Sharp on the Harp
The Sunday Star-Times has the best books pages of all New Zealand's mass circulation papers, and Titus Books has managed to get Mike Johnson's The Vertical Harp: Selected Poems of Li He reviewed there today. Here's Iain Sharp's take on the book, which was launched in February on the hippy bastion of Waiheke Island:
Mike Johnson is the most underrated of all living New Zealand authors. Sometimes gothic, sometimes lyrical, sometimes both at once, his output over the past three decades has been extraordinary. Yet much of his fiction and most of his poetry has slipped by, barely reviewed. His latest books consists of not so much translations as creative interpretations of the writings of the Chinese poet Li He (790-816).
For most New Zealanders, China during the Tang dynasty is an entirely alien world. Helpful notes at the back of the book explain some of the trickier allusions. Don't be put off by the apparent foreigness. Li He is a poet of universal themes: sensual pleasures, delight in nature, the miseries of warfare, satirical protest against the ruling authorities. Even on a first reading, individual lines stand out, such as these:
Come moonlight, the armour of the approaching barbarian army
meshes like the scales of a snake
snickering horses denude the green of a sacred grave.
Still, this is a book to be savoured, not bolted through. I spent a rewarding evening comparing Johnson's subtly evocative additions to such poems as 'Found Arrowhead' and 'Great Master Li Ping Plays the Vertical Harp' to the starker versions in Robert Payne's famous mid-1940s anthology of Chinese verse, The White Pony (one of my favourite books). A patient following in his tracks confirms just what a skilful craftsman Johnson is.
You can order The Vertical Harp from the Titus Books website.