Postcards from Home

Reviewed by Louise Young

There has long been a fascination in Western poetry with Eastern influences, and the four volumes of poetry reviewed here confirm that literary representations of otherness remain a key facet of Canadian poetic identity. Who we are and what we can learn in relation to distinct world cultures brings a new sense of meaning in how we identify and situate ourselves as family members, as social entities, as workers, as dreamers, as achievers, as heroes, as adversaries.

A winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, Gary Geddes offers us a unique perspective on two of China’s most treasured pieces of historical art. Geddes’ accessible poetic style brings to life a rich array of characters inspired by a blend of history, culture, myth, and imagination. Geddes describes the feeling of being spoken to by his creations that come to him whilst he is writing and demand that their stories be told. As a result, his two most recent collections offer the reader a point of entry into the inner workings of old China by bringing to life a thronging diversity of voices tinged with both creativity and lore.

In Swimming Ginger, Geddes crafts a collection of poetic performance pieces, based on scenes from the Qingming Shanghe Tu scroll, a twelfth-century painting depicting an ancient Chinese cityscape. By drawing the reader into the world of the figures in the painting, Geddes makes the case for those liminal voices in history that have hitherto remained silent and unidimensional, giving them a depth and texture that reaches beyond the painted realm. The narrator of “The Storyteller” puts it best when he says that “vernacular was music to my ears.” Divided into segments punctuated with photographs of the beautiful scroll, Swimming Ginger juxtaposes three versions of experience: the cacophony of tradespeople, merchants, and artists who dwell in the imagined city; the musings of Zhang Zeduan, believed to be the creator of the original scroll; and a section that writes back to the traditions of Qu Yan, the ancient Chinese poet.

A common theme that emerges from Geddes’ “contributors” is a cynicism around received notions of hierarchy transmitted through religious, political, and industrial institutions. For his characters, the romance of ascetic spirituality collapses under the weight of daily life and the responsibility
of meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, and survival. As “The Perfect Son” prepares himself for “an hour or two of Confucian / mumbo-jumbo, all that antiquated, / crap about filial responsibility. / Trouble is, I believe it, am living / proof of its efficacy,” we see the push-pull effect that city life brings to rural traditionalism. Geddes’ vision of the scroll is a reality in which “[f]arm implements / are more likely than court odes / to touch hearts.” Swimming Ginger reanimates one of China’s most iconic artifacts and infuses it with irreverence, gently poking fun at the fantasies of ancient Chinese culture that we might otherwise be wont to adopt. In answer to such fantasies, Geddes creates an earthy, vibrant, and altogether more pragmatic account of lives lived in twelfth-century China.

Geddes’ other recent poem sequence, The Terracotta Army, was inspired by a 1981 visit to China, where he and a group of Canadian literary talents toured the formerly closed country. Geddes was deeply struck by the terracotta figures and found that, after his return home, he was visited by what he calls the “insistent but disembodied voices” of the unnamed, unstoried figures lurking behind the clay renditions. Using a fixed nine-couplet structure, the lines of the poems neatly stack up like the endless lines of warriors and yet, within this uniformity, rich and unboundaried characters emerge.

The narrators of poems such as “Charioteer,” “Spearman,” “Lieutenant,” and “Paymaster” map out three of the main catalysts behind The Terracotta Army: the futility of warfare, the struggle for individuality, and the mercurial figure of Lao Bi, the potter who crafted the army. Old Bi, as he is affectionately known, emerges as a gifted, arrogant, and humorous sage who, like Geddes, brings the terracotta army to life whilst simultaneously lamenting the inevitability of loss through war. In perhaps a nod to “Ozymandias,” “The Chaplain” speaks of the impermanence of existence, in which “[t]he only certainty, even under the earth, / is change, whether it be cosmetic, paint / flaking away down the muted centuries / or something more violent that destroys the form / itself, icons of public and private selves.” He consults Lao Bi, expecting to shock him, but “[o]nly our vanity is monumental, the potter said, / and that, too, can be broken.” In The Terracotta Army, art has the power to write humanity into existence and yet, in Geddes’ grounded and lyrical world, it is ultimately as delicate and frail.

In search of another version of Asia, Ken Norris’ poetic travelogue, Asian Skies, is the final volume of poetry in his creative trilogy that has previously explored the rich literary soils of Europe and the Caribbean Sea. With Dante’s Divine Comedy in his physical and narrative luggage, Norris traverses the vivid terrains of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Nepal in search of a version of paradise hidden within the bustling contradictions of old and new Asia. Asian Skies reads as accessibly as a series of postcards from a friend and yet Norris’ vernacular hits its mark every time. With pinpoint accuracy, he reflects on the commodification of the East, the cloud of romance through which Western eyes tend to view Asia, and the transactions Norris himself makes as traveller, consumer, father, lover, spiritual seeker, and poet. He notes in “Patong Beach” that his quest to hold a mirror up to Asia results repeatedly in rediscovering himself, as saturated idylls throng with familiarity: “The European tourists dive in to the waves / And make them ordinary.”

The skies of the collection’s title heave with the unpredictability of tropical rainstorms, whilst also offering the promise of amnesia, washing away the squalor of industrialism and the stains of personal regret. Norris explores his relationship with aging and mortality through the lens of travel (“Morning,” “Sherpa,” “The Journey,” “Last Ascent”), noting that the journey through Asia inevitably leads him back to himself.

If Norris’s vision of place is situated firmly within the home of the self, Brian Henderson’s latest collection of poems, entitled Sharawadji, casts its net into more hidden spaces. Henderson’s four-part collection takes as its title a term used to describe an “oriental style” in which an appreciation of artistry develops beyond the realm of meaning or context. Sharawadji is a series of sharply contoured poems that juxtapose past and present, natural and chemically engineered, reality and imagination, love and loss. Inspired by Janek Yerka, the Polish painter of surreal and fantastical landscape art, Henderson conjures his own impressionistic scenescapes that both exude and elude definitions of place. In “Twelve Imaginary Landscapes,” images of post-apocalyptic devastation are laced with the loneliness of survival: “Every day I go looking for it through the convoluted syntax of / booby-trapped alleys and streets, smouldering grey oxides of / rubbish heaps, derelict factories, warehouses, landfill mews.”

Nestled within the volume’s jarring cadences, the section entitled “Night Music” traces the journey of grief and loss. Portraits of the decline of the narrator’s mother in hospital are juxtaposed with the idylls of happier days in poems such as “The Ruthie Tree,” “Well,” and “The Answer.” The simple beauty of the past (“the September light pausing on the limit of summer”) is contrasted with the present landscape of human frailty (“your skin a geography / of purple continents”). By continually decontextualizing place and time, Henderson writes
into existence a space that holds together multiple contradictions and layers of meaning—a space as simple and familiar as the surrounding images are disorienting and circumspect. Access to this space comes in exquisitely fleeting moments and, amongst the “booby-trapped” alleys of the book’s linguistic cityscapes, we find the sharawadji of the title.

This review “Postcards from Home” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 166-68.

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