‘m currently reading Christopher Okigbo’s poems, Labyrinths with Path of Thunder. I hadn’t even heard of Okigbo six months ago, but he’s a Nigerian poet, killed in the fighting for independence in Biafra. As I was reading about the history of slavery in Africa, I came across the British Oil River Protectorate and was reminded (thinking laterally) about a poem I wrote last year.
At the time, some of my fellow students found it a bit obscure so I’ll give you some explanations although I’ll let you read the poem first. This poem is not about Africa, it’s about China which I visited when my daughter, Kamsin, was teaching English at Nanjing Forestry University. I could write a lot more about that, such as how mother became a teaching aid and was taken in to talk to the students, but I won’t. Incidentally, I owe the idea to Pable Neruda’s wonderful poem,’Salt’.
An Eye for Beauty
Clippers carry china, bolts of silk and tea
from Canton to London
to sate the taste for chinoiserie
Virgins with pierced tongues
pick two leaves and a bud;
high above the distant Yangtze whorls.
Cha or Tay
You have an eye for beauty.
pruned and punished
crushed and curled
bruised and bashed.
Clippers ferry flat brown cakes and canon balls
from Calcutta to Canton
to feed the need for the white poppy.
In Lushan stands a doorman
in shako and heliotrope coat
blood-soaked and smeared with foreign mud.
The whisper of hot water
startles your rest
in busy station waiting rooms.
Anyway, in China absolutely everyone carries a few green tea leaves in a jar, which they fill up with hot water from a flask when required. I have an abiding image of the station waiting room where we went late one night to catch the train to Huangshan (another story). That’s the image with which the poem ends. Basically it’s about the way tea is subjected to a punishing process to convert it from green to the black tea we drink and how the British East India Company traded opium, which they had bought in India, to the Chinese in exchange for tea and silk. Some of the information, including the girls with pierce tongues and details of a hotel in Lushan, I got from a book called The River at the Centre of the World by Simon Winchester.