FULL MOON

Beijing, 25 February 2013

Yesterday started with my wife finally remembering a song that had been chasing around in her head all night: “September”, by Earth, Wind and Fire, whom we see here in concert:

earth wind and fire concert-1

This is a song from “our” generation; it came out in 1978. My wife tracked down a version of it on the web and promptly played it for the rest of the day. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song – a feel-good song, my wife calls it – but after you’ve sung along with the refrain

Ba de ya – say do you remember
Ba de ya – dancing in September
Ba de ya – never was a cloudy day

for the fifth time, it begins to pall – at least for me. But not my wife. Mercifully, she had to turn it off when we went to bed, but then the fireworks, which had been grumbling along all day,

fireworks-5

began to build up to their final roar for midnight.

fireworks-6

Because, for those of you who do not closely follow matters Chinese, yesterday was the Lantern Festival, the last day of the Chinese new year celebrations, whose end is traditionally celebrated with an orgy of fireworks.

At one moment during the evening I slipped out to the local 7-11 to buy a bottle of our favourite wine (a Spanish tempranillo – but I digress). Coming back, I looked up and glimpsed through the clouds what all this sound and fury was all about: the full moon.

full moon-1

Because the Chinese new year is really a lunar festival. It starts on the second new moon after the winter solstice and ends 15 days later at the full moon. I had picked up the new moon – or newish moon; it had already waxed a few days – in Luang Prabang.

laos 499

And now I was seeing the full moon, shining serenely down on all this silliness.

A full moon is a beautiful thing. It certainly has caught the attention of many poets. A short search on the web brought to light at least 100 poems about the moon by well-known poets; Lord knows how many have been written by bad poets. But the poem which always comes to my mind when I see a full moon is not actually about the moon. I need to explain. One night in Vienna, I woke up and was enchanted by the brilliant nearly full moon pouring its white light into the bedroom. Two nights later, I was in Cambodia on the shore of the Mekong River. Looking up, I saw the full moon and thought to myself “This same moon will be shining down on my wife and children in a few hours” and found that thought immensely comforting. Now for the poem, which is by the Welsh poet Alun Lewis. He wrote it during the Second World War, when he was far away in India, in the city of Poona.

Last night I did not fight for sleep
But lay awake from midnight while the world
Turned its slow features to the moving deep
Of darkness, till I knew that you were furled,

Beloved, in the same dark watch as I.
And sixty degrees of longitude beside
Vanished as though a swan in ecstasy
Had spanned the distance from your sleeping side.

And like to swan or moon the whole of Wales
Glided within the parish of my care:
I saw the green tide leap on Cardigan,
Your red yacht riding like a legend there.

And the great mountains Dafydd and Llewelyn,
Plynlimmon, Cader Idris and Eryri
Threshing the darkness back from head and fin,
And also the small nameless mining valley

Whose slopes are scratched with streets and sprawling graves
Dark in the lap of firwoods and great boulders
Where you lay waiting, listening to the waves
My hot hands touched your white despondent shoulders

And then ten thousand miles of daylight grew
Between us, and I heard the wild daws crake
In India’s starving throat; whereat I knew
That Time upon the heart can break
But love survives the venom of the snake.

When I read the poem for the first time, I was reminded of that night in Vienna with its full moon. And now, when I’m far away from home and see the moon, I think of this poem and of my wife.

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Earth Wind and Fire concert: http://sharelike.me/image/pics/EarthWindandFireconcertPics1ApCC7Md5iwM.jpg
Fireworks-1: http://cdn.ph.upi.com/sv/em/upi/UPI-16811361735171/2013/1/9eb14390c758aeb27fd87349de4d55bc/China-celebrate-Lunar-New-Year.jpg
Fireworks-2: http://findlaydonnan.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/fireworks-to-celebrate-the-chinese-new-year-light-up-the-sky-above-beijing-china-on-january-26-2009-chinese-welcomed-the-arrival-of-the-year-of-the-ox-with-raucous-celebrations-on-sun.jpg?w=497&h=283
Full moon: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-gY39tpbGmzg/TnLTHVEnSyI/AAAAAAAABaM/R2kBI2LddYg/s1600/Moon_Lantern_Festival.jpg
New moon Luang Prabang: my photo

RIVER POEMS

Beijing, 17 January 2013

There are only a few weeks to go to the Chinese New Year and the Chinese newspapers are full of articles on people’s plans for the festive period and on the country’s transportation infrastructure bracing itself for the onslaught of Chinese who will be travelling home or – more frequently now as they get richer and move into the middle classes – travelling abroad for package tour holidays. As I read, I was reminded of a wonderful piece in the New Yorker written by the magazine’s Man in Beijing, Evan Osnos. Two Chinese New Years ago, Osnos decided to join one of these package tours, the “Classic European,” a bus tour visiting five countries in ten days.  It’s a sympathetically amusing article and I would urge any of my readers with an interest in social trends in China to read it. It can be accessed at http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/04/18/110418fa_fact_osnos. Here is a photo from the article.

chinese tourists-8

Osnos’s piece reminded me rather of a 1969 film, If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, a romantic comedy about a group of American tourists doing a bus tour of nine European countries in 18 days.

