Tuesday, January 07, 2020

A terrace of incense lit by the dawn

I have been reading the Tang Dynasty poet Wei Yingwu (737-92) in Red Pine's award-winning translation, In Such Hard Times (2009).  Anyone who has read Chinese poetry will know of the An Lushan rebellion and its impact on the lives of China's greatest writers.  Wei himself had been a young palace guard when the insurrection took place and his life as an official played out in the 'hard times' that followed. He was born "within a horseback commute of Ch'ang an", the biggest city in the world, but the first poems in the book were written in 763 in Loyang, the eastern capital that had just been recaptured from the rebels. Like other Chinese poets, he was torn between official duty and the desire for scholarly retreat, with the example of  Tao Yuanming constantly in his mind.  There's a lovely poem called 'East of Town' that concludes with Wei wishing he could retire and build a hut like Old Tao. It begins: 'Stuck in an office all year / I left the city for the wide-open dawn / where willow catkins soothed the wind / and blue mountains stilled my cares...'

A few years ago I mentioned Red Pine's Han Shan book in which the translator talks about the mountains that inspired the poems.  In this book, his footnotes explain exactly where each was written, so I thought here I would give a sense of Chinese landscape through Wei's eyes by quoting lines he wrote at different locations over the course of two decades.  Of course these brief images are not unique to these places - similar scenes could have been experienced all over the country, or even further afield: the same moonlight admired by Wei and his friends also fell on Charlemagne's Europe...  Perhaps because I have never been to China, or been taught about it, I sometimes struggle a bit with its geography, so here, just for fun and to give sense of Wei's travels, I've superimposed a map of eastern China, in blue, on Europe (using thetruesize.com). I have positioned it so that the Tang Dynasty capital Ch'ang-an is where you see Paris and Loyang is roughly on top of Stuttgart. 

The Sungshan mountains, 771
'... from the summit I heard a chorus of winds
in the woods I bathed in a secluded stream
the sound of a bell roused me on the Way
the evening chime cleared the clouds and mist...'

The Sungshan mountains lie just to the southeast of Loyang. Here Wei writes of stopping on a pine ridge and hearing the bell from the Shaolin Temple, marking the end of the meditation period.  The temple is well known for its association with martial arts (the seventh Wu-Tang Clan album was called Once Upon a Time in Shaolin).

Hsiangshan Springs at Lungmen, 772

'... darkened ledges glistening with water
towering trees encircled with vines
the torrent divides into different streams
with eddies swirling beside the current. ...'

Hsiangshan (Incense Mountain) was across the river from Lungmen (Dragon Gate), ten kilometres from Loyang. Wei admired the seclusion of these jade springs, finding it hard to leave.

Mei Reservoir, at Huhsien, 777

'White water surges along the embankment
mist swirls in a sunny sky
green is taking over the trees
there's jade on a thousand mountains. ...'

Huhsien is fifty kilometres southwest of Ch'ang-an - relative to Paris this is further than Versailles but nearer than Chartres. The reservoir he mentions here was formed where the Mei river met the Laoyu river and in a later poem Wei calls it a 'boundless clear lake'. Tu Fu (Du Fu, 712-70) had written a poem about boating on it.

The Huai River, 782

'... as the wind whipped the waves higher
an the sun's setting light grew dimmer
people returned to darkened village walls
wild geese landed on white island sands...'

Wei stopped for the night at Hsuyi, a post station on the Huai river, while journeying from Ch'ang-an to take up a new post at Chuchou. The nearest city on my map to Chuchou would be Zagreb, so he had done the equivalent of travelling from Paris through Germany, then south through Austria to Slovenia.  In heading south, he was like the wild geese.

Chuchou's West Stream, 783

'I love unnoticed plants that grow beside a stream
orioles singing overhead somewhere in the trees
at dusk the current quickens fed by springtime rains
I pull myself across on an unmanned country ferry.'

This is the entire poem - four lines of description, written after a day in the countryside west of Chuchou. But possibly there is some symbolism here: neglected plants = unappreciated officials, orioles = unheeded advisers, and having to pull across the river = looking out for yourself in politically turbulent times.

