of its characters fail.
Each edition therefore has a limit
like a season or a lifetime.

10,000 concubines dragged the flagship
of the Sui Emperor Yangdi along
the stretch of the Grand Canal he had constructed
between the Yangtse and Yangzhou,
their chains hung with the finest silks.

There is a local dofu dish in which
a single block is chopped into a soup
of 12,000 distinct filaments by a 2lb knife.
Yangzhou is famous for three types of knife:
the kitchen knife, the pedicure knife, and the hair knife.

50,000 poems by more than 2000 poets
were gathered by ten officials
for the Tang Anthology
in a gesture of cultural self-legitimisation
by the Qing Emperor Kangxi.

Five years later he kept scholars
still loyal to the previous dynasty
busy compiling his Dictionary – the Kangxi Zidian
defined almost 50,000 characters
and was a masterstroke of bibliopolitics.

300,000 citizens were massacred by a Manchu prince
as the Qing sought to crush the Southern Ming.
The city had been defended by Shi Kefa,
whose calligraphy was much admired
and who offered his life in place of the population.

Concubines died alongside calligraphers,
daughters beside musicians,
mothers alongside poets,
grandmothers beside the finest chefs.
Wang Xiuchu, an eyewitness, stated

‘Babies lay everywhere on the ground.
The organs of those trampled like turf
under horses’ hooves or people’s feet
were smeared in the dirt, and the crying
of those still alive filled the whole outdoors.

‘Every gutter or pond we passed was stacked with corpses,
pillowing each others arms and legs.
Their blood had flowed into the water,
and the combination of green and red
was producing a spectrum of colours.

‘The canals, too, had been filled with dead bodies.’

Four Compositions for the Guqin

Wine Madness

We gather to hear the master in an office block.
That the lift is a sort of raw crate lined
with plywood and ripped posters offers
ragged contrast to the soundboard of firmiana simplex,
or parasol wood, the base of catalpa ovata
from which he has made his 古琴 (gǔqín).
At the end of a street-long corridor
we are greeted by a grinning man in black slippers
who offers us tea and Moutai in little cups.

Wild Geese on a Sandy Riverbank

The master sits in the calligrapher’s studio
as though he has been waiting for six drunkards
and Xi Chuan for a thousand years,
his hands resting in the space he has folded
as neatly as rice paper between the music.
After several further cups of Moutai, there is
a debate about whether the syllable 麗 ()
adds elegance to the adjective 美麗 (měilì)
which takes longer than his song to resolve itself.

Confucius after the Death of his Favourite Student

He continues to play the silence
with the side of his finger and not the nail
in the Guangling style. We continue to drink Moutai.
There is a character formed by three leaves of tea
in my teacup. Xi Chuan explains
that either it is 风 (fēng) and means ‘wind’,
or it is 爪 (zhǎo) and means ‘claw’,
or it is介 (jiè) and means ‘between’.
We are loudly shooshed by the company.

The Woodcutter’s Song

The last piece is impossible to play
without a gathering of 氣 or energy.
The music’s intention must live alongside
the chance accompaniment of our mobiles,
trilling like robot canaries, the squeak of our mouse shoes;
the tea’s pouring and the toilet’s post-tea pouring,
the traffic in the long midnight street,
and the traffic’s eager horn section.
The grinning man has discovered another bottle.


Nanjing Nightboat

To be on the nightboat not quite drunk
as it pulls away from the Confucian arch
stating ‘Literature is the backbone of the universe’,

from the red gold inner lit plastic boat stop sign,
from the examination hall and the blue neon wave effect,
the cross-eyed dragon car showroom twins;

to pass beneath the bridge an elephant claims
to support, and by the isle of giant exploding goldfish,
the trio of trumpeting flower arches, and leave

the statue of Li Bai’s liver to handle the moon,
the clothing monsters hanging in half-lit windows,
the motorcycles watching us from balconies;

is to watch the water remember how to ripple,
its long tubular wake, its reticule of electricity –
light finely chopped as dofu, its mercury eels;

its seeds of moonflowers, cold toads’ throat boilings,
petals on its surface as though just any leaf –
the water is being lit when it doesn’t require it,

but it bears us on without resentment, jasmine
still allows itself to trail down into it,
willow swings its thinning strands as

we pass beyond into an endlessness of river,
black and lined with spangled black, moonless,
every ripple like clean bone and lithe as a bow.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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