‘Someone I now forget
journeying is hard.
The moon glimmers
in the brown channel.’
This is the last stanza of the last poem in Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade. I am on my third read of this book, I love it – the language and words and formats are all interesting and challenging and much of it about China and Hong Kong, I have wanted to write about journeying in these countries for a long time. I have some Hong Kong poems and quite a lot of prose but not enough to make any kind of coherence in what I am trying to say.
China I often think about – I was there for several months spread over three years and it was important in many different ways. I have very vivid images of so much of it – but have not yet sorted through to find journal writing that I did at the time. I did do a lot of other writing though and am remembering this because I am doing a Poetry School that is about portraiture and the images that keep coming up are of Troisieme Etage and China. So I have just written a poem about my friend Zhao Jing and some of the journeyings that we did together. It is on the third draft, still much too long but I am trying to capture a lot of experiences in a concise poem. It’s difficult.
One of the things I am writing about is a journey that we made together to a very remote and high school in the sandy mountains of Gansu. When we arrived the children were sitting in school, at desks empty of everything but old textbooks, there was no sign of the project readers or the consignment of paper and pencils sent to help the teacher to teach literacy more effectively. This poem will, no doubt, be changed many times but this is the relevant bit:
‘Do you remember the tiny school we visited along a teetering mountain path,
jeep wheels only just biting into the sand? No paper in the school,
readers unpacked, the terrified teacher, ‘So cold in winter ma’am
we took the paper home to stuff our broken windows with.’
afraid to give the children books in case they spoiled them
Twenty boys and girls, from very small to adolescent,
red-faced and wrinkled with the cold sat at their empty desks.
You took off your coat and long scarf, took up a Big Book
to read them a story. You made them laugh. They drew pictures
wrote stories and at last leaving off his scowl, the teacher
And here is a photograph of those children listening to the story .
After a long time I am thinking about this part of the world. I remember the case studies that I made of three teachers that we worked with and the stories that we made. It was Loop of Jade that took me back – the smells, the sights, the taste of China – something Zhao Jing told me is important in every Chinese meal. We produced training manuals and a video for teachers and the background was a picture and sounds of a group of little children singing in a circle and banging the rhythm with their tin pencil boxes – it was one of the loveliest things I was ever involved in.
I am struggling to get back into writing – so much anaesthetic in my brain still I think, mobility limited and Phil still very convalescent after his hip transplant. One day we will be leaping among the flowers again I hope! I have found other people’s poetry so important as it is gradually leading me back to writing again. I think about the possibility of prose writing too. I’ve changed my novel about India three times to accommodate different pronouns for the voice – perhaps it should go graphic next!