Friday, January 26, 2007

Rihaku (Li Po / Li Bai), "Exile's Letter", translated by Ezra Pound

To So-Kin of Rakuyo, ancient friend, Chancellor of Gen.
Now I remember that you built me a special tavern
By the south side of the bridge at Ten-Shin.
With yellow gold and white jewels, we paid for songs and laughter
And we were drunk for month on month, forgetting the kinds and princes.
Intelligent men came drifting in from the sea and from the west border,
And with them, and with you especially
There was nothing at cross purpose,
And they made nothing of sea-crossing or of mountain-crossing,
If only they could be of that fellowship,
And we all spoke out our hearts and minds, and without regret.
And then I was sent off to South Wei,
smothered in laurel groves,
And you to the north of Raku-hoku,
till we had nothing but thoughts and memories in common.
And then, when separation had come to its worst,
We met, and travelled into Sen-Go,
through all the thirty-six folds of the turning and twisting waters,
Into a valley of the thousand bright flowers,
That was the first valley;
And into ten thousand alleys full of voices and pine-winds.
And with silver harness and reins of gold,
Out came the East of Kan foreman and his company.
And there came also the 'True man' of Shi-yo to meet me,
Playing on a jewelled mouth-organ.
In the storied houses of San-Ko they gave us more Sennin music,
Many instruments, like the sound of young phoenix broods.
The foreman of Kan Chu, drunk, danced
because his long sleeves wouldn't keep still
With that music playing,
And I, wrapped in brocade, went to sleep with my head on his lap,
And my spirit so high it was all over the heavens,
And before the end of the day we were scattered like stars, or rain.
I had to be off to So, far away over the waters,
You back to your river-bridge.
And your father, who was rave as a leopard,
Was governor in Hei-Shu, and put down the barbarian rabble.
And one May he had you send for me,
despite the long distance.
And what with broken wheels and so on, I won't say it wasn't hard going,
Over roads twisted like sheep's guts.
And I was still going, late in the year,
in the cutting wind from the North,
And thinking how little you cared for the cost,
and you caring enough to pay it.
And what a reception:
Red jade cups, food well set on a blue jewelled table,
And I was drunk, and had no thought of returning.
And you would walk out with me to the western corner of the castle,
To the dynastic temple, with water about it clear as blue jade,
With boats floating, and the sound of mouth-organs and drums,
with ripples like dragon-scales, going glass green on the water,
Pleasure lasting, with courtezans, going and coming without hindrance,
With the willow flakes falling like snow,
and the vermilioned girls getting drunk about sunset,
And the water, a hundred feet deep, reflecting green eyebrows
—Eyebrows painted green are a fine sight in young moonlight,
Gracefully painted—
And the girls singing back at each other,
Dancing in transparent brocade,
And the wind lifting the song, and interrupting it,
Tossing it up under the clouds.
And all this comes to an end.
And is not again to be met with.
I went up to the court for examination,
Tried Layu's luck, offered the Choyo song,
And got no promotion,
and went back to the East Mountains
And once again, later, we met at the South bridgehead.
And then the crowd broke up, you went north to San palace,
And if you ask how I regret that parting:
It is like the flowers falling at Spring's end
Confused, whirled in a tangle.
What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking,
There is no end of things in the heart.
I call in the boy,
Have him sit on his knees here
To seal this,
And send it a thousand miles, thinking.


From Cathay (1915)

It would perhaps be an oversight not to include a poem that is itself foreign to the language in this week on travel. Like venturing abroad, translation allows a glimpse into another land, culture, and poetics. Pound's translations from the Chinese are among his finest work, Chinese ideograms being a main inspiration for Pound's own imagism - an attempt to create poetry by the arrangement of images carefully sculpted in words, involving a structure that is more pictorial / juxtapositional than narrative. After all, while travel is in once sense a journey, it is also an experience of distances and an overlaying of cultures. While "Exile's Letter" does present a story, its emotional effect is largely a function of the imagery and scenes presented—the regret of parting is expressed "like the flowers falling at Spring's end / Confused, whirled in a tangle." In this week's earlier poems, it was typically foreign scenes that would incite certain feelings and reflections in the speaker; here, however, it is more that the imagery and travel are invoked to express the speaker's feelings and fortunes. The exile that carries through the poem is not the distance from home, but distance from a friend. One need not travel the world to understand such a poem.

(More about Ezra Pound:

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:

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Michael Longley, "Leaving Inishmore"

Rain and sunlight and the boat between them
Shifted whole hillsides through the afternoon –
Quiet variations on an urgent theme
Reminding me now that we left too soon
The island awash in wave and anthem.

Miles from the brimming enclave of the bay
I hear again the Atlantic's voices,
the gulls above us as we pulled away –
So munificent their final noises
These are the broadcasts from our holiday.

