The Laureate blog's current guest is a poet I very much admire. Diana Bridge has had five volumes published by Auckland University Press, and is also a Chinese scholar. Here she pays tribute to a favourite English writer, translates a classic Chinese poem, and posts three of her new poems.
Several years ago I was introduced to Geoffrey Hill's marvellous poem 'The Peacock at Alderton'. At the time I had been raiding the Wellington Public Library for Hill's small volumes. Though his topics were sometimes frustratingly recondite, and a poem's sense often hard won, what kept me reading was Hill's blend of compressed lyricism and hard-hitting observation. I particularly loved the way he jumped between registers, the demotic strength of his language allied to the loveliness of so many lines.
One of the things that had attracted me in Hill's work was glimpses of a poet-narrator who stands at an angle to the poem's high, sometimes angry, sometimes anguished, moral seriousness. In the poem below, that self takes up more of the stage. The poet-narrator welds together a variously-sourced identity, one that is wrested from improbable combinations, intricately balanced. As the poem goes on, that constructed self continues to stalk lines of apparently pure description: Hill's magnificently observed peacock feathers. And, when feathers morph into bird and the poem lifts into an account of the peacock of the title, the writer self continues to shadow it, the conflation clinched, right at the end of the poem, with the mention of the peacock's voice, his occasional scream.
The Peacock at Alderton
Nothing to tell why I cannot write
in re Nobody; nobody to narrate this
latter acknowledgement: the self that counts
words to a line, accountable survivor
pain-wedged, pinioned in the cleft trunk,
less petty than a sprite, poisonous as Ariel
to Prospero's own knowledge. In my room
a vase of peacock feathers. I will attempt
to describe them, as if for evidence
on which a life depends. Except for the eyes
they are threadbare: the threads hanging
from some luminate tough weed in February.
But those eyes – like a Greek letter,
omega, fossiled in an Indian shawl;
like a shaved cross-section of living tissue,
the edge metallic blue, the core of jet,
the white of the eye in fact closer to beige,
the whole encircled with a black-fringed green.
The peacock roosts alone on a Scots pine
at the garden end, in blustery twilight
his fulgent cloak stark as a warlock's cape,
the maharajah-bird that scavenges
close by the stone-troughed, stone terraced, stone-ensurfed
Suffolk shoreline; at times displays his scream.
Geoffrey Hill (2007) | Listen to The Peacock at Alderton
Some time later, I gave in to the urge to respond to what I had read of the corpus of this towering poet, and to sum up in a poem something of its effect on me:
I have thumb-printed your last volume.
Here are incantations. Satisfactions struck
in half-line lengths, driven phrases that lap
around each other. I shiver as they bind.
Here are the peacock’s screams at evening:
harsh as the santoor, refined as a high
high string, dashing the face of 'we shall,
tee-tum, live happy ever after' with a splash
of anguish. Here stones are scored with
a prophet’s bloody one-eyed censure.
Release me from their charge? You will not.
Yet see them, often as not, fracked into
lyric slices or, hollowed to catch rainfall,
cupping reflections of untainted beauty.
Then there are some – I would say hallowed
but let it be soft-cornered by acceptance,
where all that we expected was late stubborn grief.
(Published PN Review, December, 2011)
In the 1980s, I read a lot of Chinese classical poetry and finished up the decade writing a dissertation on one of the formative aspects of regulated verse, the verse form perfected in the Tang (618-907), and regarded as the apogee of classical poetry. While I was writing my thesis in Hong Kong, poems of my own began to float into my head, probably as a gesture of rebellion against the court language with which I struggled every day. Thirty years on, at the instigation of a far better scholar than I, Peter Harris, I am beginning to collaborate with him on the translation of a selection of favourite classical Chinese poems.
I offer here a translation of perhaps the most famous classical Chinese poem written in a husband's voice, that of Du Fu (712-770), to the wife from whom he was separated. The background to this poem is of civil war, detention and separation. It is probable that it was written around the time of the full moon that marks the Mid-Autumn Festival, which Chinese families traditionally celebrate together with moon-cakes, wine and gazing at the moon. In September of 756 Du Fu had been captured by rebel soldiers and detained in the capital, Chang'an.
A moonlit night
Tonight there is a full moon in Fuzhou.
My wife will watch it on her own.
Away from them, my thoughts are with my children,
Themselves too young to understand, or miss me in Chang'an.
A scented mist has wet her mass of hair.
In the clear moonlight her jade-white arms are cold.
When shall we two lean in the open window,
Light drying up the joint tracks of our tears?
Three new poems
Within days the lime that canopies the left side
of the valley has thinned into a parasol. Its greens
and pale yellows are the shades of summer – the way
we feel, against expectation. The season is autumn;
autumn has much to recommend it – runs on the board,
for one thing, although the tree is drier, bonier and its raised
bark splits. You could wring the symbolism out of that.
Next up, a drift of outsize spangles, as the wind shakes
into frenzy all the glossy bushes, those subspecies
that lie together in Camellia Gully. And now the tree
is given over to gold. It is still dressed, still itself.
Let it be true, we whisper, for the rest of life.
When the tree opens
The pine tree halts, like a spine on the brink of parting,
and lets you into its world. You look up into the hollow
where, keen to see biology reflected, you spot,
sheathed in that tough cable stretched across its mouth,
the great rope of the cauda equina, the pine's plait of nerves.
Further in, concealed below a fluff of lichen that wraps
the opening's corrugated lip, you glimpse in layers
of assorted wood the shelves of a whole library.
Before the scene has time to settle, shelves convert to lines,
the lines of a single poem: a free verse composition
braced with an armature of rhyme so cunningly implanted
no one twigs. And so you stretch it to the limit,
your way of seeing. It takes a spider to re-route you.
Unmoved by anything you see, or strain to see,
it struggles to complete its mortal mission. As it sways
across the chasm, it traps you in its glittering rigging,
hooking you on a wonder not of your own making,
entangling you in passions set far outside yourself.
Is there anything to match it?
When it appears, its arc spanning the harbour,
and there it lies in all its braided brilliance, everyone
talks colour. Is there anything, they ask, to match it?
I think about the course the rainbow takes: one foot
grounded in the moment, its unmoored trunk sways
upwards, light as longing, before its weight tips it
into a U-turn; then comes the symmetry of its descent,
when it is down, down, if not to earth, it must end
somewhere; its hoop is like a circuit of the mind,
taking you to the edge of the universe and back.
A poem ends in human arms. The rainbow
is a flyover to anywhere you wish. But for that,
I’d say of all things it is closest to a poem – up to,
and including, the moment of its dream-like fade.