Original Plus, 2011 £3.00
Reviewed by Charlotte Gann, Fiona Sinclair and Peter Jarvis
I enjoyed this pamphlet, with its distinctive yet flexible flavour, its oriental palate. Here’s how the whole sequence starts:
The husband in the jade room
the wife on the turning road
the bridge long across the river
down towards Chang’an.
.....(i ‘Landscape with Nightmare’)
From the outset, the work is tender, full of yearning and concrete detail. And I appreciate the whole premise—rather like Tony Williams’ wonderful Sphinx 9-striper All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head, Leech provides a liberating fictive framework to hold the poetry’s emotion.
The setting—this “wholly imagined” city of Chang’an—seems fey and ancient yet, disconcertingly, in creeps the odd jet, phone, laptop. The sequence seems to chart a journey into some kind of love relationship, something sad, intuitive, half-told:
At the centre of Chang’an, a great lake
By it, in the mornings, I let my face
drift in pieces.
There are a number of poems I find moving—including numbers x, xvii and xx. Or this, from ix, ‘He Dreams of Coming Home’:
Now I am in winter, winter far north,
and you sit with flowers in the yard
.............When my thoughts arrive, unfold them softly.
They carry a thick frost to your season— let them warm in your hands.
At other points, I’m slightly less convinced—perhaps, when Leech brings in other voices (the exiled thinker, the exiled drinker), or when the work seems to become more overtly purely political:
Journalists like gunmen and us
bones from the ploughed earth
limbs unspooling bodies hurling springing back.
I did find myself wondering whether the sequence might have benefited from slighter harsher filtering? There were a few poems, or fragments, whose inclusion I questioned—xxiii, ‘Dissent’, for instance: “His ideas are a plucked bird trying to escape./ His words are a dialect only babies speak./ His motives are wet breadcrumbs”; or xxi, which reads in its entirety:
Cut out from my child
I sit by lovely water.
I appreciate the texture of this pamphlet; I am left less clear about its overall direction.
In his sequence of poems Mark Leech has created a country that seems familiar, yet is in fact fictitious. It comes to represent any state that is riven by civil war. ‘Chang’an’ is the eponymous capital city of the country and this name, coupled with Leech’s sparse style of writing, suggests an Asian state.
The poems form a narrative sequence numerically ordered rather like a collection of Chinese prints. Broadly it is the tale not only of civil war but of a tender love affair between a couple separated by the insurrection. The narrative voice is that of the husband who, as a member of the uprising, is on the run hiding in the capital city that sees the majority of the civil unrest.
Leech skilfully gives us an image of a once great city that has been changed by the ‘neon glare’ of modernity, and is still further ruined by the civil war with its “fumes from convoys on the military roads”. I thought the references to the “ city beached on slums” particularly effective, reminding us of the familiar underbelly of such a place.
The poet does well to insinuate into the work the atmosphere of fear that engulfs such cities and its residents. This is a place where people disappear at night, are snatched from their rooms and conveyed in trucks to “the key in the cell lock.”
One effective poem that demonstrates the dehumanisation of those who follow the party line comes in poem xxx where the female conductress on a train is described thus:
She punches your permits.
She speaks in a stone
I am a document of the state
A violent lexis recurs throughout the poems (“she has a tethered face”), and the repetition of the mantra “I am a document of the state” after each brief stanza reinforces the degree to which this woman has been indoctrinated.
The tender love affair at the heart of the work is shown to sustain the exiled narrator. The man’s longing for his lover becomes entwined in his love for the city he is fighting for. I liked the way the loved one is present in most of the poems, even if only as a stray thought as the narrator concentrates on his own survival or some aspect of the war. This loved one permeates his dream and in times when he is hiding in secure houses, it is the thought of her that sustains him. Poem xvi explains how “As I go about the city your eye hangs over me”, the idea being that her love is somehow more powerful than the machinery of the state and can be “my guide, guard, love.”
The style and structure of this work is so authentic it could be taken for a translation. Leech is an excellent craftsman. The lexis has the spare quality and tone of Chinese writing. Poetic form is adapted to suit narrative shifts. The more complex and frankly uglier side of the conflict is recounted in longer poems with harsher language.
The overall effect is a sequence where beautiful imagery of love and nature counterbalances the harsh realities of a civil war.
Mark Leech’s sequence of 41 poems centres on a tyrannical empire where dissidents experience foreign exile and banished lovers can only dream of homecoming and reconciliation. The ancient capital Chang’an has towers, temples, parks, squares, courtyards—even jade rooms. A long bridge crosses a river. Geese fly in bitter winter winds. A drunk looks deeply into his bottle. Several elements of classic Chinese poetry are present.
Surprisingly, interlayered with the matter of ancient Chang’an is a modern version of the nastiest police state full of people suffering the consequences of violent turbulence—imprisonment, censorship, separation, fear, blood and death: “Soldiers/ fill the village lanes, drag/ the weakest down into the vans’’ (i. ‘Landscape with Nightmare’). In addition, Leech inserts a prefatory disclaimer that his Chang’an, though sharing its name with the ancient capital, “is wholly imagined’’. Knowledge of this fabrication, together with its mix of ancient and modern, makes engagement with his sequence peculiarly teasing.
It exudes mystery, partly due to whoever is laying claim to the ‘I’ voice. The exiled dissident is the main one, who may also be The Exiled Thinker and, probably, The Exiled Drinker. There is a solipsistic Emperor, as well as a railway employee. It is difficult to puzzle out who is appropriating the ‘you’ pronoun—mostly the addressed beloved languishing at home, but ‘you’ is used also as a mask for the dissident’s ‘I’ as in disguise he makes his way back dangerously through the city after four years’ exile.
In one of his dreams of homecoming there is a tender passage:
Now I am in winter, winter far north,
and you sit with flowers in the yard
..............When my thoughts arrive, unfold them softly.
They carry a thick frost to your season—
let them warm in your hands.
.....(ix ‘He Dreams of Coming Home’)
Mystery intensifies over the poet’s withholding of most references to the immediate situational or cultural contexts affecting the people of the poems. That said, the oscillation between the two personal pronouns does bolster the whole movement of the sequence as it follows the dissident’s removal from the city and then his return from exile, keeping in his mind his absent beloved. Compounding these mysteries is the hint of sinister pollutant substances— “workyards/ drifted with chemicals’’—and— “The city is plumes of dust’’. There is an apocalyptic close to Chang’an Poems with “[a] fine powder’’ covering all “except the flowers in Chang’an’’ [xli].
It is a pity there is as much mystification (bad) as mystery (good). Is the following an economic model or a corrupt diminution of the mythical cosmic egg?
The economy is an egg.
It’s dark inside, but inside
you wouldn’t know (and
the price of eggs goes up
[ . . . ] So should we sit
inside the egg, waiting
for a hatching out?
What we have with Chang’an Poems is a poetry of ambiguity where meanings are veiled, perhaps complying tonally with the dissident’s fear of the repressive apparatus of a totalitarian state. Even so, frequent discontinuities in the poems’ narrative threads affect adversely the overall cohesion and coherence.