Lushan Mountains, 786

'... the tiger tracks in the mud look fresh
as we mount up the sun finally breaks through
I survey the landscape of dawn
flowers are as dense as fog...'

This was written of a journey on horseback in heavy rain.  Lushan is the famous mountain that I have discussed here before.  It was near Chiangchou, where Wei became a magistrate in 785. The city is located about where Bologna is on my map.

Kaiyuan Hermitage, 790

'... I love to follow trails to monastic retreats
to an orchard of fruit trees after a rain
a terrace of incense lit by the dawn
where green shade nurtures quiet days...'

Having returned from Chingchou to Ch'ang-an (the equivalent of a journey from Bologna to Paris) Wei was appointed to Souchou in the Yangtze Delta (back down south - equivalent to.northern Bosnia).  Kaiyuan temple was to the south of the city.  This is from one of his last poems.  He died a year later, too ill to return to Ch'ang-an.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Out of the sluggish, clogged-up city

Coming to the end of the year, I find myself thinking about this blog.  Whilst I still enjoy writing here, I think I will keep posts short and less frequent in future.  This is partly because I've noticed (if Blogger 'stats' are to be believed) that readership has declined, which is hardly surprising given how much is now out there on the Internet.  I started Some Landscapes before Twitter and Instagram. People clearly like rapidly flicking through photos and pithy messages, rather than reading whole paragraphs.  This is a pity because I have found it is hard to say anything useful on Twitter without recourse to a whole thread.  Whether or not people read 'Some Landscapes', it remains useful to me as a kind of notebook.  And if I worried about readers, I  would not write anything spontaneous and unresearched. Here for example, I want to say something about Rainer Maria Rilke, aware as I do so that the world is full of German literature experts who know far more about his poetry than me...

The Poetry Foundation website refers to the turn towards realism in Rilke's New Poems (1907).
'The major influence behind this work was Rilke’s association with the famous French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Working as Rodin’s secretary from 1905 to 1906, Rilke gained a greater appreciation of his work ethic. More importantly, however, the poet’s verses became objective, evolving from an impressionistic, personal vision to the representation of this vision with impersonal symbolism. He referred to this type of poetry as Dinggedichte (thing poems).'
There are many 'things' in these poems - in the second part of the book, for example, he writes about a bed, a sundial, a dog, an alchemist, a stylite, a blind man, a prophet and an archaic torso of Apollo (a famous poem that I've referred to here before).  How, though, to write about the 'thingness' of a whole landscape?  His poem 'Landschaft', which Stephen Cohn translates as 'Townscape' consists of three stanzas, each like a painting. In the first, the 'orange flames of sunset' turn the city into a scene of destruction; in the second, there is a healing and quenching as the sky turns blue; and in the third it is night and the buildings are silent and pale, suddenly illuminated by a shaft of moonlight that resembles the sword of an archangel.  The poem that follows 'Townscape' relates to another scene in Italy, but takes a more surprising approach.  When you first read 'Roman Campagna', you expect it to describe the emotions of the poet looking at the view or the feelings of somebody present in the landscape.  Instead, Rilke take the point of view of the road itself that leads from Rome up into the hills.

Here, to avoid the copyright problem of quoting a whole poem, I've cut the poem in three and provided three different translators' words: 

Out of the sluggish, clogged-up city, which
Would rather sleep on, undisturbed, and dream
Of its soaring baths, the road to the fever marsh –
The Appian tomb-road – heads past each last farm
And farmhouse, out under the malign
Gaze of windows that fasten on its back, [...]                           - Seamus Heaney

[...]  as on it goes, wrecking things left and right,
till it is panting, pleading, out of sight,
then quickly lifts its blankness to the vast,
clear sky.  [...]                                                                            - Len Krisack

[...] While it beckons

the aqueducts approaching in the distance,
heaven rewards it with an emptiness
which will outlast it, which will never end.                               - Stephen Cohn

What interests me here is the way this road actually moves over the course of the poem and is therefore able to convey a sense of landscape.  This is obviously quite an extreme form of personification, as the road pants, pleads and glances around itself.  But there are often touches of personification in Rilke's poetry - that archaic torso of Apollo, for example, appears to see you and in doing so radiates its stern warning: 'you must change your life'.  Years later, in the Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke wrote a lovely poem about a fountain, which speaks through water brought from the Apennines, into the ear of marble basin.  'Just with herself alone / does she talk this way. And if a jug slips in, / she feels that you are interrupting her.'

