Two years ago I wrote a review of Paul Rossiter’s From the Japanese and referred to the quiet grace of the lyrical voice, a measured tracing of pictures in words to which I shall return. It is with considerable delight that I can now revisit that quiet world with this publication of all of Rossiter’s poems up to 1978 (excluding three pieces from 1969 set in Japan and published in that earlier collection which had so attracted me).
One of the influences behind the meditative tones of this poetry is of course Gary Snyder and a quick glance at the second section of ‘Bare Rock’ reveals an interesting comparison with Snyder’s 1959 poem ‘Above Pate Valley’ which opens with the poet finishing a clearing of trail ‘High on the ridge-side / Two thousand feet above the creek’. Snyder notes the small details which accumulate to give a picture of an individual within a landscape and concludes with a far-reaching context which stretches over distances:
‘……I followed my own
Trail here. Picked up the cold-drill,
Pick, singlejack, and sack
Ten thousand years.’
Rossiter’s precision bears excellent comparison with this:
‘Crossing a pass in late afternoon light,
pitching a small tent at sunset,
busy with guy ropes and sleeping bags
among slabs, boulders and scree;
as the light fails we heat water
over a bud of hissing blue flame,
and sit at ease, leaning our backs against
five hundred million years of stone.’
I am struck by the shift from movement to stillness as present participles settle into an immediacy of present tense: ‘crossing’ and ‘pitching’ has an energy which comes to rest with ‘light fails’ and ‘we heat water’. The movement is kept in focus with the participles becoming adjectives (‘sleeping bags’ and ‘hissing blue flame’) and the relaxation into an awareness of the poet’s place in the world is given quiet emphasis with the drawn out last line ending on that lingering ‘years of stone’.
In Part III of this collection there is a poem ‘after Du Fu’ and again it is interesting to see what Rossiter has done with earlier models of this poem of ghostly presence and absence. William Carlos Williams had translated the poem as ‘Visit’ and the meeting of Du Fu with his friend, the recluse Wei Pa, opened in a formal manner:
‘In life we could seldom meet
Separate as the stars.
What a special occasion tonight
That we gather under the candle-lamp!’
David Hinton’s version, titled ‘For the Recluse Wei Pa’, opened with greater immediacy
‘Lives two people live drift without
meeting, like Scorpio and Orion,
without nights like this: two friends
together again, candles and lamps’
Paul Rossiter’s version, ‘Visiting Wei Pa After Twenty Years’ has a visual quality to it which is missing from both these others and as such it brings alive a presence which, Haiku-like, is here, now and timeless:
‘fresh-cut green spring chives
still wet from the rainy darkness,
fresh boiled rice and yellow millet
Scorpio rises as Orion sets
but tonight we’ve slipped past fate
and sit sharing the light of this lamp’
(Lines 2, 4 and 5 should be indented a little more like a WCW three-ply line and I send apologies to the poet!).
In terms of the reference to Scorpio and Orion one of these constellations sets just before the other rises and hence the delightful leap of slipping ‘past fate’; almost like stolen moments. Rossiter’s poem goes on to mention ‘half our friends are dead, / their ghosts cry out in our hearts’ and this enduring sense of memory and grief is then juxtaposed with the concluding gesture
the mountains will be between us
travelling different paths’
The opening poem of this beautifully-crafted volume is a version of the Old English poem ‘Seafarer’ and once again the poet reveals himself to have a subtle understanding of how words can be like vectors:
‘And now I fashion a tale of my travels,
iron-hard days when my blood
beat like a hammer, and brine-bitter sorrow
drenched this rib-shackled ache of a heart.’
This language, like Snyder’s, conjures up a world ‘worn smooth by water, split by frost’: buy this book, read it slowly and let its quiet, patient intelligence work on you.
Ian Brinton 3rd September 2016
Thanks for this Ian. I feel like taking your advice and reading it – it feels wonderfully elemental.