Friday, January 20, 2017

Journey to the Land of the Real

Returning from the Small Publishers Fair last November and looking on the bus at my new copy of Journey to the Land of the Real felt like being a teenager again, after finally tracking down some long-desired record I had read about but never actually seen.  Victor Segalen is my favourite French writer.  Not having known the Atlas Press were bringing out a new translation of Equipée (first published posthumously in 1929), I was astounded to see it lying on their table, like some precious piece of calligraphy or mysterious jade artefact.  The book is a beautifully printed hardback with endpapers reproducing photographs of a mountain pass taken by Jean Lartigue, Segalen's travelling companion in 1914.  The text was partly inspired by this journey, an archaeological expedition in China and Tibet, although, as the editors of the Wesleyan UP edition of Stèles note, Segalen 'wrote travel literature only in the sense that we might say Proust wrote an autobiography or Baudelaire recorded Parisian street life.'  At the beginning of the Journey to the Land of the Real, Segalen says that what follows is 'not a poem about a journey, nor is it the travel diary of a wanderer’s dream.'

The question of landscape description is addressed in Chapter 21, which opens with a criticism of conventional writing, 'pleasant verbal colour.'  He says he cannot describe some of what he has seen in words - the red hills of western China, the entrance to Tibet, 'so many mineral landscapes'.  He talks about the chaos of forms in the valleys.
'A landscape of yellow earth.  Literally made entirely of earth, yellow earth enriched with subtle tones, pinky-yellow in the morning, salmon-yellow in the light from the west, growing pale towards midday, violet in the evening, and at night, deepest black - for not the slightest glimmer of diffused light penetrates at that hour.  Perspectives, indentations and architecture, both bland and fantastical, all more astonishing than the colours themselves.  [...]  I find respite and calm only by climbing as high as possible, fleeing the low, chaotic regions for the high, paradoxical plateaux, where the soothing plain dominates and unfolds beneath the skies.'
This passage reminded me of 'Terre Jaune', one of the poems in Stèles (1912) which, according to the free online collection of sources and contexts, was based on some notes Segalen made in August 1909.  I've reproduced the French version in full below - the Chinese characters mean 'high plain (tranquillity above), chaos below'.  Stèles is not a collection of landscape poems but it takes its title from the stone tablets dotted around China which could, I suppose, be thought of as a great authorless text covering the landscape.  In his introduction to Stèles, Segalen says that these 'embed their low foreheads in the Chinese sky.  One encounters them unexpectedly: on roadsides, in temple courtyards, before tombs.'  'Terre Jaune' is placed in a section entitled 'Stèles by the wayside.'  Such monuments 'offer themselves without reserve to passers-by, to mule-drivers, to chariot drivers, to eunuchs, to footpads, to mendicant monks, to people of the dust, to merchants.  Towards all of these they turn their faces radiant with signs...'

Terre Jaune
D'autres monts déchirent le Ciel, et portant le plus haut qu'ils peuvent les tourments de leurs sommets, laissent couler profondément la vallée.
Ici, la Terre inversée cache au creux des flancs ses crevasses, tapit ses ressauts, étouffe ses pics -- et tout en bas
Les vagues de boue chargées d'or, délitées par les sécheresses, léchées par les pleurs souterrains gardent pour quelque temps la forme des tempêtes.
Alors que, supérieure, ignorant les tumultes, droite comme une table et haute à l'égal des cimes, -- la plaine étendue
Nivelle sa face jaune sous le Ciel quotidien des jours qu'elle recueille dans son plat.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Mountains and forests and the marshy banks of rivers

