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Harold Stewart

One (part) poem by Harold Stewart:

1. “Autumn Landscape Roll” 

 

 

Autumn Landscape Roll

(Cantos VIII & IX)

by Harold Stewart

 

Wu Tao-tzu, the greatest of Chinese artists, was once commissioned by the Emperor Ming Huang of the T’ang Dynasty to paint a landscape-roll. Wu so entered into the spirit of the scene, that he could walk about in the picture at will. One day he wandered over a distant mountain, and was never seen again.*

 

 

VIII

Wu Tao-tzü, still continuing his stroll
Into the landscape on the silken scroll,
Comes to the misty shores around a sheet
Of broad water that reaches from his feet
To where a promontory’s rock strewn bar
Lies in the evening sky, it looks so far.
The wild geese rowing over at a height,
With taper necks stretched out in line of flight
While they relay their one long throated cry,
Tow the full moon into an autumn sky.
Waves that untwine obliquely from a wake
Lattice the wide and tranquil surfaced lake,
When in the lapping ebb they intervene
And travel through its pleated shade and sheen:
A clear grey-green, yet in its depths opaque,
As though four ladies smoothing silk should take
Layer on layer of green gauze and of grey,
And stretch them taut across the vacant bay.
To skirt these shores, the painter has to pass
Where the long legs of flowering river grass
Stand in the margin shallows: feathery rushes
Drawn by his most meticulous of brushes,
Their tufted tops of seed are light and loose
As the soft underdown of a grey goose.
In a flat inlet hereabouts he sees
How, warily protruding out of these,
A narrow blackened prow nuzzles the bank:
The grasses thriving here are lush and lank.
Lulled by the idle suction from the tide
And the slap of lapsing water along the side,
The anchorite who snoozes at the stern
With chin on elbow, smiles in unconcern
As round his line a school of fishes feeds.
Under an overcoat of plaited reeds
He wears the faded scholar’s robe he wore;
To shade his head, a limpet shell of straw.
His scant beard and moustache’s straggling hair
Are lightly lifted, flow along the air
Like water-weed that sways this way and that,
Or as one fish-tailed ribbon from his hat
Follows the other’s fluctuating motion.

To bait this napping angler seems a notion
Well timed to Wu, for judging by his creel,
Scarcity’s pinch will be his evening meal.

 

Wu Tao-tzü

“Among the Hundred Surnames, mine is Wu.
Pardon my mannerless presumption, who,
Ancient and solitary sage, are you?”

The hermit archly opens up one eye
To view this doze-disturbing stranger by,
Yawns like a fox, and stretches out to rouse
His cramped limbs from their pictorial drowse.

 

The old Fisherman  [Chang Chih-ho]

I came here twenty years ago or more.
And yet these hands have never once before
Shaken themselves in salutation’s hold.
Then I was Chang Chih-ho, but now the Old
Fisherman, Friend of Lonely Meres and Mists,
Tells you of what my way of life consists.”

 

Wu Tao-tzü

“Why did you quit humanity and home
And choose this wilderness in which to roam?
Why in a humble sampan hold aloof,
Its wicker cradle for your only roof?”

 

Chang Chih-ho

“I find it serves quite well to keep me dry.
After the autumn rains stop, and the sky
Rapidly clears, all space will cover me.

The moonrise, pale and golden, on the sea
Fulfils my modest wishes for a door,
While the sea’s jade pavement lays the floor.
These, with the valley walls, make up my home:
What do you mean by saying that I roam?
Here cares and creditors no more infest
The house of mind : poverty brings it rest.
Possessing nothing, I am not possessed.
The State’s a monstrously despotic plan,
Man’s mobilised insanity, and man
Believes it real. Afraid of being free,
He fights to keep his cangue, and cannot flee.
An intimate I would far rather be
Of the white gull, which climbs and squalls aloud
Sailing across that sombre cliff of cloud,
Than have my spirit’s lofty freedom furled
And flung upon the dust-heap of the world.”

