Edward Thomas / “That Girl’s Clear Eyes”

Mademoiselle Riviere TWO


“That Girl’s Clear Eyes (Handel Street)”

That girl’s clear eyes utterly concealed all
Except that there was something to reveal.
And what did mine say in the interval?
No more: no less. They are but as a seal
Not to be broken till after I am dead;
And then vainly. Every one of us
This morning at our tasks left nothing said,
In spite of many words. We were sealed thus,
Like tombs. Nor until now could I admit
That all I cared for was the pleasure and pain
I tasted in the stony square sunlit,
Or the dark cloisters, or shade of airy plane,
While music blazed and children, line after line,
Marched past, hiding the ‘Seventeen Thirty-nine’.


We are all puzzled by ourselves to some degree. The more you can identify with the general order of things, the less troubled you may be — seeing your interests, aspirations and values reflected all around you must be a great reassurance. But there are people who have trouble identifying with the status quo: they just don’t get it. As a result, they often feel deeply alienated. Such people are often deeply engaged with an individual world, something they find largely within themselves, in the absence of any confirmation from the outside.

This condition is often called “introversion”, an immersion in inwardness. I found a beautiful description of this in F. D. Ommanney’s book on Hong Kong, Fragrant Harbour:

He was a round-faced, bullet-headed little chap who always sat in the middle of the driving-seat of the car, leaning forward with his hands on his knees, gazing intently at the road ahead and singing an endless little crooning song to himself. He was far away in the private world that little boys inhabit and when you spoke to him you had to recall him from a great way off. I remembered, too, those jolts backward from my distant kingdom into the real world. Directly he had answered your question his little spirit fled and was off again on its wings.

Perhaps Edward Thomas was like this too as a child. Whatever the case, he kept his connection to a distant kingdom into his adult life, and possibly turned to poetry to help him manage the jolts his condition caused him. When he writes

. . . Every one of us
This morning at our tasks left nothing said,
In spite of many words. We were sealed thus,
Like tombs.

he is, I think, trying to convey something of this secret life in a kind of corresponding image. The references to graves must strike us as morbid, but can be attributed in part to the fact that his sense of himself seemed so at odds with his surroundings. In fact, I think Thomas also tended to think of tombs as places of fabulous discovery. In another poem called “Swedes” we find the lines:

. . . It is a sight more tender-gorgeous
At the wood-corner where Winter moans and drips
Than when, in the Valley of the Tombs of Kings,
A boy crawls down into a Pharaoh’s tomb
And, first of Christian men, beholds the mummy,
God and monkey, chariot and throne and vase,
Blue pottery, alabaster, and gold.

Edward Thomas Image_29 JUN 2019

Edward Thomas

In other words, it is a place where treasure is hoarded. Perhaps poetry too can serve as a “tomb” of this kind. Thomas can never directly communicate his self-nature to others (language is too generalized a medium for the task), but he can craft a certain approximate shape for it in poetry. We as readers can certainly find something of the poet’s “unwordable” (Emily Carr) puzzle preserved in his language.

Interestingly, the poem finds space to make a confession: Thomas uses it to announce his preferences for solitary pleasures (“all I cared for was the pleasure and pain / I tasted in the stony square sunlit, / Or the dark cloisters, or shade of airy plane”). I was reminded of these lines when I read the following in Jay Griffiths’s Tristimania:

My psyche was on a dangerous journey, but a further reach of the human mind comes within one’s grasp in these extra octaves, something exquisite and oddly impersonal. It is accented by one’s individual nature, yes, but still seems to touch something beyond, a cry for the divine.

This is Thomas’s rather unusual kind of mysticism, which seems to push at the supposed boundaries between ourselves and the rest of the world (does such a boundary really exist?). Our social being, he seems to be saying, his only a small part of our make-up. As Rilke puts it in one of his letters to a young poet, “if we think of this existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it becomes clear that most people get to know only one corner of their room, a window seat, a strip of floor which they pace up and down”. In other words, there is much more to us than we imagine, but how often are we encouraged to act on this fact?

I think this may shed light on the engimatic final two lines of the poem. The marching children and the rather ancient date of 1739 suggest endless ranks of human beings coming into the world, confronting the mysteries of their existence, and then passing out of it again, not necessarily any wiser for what they have experience. It is a sad note to end on, but also a cry from the heart: it is time to wake up to the bigger picture, the extra octaves concealed in all of us.

Cantonese through News Stories: Carrie Lam’s Apology

Capture_Carrie LAm Apology FOUR_18 JUN 2019

After the second huge protest march in Hong Kong on Sunday 16 June, Carrie Lam decided to make an apology “to every single resident of Hong Kong”. As the TVB reporter 張家灝 Jēung1 Gāa1 Houh6 makes clear, however, she stopped short of agreeing to that word of the moment, 撤回 chit3 wùih4 = to “withdraw”, preferring instead to replace it with 暫緩 jaahm6 wuhn6 = to postpone temporarily. But will this be enough?