'The four seasons move on in their lush cycles; but stillness of heart is important for them to enter into a writer's meditations.  However opulent and dense the sensuous colors of physical things may be, their expression in language demands succinctness.  They will produce a flavor in the writing that floats above the world; it will make the circumstances glow and be always new. [...]  Mountains and forests and the marshy banks of rivers are indeed the mysterious treasuries of literary thought.  Yet if the words are too brief, the description will lack something; and if it is too detailed, it will be too lush.'
- Liu Xie (c. 465-522), The Literary Mind Carves Dragons, Chapter 46, on 'The Sensuous Colors of Physical Things', trans. Stephen Owen.
This comes from the first book-length study of literature in Chinese, written in the Southern Qi (Ch'i) period (479-502) by Liu Xie (Liu Hsieh), a Buddhist scholar who came from what is now Jiangsu Province.  A translation of the whole book was recently republished in NYRB's Calligrams series.  In the chapter on 'The Sensuous Colors of Physical Things' Liu discusses nature poetry, beginning with the turn of the seasons - the ease of spring, the lushness of summer, the high, clear skies of autumn and the frosts of winter.  'The year has its physical things, and these things have their appearances; by these things our feelings are changed, and from our feelings comes language.'

Liu praises the compressed imagery of the Classic of Poetry (c. 600 BCE) where simple phrases like "gleaming sun" 'give the natural principle in its entirety.'  He then moves forward in time to the late third century BCE and mentions the more extensive treatment of things in Qu Yuan's Li Sao ('Encountering Sorrow'), where descriptions are piled on top of each other.  Then, 'by the time we get to Sima Xiangru [c. 179 – 117 BCE] and those around him, the scope of mountains and waters was displayed with bizarre momentum and outlandish sounds, and characters were strung together like fish.'  Twentieth century Chinese critics shared this negative view of the Han Dynasty's ornate fu poetry, of which Sima was the greatest exponent.  In Liu's own day, he writes, the best poets have achieved a balance by attending to the world, 'sculpting' the landscape, delineating details but with no need of additional embellishment.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Terra Incognita

Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita was published twenty-one years ago, before the hundredth anniversaries of the expeditions led by Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen.  Reading it recently, I wondered if we have been living through a golden age of artistic exploration, with a new series of 'firsts', as writers, filmmakers, sound artists and photographers have followed in the footsteps of the explorers and scientists, recording the environment or making site-specific work on the ice.  Perhaps this pioneering period can be said to have come to an end with the first Antarctic Biennale.  According to an article in Slate, 'the current plan is for the artists to construct installations in Antarctica that will be documented and removed, and then to show some of the works later in Venice. The culturati have officially reached the end of the world.'

For most of her stay in 1994-5, Sara Wheeler was hosted by the US National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists & Writers Programme.  Their website provides a fascinating insight into the range of cultural work that has taken place under its auspices.  There are very few household names - the most famous is Werner Herzog, who made his enjoyable documentary Encounters at the End of the World there in 2006 (the shot of a penguin walking in the wrong direction to certain death has become famous).  Herzog's musical collaborator Henry Kaiser had already been there and it was footage he had taken on his trip that persuaded Herzog to take on the project.

The list of people who preceded Sara Wheeler on the program is not long - some historians and science writers, illustrators and photographers (who must all go south highly conscious of the heroic efforts of Ponting and Hurley) and one poet, Donald Finkel, who wrote two books about Antarctica.  Barry Lopez went too - the program's website lists two articles, published in 1989 and 1994, and "future book." Wheeler mentions Lopez once or twice in Terra Incognita.  She recalls how Ranulph Fiennes had scoffed at the idea that the Antarctic can provide a transcendental experience: "I prayed for help there, but I would have done so in Brixton.  Mr Lopez writes about it but he's hardly been there at all." Wheeler's footnote to this: 'Lopez is an established and highly respected author who has visited Antarctica five times.  His trips were not exercises in seeing how dead he could get - he went to see, and to learn.'

Herbert Ponting, A Cavern in an Iceberg, 1910
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, according to the list, Kim Stanley Robinson was in Antarctica at the same time as Sara Wheeler.  I rather wish they had encountered each other because she is quite amusing on cultural differences between America and Britain.  Her book was conceived and written in the tradition of British travel writing (her favourite is The Road to Oxiana) whilst Robinson was researching his science fiction novel Antarctica.  The one other artist she did spend time with on her second trip, which coincided with the end of the Antarctic winter, was a watercolourist called Lucia deLeiris.  They shared a hut on the frozen sea and there, she writes, 'the landscape spoke to me so directly that it no longer seemed to be made of corporeal ice.'