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Hanging Gardens of Rock City

A detail from Hanging Gardens of Rock City (1970) by Liliane Lijn

In the British Museum at the moment you can see Hanging Gardens of Rock City, a collage by Liliane Lijn. It was one of four she made in 1970, imagining aerial walkways and parks among the rooftops of Manhattan. Of course these can now be seen as anticipating The High Line.  The museum caption quotes her as saying 'I have always found the rooftops of the buildings in Manhattan exciting and strange as if their architects had allowed their fantasies free at that distance from the ground.'  In her collages, the public has access to these private buildings and can be seen sunbathing and walking around, far above the streets of the city.

In the sixties Lijn moved from New York to London, where she was married to Takis, who was the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern earlier this year.  In the course of her long career she has worked in all media, from performance to prose-poems and made plastic sculptures, poem machines, 'vibrographs', cone-shaped koans, kinetic clothing, light columns, biomorphic goddesses and solar installations in the landscape. The last of these is of particular interest here.  They are collaborations with astronomer John Vallerga in which powerful prisms reflect sunlight of different colours, depending on their angle.  Getting permission to install these has not been easy and ensuring they are protected from damage is also a challenge.  The video below shows a couple of these artifical suns on the hills behind the Golden Gate Bridge.  Another, Sunstar, has been shining from the summit of Mount Wilson - the Los Angeles Magazine reported on it last year.  Here is some information from the Mount Wilson Observatory website.
'An array of six prisms, Sunstar takes incoming sunlight and refracts it, bending the light and spreading it into a spectrum–all the colors of the rainbow. It is mounted near the top of the Observatory’s 150-foot Solar Telescope Tower. With motion controls, it can be remotely directed to project the spectrum to a specific point in the Los Angeles basin. An observer below will see an intense point of light in a single wavelength, shining like a brilliant jewel from the ridgeline of Mount Wilson, 5800 feet above in the San Gabriel Mountains. [...] 
The prism will be beaming daily to various sites around the Los Angeles basin — Griffith Observatory, the Rose Bowl, Pasadena City Hall, Memorial Park by the Armory, Elysian Park, the Music Center, wherever there is a view of Mount Wilson.  If you see it, please let us know what you think. Requests to have it beam your way can often be accommodated. Email: concerts@mtwilson.edu. Include the time you’d like to see the beam and your location’s address, or geographic coordinates if you prefer.'

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

This earth is cursed

I was at the White Cube on Sunday to see the latest batch of Anselm Kiefer paintings, Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot.  I am a huge admirer, but I know he does not appeal to everyone.  For me, the beauty of these artworks as physical objects is evident regardless of their possible meanings and interpretations.  The composition above, for example, is in a room devoted to the theme of the Gordian Knot, but I didn't immediately start puzzling out its meaning or worrying over whether it is profound or pretentious; instead, what struck me was the feeling that I'd never before seen a field painted with such dramatic intensity.  What you can't appreciate from a photograph is the sense of scale, the texture of paint or the subtleties of its wintry colours (that sunset glow and the purples and greys of the sky).  Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones described these waves of wheat as being 'arrayed like a flowing frieze of abundance. Real branches daubed with gold have been used to create their colossal stalks. But two axes hang in the gleaming fullness, waiting to devastate this cornucopian field. This earth is cursed.'

The second landscape I want to highlight here is called Väinämoinen sucht die drei fehlende Buchstaben ('Väinämoinen Searches for the Three Missing Letters' - a reference to the Kalevala, Runo XVI).  Those black posts standing in rows in the snow (or is it ash?) are shaped like runes.  In the foreground some of them are made from actual pieces of charred wood.  This painting is a kind of text (like the Landscripts of Xu Bing) and because runes were used for divination there seems to be some kind of hidden prophecy in this bleak landscape.  The Norns, which Kiefer refers to in the title of his exhibition, were the spinners of fate in Norse mythology.  In an installation stretching the length of the gallery, their names - Urd, Verdandi and Skuld - are written alongside the equations of string theory, suggesting a continuity between ancient and modern means of unlocking the world's secrets.