 

Wu Tao-tzü

“From vain repute and rank you may retire.
The lust to rule, that menial’s desire,
The web of power, possessions that degrade:
These you may shun; you cannot thus evade
Your unlived life, the fate you left unpaid.”

 

Chang Chih-ho

“No debts or duties did I set aside,
For one who under Su Tsung occupied
The post of minister, was no misfit:
I fled not from the world, but into it.”

 

Wu Tao-tzü

“Go where you will you take your troubled mind,
Whose fears you cannot face, nor leave behind.
In vain your doubts and sorrows you suppress.
In vain avoid society’s distress:
Escape has no road from its loneliness.”

 

Chang Chih-ho

“The Emperor’s own entreaty I would spurn:
I feel no need to hasten my return
To where the simple Way is stifled in
The court’s incessant fuss; where dust and din
Smother the capital beneath their pall;
Where I could keep no peace of mind at all.
No doubt the case of Chuang-tzu you recall?
Two high officials from the State of Chu,
Who called on him to seek an interview
While he was fishing in the River P’u,
Announced: ‘Our Prince proposes we transfer
‘The government to you – an office, sir,
‘Only your wisdom can administer.’
The Taoist did not deign to turn his head.
With rod in hand, he watched his line and said:
‘In Ch’u there is a tortoise, which you hold
‘Sacred for divination, so I’m told.
‘It has been dead three thousand years, and since
‘Kept in a covered casket by the Prince,
‘Who heats its shell in his ancestral shrine
‘And reads the cracks, from which he can divine.
‘Given the choice when caught, which would it choose:
‘To stay alive, draggling its tail in ooze,
‘Or to be reverenced by men but dead?’
‘To be alive, of course,’ the officials said.
‘Off with you then, and let me,’ he replied,
‘Draggle my tail, too, in the muddy tide!’
And like Hsü Yu, the sage cleaned out his ears
To wash away political ideas,
So that downstream a cowherd then complained
Of waters that pollution had profaned.”

 

IX

Wu Tao-tzü

“But look! The skeins of geese arriving span
The sky and write the words for ‘one’ and ‘man’.”

 

Chang Chih-ho

“And yet they have been here since time began.”

Down the sky in file the wild geese tack,
Slanting their obliquely angled track
To reach the estuary’s banks of sand,
Where basalt blocks have sunk along the strand.
The leader there comes skidding in, to sit
On a long splash, for the sheer sport of it:
His broad tail feathers fan to break the flight,
His webbed feet splay, and his red legs alight,
Fixed in the instant’s clear aquamarine,
So still the surface water is, so green.
To wash his travel dusty feathers clean,
He ducks, and ladles over back and head
Wingfuls of water, till its trickles spread.
Next he stands upright in the water rings,
Throws out his breast, and flaps his wide wings;
Then sits again, and shakes his tail to shed
Stray superfluous drops that diamonded
His oily coverts; then, with beak depressed,
Worries the grey-pin plumage at his breast,
Restoring comfort with a fluffed unrest;
And last, his bathing over, preens and grooms
Down smooth and trim his toilet-ruffled plumes.
More glide in after him. The others land,
Pinions aloft, and settle on the sand,
Where flatly snapping bills hiss and contest
Scraps of aquatic weed not long possessed.
Pushing a fold of glass against the stream,
One paddles in pursuit of his own gleam.
Another stoops his pliant neck to sip
This running ripple with the glassy lip,
And cranes to swallow after every dip.
A third, whose beak tugged at the wavering weeds,
Lifts their dripping ribbons up and feeds.
Riding the inlet’s undulancy, a fleet
Of geese sets out across its glaucous sheet;
But a snapped stick startles one among
The floating flock. Instantly all are sprung!
As low over the water skims each pair,
The wing tip beaten downward through the air
Touches it’s upward beaten image there.
Once in the central sky, they travel south
Beyond the sandspit at the river’s mouth,
Beyond the dim horizon. All are gone.
But, like a drift of feathers dropped upon
The refluent air after their wings have flown,
A soft grey flocculence of cloud is strown,
Hovering, while invisible waves of wake
Diverge and on the mountains, sprayless, break.