Oh, the crooked walkers on that tilting floor!
And the girls singing on the upper deck
Whose hair took the light like a downpour –
Interim nor change of scene shall shipwreck
Those folk on the move between shore and shore.
Summer and solstice as the seasons turn
Anchor our boat in a perfect standstill,
The harbour wall of Inishmore astern
Where the Atlantic waters overspill –
I shall name this the point of no return

Lest that excursion out of light and heat
Take on a January idiom –
Our ocean icebound when the year is hurt,
Wintertime past cure - the curriculum
Vitae of sailors and the sick at heart.


From No Continuing City (1968)

Being that I my library has not managed to join me on this coast yet, I was bound to choose a travel poem about Ireland. My first choice would probably have been MacNeice's "Train to Dublin", but I've already written on that, so I've chosen instead this Michael Longley poem, with its rapturous image - "And the girls singing on the upper deck / Whose hair took the light like a downpour" – which I used to remember as having been by MacNeice. This poem gives a less explicit take on travel than those we've seen thus far; the speaker's own subjectivity takes a back seat to displaying the majesty of the scenery. Implicit in the beauty - here so dependent on transient effects of light and season - is the sense of insufficiency or loss; inevitably, the poem is of leaving, itself recording "the point of no return" for imaginative return, this scrupulously crafted memory a small flame to warm in the "Wintertime past cure" of our chronic human travels. We all live the lives of sailors, and to behold transient beauty, while transient ourselves, is to be "sick at heart."

(More about Michael Longley, including audio:

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Wislawa Szymborska, "Travel Elegy"

Everything's mine though just on loan,
nothing for the memory to hold,
though mine as long as I look.

Memories come to mind like excavated statues
that have misplaced their heads.

From the town of Samokov, only rain
and more rain.

Paris from Louvre to fingernail
grows web-eyed by the moment.

Boulevard Saint-MartinL some stairs
leading into a fadeout.

Only a bridge and a half
from Leningrad of the bridges.

Poor Uppsala, reduced to a splinter
of its mighty cathedral.

Sofia's hapless dancer,
a form without a face.

Then separately, his face without eyes;
separately again, his eyes with no pupils,
and, finally, the pupils of a cat.

A Caucasian eagle soars
over the reproduction of a canyon,
the fool's gold of the sun,
the phony stones.

Everything's mine but just on loan,
nothing for the memory to hold,
though mine as long as I look.

Inexhaustible, unembracable,
but particular to the smallest fiber,
grain of sand, drop of water—

I won't retain one blade of grass
as it's truly seen.

Salutation and farewell
in a single glance.

For surplus and absence alike,
a single motion of the neck.


From Salt (1962)

This poem treats at greater length, and more directly, one of the questions of travel posed by Bishop in yesterday's poem: what I refered to as the insolubility of the foreign and objective, here the impossibility of incorporating sense experience into the self via memory. Szymborska's poetry often obsesses over inaccessibility and the impossible (see, for example, "Conversation with a Stone"). Here she strikes a typical note of combined nobility and tragedy, hubris and resignation to the shortcomings of the human condition, "surplus and absence alike". Such a feeling seems as common to poetic inspiration as to the experience of travel—a sense that the wonders of the world outpaces all attempts to capture them, but that one is compelled to try to do so by that very awe.

(More about Szymborska:

Monday, January 22, 2007

Elizabeth Bishop, "Questions of Travel"

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
—For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren't waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime=hung and barnacled.

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instangly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
—Not to have had to stop for gas and heard
the sad, two-noted, wooden tune
of disparate wooden clogs
carelessly clacking over
a grease-stained filling-station floor.
(In another country the clogs would all be tested.
Each pair there would have identical pitch.)
—A pity not to have heard
the other, less primitive music of the fat brown bird
who sings above the broken gasoline pump
in a bamboo church of Jesuit baroque:
three towers, five silver crosses.
—Yes, a pity not to have pondered,
blurr-dly and inconclusively,
on what connection can exist for centuries
between the crudest wooden footwear
and, careful and finicky,
the whittled fantasies of wooden cages.
—Never to have studied history in
the weak calligraphy of songbirds' cages.
—And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians' speeches:
two hour os unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

"Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one's room?

Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there...No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?"


From Questions of Travel (1965)

A lot of Bishop of late, in part thanks to my guest writer Liz, and in part because of the centrality of travel to her work. Returning from Egypt and struggling to process the experience, I thought it would be good to take travel as this week's theme. Bishop's poem appropriately starts us off with questions, both relativistic questions – of how to judge or merely react to and interact with that which is foreign to us – and questions regarding the purpose of seeking such novelty, and the implications our relation to it has to our relation towards 'home'. I have often found travel to be a state of wonderous stimulation, a state of easy happiness, because the only purpose while traveling is to observe and enjoy. But then what does one do with that observation and enjoyment? How is it to be incorporated into one's 'native' identity? The purity of such experience qua experience, the suspension of self-concern that it involves, and its unincorporable otherness, threaten to overwhelm identity - both poetic, as imagination, and personal, as the syntax and vocabulary of home. Bishop typically evades putting forward a position on these questions, instead enumerating and illustrating the questions themselves, at once utterly casual and serious.

(More on Bishop: