The First Emperor of China on His Deathbed

Tin Hau Temple_Tung Ping Chau

I sensed death watching me that day.

My mind was a microcosm of the new order:
confidence in human powers,
When a storm of wind
delayed my imperial progress across a mountain,
my displeasure found expression
in all too mortal fury:
I ordered 3000 convicts,
slaves to my every edict,
to denude the hill of all its trees
and to paint it red (red: the colour
it pleased me to dress
the criminal and the condemned in).

Dying two years later, in delirium,
I was tortured by recurring visions
of tender spring green,
of precisely the immortality
I had tried to put to the axe that day.

I felt death touch me.


Photograph: Tin Hau Temple, Tung Ping Chau, Hong Kong

What She Wielded . .

Fan Leng Temple Image with Bell

It had its own special niche in the tool shed.

She kept a ribbon
tied to its shaft and, sometimes,
together we changed that ribbon for freshness.
It was regularly sharpened
in a shower of orange sparks I was allowed to watch
through one unsmashed eye
of a pair of old sunglasses.
She showed me the gleam of the razorish blade,
but I was forbidden
to go near it: we all bear scars,
whether outside or in, our
common ground.
It had no special name of its own,
but with me — and only with me —
fondly she called it
her Great Great-axe of Kindness.


2018-11-26 Sai Kung Sha Kok Mei Yellow Flower TWO

香港西貢沙角尾:黃葵 Musk mallow flower in Sha Kok Mei, Sai Kung, Hong Kong

Here I am, breathing life back into myself
directly out of thin air.  Do you know how it’s done?
Until I do, I don’t ever take any of it for granted:
my chest heaves to the tune of monotonous oxygen;
the bars of my rib cage separate out so sweetly;
where I was stale and empty now stands vital and reconvened.
Thank Heavens, I say, for nostrils,
those rills or blow-holes through the nose,
unlikely allies of the heart
that keep it punctually loyal to the pulse.
The body ingests atmosphere of its own accord
since most of the time we’re off doing something completely different
with ourselves — but slap bang in the middle
off a suddenly heated argument
or in that jagged instant danger’s menace cuts close up right to the bone
that old miracle — part of our second nature —
never forgets
stubbornly simply to inhale.

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.

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.

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.