I'll conclude this post with one of three paintings called Superstrings, each of which measures nearly three metres high and eight metres wide.  All of them appear to be desolate landscapes of earth, snow, muddy water, stubble, straw and leafless trees.  Approaching the one I have photographed here, I felt I could still make an art historical connection to Van Gogh's ploughed fields.  Right up close, the paint surface resembles a rain soaked field or a muddy path.  But from further away, those furrows start to seem more abstract - lines of force, converging at speed towards a grey sunless horizon.  We are used to thinking of the universe in terms of pure and beautiful structures like celestial spheres or Platonic solids, but Kiefer is clearly drawn to a messier, more chaotic theory of the cosmos. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Troubled Waters

This cool poster gives a strong impression of 'Troubled Waters', an alternative title for Mauritz Stiller's Johan.  The film was an adaptation of Juhani Aho's Finnish novel, published a decade earlier in 1911.  Landscape initiates the story, as a group of men arrive to dig out a canal in the countryside and, in a memorable sequence, people watch from the riverbank as water floods through the new channel.  One of the workers, the film's anti-hero (or villain, depending on how you see it) rows up to the new waterway and surfs down it in his small boat.  Time passes and one day he returns and seduces Marit, the film's heroine, taking her away in his boat over the wild rapids.  Given how skilfully this white water rafting is carried out, I find it amazing that it was the actor Urho Somersalmi who took the boat over the Kamlunge rapids.  Jenny Hasselqvist, who played Marit, was apparently the first woman to make this journey and at one point during the shoot she saved Somersalmi when he was washed overboard.    

D. W. Griffith's Way Down East was released six months before Johan and it too contains a famous river sequence.  Whereas the rapids in Johan feel central to the story, symbolising the attraction and dangers of the seductive stranger, the landscape in Way Down East is really only present at the end of the film, heightening its emotional climax, as Lilian Gish runs despairingly out into a blizzard and then finds herself trapped on the frozen river as its ice breaks up around her.  Again, there were no stunt doubles: it was Gish who lay on the ice while Richard Barthelmess jumped over the cracks to rescue her.  Gish wrote about the experience in her autobiography
"The scenes on and around the ice were filmed at White River Junction, Vermont, where the White River and the Connecticut flowed side by side. The ice was thick; it had to be either sawed or dynamited, so that there would be floes for each day's filming. The temperature never rose above zero during the three weeks we worked there. ... I suggested that my hand and my hair trail in the water as I lay on the floe that was drifting toward the falls. Mr. Griffith was delighted with the effect. After a while, my hair froze, and I felt as if my hand were in a flame. To this day, it aches if I am out in the cold for very long."

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sentences on the sea

I am looking forward to reading Experiments on Reality, a new collection of essays by Tim Robinson.  Googling him this weekend and looking at his Wikipedia page, it struck me that for all the praise his work has received, and the reverence in which he is held by those interested in writing about landscape, he doesn't seem to be as famous as you would think...  Oh well, here are three quotes from his book Aran: Pilgrimage (1986), which give me a chance to include a few photos from our stay on Inis Meáin six years ago.  The first quote concerns the way sailors use landmarks to navigate - for example, to reach one particular tiny offshore island, Robinson was told you needed to line up a dip in the Cliffs of Moher with the southern tip of Inis Meáin, and then align a small church with some boulders on a cliff edge (my photograph below was actually taken from Inis Meáin and you can see a dip in the distant Cliffs of Moher).
'The currach-fishermen had dozens of these runes to guide them to good fishing grounds and keep them out of danger. They often involve places the fishermen had never visited and to which they gave names their inhabitants would not recognize. ... A tiny patch of green grass clinging to the brinkof the cliff below Túr Mháirtín is well known to the Inis Meáin boatmen as An Réallóg, whereas few Árainn men would know it had a name at all ... Thus offshore usage recreates the surrounding landscapes; like a poet I know who finds his lines by glancing along titles on library shelves, so the fisherman low among the waves raises his eyes and picks words off the land with which to write sentences on the sea.'