At the end of the book, before leaving Antarctica, Wheeler returns to the Dry Valleys where she had experienced a memorable hike the previous summer.  On that earlier occasion she had been visiting scientists studying Lake Fryxell, its surface 'filled with tiny white bubbles and twisted into apocalyptic configurations - a fall might land you face down on a sword reminiscent of Excalibur.'  The opportunity arose to take a walk up the valley, the passing Suess and Canada Glaciers, where she noted a mummified seal on the moraine, and coming eventually to Lake Bonney, where 'ribboned crystals imprisoned in the ice glimmered like glowworms.  It was swathed in light pale as an unripe lemon.'  Now, months later, after the long polar night and a brief return to England, she was back.  
'I knew this landscape, but I had never seen the pink glow of dawn over the Canada Glacier, or the panoply of sunset over the Suess, or in between, sunlight travelling from one peak to the next and never coming down to us on the lake.  We lived in a bowl of shadow during those days.  One morning the sun appeared for ten minutes in the cleft between Canada and the mountain next to it, and everyone stopped working to look up. The lake was carpeted with compacted snow, and from the middle, where the Canada came tumbling down in thick folds, the Suess was cradled by mountains like a cup of milky liquid.'

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The dew under the blossoms

"Not very festive" was the complaint I received when I attempted to read a few winter poems by Saigyō aloud to the family over Christmas.  Maybe it was the images of solitary life in lonely huts with all mountain trails cut off, or the bamboo bent under snow, frost-withered flowers, wind blowing over dead reeds...  I was trying to interest them in Burton Watson's beautiful translations, published twenty-five years ago by the Columbia University Press.  Saigyō (1118 - 1190) lived through tumultuous times at the end of the Heian dynasty and also through stylistic changes in court poetry which saw greater prominence given to nature description with a sabi aesthetic.  Watson says, in relation to the poem below, 'perhaps he and his fellow poets felt that the very drabness of such scenes, their dim half-light and autumnal sadness, more aptly reflected the age of social decline in which they lived than could any brighter and cheerier landscape.'
kokoro naki mi ni mo aware wa shirarekeri shigi tatsu sawa no aki no yūgure
Even a person free of passion
would be moved
to sadness:
autumn evening
in a marsh where snipe fly up.
[Quoted on Wikipedia - the translation is Burton Watson's.]

From the perspective of landscape writing what is most interesting about Saigyō are the poems that are almost pure description and those which record his extensive travels.  The journeys he made in northern Japan were an influence on Basho, as I've mentioned here before, and this ideal of life spent as a wandering Buddhist poet was later taken up by the Beat Movement.  Within half a century of Saigyō's death, local traditions had sprung up around places he apparently visited.  In her autobiography (c. 1313), Lady Nijō mentions being inspired at the age of nine by reading one of his poems, on a mountain stream and scattering cherry blossoms:
'I had envied Saigyō's life ever since, and although I could never endure a life of ascetic hardship, I wished that I could at least renounce this life and wander wherever my feet might lead me, learning to empathise with the dew under the blossoms and to express the resentment of scattering autumn leaves, and make out of this a records of my travels that might live on after my death.'    
This quotation is taken from Gustav Heldt's introduction to his translation of the Saigyo Monogatari (see Monumenta Nipponica, Winter 1997).  This work is a compilation of stories about the poet's life which emphasised his travels around Japan and there are various texts, the earliest dating back to the thirteenth century.  It includes the famous poem I quote above, on snipe rising from a marsh in autumn.  At that point Saigyō has just passed the plain of Togamigahara where 'from out of the drifts of mist covering the field, the wind carried the cries of a deer.'  Afterwards, 'since he had no particular destination in mind, he followed where the moonlight led him...'  At the end of the Saigyo Monogatari, the poet looks back on his life, fifty years spend wandering 'through the provinces, forsaking everything for the frugal life of a monk living in mountains and forests.'  He dies surrounded by cherry blossoms and makes his final journey to the Pure Land.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Emergent landscapes

