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Hangzhou: A Hive of Industry

Hangzhou: A Hive of Industry

Hangzhou is the political, economic and cultural captial of Zhejiang province in south-eastern China. Like its neighbour Suzhou, Hangzhou has long been revered for its beauty. An old proverb says:

There is heaven above.

            There are Suzhou and Hangzhou below.

     When Marco Polo visited Hangzhou in the late thirteenth century, he went as far as to  describe Hangzhou as ‘the city of heaven’, and declared it to be ‘the most beautful city in the world’. Indeed,  today Hangzhou presents itself as ‘Heaven on Earth’, and so it is hardly surprising that my immediate sensation on arrival was one of wellbeing. Our group from Cambridge was staying at the beautiful New Hotel by the side of West Lake. As well as views of the city’s skyscrapers to the east, there were enticing glimpses of cloud-shrouded mountains in other directions. I was anticipating a visit to Tea Mountain, and was wondering how it might differ from a tea plantation in Fuzhou (Jiangxi province), which I visited in 2018. On that occasion we had been driven through a part of its 240 square kilometres in a twelve-seater open bus, stopping to take pictures across a flat green expanse of tea bushes, stretching to the horizon in every direction.

      In Hangzhou, by contrast, tea is cultivated on picturesque mountain terraces. I was hoping to see pickers on Tea Mountain, and to witness for myself the traditional scenes of cone-shaped hats dotted among the bushes like little roofs or parasols. One of my fellow travellers, artist David Paskett, was looking forward to sketching such a scene and, as we climbed the dusty and rocky path between the rows of tea bushes, the pale-green buds were plump and seemed ready to burst open. But we were too early to see the flowers or inhale their sweet scent, and the pickers would not arrive for several more weeks. My attention, however, was drawn to a squarish, yellow-brown box. It was a bee-box. The bees inside would soon be released to pollinate the flowers, pollination being necessary for the tea plants to produce new seeds. 

     As a child, the first thing I learnt about bees was negative. It was my mother’s story. When she was a small girl in Paris, her mother would sometimes send her to stay with her grandmother in the Pyrenees, a mountainous region in the south of France. One day the child wandered off into a nearby copse and came upon an irresistible-looking ‘doll’s house’. This was before the discovery of anti-histamine, and I have always been haunted by the image of a six year-old lying unconscious on the pine-scented ground next to that bee hive.  

     Over the years, however, my wariness of bees has greatly diminished. I was momentarily transported back to the scrubby garden of my bedsit in Gravesend, England, which years later I recalled in a prose poem: a buff-tailed bumble bee shelters from an equinoctial downpour, the tiny baskets on her hind legs brimming with yellow pollen. Now, here in Hangzhou, I was pleased to see that simple wooden box. It looked utilitarian, like the kind of packing-box which a courrier might deliver to your door. I gazed across these mountain terraces, envisaging thousands of yellow bees working amongst the glossy green leaves and delicate white flowers, industriously filling the tiny pollen baskets on their hind legs. 

Man’s recognition of the curative benefits of honey goes back to antiquity, and I discovered this for myself during a period of one-and-a-half years when doctors couldn’t find the cause of a severe allergy manifesting itself in swellings, red rashes and sores. When my doctor said it would ‘be a wild goose chase to find the floral source’, I did my own research and, in a poem titled ‘Apitherapy’, quoted Hippocrates (c.460 to c.370 BCE): Honey cleans sores and ulcers of the lips, heals carbuncles and running sores. And, indeed, honey did have a soothing effect before doctors were able to treat my allergy.

     Humans have kept bees in colonies for millennia, and some of the oldest examples of art depicting honey-hunting are to be found in Mesolithic rock paintings in Spain, which have been dated to 8000 to 6000 BCE. It is little wonder, given the health benefits of honey, that bees feature so prominently in world mythology, and in art, literature and film, and in the affections of humans generally. In Western culture, the earliest literary accounts about bees come from the poems of Homer, originally as oral epics and later in written form. The biologist Constantine W. Lau suggests that some of the earliest records of bees may be found on oracle bones dating to the Shang period (1600-1046 BCE), the earliest ruling dynasty of China to be documented in recorded history. 

