a stroll through the grime-masted harbour town
(all my own work)
with Chinese Kelen (客遠文)
edited text of a piece published in Five Bells – Spring 2006
Always best to start with a poem, so let’s do the ambiance to kick things off:
peripateia: a note on the method
an hour each week
with the rusting town
and its spate of sea
the skin is dark with dreaming
and the sky is always blank
can I smell this pencil
making a spectacle?
I have the mechanism apart in my hands
in order to deprive it of sense
in order to dampen infernal ticking
is a fleet of voyages
its brave limbs
labour deck for tide
all in the big book noted
ashore I am
as stray shipping come
stumped in conclusion of all the sea’s said
become part of the wall, part of the paper
the seasons have their streets in this
a doorway painted red
or birds raucous
streets don’t spring up
they are worn down to this
each ends in harbour, mast, grimy moon
the world is a wedding
of waters, of salt
my work the unfitting of pieces
(poem from my new volume of Macao poems and stories, A Map of the Seasons [ASM Macao, 2006]
It’s always best to start with a poem – and that is how my day begins. A boy’s thing, I suppose – reading on the dunny – and after I got through the Bible, the Koran and all of Manning Clarke I decided I would save that smallest room for poetry and that there would always be poetry before breakfast. And so there is. And for those for whom writing is a habit, reading is never just reading. Nor is walking or talking. My aim in this mode of encouraged confession is not to prescribe anyone’s vocation but to declare myself. In this case the poet is a bricoleur – ceaselessly reforming the materials of experience (his/her own and vicarious) into the matter of art. Poetry is something both found and made and best when these practices – of finding and making – become indistinguishable. Nor need one ever look far: the day’s least corner is poetry. At least for those prepared to see it that way; that is to say – this is a question of commitment.
I have decided – for the time being – to read poetry only in the mode of response – that is, with pencil in hand. This way I refuse the poem as ‘just an artefact’; I insist on a conversation.
Let’s take today for an example. I read Xue Tao – (768-831) a woman poet of the Tang dynasty. Her stanza (translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping in their excellent Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry which appeared last year):
Behind a ribbon of evening mist, a chill sky distills,
and a melody of far waterfalls like ten silk strings
comes to my pillow to tug feelings,
keeping me sleepless in sorrow past midnight
And another line of hers I liked – ‘a cold moon the colour of the mountains’. My response, as yet untitled:
which the moon has touched
lost in dusk
far falls of the river
Continuing on foot, I want to give the eye a track to follow, to set the horizon up as a trap. So that the reader forgets the darkness and, losing herself in the mist, recognises what’s embodied here as her own dream. Having got this far, I hear my father’s voice warning (the family motto) – ‘we write ‘em; we don’t explain ‘em!’ So let the draft stand on its own feet, and if it drifts off into insubstantial musing, then let’s go with and see where we land!
The idea of a track though (the dao of Daoism) is essential to this work: the track sings in me – a next turn, next tune… cadence of the last steps taken … the ridges set down to the stream. By means of attention to the track – and to my motion into foreign space – I hope to be minded of where I’m from and where I am and as well to mind my step, to watch where I’m going.
Where do I have in mind? Already in my two fragments above, I’ve set up the contrast: the here-and-now and a tradition. Note that in this case neither can be called mine. I’m the white ghost (gweilo) and the big nose (da bi zi) here. I may hope for something childlike in my lack of understanding of the present co-ordinates. Recovered innocence is one of poetry’s traditional haunts and today more necessary than ever. Today I look out my window at a landscape changing so fast, at an environment so degraded, it’s numbing. That’s if I have time to recognise Macao out there at all. The old sleepy town is turning into a casino cum racetrack cum brothel faster than you can roll the dice. Watching the horizon here is like watching dough rise (assisted by huge cranes of course). It’s poetry that connects me with the other world and the other time (the 99% of human experience) so irrelevant seeming now in which another of my favourite Tang poets, Han Yu, could write of a pine ‘so big ten people linking hands can’t encircle it.’ ‘O friends,’ he writes, ‘how can we grow old without returning here?’ Han Yu is right, and so in print and in and out of conversation, I follow his advice and return to that tree arms won’t reach around.
Does poetry blind me then with the illusion of a beautiful world forever lost? Poetry gives me a kind of hope which many people have foregone or forgotten or perhaps never experienced.