Earlier this month we were at Tate Modern for Rob St John's participatory installation Emergent Landscapes. There were two elements to this: painting clay tiles with a solution containing lichen spores, and speaking into an old gramophone horn as a contribute to a collective Tate soundscape.  The tiles will form a cairn at Hooke Park, a woodland in Dorset owned by the Architectural Association, and the tape of sounds will be buried inside it.  Rob might not be the best person to give a mixtape to - I mentioned here last year a concert involving tapes that had been 'soaked in tubs of polluted Lea river water – duckweed, decaying leaves, oil slicks and all – for a month.'  We last encountered him en famille nearly three years ago at Ambika P3 when the kids had a go at wind drawing.  On this occasion they enjoyed painting with lichen (a mixture resembling watery pesto) and adding rude noises to the soundscape, which I can only hope time and the weather will transform into something more beautiful.

Image from Rob St John's Emergent Landscapes site

Painting actual shapes 'with lichen' felt rather odd, distantly related to topiary or making pictures out of bedding plants.  The beautiful abstract patterns it makes on stone (like the Temple of Apollo at Stourhead) are beyond our control.  The way lichen colonised those road signs, symbols of the way way we order and structure landscape, in Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Ruins, was a reminder that nothing can stand outside time.  As I mentioned here recently, Musō Soseki's fourteenth century garden Saihō-ji eventually became famous for its mosses after a period when it fell into disrepair.  Painting my tile, I wondered whether the lichen would ever really grow (particularly if it was placed somewhere in the middle of the cairn), and if the sculpture would remain in the landscape long enough to evolve into something new, and also whether people would still know what it was in decades to come.  I thought about sculpture parks filling up and future curators only retaining works by the most famous artists; perhaps though, as with cemeteries, it will be the mixture of the remembered and forgotten that our descendents will value.

The dates on graves can be used as convenient information for studying the proliferation of lichen species.  Lichen has also been used to try to date ancient petroglyphs.  Rob mentioned reading about some Australian rock art that now actually only exists as lichen, where the ancient organic pigment has slowly been colonised.  I liked this story because we normally think of cave paintings as threatened by mould and lichen, especially once exposed to visitors.  This came up during a gallery talk with literary geographer Amy Cutler, in which there was lots to say about time and landscape, relational aesthetics and the way this work is connected with the new architecture at Tate Modern.  They could have spent a long time on the fascinating topic of cairns.  Rob referred to the problem of 'ego cairns', built by visitors to national parks which can add to problems of erosion.  The cairn we were contributing to is not designed to blend naturally into the woods - the intention is to embed within it, in addition to the reel of tape, some red perspex tiles.  This was a reminder of the difficulties in deciding how low-impact environmental art needs to be and whether it has to acknowledge the artificial in order to seem authentic.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Downland Index

A Downland Index is 'a hundred successive slow runs on the chalk downs above Brighton, each written up in a hundred words.'  These hundred short texts are themselves collections of fragmentary moments - thoughts, fleeting impressions, overheard conversations - written up after runs made from the author's home over the course of a year.  I have mentioned Angus Carlyle here before in connection with the book he co-edited on sound art, In the Field (he has what sounds like possibly the best job in Britain - Professor of Sound and Landscape at the University of Arts in London).  The texts in A Downland Index do not read like soundwalks (or soundruns) and the word 'sound' doesn't actually appear in the book's detailed index (unlike 'smell').  Nor are these circuits through space like field recordings where a stationary microphone patiently captures sound over a period of time.  Nevertheless, over the course of the book you get a composite impression from snatches of sound: the snap of a branch, the rain on leaves and branches, yelping dogs, the electric pulsing of crickets, the grating of a car's gears, a crying child, the sounds of starlings on a radio mast.

