Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sinéad Morrissey, from "China"


Take up a screen before dawn and ready the inks.
There is a country which does not exist and which must be shown.
Steady the ingredients.


A tunnel of trees. My brother and I on the top
of an empty double-decker in Derbyshire.
the absence-from-home of summer
becoming a scab to be picked over. The bus pulled up

by a pub, as the greenery scratching
at the window ended and we were given a field
with a horse and a dog and a red child
in it, waving.

Sunlight was there like a wall
and halved everything. In my head I was singing
This is Happening This is Happening This is Happening.
A boy bounced his way down the aisle

and started smoking, when time
opened. Or stopped. Or almost stalled
and the boy and my brother and the bus and the world
disappeared on the prick of a needle – pop! – and I

sat sideways avoiding the gap.
And then I saw I was enormous
and in another kind of tunnel. That I was lost.
That there was no going back.


Conjure the Yangtze and the Yellow River
And bring them a matter of hours together
On the same train line and both of them seen
Through semi-darkness on a flickering screen
Which is and is not a window. Blow
Over the waters to buckle them. Add snow.


Evening. Beijing. And farewell to Mao's mausoleum
through the glass, ablaze in the nerves of the Square of Heaven
like everlasting Christmas. The bus forces us on:
another station, another train, another city, another season.
Advertising flickers in the waiting room. That night I dive like a child –
borne aloft by the train's engine, or like one born again in its mild
motion, the shunt and click of the carriages over the sidings
the soporific tenderness of a language I do not recognise –
and re-surface at nine, an hour beyond breakfast time.
The mine wheels, factories, fish farms, and allotments
battling for space between slack-blackened tenements
have receded now into the north. here the sky is unfolding the blue
cloth of itself on a new country, or on a country which never grew
old to begin with. Spinach, pak choi, cabbage greens, lettuce,
geese sunning themselves among shiny brown cowls of the lotus
and an echo-less emptiness, a sense of perspective too wide
and too high for the eye to take in. Two crows collide
in a rice field, then are flung backwards out of their war
as the train pushes on. We loiter like Oliver in the dining car.
Brunch comes as simmering bowls of noodles, under a film
of oil, and we sit watching the landscape unfurl like a newsreel
into history. By noon, foothills, are banking to the south.
By two, we're approaching a network of tunnels blasted out
of the Xi'an Qin Mountains. Blackness falls clean as a guillotine
on the children in pairs by the trackside, and then again
on the man and his son who will walk all afternoon into evening
before they are home. We enter Sichuan without rupturing
any visible line of division, though dinner at five is brimming with chillies:
dried and diced and fried with the seeds inside, while the extraordinary
Sichuan pepper balloons into flavour under our tongues. And all along
darkness is gathering itself in. i see a boy and a woman
lit up by the flare of a crop fire, but can no longer believe in them.
Windows have turned into mirrors the length of the train.
Hours pass, and there is only my white face, strained
in its hopelessness, my failure to catch the day in my hands like a fish
and have it always. The train descends from the soil terraces.
Electricity switches the world back on: town after coal-dusted town
streams by in the rain, revealing its backdoor self, its backyard frown,
until all converge in a dayglo glare at the end of the line and we merge
with our destination. We have been dropped to the bottom of somewhere
blurred and industrial, where the yellow of the Yangtze meets the green
of its tributary, the city with a name like the din of a smithy: Chongqing.


Ever been washed
by a crowd? My mother dragging me
to the cold water tap and
jamming my finger under it
the day I brushed it across

the cooker-top to see
if it was on, to numb it,
she said, but it wasn't
like that
at all. It was

winter, we were
baking in the kitchen and
I could still smell a scrap
of skin frying in the back-
ground when the cold

hit home – prodding
the length of my arm in a surge
of pain, an ironic
remedy of extremes.
And it was oddly

uplifting to be suspended
there with your body peeled
back to the nerve all
over again in a matter
of seconds, so disarmingly

alive. In four train stations within
fourteen days I turned my head
to a conundrum. After a night
and a day and a night of being carried
along in a capsule –

a bed, a quilt, a pillow, a night-
light, a table, tea, a window, a
radio – I'd uncurl onto
the platform, grey and
exhausted, as though I'd walked

the hours that divided us
from our origin. We were alone
the whole time, moving like
automatons from compartment to
dining car, then back

again, with only the fruit-
man to disturb our corridor
with his casual calling. The train's nose
under the station awning would steam
with exertion; we'd be cracking

our wrists, or avoiding
the press, or yawning, and then,
imperceptibly, finally noticing
the river of people, disgorged from a mile
of doors and flooding towards

the exit sign. There must have been
thousands of them, our shadow-
travellers, and we'd been marooned
in the midst of them. They'd have sat
upright all day and

all night on benches as hard
as amazonite, pressed five
to a row and room somehow for
rice pots and rucksacks and armfuls
of jackets, flasks,

blankets. Thirty hours
at a stretch and seeming as fresh
as if they'd just stepped out
of a ten-hour sleep
on a cloud —

and with somewhere to get to
fast: time to stare back
at me the way I was staring
at them, an extravagance.
I stayed to one side, watching

them flow like an out-
going tide into the maw of each
city, and saw myself
caught in the pulse of their
striding, my greenish skin hurled

under water and hammering I am
here you are real this
is happening it is
– as though touching
them might be possible.


One day, China met China in the marketplace.
'How are you, China?' asked China, 'we haven't talked in so long.'
China answered: 'This things we have to say one another,
laid end to end, and side to side,
would connect the Great wall with the Three Gorges Valley
and stretch nine miles up towards the sun.'
'It's true,' replied China. 'We have a lot to catch up on.'


From The State of the Prisons (2005)

In contrast to Bishop's question-posing, Szymborska's impossibility-enumerating, and Longley's captured vision, Morrissey's sequence struggles through multiple approaches to processing her experience on the Writer's Train across China in 2003. In 1, 3, and 9, for example, we find a mythic approach that seems to sympathize with the magical empire on its own terms, as well as its strangeness for the speaker. 2 opts for an analogue from past personal experience, using the more understood example of something closer to home as an avenue or template for understanding the new experience - a narrative structure of comparison and synthesis which is central to part 8. The focus on the subjective experience of travel through a foreign land (which exceeds what we have seen so far this week) is balanced by the more journalistic cataloguing of 5. The sequence's compound of strategies together conveys the bewilderment of trying to give some account of China in its entirety - as 9 implies, something which is impossible for China itself, as much as for the foreign traveller.

(More about Sinéad Morrissey:

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