Sunday, February 24, 2019

Wild Geese Returning

Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems (2011) is an introduction to a form of poetry that can be read in different directions.  Thanks to the way Chinese written characters take meaning from their position in a text, it is possible to write poetry that reads both forwards and backwards, whilst still retaining the formal the rhymes and syllable counts specific to poetic forms.  As it says on the Calligrams site, reversible poetry's 'greatest practitioner, and the focus of this critical anthology, is Su Hui, a woman who, in the fourth century, embroidered a silk for her distant husband consisting of a grid of 840 characters. No one has ever fully explored all of its possibilities, but it is estimated that the poem—and the poems within the poem—may be read as many as twelve thousand ways.'  Michèle Métail is a sinologist and poet who was also the first woman to be elected to the Oulipo back in 1975.  She has studied this underground current in Chinese literature and translated examples by providing French versions (English, in Jody Gladding's recent translation) that go first one way and then another. 

Su Hui with her great palindrome poem, the Xuanji Tu.

For this blog, I am particularly interested in landscape poems, and there are plenty of examples in Métail's book.  Wang Rong (468-494), for example, wrote a short 'Reversible Poem Composed in the Imperial Garden'  which begins with mountain peaks and ends with cicadas singing in the trees, and vice versa.  'In contemplating this landscape', Métail writes, we move from the distant to the close and from the close to the distant.'  The imperial garden was the setting for a sequence of reversible quatrains composed in the next century by a gathering of poets in the circle of the emperor of the Liang dynasty, Xiao Gang (503-551).  Xiao himself wrote of clouds over rocky peaks, water flowing through mountain slopes, a pond with swans and trees losing their leaves.  Or, in reverse, leaves flying from the trees, swans gathered on a lake, mountains with veins of water and rock summits dividing the clouds.

Some of the most famous Chinese poets wrote reversible poems.  The writer I discussed here last week, Yang Wanli, is included in Wild Geese Returning, along with two other Song Dynasty writers I have mentioned on this blog: Wang Anshi and Su Shi.  Wang Anshi (1021-86) wrote 'Thoughts of a Traveler', which begins with geese on a secluded island and ends with the twists and turns of a river, then, twisting back on itself, returns across the landscape to the wild geese at rest.  Su Shi (or Su Dongpo, 1036-1101) wrote poems to be sung in which the second half is the mirror image of the first.  In one of them, there are reminders of the way nature itself produces reversals, in a branch turned upside down, or with reflections in water.  This poem begins with the image of a horse running after fragrances and ends with a light fragrance following a horse.  Su Shi also wrote a sequence on the fours seasons in which each individual line is sung and then reversed.

The theme of the seasons was also used by a more obscure Song Dynasty poet, Mei Chuang (dates unknown) and landscape imagery can be found within his other four extant reversible poems.  In 'Two Poems Composed on West Lake for Amusement' the reverse reading renders the name West Lake into a description, 'west of the lake'.  The same is true of Gushan, Solitary Mountain, and thus his poem provides new readings for Chinese place names.  Earlier in the Song Dynasty, Qian Weizhi wrote a collection of ninety reversible and circular poems of which six have come down to us.  'Climbing the Pavilion of Great Compassion on a Spring Day' describes an ascent, or, read backwards, a descent.  Circular poems are a separate genre that can be read from any point in one way or the other.  Métail provides eight examples from the forty possibilities in one of Qian's poems.  I will give two below (you have to think of 'kiosk' in its original sense as a garden pavilion).

Mountains like a point, snow lights the pavilion
Distant and close, sky turns the kiosk blue.
Peacefully receiving the moon, the shades shine
Cold penetrates the shelter in the misty evening.

Snow punctuates the mountainous shelter
Evening mist pentrates the cold shades.
Brilliant moon on the peaceful kiosk
Blue sky, near and sistant pavilion. 

After the Song Dynasty there are further isolated examples of these kinds of poem, culminating, it could be said, in the sequence Zhang Yude wrote in the late eighteenth century for the Great Contemplation Pavilion in Xi'an, two hundred and sixty of which survive carved on stone stelas.  But what of contemporary Chinese poets?  Unsurprisingly perhaps, reversible poetry has not featured in recent official histories of Chinese literature, or written except as games or curiosities.  However, Métail is aware of one exception: Xiong Yinzuo, a Chinese writer living in the US who has published collections of Reversible Poems on the Four Seasons (1978) and Reversible Poems from the Ju Hsin Studio (1980).  Sadly, these have not been translated as far as I can see. Métail writes that they are 'devoted to the impressionistic notation of the smallest details of a landscape in order to comprehend the multiple changes at work in the universe, for which the reversible poem remains the most original poetic illustration.' 