     One of the earliest poems recorded in ancient China was during the Song dynastry (before 200 BCE). It is a warning poem by the King of Zhou. If a bee entered your home in ancient China, it would bring good luck, but only on condition that it was permitted to fly out again. Bees were also regarded with fear because of their sting, and were called Feng, a term which included other insects such as ants and wasps. The earliest recorded bee was found in neighbouring Myanmar. The bee was found with pollen encased in amber and has been dated as 100 million years old. In those early periods, bees were more like wasps, eating other insects rather than nectar and pollen.

     Honey bees, called Mifeng, were not classified separately until the second century BCE, and the earliest existing poem about them, ‘Mifeng fu’ (‘Rhapsody on Honeybees’), is by Guo Pu in the fourth century. In this poem, Guo elevates the bee among the flying insects, considering them to be on equal terms with birds. The longest single poetic work on Fengwas by Liu Shen (1269-1351), a native of Jiangxi province, the location of my first visit to a tea plantation. Liu’s poem, also called ‘Feng fu’, likens bee colonies to imperial courts and asserts that the bees’ duty is to their monarch. These values are reflected in the Confucian concept of ‘household’. It is interesting to note that for centuries the Chinese believed that the ruler of the bee hive was not the queen bee, but the king bee.

      There is the old custom of ‘telling the bees’ about events such as births and deaths, which the bees would pass on to the gods. In ancient lore, bees were messengers from the gods. In ancient Greece they represented the soul. I recalled the modernist Czech writer, Rilke (1875-1926), using the image of the bee to clarify his ideas and insights concerning modern man’s relationship with the natural world, as expressed in his great poetic work Duino Elegies. He likened the bees’ pollen-gathering to our plundering of the visible (‘honey’) in order to gain access to life beyond the present (‘the great golden hive of the invisible’).

     Richard Schiffman, environmentalist and poet, writes that recent research indicates that ‘bees might actually have unique personalities that allow them to solve problems, make choices, and react in ways that look suspiciously like human emotions’. We should no longer regard bees as humble creatures buzzing around mindlessly. They may have some mathematical capacity, and can distinguish between different patterns in nature.

     Nowadays, China is one of the most significant providers of bee pollination services globally. In addition to having unparalleled bee diversity, China has more than eight million managed bee colonies, and it is the world’s major honey producer. Most beekeepers are from the South of China, and Zhejiang province is particularly important for its bee-keeping industry. Most of us are familiar with the commerical products ― beeswax, honey and royal jelly ― and with their associated health-giving qualities.

     Honey is indeed the nectar of the gods, and I know that honey from Hangzhou is particularly delightful to the taste buds. As Marco Polo might have said: ‘divine!’

Messengers

How apt it is that this upper pictogram could be an insect

the oracle bone drawing not tree but a bee’s exoskeleton

the first two upwardly curving strokes not branches

but forelegs| the second not twigs but middle legs

the downward lines not roots but two hind limbs

How fitting that the lower images of a river and a boat

symbolise people pulling together to overcome a crisis

of even global proportions| Here on the steep tea terraces 

I won’t tell the latest sickness or bereavement or even

the recent family birth| I want to imitate the bees

to be an envoy of the visible to where there is neither a here

nor a beyond but the great unity| Soon they will fly out

from the workers’ box| brush yellow dust into tiny baskets

as they hum in the shrubs| pollinating sweet-scented flowers

I touch a pale tea bud| plump as a bumble bee’s abdomen

thinking about the side of life that is turned away from us

Note: Books and internet articles I have drawn upon for this essay include the following:

Hamilton, Lucy, Stalker (Shearsman Books, 2012)

Hamilton, Lucy, Of Heads & Hearts (Shearsman Books, 2018)

heathenchinese.wordpress.com (2014, 2015)

Huang, Alfred, The Complete I Ching, (Inner Traditions, Vermont, 1998, 2010)

Rilke, Rainer Maria, Duino Elegies trans Stephen Cohn Pref. Peter Porter (Carcanet, 1989)

Rilke, Rainer Maria, Duino Elegies trans. Stephen Cohn, Pref. Peter Porter (Carcanet,1989)

Routledge Encyclopedia of Tranditional Chinese Culture, Ch 3, David Patteron, Bees in China

Schiffman, Richard, New Scientist, 9 June 2018

Calligraphy by Sophie Song

Lucy Hamilton 6th January 2022

Stem by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Stem by Belinda Cooke (The High Window Press)