12 new words:

召開記者會 jiuh6 hōi1 gei3 jé2 húi6*2 = to call a press conference
(引起)爭議 (yáhn5 héi2) jāng1 yíh5 = (to spark) controversy
向 . . . 道歉 heung3 … douh6 hip3 = to apologize to (someone)
cf. 致歉 ji3 hip3 = to apologize
重啟 chùhng4 kái2 = to restart
問責團隊 mahn6 jaak3 tyùhn4 déui6*2 = accountability team
cf. 問責 mahn6 jaak3 = to call to account
反省fáan2 síng2 = to do some soul searching
紛爭 fān1 jāng1 = dispute; wrangle
書面致歉 syū1 mihn6 zi3 hip3= a written apology; an apology in writing
暫緩 jaahm6 wun6 = to postpone temporarily; to defer for the time being
重申 chùhng4 sān1 = to reaffirm; to reiterate; to restate
貿然 mauh6 yìhn4 = hastily; rashly; blindly
衷心 chūng/jūng1 sām1 = heartfelt



The Chief Executive Carrie Lam called a press conference in order to apologize to all the people of Hong Kong for the controversy in society sparked by the amending of the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance.

She said that she must take the biggest share of the responsibility, and she emphasized that before the controversy is resolved, she will not rashly restart [any] amending.

She also hoped that society would give her and her accountability team a[nother] chance.

Continue reading “Cantonese through News Stories: Carrie Lam’s Apology”

Cold Spells

2019-06-24 Another Ice Disk

i. Ice Kate

I don’t mind cold — but your language positively frost-bites. From the vantage point of my island-table at Caffé Habitū, I watch you over coffee work out in the rink opposite, shaving — with the steel blades in your boots — crisscross scars in the dumb blue-freeze. Later, when you join me, exalted and re-dressed in shades of executive blizzard, it’s the blade of your tongue you share, chatterboxing my criminal lack of cut-throat chill, my laughably lukewarm hopes. It’s only in the aftermath — you having punctually departed for the next inhuman Everest — that your clinical gift of bruises comes slowly to my senses through the thaw, and I am returned so much tenderer to the world,

this world you don’t know.


ii. Snowtalk

I barely know snow first-hand.

I saw it once in hills, punched with foot-prints;
kids slid on it on an old car-door,
sopping wet. There was no sign then
of its pristine symbol. I taught a Chinese student
whose name meant “Reliant on Snow” and another
in the same class called “Ice Cold” — they were both women,
both wedded to snow and its human meanings
on their birthdays, long before they had any idea
what they meant. . . .
In a second-hand Stockholm,
I find the dirty city snow dispiriting —
all that it could evoke is so far from realized —
I am burnt with its yearning but not healed,
walking in circles over other people’s footsteps



iii. Male Model in a Picture

Dressed in evergreen black, he duly outstands
Winter to the left of some European forest
clutching a brief case, as if in fact
he were on his way to a board-meeting of snowmen.
His tie must be stiff as a board. Ice-crystals form
between the long leather fingers of his gloves.
He cannot smile — his rugged,
pine-needle beard would only stab him if he tried
and he knows that blood (at best) in this world
can attract only business-like scorn. His mind
must be fourteen, fifteen degrees below by now,
but his thought never chatters. Come,
he invites, to my easy two dimensions,
to my hand-made, male cold. Come

Gathering Concentration

2019-06-24 Green Bucket of Sticks TWO

I go out late in the afternoon to pick up sticks out of the thin forest floor. As the dog circuits rabbit and hare scents in the tussocks, I conscientiously fossick, keeping my eyes firmly fixed on small timber the wind or bigger birds all of a sudden broke free. The hum in my head talks on and on and on steadily — sometimes I wonder about this chatterbox I’ve kept my mind stuck in for the better part of a life. Why will it never shut up? Who holds the lid down? The dog on the periphery meanwhile tests his world by wandering, breaking new limits in fits before he comes galloping at full stretch when I call him back to the centre of attention. Before we know it, the green bucket is virtually pleasingly full, presenting a satisfying bristle of Chinaman Creek’s local woods. He suggests with his usual puppy playfulness that he pull the whole lot out so that I can start my patient gather once more from scratch. No, I tell him, as it matters. It’s getting late and we must be ready for the depth of Winter with this fragile tinder crackle that lets the first fire-sparks go.

Wumenguan/Mumonkan • Koan 4

Old House, Tung Ping Chau

• Bodhidharma Had No Whiskers / 《胡子無鬚》

I have no idea about the deeper meaning of this fourth koan, but I am struck by the word-play that seems to dominate it.

The noun 胡子 could mean “the barbarian”, since one of the basic meanings of 胡 hu2 = “3. (in ancient China) a general name of the northern tribes” (114), that also appears in compounds such as hu2 er2 = northern barbarians in ancient China (FE: 1115). According to Soothill, 胡子 = “Hun, or Turk, a term applied to the people west and north of China; a nickname for Bodhidharma” (312). (He also notes that the word 老胡 or “Old Hun” was used as a nickname for Buddha [DCBT: 312].)