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow

The Song Dynasty poet Yang Wanli (1127–1206) currently has a mere three-line entry on Wikipedia and there is no anthology of his verse in translation currently in print.  However, it is easy to pick up a copy of Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow second-hand - something I've done, as you can see above. The book's title comes from a four-line poem which begins 'the pure wind makes me chant poems, / the bright moon urges me to drink.'  There is quite a lot of drinking in these poems (the translations by Jonathan Chaves, published in 1975, perhaps indicate their age by the way he describes this as getting high).  A love of poetry also comes through - for example in the lovely short poem 'Reading by the Window', in which Yang opens a book of Tang Dynasty poetry to find inside a peach blossom petal, still fresh, that had been caught inside the previous spring.  But nature is his main theme and there are examples in this book of what can unhesitatingly be described as 'landscape poems', recalling a view seen from a boat, a mountain temple or a moon viewing terrace. 

Landscape poems like these may frame the world like a painting but their words are able to convey sound and motion and time passing.  There are two 'Evening Lake Scenes' for example, in the first of which Yang watches geese in Vs and crows in flocks, flying over a lake and taking their time settling down for the night.  In the second he describes the sunset:
I sit watching the sun set over the lake.
The sun is not swallowed by mountains or clouds:
it descends inch by inch, then disappears completely,
leaving no trace where it sinks into the water.
In his introduction, Chaves highlights Yang's 'obsession with capturing the momentary changes in natural phenomena'.  This is from a poem recording his impressions as he crossed between Zhedong and Yongfeng on a spring day in 1179.
The sunlight must be moving the waves by itself;
the sky is calm, and there is no wind.

Wu Zhen, Fisherman, c. 1350
One of the Chinese paintings reproduced as illustrations in Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow

Yang Wanli is the last poet in David Hinton's anthology, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poets of Ancient China. Hinton says that 'with him China's rivers-and-mountains poetry had opened up virtually all of its possibilities'. He highlights Yang's adherence to Ch'an Buddhism and the way it gave rise to a 'crystalline attention to things themselves ... The rivers-and-mountains realm was the natural terrain for this attentiveness, as its grandeur so easily calls one from the limitations of self to the expansiveness of a mirror-like empty mind that contains all things.'  Here, to conclude, are four lines from Hinton's translation of a poem Yang wrote after a hike to Universal-Completion Monastery. 
As our boat lacing mists angles off the cove's willow shores,
cloud mountains appear and disappear among the willows.

And the beauty of climbing a mountain while adrift on a lake?
It's this lake's mind - that gaze holding the mountain utterly.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Ascent to the Village

I was very tempted this week to go to Cafe Oto for Brunhild Ferrari in conversation with David Grubbs, but it was on 14 February and I didn't think this proposal would go down very well.  I did though enjoy reading her 'Epiphany' at the back of February's Wire Magazine, which recalls how she met and started making music with Luc Ferrari (1929-2005). Apparently they bonded over a love of rocks - she loved painting them, he was fascinated by the geology of Corsica, where his father came from.  In the paragraph below she describes their experiments in field recording and mentions two famous landscapes that I have featured here before (in connection with Petrarch and Monet).  I have embedded above a clip of the composition she mentions, Presque Rien No. 1 (1967-70).