Known mainly as a translator of Russian poetry and as a reviewer of Russian and Irish poets in The Russian ReviewPoetry Ireland Review and other prestigious places, this is Belinda Cooke’s first full collection of her own work. Structured in four sections, three of them focused on specific locales (Ross-shire, Berkshire and Aberdeenshire), it consists of personal, inward-turned lyrics whose contexts are sparse and whose addressees might be friend, brother, parent, child, lover or even a ‘you’ that’s a complicitous ‘I’. Such an approach can be mysterious, frustrating, or a challenge, depending on the type of reader you are. Is the dedicatee ‘Steve’ the same paratextual ‘Stephen’ credited with the author and cover photos, and hence the same ‘you’ frequently associated with photography, and therefore, from the eroticism of ‘Stem’, a lover? But these pronominal ambiguities are generally finely judged. In ‘Take’, they help depict a rolling pattern of personal support, with the twist to the first person at the end:

[…] Dark night, unexpected 

at your door, you’ve lost

so much weight you say.

When the voice is lonesome

just come home you say – 

and you only once thirty years ago,

you know why I’m ringing…

just come home,

come home I say. 

‘We get no kicks on the A96’, begins one poem here, and these are confessionals, too, whose main confession is that there’s not much (willingly) to be disclosed. There are landscapes, moments listening to rain, listening to music, problems with houses, being apart from loved ones, going for walks, and the fine-tuned emotions and quiet epiphanies arising from each. If something does happen – ‘bad news’ is mentioned once  we readers aren’t made privy to it. Some similar lyric poets import drama instead from news stories or character-monologues. Belinda Cooke resists that, but rather flavours her self-appointed reticence with spicy hints – ‘It’s as if we were looking/ into each other’s bones’; ‘always just yesterday/ that I first felt your loved weight’; ‘I learn about intimacy the hard way’ – and prefers to listen than speak:

Talk to me, I will listen,

I will lean in close to that

dark that is yours alone […]

Meanwhile there are references to Rilke, Larkin and particularly Marina Tsvetaeva, whom Belinda Cooke is especially known for translating: otherwise-opaque phrases like ‘the packhorse dues’ can be illuminated by identifying their origins in her writings. The book, confusingly, has many unaccountable commas, misquotations, odd italicisings, lost parentheses and hanging quote-marks, among other typos. (Perhaps ‘Whitenights Park’, for this notable russophone, might be deliberate? But whoever are Wilhelmina and the Mainliners?) Nonetheless, such slippages don’t overwhelm the pleasures to be gained, especially in the more unguarded poems about youth which are the ones, for me, that make the book most worth getting hold of. A Catholic childhood nicely provides a ‘little box of imagery’, and those on young love, after all, are everything you’d hope for:

            Heavy and lovely

            the night we first didn’t sleep together

            but lay awake all night

            me like a madwoman

            who couldn’t stop smiling:

            ‘What’s so funny?’ you asked.

Guy Russell 20th June 2021

Gravity for Beginners by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Arc Publications]

Gravity for Beginners by Kevin Crossley-Holland (Arc Publications]

I have always admired Kevin Crossley-Holland’s writing, particularly his Anglo-Saxon translations, so it is a pleasure to read and review Gravity for Beginners, his first new collection for six years. An additional delight is the setting – mysterious, atmospheric Norfolk with its wealth of legends.

The collection opens with an epigraph from a poem by Rilke which sets the mood for the theme of ‘times past’ and the sense of magic. ‘This is the heart of everything that ever was’ is the first line and it is also the heart of Gravity for Beginners.

The epigraph is followed by nine parts of a sequence called ‘Seahenge: A Journey’ and we begin a journey through an emotional and geographical landscape established by pieces whose titles themselves are poem-like: ‘Tump’, ‘Deadheaded’, Unliving’, Shimmer’. ‘Tree’, ‘Altar’, ‘Crossing’, ‘Tides’, ‘Burden’. Here the journey begins with ‘a search for a thumbnail of pottery’ that will remind the narrator of his belief that he was ‘an inmate of the barrow’ that once existed and whose echoes can still be heard:

         Footfalls in the sandy soil and soggy fen,

         footfalls through forests bedded

         with cones and needles:

         knappers and salt-panners and oyster-men,

         truth-tellers, outcasts, devotees

         still resting here.

The sequence explores the background to Seahenge – a timber circle of oak trunks with a huge, upside-down one at its centre. Here a young woman relates how she helped to build the circle and lay the body of her father inside it and here the atmosphere becomes ancestral, pagan, violent and ritualistic. We are in the realm of a ‘white skull, green earth, swarming sea’. This is the site of a ‘crossing place’ where ‘time and ‘dream’ have re-mapped the original henge ‘into another truth’ where the narrator is able:

         Wholly to immerse myself

         wholly to find myself.