My second quote links landscape, myth and music.  Robinson is talking about a sea cave which is said, improbably, to connect to a lake on the north coast.  The story goes that a piper once entered the cave and was never seen again, though his music can still sometimes be heard.
'Tom O'Flaherty mentions this legend in one of his autobiographical pieces.  According to him the piper was a fugitive outlaw from Connemara, and "anyone who hears his mournful music will before long be called to the Piper's Castle, from which none return."  ... I am told by a spelaeologist that similar legends are widespread in other countries too, connecting certain caves with the traditional musical instruments of the locality.  Orpheus himself was probably not the first musician to visit the Underworld.'

There are many paragraphs like these in Aran: Pilgrimage that could be quoted, but I will conclude here with a description of the idea underpinning his walk and his book, the attempt to take 'a single step as adequate to the ground it clears as is the dolphin's arc to its wave'.  To do this it is necessary to bring into unity 'geologies, biologies, myths, history, politics etcetera', not to mention personal associations.
'To forget these dimensions of the step is to forgo our honour as human beings, but an awareness of them equal to the involuted complexities under foot at any given moment would be a crushing backload to have to carry.  Can such contradictions be forged into a state of consciousness even fleetingly worthy of its ground?  At least one can speculate that the structure of condensation and ordering necessary to pass from such various types of knowledge to such an instant of insight would have the characteristics of a work of art, partaking of the individuality of the mind that bears it, yet with a density of content and richness of connectivity surpassing any state of mind.'  
At the end of the book, Robinson concludes that such an artwork has proven impossible to write.  But what does seem evident is that a sequence of steps can still amount to something: momentary propositions, taken with a freedom beyond academic or national boundaries.  There may be a likelihood of 'superficiality, restlessness, fickleness and transgression', but also 'by contraries, goes the possibility of recurrency, of frequentation, of a deep, an ever-deeper, dwelling in and on a place, a sum of whims and fancies totalling a constancy as of stone.'

Friday, November 08, 2019


Last month we visited the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, just outside Paris.  It was the home of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV's finance minister, and was the creation of three great seventeenth century artists: architect Louis Le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun and landscape designer André le Nôtre.  Throughout Vaux-le-Vicomte there are explanatory signs with diagrams explaining how le Nôtre constructed the estate to create optical illusions.  When you look out from the house across the garden (below), you can see a distant slope with a golden statue, but there is no sign of the garden's canal (above) which actually stretches right across the garden.  A sign informs visitors of what they can expect as they walk down into this landscape.  "The Grand Canal, invisible from the château's front steps, appears out of the blue.  The grottos, which seem to be on the pool's edge, get further away as you progress along the main path of the garden and now seem to be on the opposite side of the canal!  The statue of Hercules now seems impossible to reach..."  I think this clever example of 'decelerated perspective' put Mrs Plinius off walking as far as the Hercules statue but, as you can see below, I was not discouraged and went up to get a good look at it.

The sun was so strong that Hercules himself presented two very different perspectives, shadowy on the way up and gleaming magnificently when you looked back down at him.  Although I felt like I was dutifully walking along a sightline, one of those rays on a diagram connected to an imaginary eyeball, it was impossible not to be distracted by birdsong and the crunch of fallen leaves under your feet.  The sharp shadows and bright sunshine were perfect conditions to enjoy the garden's mathematical aesthetic and indulge in the scopophilia of all those viewing points.  But it was still possible to enjoy the feel of the breeze and smell of the damp grass and choose your own ways of experiencing the space.  My sons got caught up in a game of catching the falling leaves.

On the way back to the château, as you round one end of the canal, there is a great example of borrowed scenery (what Japanese gardeners call shakkei).  What you can see (below) is the Vallée de l'Anqueuil and medieval Pont de Mons, giving the impression that Fouquet's land extended into this idyllic unspoilt landscape.  Here, nature is incorporated within the realm of the garden, but this seems relatively modest when compared to the main design where (as Allen S. Weiss has written) infinity itself, in the form of the vanishing point, is brought into the garden's purview.