If_It's_Tuesday

Osnos mentions in passing a sub-trend in Chinese tourism, that of Chinese lovers of poetry who go on a pilgrimage to Cambridge (the Cambridge in the UK) to gaze reverently at a clump of willow trees growing on the banks of the River Cam. The reason for all this is a poem which is wildly popular in China: 再别康桥 “Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again”. It was written by Xu Zhimo, a famous romantic poet of the early twentieth-century.

Xu Zhimo

Xu travelled in the West for a number of years. He spent a year in Cambridge in 1921 and on a second trip there in 1928 wrote the poem. He died a few years later in a plane crash in China.

I don’t read (or speak) Chinese, so I’m afraid the poem in its original form is closed to me. However, there is what seems to be a standard translation (every Chinese website that I looked at carried the same one) which is really quite pleasant on the ear. But before I quote it here, I am moved to first cite the poem in its pinyin form (without tonal marks, which I find confusing and quite unhelpful since I don’t hear the language’s tones), to give other Chinese-illiterate readers like myself a small taste of its rhythm and rhyme.

Qingqing de wo zou le, zhengru wo qingqing de lai;
wo qinqing de zhaoshou, zuobie xi tian de yuncai.

Na hepan de jin liu, shi xiyang zhong de xinniang;
boguang li de yan ying, zai wo de xintou dangyang.

Ruanni shang de qing xing, youyou de zai shuidi zhaoyao;
zai Kang he rou bo li, wo ganxin zuo yi tiao shuicao!

Na yu yin xia de yi tan, bus hi qingquan,
shi tianshang hong rousi zai fu zao jian, chendianzhe caihong shide meng.

Xunmeng? Cheng yi zhi chang gao, xiang qingcao gen qing chu man su,
manzai yi chuan xing hui, zai xing hui banlan li fangge.

Dan wo buneng fangge, qiaoqiao shi bieli de shengxiao;
xiachong ye wei wo chenmo, chenmo shi jinwan de Kangqiao.

Qiaqiao de wo zou le, zhengru wo qiaoqiao de lai;
wo hui yi hui yixiu, bu daizou yi pian yuncai.

And now for the translation:

Very quietly I take my leave
As quietly as I came here
Quietly I wave good-bye
To the rosy clouds in the western sky

The golden willows by the riverside
Are young brides in the setting sun
Their reflections on the shimmering waves
Always linger in the depth of my heart

The floating heart growing in the sludge
Sways leisurely under the water
In the gentle waves of Cambridge
I would be a water plant!

That pool under the shade of elm trees
Holds not water but the rainbow from the sky
Shattered to pieces among the duckweeds
Is the sediment of a rainbow-like dream

To seek a dream? Just to pole a boat upstream
To where the green grass is more verdant
Or to have the boat fully loaded with starlight
And sing aloud in the splendour of starlight

But I cannot sing aloud
Quietness is my farewell music
Even summer insects keep silence for me
Silent is Cambridge tonight

Very quietly I take my leave
As quietly as I came here
Gently I flick my sleeves
Not even a wisp of cloud will I bring away

I can’t resist adding a few pictures here of the river Cam. It is a river that flows quietly through Cambridge, as quietly as the poem itself flows across the page.

Cam with willows

Henry VIII chapel and Cam

Cam-1

I came across the text of the poem for the first time through an English Lit class I held with a Chinese student (class is a big word; it was more a pleasant discussion around English literature every Saturday morning, over a cup of hot sweet soya milk). After we had gone through a few English poems he brought me this translation of  “Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again”. I was touched and wanted to give him in return an English poem with a river as its theme. But what?

I went on a search and came across the poem “The River” by Sara Teasdale.

sara-teasdale

Teasdale, an American poet, was more or less a contemporary of Xu. She died in 1933.

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

I had never heard of Teasdale, and a look at her other poems did not impress me, but this poem, at this time in my life, spoke to me. Who doesn’t reach my age and sometimes wish he could slough off the pessimism which comes with the passing years and be young again, fresh and optimistic?

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Chinese tourists: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/assets_c/2011/04/110418_osnoschinese01_p465-thumb-465×310-68686.jpg
Film poster: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/9/9f/If_It%27s_Tuesday.jpeg
Xu Zhimo: http://cfile25.uf.tistory.com/image/1768563E4F8F1F6C23B5BE
Cam with willows: http://www.baihuisoft.com/Uploads/201179154340875.jpg
Henry VIII chapel and Cam: http://ts1.mm.bing.net/th?id=H.4921582377371804&pid=1.9
Cam and Clare college: http://anyluckypeny.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/clare-college-bridge-university-of-cambridge.jpg?w=870
Sara Teasdale: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/uploads/authors/sara-teasdale/448x/sara-teasdale.jpg