I'll quote here an example of one particular run: from 14 August (as a contrast to the cold winter's day on which I'm writing this).  There are no sounds here - the hundred-word constraint means that in many cases we have to imagine the soundscapes Angus runs through.  This text conveys time passing over the landscape, the gaze registering a detail and then shifting to a panoramic view, and the bodily pain of running over flints in the heat of summer.
The corn swayed from the two fields on either side, stalks shorter than they were twelve months ago and duller in a light that has closed over again after the brief brightness that pricked my neck with heat.  Running left for the first time from the gate weighed shut by a log suspended on frayed blue 12-ply farm twine, the spot-lit sea to the south, a plain checkered by field, hedge and settlements to the north.  The ridge rises tough and falls tougher, all my weight to the top of my knees, flints stabbing my soles, feeling my heart throb.
On one muddy November run Angus observes a deflated once-pink helium balloon in a sycamore tree, 'shaped like two halves of a lung'.  What surprised me most in reading these texts was the way the landscape sometimes resembles the litter-strewn edgelands painted by George Shaw, which I referred to here recently.  Having moved away from Brighton twenty-five years ago, I picture its borders as neatly planned post-war housing developments giving onto empty grass slopes and chalk tracks that lead you up onto the Downs.  This is not the impression you get from A Downland Index.  In an afterword Angus describes running past a debris of plastic bottles, frayed rope, pallets, hubcaps and cigarette butts which is 'densest at the city's margins'.  It still sounds strange to read Brighton referred to as a city (an official designation it received in 2001) - a reminder that the town I grew up in no longer really exists.  And perhaps the edge of the Downs was never as immaculate as it is in my imagination.  

When I was given a copy of A Downland Index by its publisher Colin Sackett, I was interested to see how this familiar landscape would come over, but unsure if I would like the central concept.  There is nothing more likely to deflate the mood of a Downland walk than having a runner suddenly pound past you.  I also find myself alienated by landscape writing predicated on some form of physical prowess (in Ecology Without Nature Timothy Morton has questioned the 'hale-and-hearty' ethics of environmental writing, some of which, he says, is increasingly 'keen to embrace other species, but not always so interested in exploring the environments of 'disabled' members of the human species.')  I needn't have worried though, because A Downland Index is full of self deprecation - the self doubt the tiredness, the ironic cheers received from passers by.  On one occasion a water bladder bursts and drenches his shorts and a schoolboy shouts "My god he's pissed himself!"  These were 'slow runs' in which speed and distance covered were not what mattered.  Running may prevent deep engagement with a particular place but it nevertheless allows for reflection on something glimpsed back along the path.  The resulting texts, like Imagist poems, focus on particular moments and leave the reader to imagine the rest.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Topographia Germaniae

We had a family DVD viewing this weekend: Karel Zeman's Bláznova kronika (A Jester's Tale), a 1964 Czech film about a peasant caught up in the Thirty Years War.  Philip French described it in The Guardian as an 'exquisite black-and-white anti-war comedy' and particularly admired the way 'live action and animation are integrated with wit and elegance into a magical, fantastical world where the winds of change, represented by an animated old soldier puffing away in the heavens, dictate the arbitrary course of history.'  The story itself has some of the charm of an old German novella, with an irrepressible and innocent hero Petr - seen in the images above near the end of the film with Lenka, the pretty country girl he meets on his travels. 

Matthäus Merian, Frankfurt am Main, 1646

The film's visual style was inspired by the 17th-century Swiss engraver Matthäus Merian.  In many scenes it is as if the characters have been able to step into the slightly surreal landscapes and interiors he illustrated.  These engravings are part way between maps and landscape drawings and their magical quality is a result of the way they strain after a kind of ideal realism, picturing the world laid out neatly from an imaginary bird's eye perspectives.  Merian's engravings eventually covered a large part of central Europe: the first volume of his Topographia Germaniae, on Switzerland, appeared in 1642 and the last, on Burgundy, was published twelve years later.  I have been imagining what it would be like to see all these views combined with black and white photography to create a seventeenth century version of Google Earth, in the style of Karel Zeman. And wondering too whether our own topographic art forms will be found as charming in four hundred years time.