The peripatetic method sketched above suggests a journey in and of words, a way made by their means. Then the reader will be justified in asking – where is all of this going? The much vaunted (and precious) uselessness of poetry (of art in general) is one of the stakes here. And there’s something in this anti-arrivalism. Knowing exactly where you’re headed kills any kind of creative work. But that doesn’t mean we do ourselves or readers any favours by swallowing undigested myths of inspiration, waiting for the muses to slink in unnoticed or thinking there won’t be any road if I don’t roll another number. The point is that the journey is work and there won’t be any road to notice if you don’t get out the front door (metaphorically or otherwise).
In that journey work, from where I sit at the screen tapping, two related keys are
foreignness and mistakenness. Mistakenness – being wrong to be right – that works for the subject entering culture in general, and it conforms with all that Bloomean business about misprision – Lucretius’ swerve of the atoms and all. So for instance, having reached the right age for it – I read without glasses – hoping to see the wrong words and work from them.
Today, an example, in Mandelstam, I read: ‘A thrush met evening in the ordered forest.’ In fact the line – read with glasses – was: ‘A hush that evening in the organ forest’ (translation by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin [from the 1977 Penguin Selected]). By the time I saw the line as it was meant to be read, I’d already written:
a thrush in the cradle
sings a tree’s height
the storm is in her
nests in fox scent
fallen from leaves
Who knows if these drafty bits will ever turn into a poem, the point is I was already on the wrong track and wonderfully on the way to being lost in my own way. Or let’s take things to a higher plane and say I was pushed out of Mandelstam’s nest and on my own flightpath (or swerve to sudden earth). In fact of course I wasn’t pushed; I jumped. I just found the illusion helpful that there were hands behind me.
Mistaken-ness as practice can take myriad forms. You can achieve similar results just by typing too fast when you’re copying, plugging your ears with cotton wool at a reading, or less elaborately, just by being distracted and not quite hearing things right. These productive applications of mistaken-ness suggest that peculiar mixture of humility and arrogance poetic composition routinely requires, best summed up in the dictum: knowing where you’re coming from to not know where you’re going.
Perhaps what’s most unsettling in poetry is the keeping open of meaning in every instance, in unresolving, in (to reverse Kant’s aude sapere maxim) – daring not to know. Consider Auden’s mock defence: ‘What makes it difficult for a poet not to tell lies is that in poetry, all facts and all beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities’. An ambivalent art is an art of not judging, not building and not mending the wall; this is easier said than done.
Nietzsche exhorts ‘we must not pester a poet with subtle interpretations, but should take pleasure in the uncertainty of his horizon, as if the road to various other thoughts were still open’. As if the road were still open…poetry, as witness of and as exercise of consciousness, is in a position to make a critical intervention in the meaning which is our reality. Those who succeed in devoting themselves to poetry cannot help but take seriously the ethical implications of this potential, the commitment it requires.
… but let’s not get too serious… time for some lines in response to one of my favourite ancients, Tao Yuanming… these from my manuscript in progress, one hundred pages in praise of the bottle:
a bird lost from its flock
flies on although the sun has set
back and forth
and deep in the night
yearns for a home in heaven
but finally comes to a lonely pine
no other trees here
beyond where winds blow
folds wings and settles down to stay
now you see where my hut is anchored
and you know these friends of mine
nor will it surprise you to learn
in the bird bath
just a drop of wine
Macao is a great place for me to test out all this business about foreign-ness and mistaken-ness. The gweilo must ordinarily be mistaken about many, if not most, things. What else can I be but a bricoleur? Here I have to make do with what’s at hand, and yes, often enough, with gestures deprived of the signs to sustain them. How disappointing to come home, to walk through streets and supermarkets and feel that everything is simply understood.
But Macao itself is bricolage. Is it China, is it the West? How does it work? It has to make do. This dot on the map is nothing more than a portal, a vestibule – a non-place which is home to those never arrived in culture. Such a place, I would argue, provides poetry with an ideal environment.
To return to the foreign-ness/mistaken-ness thread… Here and there, off and on, I’ve theorised with regard to poetry’s affinities for foreign space. My key contention has been (what I would style a modernist idea with classical lineage) that poetry does to its own language what the foreigner cannot help but do to the language she is entering. As far as translation is concerned, far from poetry being lost in it, as I see it, poetry is in the translation, and in the translation’s being never quite right, that is to say, lost.
A range of ethical questions apply in this territory: By what means does one enter another’s language or means of thought? How can thinking be concerted? How can argument be honest, across cultures, or in any circumstance? Where does awareness and where does duty lie in relation to these unavoidable problems?