Bodhidharma’s dates are 470-543. In Ernest Wood’s words, “An Indian Buddhist who went to China and there formally established the Buddha-Mind School, called also Ch’an and later, in Japan, Zen” (ZD: 18). Most images of Bodhidharma seem to show him with a full beard. Put all this together and it suggests that the obvious meaning of the title of this koan is “Bodhidharma Had No Beard”.

In modern Chinese, 胡子 also means “beard, moustache or whiskers” (HYCD: 284). Perhaps this meaning originates from the fact that male barbarians often had full beards, thus linking bearded-ness to foreign-ness. It may have also carried this meaning in Wumen’s day. Possibly then, the title could also mean “Beard without Whiskers”.

The character 鬚 xu1 has an interesting history. I am guessing here, but on the basis of other precedents, that this character was originally written 須 xu1, which is a pictograph made up of 彡 shan1, an element (known as a “radical”) used to show that the basic meaning of a character has something to do with “feathers, long hair, ornament” (ACC: 140) and 頁 ye4 = “head; page; man” (ACC: 41). Obviously “long hair on the head” could refer to facial hair of some kind.

Later, this same character was borrowed to write other words which were pronounced with the same sound. 須 xu1 has eight different meanings in FE, including “1. to have to; must; to need”,”2. necessary; proper” and “4. a beard” (1507). In the Wumenguan, 須 is used 15 times.

Wumen comments: [if you] search for truth by means of Zen meditation, you must pass through the barrier of the founder of the sect[, Bodhidharma] [祖師].

更須赤脚上刀山 (國師三喚)
?Then even more so [更] [you] must walk barefoot up a mountain of knives [刀山].

It’s just like bumping into your own father at the crossing of two streets. There’s even less need to ask anybody else [who it is].

From a cursory review of these examples, it would appear that the character is almost always used with the meaning of “must” or “need to”.

To reduce the confusion, at some point, a new character was invented for the “beard” meaning of 須 xu1. This character is written with 髟 biao1 denoting “hair; shaggy hair or locks” (ACC: 215) on top; the old 須 character is added underneath to form 鬚.

The final potential pun is that the combination of two characters, 無須 wu2 xu1 can mean “unnecessary; not necessary; no need to” in some situations. FE lists one example, 無須解釋 = It’s unnecessary to explain it (832). Spoken aloud, this theoretically would have sounded the same as 無鬚 = not having a beard; without whiskers”. However, there is no use 無須of in the Wumenguan, so I remain doubtful about this.

It would appear, at this superficial level, that this text has something to say about the slipperiness of language.

Continue reading “Wumenguan/Mumonkan • Koan 4”

Cantonese through News Stories: Hong Kongers Climb Mount Everest

Capture_Mountain Climbing_31 MAY 2019

While the Hong Kong people have scaled new heights recently in their determination to protest against encroachments on their way of life, a small team of unsung Hong Kong climbers made it all the way to the top of Chomolungma (Mount Everest) at the end of May. This fine piece from TVB reporter 陳金寶 Chàhn4 Gām1 Bóu2 showcases some essential parts of the mountaineering lexicon, as well as the wonderful four-character expression, 量力而為 leuhng6 lihk6 yìh4 wàih4. As it turns out, mountain climbing is not just physically hard but also psychologically very demanding.


12 new words:

珠穆朗瑪峰 jyū1 muhk6 lóhng5 máah5 fūng1 = Chomolungma; Qomolangma; Mount Everest
登山 dāng1 sāan1 = to climb a mountain
攀登 pāan1 dāng1 = to climb; to clamber; to scale
目睹 muhk6 dóu2 = to see with one’s own eyes; to witness
屍體 sī1 tái2 = corpse
爬 pàah4 = 1. to creep; to crawl 2. to climb; to clamber
攻頂  = to charge; to assail (gūng1) + top; peak (déng2)
人龍 yàhn4 lùhng4 = a group of people standing in line
失溫 sāt1 wān1 = hypothermia (?) / lit. “loss of warmth”
量力而為 leuhng6 lihk6 yìh4 wàih4 = to know one’s limits; not to go overboard
巔 dīn1 = summit of mountain; mountain top
靚景 leng3 gíng2 = beautiful scenery



More than ten people died during this [year’s] mountain-climbing season [on] Chomolungma, the world’s highest peak.

Note: The character 今 gām1 can mean “this” with certain time expressions: 今個月 = this month.

Continue reading “Cantonese through News Stories: Hong Kongers Climb Mount Everest”

Goose Pimples

Earth from the Moon

The shine of setting sun proved stronger than the splatter
of rain, still only a distant ticking on a sheep farmer’s
tin-roofed shed. We could believe our eyes.
We did not believe our ears, when, on through the blind glare,
the sound of the downpour edged closer, no longer
a metallic type-written clatter but liquid inciting
the vocal retort of a dam. We knew then
that we had to stay put where we paused, perched
on the renewed awkwardness of stationary bikes.
With the rest of the dry world bathed in glow, the shower
barged helter-skelter in on our makeshift hide,
drenching us lightly through a ramshackle canopy
to give us our first goose bumps, hint of new Autumn
invisible by day in March’s postscript to Summer,
but apparent at once with the outbreak of night, like first stars.