Gravity for Beginners, like all of Kevin Crossley-Holland’s writing, is imbued with myth, history and the still-living past where wide steps are ‘scalloped by centuries of hooves’. (‘The New Familiar’). These lines from ‘The Northern Gods’ particularly appeal to me:

         Have you ever dreamed you were sitting in the bole

         of Yggdrasill, squinting up at the skull

         of the white sky, then down into the icy swirl?

         Have you heard the vitriol of the dragon,

         the corpse-devourer, and seen how the squirrel

         whisks it up to the eagle on the topmost branch?

There’s humour as well as lyricism in ‘L’Abbaye-Château de Camon’ where the ‘rondel/ of the seasons seems to spin faster’ and the breath of the medieval queen Aliénor ‘is always here/or hereabouts, trailing her wailing/retinue of troubadours.’

But this whole collection is a journey and in ‘En Route’ we are reminded there’s ‘always some unscheduled halt/with its attendant wonders’ which may be:

         The marvellous or the monstrous

         but more often the humdrum 

  • a reclamation yard, or the smell

of an autumn bonfire; this siding, say,

choked with dusty purple nettles,

an ochre butterfly flickering over them.’

There is a sense of wonder throughout Gravity for Beginners and this brings me back to the starting point of Rilke’s lines about the way ‘the heart of everything … returns to each of us, our very being,/woven into us.’ Kevin Crossley-Holland invites the reader to share in the essence behind the appearance, to see the landscape behind the words.  The collection’s title poem sums this up:

         Words slipping into the mind’s casket,

         quick rain falling to attending earth.

Or maybe the essence and wonder is best expressed in this, my favourite poem, ‘Winter as it Used To Be’:

         Birds flew in searching for seed

         and all at once became snowflakes;

         as words do.

         A burst of sunlight, an angel’s aureole,

         and then mist; and the trees,

         and our singing selves made of morning air.

Mandy Pannett 31st May 2021

Encroach to Resume by Peter Larkin (Shearsman Books)

Encroach to Resume by Peter Larkin (Shearsman Books)

Peter Larkin has been publishing poems about trees for almost 40 years, yet with each new collection he brings fresh perspectives. This arises in part from his close attention to trees, an attention which he invites us as readers to share. It is also nourished by his interest in scientific research into trees and forests, and recent philosophical debate on the non-human and our relationship to it. 

In his latest volume, Encroach to Resume, ‘Bodies the Trees of’ is a good example of the way science informs the poetry. The poem takes as its principal source The Body Language of Trees: A Handbook for Failure Analysis by Claus Mattheck and Helge Breloer, a book given to Larkin by J H Prynne. The handbook is focused on the hazards that trees can pose: how they break, why they break, and why sometimes they break when we don’t expect them to. The authors identify a series of indicators of stress and potential failure, the ‘body language’ of the title. 

Larkin has written before about the interaction of a tree with its environment and how this shapes the eventual form a tree takes. In ‘Bodies the Trees of’ he explores the idea of a tree being the record of the various vicissitudes it has had to negotiate through its life. Each response a tree makes to stress generates potential lines of fracture. Thus ‘cracks radiate, the root-swerve revolves describes (sub-writes) a blow’ (para 2) and ‘silent signs render screams to seams’ (para 4). ‘Sub-writes’ here evokes ‘underwrite’ (risk insurance), and ‘screams’ suggests both the sound of sheering timber and the cry of someone struck by a falling branch. 

The poem goes on to explore various aspects of potential stresses which might cause failure, and the way in cities we deal with risks through pruning and felling, constraining ‘branches in harness’. It also generalises this image of vulnerability to say something about our own being in the world. In paragraph 7 we read: ‘excessive stalling into shape    trees share horizons of the body across all the unsheltered flesh of the world’. 

A very different poem is ‘Given Trees Their Other Side of Nature’, a text which engages explicitly in metaphysical speculation. The poem is prefaced by three epigraphs, the first from Rilke’s Erlebnis in which the subject of the text wonders if he has been ‘transported to the other side of Nature’. This is followed by the environmental philosopher Bruce V. Foltz asserting that ‘the other side of nature is the side that allows it to be more than…our own production. The other side is the side we sense but do not see…’. The third epigraph is from Emily Dickinson: ‘I could not find a privacy/from Nature’s sentinels –‘.

