Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Poems that talk

These poems talk. They talk with each other, with other poems and they talk to me. 

Zhou is ‘one of the legendary Three Dynasties of ancient China’ and ‘the tenth most common surname in mainland China’, we’re told. A page of notes defines some words, gives references, placing some poems with their intertexts.

The shape of the poems, the different verse patterns and the italicised words, quotations and adapted words all draw the eye. On the contents page, the italicised list of subtitles for the ‘Fragments of Zhou’ sequence is itself poem-like.

The final part of ‘Fragments’ (‘he came as a conjurer’) brings an exotic image, though it speaks of change:

his capacious trunk contained
his conjuring equipment
his flowing robes of silk
his old opinions

Zhou, ‘the migrating magician’ on the ship is ‘like a bird in the clouds / once gone, gone’ (‘Canto I’), and:

When there is no way out dreams are needed.

Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly
and that butterfly was Zhou.

These italicised lines are adapted from two Li Po poems. I want to read more.

‘The Exceptional Zhou becomes the ordinary Joe’ at the journey’s end in ‘Canto II’. (The term ‘canto’ makes me think of Basil Bunting’s ‘On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos’ (‘There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?’).

Pick a fern, said Pound, pick a fern’  is the first line of the first poem of ‘Ghosts’, the closing sequence of six poems. My favourite of these (‘2’) is a moving meditation: ‘How do you find the ordinary, individual man? / […] / How do you find this extraordinary, individual man?’ and this leads to poems that offer an answer. There’s also a neat drawing together of the pamphlet in ‘3’:

The little fingers of my father’s father
bent inwards from the top joint
and so with his
and so with mine
and so with all our progeny.

The lines above recall strong images in the opening poem (‘Yellow Bird’):

the yellow bird stops
on the paifang
to the Chinese Quarter
where the bend of his little finger
beckons me in
to gather watercress.

This pamphlet needs more OPOIs — I’ve hardly touched the surface.

Enid Lee