 

Wu Tao-tzü

“They have migrated toward a warmer clime.”

 

Chang Chih-ho

“They will be here now till the end of time.”
A fitful breeze that springs up off the bay,
Bending the plume topped grasses all one way
And carrying silver seeded fluff astray,
Just as suddenly drops. At once the rushes’
Thicket of dried whispers thins and hushes
To a faint rustle. Nothing stirs the brake.
Chang winds his fishing line in from the lake:
Wu’s face is lost in an astonished look,
For dangling thence is neither bait nor hook!

 

Wu Tao-tzü

“How can you ever hope to catch a stray
Tadpole, though you angle here all day?
That is no way to get a bite! You need
A tempting bait : some juicy worm or weed
To hide the hook of cunning, if you wish
To cast the right enticement for a fish.”

 

Chang Chih-ho

“Ah! But that’s not what I was fishing for!”
He poles his lean black punt away from shore.
The layered sheets of haze that intervene
Leave no trace that he has ever been …..

Into infinite distance, sad and clear,
Recede the miles of autumn atmosphere:
With pale citron tone, the watery light
That shines out after rain washes their height.
The autumn mountain, swept as neat and clean
As the tidy winds can, reclines serene:
No twig is out of place, no leaf is seen
Of all that tarnished ruin of gold which lay
So densely underfoot till yesterday,
Claimed by the earth as tribute for decay.
Upon its sides the naked forests brood,
Locked in a crystalline disquietude
And looped with sleeping vines and beards of moss,
Despair for want of leaves, the season’s loss.
Each tall gauntly calligraphic tree,
Forked against the light’s sour clarity,
Soars with static branches, sparse and bare,
In that remote and disappointed air.
An empty vast, the autumn waters lie,
Merging into the open sea of sky.
Slowly the ebb goes out, and from the height
Drains away the westering tide of light.

Ah! The evening’s mood is growing late.
The peasant enters now his brushwood gate.
The garden, overgrown with grass and weed
Where spires of wilding lettuce run to seed,
Lies drenched with recent rain and desolate.
A sulphur coloured butterfly chases its mate
Over the fence with devious flutterings:
They are the only autumn leaves with wings.
The altered air that chills the end of day
Makes the fishing nets and tackle sway
Gently over on their bamboo poles.
And now a temple bell remotely tolls
The still and solemn hour; now holds its peace.
The work of men, the year’s affairs decrease.
Now lamps are lit in windows, far and near:
See, through the yellow dusk their flames appear.
Within the peasant’s hut two suppers wait.
Ah! the evening’s mood is growing late.
A smooth moon in the laminated haze
That weaves above the water till it frays
Into gossamer trails, is hanging low
Its pallid disc, too early yet to glow.
Beside this languid marsh the artist walks.
Still to the old and withered lotus stalks
The rattling seeds in conic pods adhere,
The round leaves droop, their flounces torn and sere.
The last few willow leaves spin as they sift
On the despondent pond their falling drift,
Where, like yellow sampans, they are thrust
Aimlessly along by a tired gust
To strand in a backwater. There some dust
Is spent and settles, where the waste becalms
Among an undergrowth of roots with arms.
For now the world of nature is subdued
And grave with long autumnal lassitude.

Out on the lake, one solitary sail
Goes home into the world. With this detail
The old recluse aboard his fishing smack
Sketches in the landscape’s only lack:
Its sheet, diminishing as outward blown.
One last wild goose wings on its way alone,
A flick of ink against the silken sky,
Gone with the echo from a far high cry …

 

Wu Tao-tzü

“A lone goose and a lone sail depart:
They do not leave the shore, they leave the Heart.”

 

            Harold Stewart

 

 

 

* This introductory note is taken from an earlier version of these two cantos published as a poem titled “A Flight of Wild Geese”, in the anthology The Golden Apples of the Sun: Twentieth Century Australian Poetry, edited by Chris Wallace-Crabbe (Melbourne University Press, 1980). 

 

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