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.

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