A couple of years ago Ferrari's four 'Presque Rien' ('Almost Nothing') compositions were reissued by Editions Mego.  Here, from a review by John Kealy, is a description of the fourth.
Presque Rien No. 4: La Remontée du Village (Almost Nothing No. 4: The Ascent to the Village) seemingly returns to bare elegance of the original work. This is the sound of Ferrari and his wife Brunhild ascending the hill to the Italian town of Ventimiglia and it is remarkably similar to the moods and feelings of the first piece. However, the sleepy isolation of the 1960s countryside has been lost as sounds from nearby televisions and passing scooters permeate the air around Ferrari’s microphones. Gradually, evidence of Ferrari’s tinkering becomes more and more noticeable as he slowly blends the sounds as they were recorded into something more akin to musique concrète. The climax of this is the powerful intrusion of a cow, preposterously embellished by Ferrari to sound super-real.
Another landscape-related piece reissued by Editions Mego was Petite symphonie intuitive pour un paysage de printemps (1973–1974).  Ferrari's notes explain that this too was based on a walk with his wife.
'Brunhild and I were in the Gorges du Tarn area. We chose to take a small path that was going up a rocky mountain for about ten kilometres. After a last turn, a totally unexpected landscape opened before my eyes. It was sunset. Before us, a vast plateau spread open with soft curves up to the horizon, up to the sun. The colours ranged from dry grass yellow to purple, in the distance, with the darkness of a few small groves punctuating the space. The almost bare nature was presenting itself to the eye, free from any obstacle. We could see everything. Later, when I recollected this place and the sensations I had experienced there, I tried to compose a music that could revive this memory.'
The reviewer for Pitchfork thought initially that this sounded like Boards of Canada, but then decided it 'feels more complex than that. For as alien as musique concrète can be, in the hands of Ferrari, he was able to render it into something that felt warmly familiar. Here he paints a stunning vista at dusk, capturing the expansive horizon with sound rather than sight.'

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A view of Magdala

Watercolour World is a new online database of documentary watercolours painted before 1900 which launched at the end of January.  You can use filters and search by a keyword, e.g. 'waterfall', which brings up waterfalls in South Australia, Japan, Italy, French Polynesia and so on.  Enter 'Cozens' and you get a selection of watercolours by Cozens (although the first one is a Turner painting 'after J. R. Cozens').  But perhaps the main attraction is a map which you can zoom around and look for specific landmarks or places.  The distribution of watercolours on the map shows that this is a British initiative - there are over 25,000 watercolours for the British Isles but only around 50 for Japan (and those Japanese images are by late nineteenth century British illustrators).  They do have global ambitions, but the emphasis on 'documentary' images means that there is bound to be a bias towards cultures which valued topographic accuracy (either as art or as part of some branch of science).

Why watercolours and not, say, oil sketches?  Well non-watercolours are allowed in - they include aquatints and pencil sketches, for example, 'at our discretion'.  Perhaps surprisingly, they are happy to have images where the location is unknown, tagging these to the home of the artist.  How do they choose the images?  'We try to select images that have a clear connection to a real person, place or event, that the artist could plausibly have known first-hand. A painting of a battle that happened years before the artist was born would not be included, but an artist's satirical painting of Londoners in a pub would stay.'  As this last comment indicates, the website goes beyond landscape and covers all kinds of subject matter.  I am not sure how they would feel about, artists who were moving away from simple representation, a Cézanne watercolour of Mont Sainte-Victoire, for example.  There are none of these in the database; the only image from this part of Provence is a view of Aix-en-Provence by William Callow dating from 1836.

William Simpson, Untitled (Magdala), 1868
British Museum

I thought I would check out a a part of the world I don't recall featuring before here - Ethiopia.  In addition to a few archaeological drawings, I came upon the view above. It shows 'a vast stretch of bare tableland with winding gullies, and three figures in the foreground on the spur of a hill'.  There is no further context - the website refers you to the British Museum for more information.  In fact William Simpson had gone to Abyssinia as an illustrator for the London Evening News, covering the British Army's punitive campaign against the Ethiopian Emporer, who had captured British hostages.  Simpson arrived at Magdala after the fighting was over - those tiny figures are therefore looking out over a landscape that had recently seen a siege and bombardment.  Before leaving Magdala, the troops were permitted to loot it and some of the artifacts they took found their way eventually into London museums like the British Museum.  An Association For the Return Of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures was formed in 1999 to lobby for their return to Ethiopia.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Umbrian lake, smiling in summer heat

Richard Wilson, The Temple of Clitumnus, 
with the cows drinking from the spring of Clitumnus, 
near Spoleto, Umbria (detail), 18th century 
Source: Christies