The sense of there being an otherness in nature, a numinous presence we scarcely apprehend, is a common theme in Larkin’s work. This for him is not a transcendent reality but something we experience phenomenologically, however mysteriously. Thus in the seventh section of the poem Larkin writes: ‘Nature’s other side no less born, sensory only as its gift bestirs     a fragility not quite nearby but companionate burden’. In the central part of section 10 we read:

rootedness scratches

at a dimensionless

deflective abiding

in welts of belonging

the unaccountable,

prongs of the trees

smack at nature’s

reserve

It is through the material presence of trees that we have a sense of this otherness. Section 9 includes the line:

No such erasure without a raised other side, what is not a lid     hidden only as leanest against, supportive until obstructive enough for prayer

Larkin has made increasing use of the word ‘prayer’ in his poetry in recent years, though who or what is praying in the poems is often ambiguous. Personal pronouns appear rarely in his work.  Here he speaks of prayer ‘not bridging but a thrown (penetrating) embankment, its own least-beyond-from-which’ (section 1). Ultimately it is prayer, understood as a reaching towards, which retains the initiative in this poem, rather than metaphysical argument.

‘As a Tree Not a Tree’ is another fine poem which anticipates many of the themes in ‘Given Trees’. I enjoyed the subtle ambiguities explored here, the sense of a tree containing what is literally ‘not tree’ while also being more than ‘tree’ in a metaphysical or spiritual sense – that a tree ‘shelters what it is not’. Four other poems on various tree-related themes make up the collection as a whole.

Larkin’s texts are challenging, demanding work from the reader. The ideas he explores are often subtle. But the effort is worth making. The global environmental emergency we confront demands of us a very different way of being in the world. Larkin’ poetry is an invitation to reflect on what that might feel like.  

Simon Collings 13th May 2021

River of Love by Aimee Medina Carr (Homebound Publication)

River of Love by Aimee Medina Carr (Homebound Publication)

Aimee Medina Carr’s debut novel River of Love follows the lives of indigenous young people in the 1960s and 1970s as they try to live in the Red Canon area of Colorado along the Arkansas River in a region that is dominated by powerful white people. She references and draws on thinkers and writers as diverse as St. Augustine, Rainer Maria Rilke, Eric Clapton, and dozens more, and it seems to me that this is a book that only could be written by someone who has read broadly and brings the associations of a lifetime with her. It is a far reaching book that looks to the experiences of a small group of kids but uses them to talk about our shared experience. What drew me in the most, however, was how Carr was able to use the experience of love for individuals, the natural world, and humanity to give us a path forward through those times and experiences that threaten to destroy us.
There is a level of nostalgia for the 1960s and 1970s that a lot of people have for that time. It is placed there, of course, by those who were young then, but I think anyone can identify with it, and so many of us have experienced a period in our lives when we were idealistic and everything seemed possible. Carr makes the point that these are not false memories. We might grow into cynicism, but it is the cynicism that is naive, not the hope. Her characters find a place of natural beauty and revitalization where they can find a space outside the confines of the social world along the Arkansas River, and through this repeated setting, she is able to make an argument as to how the natural world can bring out honesty and directness. It is the way to find love and a place where falseness is stripped away, especially the falseness associated with social convention. This is my favorite aspect of this tremendous novel, and I found myself lingering over these passages that brought me back to hope as a way forward.
The point of the novel, if a novel can be said to have a point, is the exceptional power and need for love. It can be summed up emotionally for me in one paragraph:

Love is the beginning, Love is the middle, and Love is the end, we will be judged only by how much we Loved in our lifetimes. Love gives life its meaning. Life gives us this one chance to Love (292).

Love here and in many parts of the novel is personified or maybe it takes on a god-like role, and that is one of the messages of it. Love is a powerful entity capable of changing us. It is perhaps the only thing that can change us for the better so Carr spends a good deal of time examining the different aspects of love and how they can be played out.
River of Love is not a novel to be rushed. I am a fairly fast reader, and I found myself needing to slow down to allow the emotion of the novel to work through me. I went back over lines and scenes to internalize what she was saying. I love what she is saying, and I agree with it. Nostalgia can be a force for stagnation, but that’s not what this is. She is looking back at a time that was meaningful to give us a way forward.

John Brantingham 18th February 2021

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