Tuesday, June 06, 2017

meeting the family

Parrotia subaequalis


[Image source: https://guy.smugmug.com/keyword/parrotia%20subaequalis/i-5kPwB3J]




Here's one of my current favourite poems in Alistair Noon's collection The Kerosene Singing (Nine Arches Press, 2015):






Meeting the Family


Take me to greet your relatives
emplaced around the low hills,
covering their ears against familiar
chatter on the New Year visit.


Let's bump out there to inspect them,
the old spring-rolled into back sets, the young
clutching the sides of a bare-backed truck,
surfing the potholes, next


to arrive with an hour's supply
of Gatling Gun crackers in the breeze,
to mow down a Square of Heavenly Peace,
put five generations on trial.


Here we are. Your ancestral homes
are of earth and tufted with grass.
Like wriggling dragons, the annual paths
aren't happy or sad. Let's burn our banknotes.


Your eldest brother has the farmhouse.
The second, the haulage firm, Audi,
and Country & Western ringtone.
Your sister, the unspecified business.
You have the punk drumkit.


Third cousin, a pleasure to meet you
and feast in a room of resemblances
and filling, revolving tables. Thanks!
We're glad to be here among the iron trees,


where I might sink into the earthquake zone
and mime the unrelated individual
when centuries hence they find the pit
and my DNA here in the chicken bones.






Noon's poetry is all-active. Here the sound-scheme is understated, just the ghost of a vowel-rhymed abba , --  and with absolute regularity of stanzas avoided by that one extra line in the fifth stanza. But the word-scheme is a wonder, right from the start...    from that word "emplaced" in line 2, a word typically used of big guns and fortresses...  to let us know that the relatives of  line 1 are ancestral tombs rather than living individuals.

But I think we should start even further back, with the opening words: "Take me..."  It's the first of three imperatives in the opening stanzas.  We understand, of course, that the protagonist (I'm going to call him Alistair, with the usual caveats) is not actually the one making the suggestions about what they're all going to do. His use of the imperative conveys, actually, enthusiastic assent -- even, perhaps, a touch over-enthusiastic --- pardonably, of course. He's making the broad smiles and exaggerated gestures that most of us make when meeting people for the first time and anxious to make a good impression.  Because this "Meeting the family" isn't just about greeting the ancestors. Alistair is also meeting his friend's extended living family -- the five generations who find the incessant firecrackers rather a trial, in Stanza 3.

There's a train of cultural references to make it clear that we're in East Asia, almost certainly China.  ("Square of Heavenly Peace" is a rendering of Tiananmen Square).

As often in Noon's poetry the scena is a sort of deflated but undefeated globalism. The poem is too honest to deny Alistair's flitting thoughts.. for example, that everyone round here looks much the same ("a room of resemblances") ... and the wryly self-regarding fantasy that some future researcher might pick out his own DNA from the quake.

On the surface, that ending insists on Alistair being a stranger, unrelated to the family in question. But isn't the poem as a whole talking about something else? Namely, the Human Family, to which he is very much related and which he is now meeting, albeit in an unfamiliar part of the globe... (The poem has already juggled with the word "familiar").


There's a lot else about this poem - themes that hover there, mostly unstated. Can we meet a family and not join them? Yet isn't that balancing act what society enforces? Is the idea of regarding the whole world as our brothers and sisters a sentimentality that's only attainable in the barest terms of equality before the law, not in terms of the real acquaintance that defines what a family can really be? Actually, what is a family, today? Is it a tribal buttress, asserting common identity by tribal practice, or can it be something that opens out with the welcome to strangers seen here and in so many other parts of the world (though not, all too often, in property-owning England.) Is the family necessarily punitive towards difference and foreignness, or can it be something else?






Parrotia subaequalis






[Image source: http://www.asianflora.com/Hamamelidaceae/Parrotia-subaequalis.htm]






"among the iron trees"






That line in the poem probably has nothing at all to do with this Tertiary relict species,  Chinese Ironwood (Parrotia subaequalis), an extremely rare but lovely tree that was properly identified only in 1992 --- in a small area of eastern China. (Its only close relative, Persian Ironwood, grows some 3.5 thousand miles to the west.)


Anyway, it makes for some nice illustrations to this post.








https://dcreechsite.wordpress.com/2017/04/04/parrotia-persica-they-dont-call-it-persian-ironwood-for-nothing/


Photos of a wild specimen of Parrotia subaequalis








[Image source: http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/2008-66-1-the-chinese-parrotia-a-sibling-species-of-the-persian-parrotia.pdf , an article in Arnoldia by Jianhua Li and Peter Del Tredici. Photos by P. del Tredici. ]






(Other possible interpretations of Noon's line: 


1. A large decorative indoor plant with mottled spiky leaves, a bit like an agave, famous for flowering very rarely... it is known in China as  the Iron Tree.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-emB59wl9Lc


2.  Artificial metal trees for New Year decoration, similar to fake Christmas trees.


3. (Unlikely) Lamp posts: ... Lampooned (ha, ha),  when first installed in Shanghai, as "iron trees bursting into bloom" -- proverbial for an unlikely overturning of the world order.)







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