Poetry – as an ambivalent art, as an art of ambivalence – has duties both to consciousness and to unconsciousness. Poetry is an art of knowing and not. Consider the not-knowing side: this indicates a kind of Alzheimer’s space – necessarily a place of forgetting, where an ethics of presence overrides the baggage of assumptions with which we were brought. The reader’s here-and-now with the poem (worth being with) delivers that reader equally from the terrors (from all the affections and disaffections) of what has been and from those of what is yet to come. My model for this space is in Lewis Carroll’s ‘wood where things have no name’, through which Alice passes in Through the Looking-Glass. To reach this apparently a-semiotic space, Alice has crossed a border akin to that which the sleeper crosses entering into a dream, crossed into the other world where things cannot be known as they were. In place where everything forgets itself, we find an apt metaphor for the situation of the foreigner who, entering a new culture, has lost the name for everything s/he knows.
Poetry is in the fact that the territory between languages does not quite satisfy the meaning making demands of either of two sets of native speakers. Plato’s Socrates lit on the idea that poetry was something like the opposite of government. The poets had to be expelled because, as makers of myth, they were competition for the philosophers. Of course they could wheedle their back in later if they wished. But why should they so wish? ‘Unacknowledged’ legislators, Auden tells us, are more like the secret police than like poets.
To consider this issue of meaning’s governance from another angle, let’s rephrase to say the words of a poem behave in a manner opposite to that of the words in a dictionary. That is – they are duty bound to misbehave. The words remain in a poem (the poem continues to be worth reading) to the extent that those words remain in motion. The words in the dictionary are signs arrested, pinned down like butterflies deprived of the jungle which gave them life. They are deprived of life in order that we might get a better look at them. Looking at them however we confirm them in their shrouds and death masks. Words governed are meaning arrested. But the dictionary is weak against the power of conversation. Merely to return words to their death throes is to animate the poetry in them.
Translation is a process of never quite arriving. The idea entering one culture from another will always be somehow stuck like Kafka’s man from the country – never able to get through a gate the function of which is to conceal the law one is hoping to approach. Perversely perhaps, poetry’s is an analogous process – that of making one’s own words foreign.
The mistakenness, the noise, the static, the not-quite-rightness, of every way between languages, is I think the home of poetry: a place of exile. It’s a comfort in such a place to remember that the most powerful of gods, Zeus, has in his portfolio – strangers and borders and suppliants. Poetry, because it subjects its own language to the exigencies of a position between languages, bears witness to the differences and misunderstandings between those who are different from each other.
Knowing and not? Understanding and its others? The impossible is one of poetry’s vital sites. Put it into practice – commit to the practice of it – and you get something like: ‘Every day – do something you don’t know how to do.’ However poorly I live up to it, this is a personal commitment of mine and one with which I endeavour to make an example of myself, and so to pass it on. It’s for this precise reason I took up drawing and painting a few years ago – to show my students that I was prepared to do what I asked them to do – i.e. something I couldn’t do. For them it was writing a story or a poem in English; for me it was to draw and paint, challenged by the fact that I had no formal right, no training, no track record. In other words I felt about it just the way they felt about writing in English. Two exhibitions later, I’m thinking of taking up the piano (…relax, not very seriously). I do believe though that the key to an education in creativity is in being provided with models for this practice of ‘beginner’s mind’ – in doing what you don’t know how to do.
Let me now last return to the dual methods with which these entries have mainly been concerned, and close with a final exhortation. My two main methods of composition at the moment are peripatetic and dialogic. These are, as I’ve argued, related. What’s to recommend in them is above all that both involve the infallible anti-block strategy of never having to begin. There’s no blank page for this little black duck. All the world’s a palimpsest if you care to see it that way and there are always at the very least some droppings to go by already. I’d like to stress to that the viability of these methods for me is in being daily practices. The motto they suggest is as follows:
Make art every day!
Remember to breathe!
Best though to end where we begun and trust in what we can glean from the ancients; in this case, again, my old friend Tao Yuanming. Here are some more ‘variations’:
truth has been lost
for longer than anyone cares to remember
that’s because the bastards won’t drink –
they’re only interested in reputation
I cherish life
life can’t last long
but when that bolt comes out of the blue
it’s best to have under the belt
one or two
spring and autumn
fair seasons in which
to scale far mountains
make fresh verses
passing open doors
I greet folk
who meet me with jugs brimming
out in the fields
there's no time for this
we talk and laugh
the tiredness is gone
at last step outside
for converse with the moon
stream of gold
I dedicate in this meditation
toil of hands
puts food in our mouths
clothes on our backs
nor is it vain now to profit
from the soil's beneficence
and give this little back