Ravi Shankar and George Szirtes
excerpts from A Field Guide to Southern China
Impressions of Impressions of Liu Sanjie
Not a show as much as spectacle,
not a story as much as a show: a few hundred
performers upon the Li River, the twelve limestone
peaks a presence that seems to grow in moonlight
to accompany an opera sung in colors:
red silk, blue notes, green hills, yellow fishing lights,
silver shimmer of bodies uncoiling, a pearl necklace
from the future lighting up stone after stone
to commemorate some kind of fairy love.
At breakfast, our host told us that if you’re in China
for a week, you feel you can write a book, for a month
an article, and for a year you will be stilled into silence.
The country is a vastness hard to demystify, multilayered,
an erasure of the past until all that remains is eternally
present. The bamboo grove readjusts time in its stalks,
sometimes whispery, sometimes throaty. On the map
of Yangshou, there’s a town upriver called “Grandpa
Watching Apple,” one called “Yellow Cloth in the Water.”
The black butterfly that has alighted on the screen
might be a scrap of cloth drifting on a current of air,
might be a decaying apple watching an old man decay.
Chairman Mano meets Chairman Warhol in a yurt in MOMA.
Chairman Warhol meets Chairman Monroe in a car crash
in Wisconsin. Chairman Bruce Wayne meets Chairman Stalin
in heaven. Chairman Bulgakov meets Chairman Mandelshtam
in a gulag. I don’t recognize this place, says Chairman Mao.
Once there was Lenin, and he died. Once there was Trotsky,
and he died. Whatever happened to Al Jolson? Thus in gardens
of Yangshou, in the river under the karst, in the sky that falls
across the lakes, in the car crash that is the world, in the willow
pattern of the aesthetes, in the elections pending, in the school-
rooms of the East, in this particular room where Chairman Mao
is seeking entrance.
The emoji of the moon goddess signifies the presence of the moon
goddess. The emoji of the emoji shows the dark side of the moon,
one of many moons visible under the twelve mountains. Each moon,
it is said, lays an egg and hides it under one of the trees on each
of the mountains. Out of this egg will hatch further moons. Sometimes,
standing on the riverbank, you will see flakes of moonlight, and even,
very occasionally a tiny moon that has hatched too early and has rolled
down and has rolled down a mountain into the water. The first fisherman
to catch one enjoys nine years of luck and happy marriage, blessed
by the ghost of Chairman Moonshine which is the alternative name
for Chairman Mao, who observes everything with an insouciant smile
on his face and a scimitar in his lap to keep the stars in order.
Pushcart Prize winning poet Ravi Shankar has published twelve books and chapbooks, including most recently The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks (University of Arkansas Press, 2017). He’s appeared on NPR, PBS, and the BBC, as well as in the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Financial Times, and elsewhere around the world. He teaches for the New York Writers Workshop, and his memoir in progress is entitled Correctional.
George Szirtes is a poet and translator. Born in Hungary in 1948, he published his first book of poems, The Slant Door, in 1979. It won the Faber Prize. He has published many since then, winning the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2004, for which he has been twice shortlisted since. His latest book is Mapping the Delta (Bloodaxe, 2016). He has won various international prizes for poetry and translation of Hungarian poetry and fiction.
A Field Guide to Southern China is forthcoming from Eyewear Press, UK