I have been re-reading Gilbert Highet, whose Poets in a Landscape (1957) I wrote about in an earlier post about the Springs of Clitumnus.  Highet was drawn to this place through 'two lines of sincere poetry' in an elegy by Sextus Propertius (c. 50/45-15 BCE):
among the woods where the Clitumnus hides its lovely
  springs, and white oxen bathe in the cool stream
The rest of this poem, and almost everything else Propertius wrote, is about love and his life in the city of Rome.  However, you can find more landscape in his poetry, in this description of his origins.
Old Umbria bore you on a famous family-tree,
  I do not lie; the borders of your home
are these: cloudy Mevania, among rain-soaked fields,
  the Umbrian lake, smiling in summer heat,
and steep Asisium's wall climbing towards the peak -
  the wall to which your genius has brought fame.
Mevania is modern Bevagna and the lake was nearby although it was drained long ago and no longer exists. Asisum is Assisi and there are still Roman stones there bearing the Propertius family name.  But, as Highet explains,
'In Assisi today, everything belongs to the world of St. Francis.  Apart from a few inscriptions and details, there is only a small and elegant Capitoline temple (dedicated to the trinity of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva) above ground to remind the visitor of the world of Propertius, and, below ground, the relics of the Roman Forum.  High above them soar the immense walls and towers of the churches of St. Francis. ... Around the towers of the church of St. Francis, the doves which once were the messengers of Venus now rise, the emanations of a loftier and purer spirit.'
Giotto (attribution uncertain), St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, 1297-99
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Francesco Bernadone - St. Francis - is much more associated with nature than Propertius, through the stories that he preached to the birds and made peace between a wolf and a village.  He is included, albeit 'stretching the point', in Italian Landscape Poems, the 1993 anthology compiled and translated by Alistair Elliot, who sadly died late last year.  The book starts with St. Francis' Canticle of the Sun or Laudes Creaturarum ('Praise of the Creatures'), which is said to have been composed in 1224.  It is in the Umbrian dialect of Italian, rather than the Latin written by Propertius, and is often considered the earliest work of Italian literature.  Here are some lines in praise of the elements: the wind, air and clouds, water ('so helpful and humble, precious and chaste'), fire and finally earth, 'who nourishes and guides us / and brings forth fruit in kinds, with coloured flowers, and grass.'
Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Vento
et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,
per lo quale, a le Tue creature dài sustentamento.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sor'Acqua,
la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Focu,
per lo quale ennallumini la nocte:
ed ello è bello et iucundo et robustoso et forte.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra,
la quale ne sustenta et gouerna,
et produce diuersi fructi con coloriti fior et herba.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

The Great Polish Map of Scotland

The Great Polish Map of Scotland
Source: Wikimedia Commons (John Riddell)

I have written here before about relief maps, focusing on the impressive set of table-top landscapes made at the behest of Louis XIV.  These were relatively portable, indoor objects, but there is also a history of larger relief maps made outdoors.  Such scaled-down landscapes are subject to the same forces of weathering and erosion as the 'real' landscape in which they are set.  Thus, one of the best-known examples, the Great Polish Map of Scotland, has had to undergo a process of restoration recently.  Its concrete is more vulnerable to frost and rain than the gneiss and granite of the Scottish mountains, but, unlike the Highlands, it can always be repaired and maintained in a relatively pristine state.  The map was constructed in the late 1970s at a hotel owned by the Polish war veteran, Jan Tomasik and designed by cartographer Kazimierz Trafas. Water for the sea, rivers and lochs was diverted from a nearby stream.  There are various photographs online - the one below showing the map in snow is quite striking.

 Aerial view in snow
Source: Wikimedia Commons (Novemberscot)

The Great Polish Map of Scotland is 50x40m and has been described as the largest relief map in the world.  However, according to Wikipedia, a site in Ningxia province, China was spotted in 2006 using satellite imagery measuring 900 by 700 metres.  It 'appeared to be a large scale relief model (1:500) of Aksai Chin, a disputed territory between China and India.'  You can find this using Google - I have reproduced the satellite image below.  It is a reminder that the history of relief maps in China, as elsewhere, has always been associated with politics and territorial claims (a map is the territory...)  There are other examples of large-scale relief maps around the world: the Philippines can be seen in reproduced in Rizal Park, Manila, and Guatemala has been scaled down in the 'Mapa en Relieve', as described in an Atlas Obscura article.  Such endeavours have been conceived and executed by scientists rather than artists, but I could imagine some more creative alternatives, relief maps that only partially reproduce a landscape, in order to idealise, reinvent or deconstruct it. 

 A large outdoor relief map in China?