Tuesday, January 10, 2006

'Why the fuck couldn't you get some anger management counselling or something?'

I remember Mike Johnson, poet, novelist, and long-time Waiheke Islander, shouting that question twelve years ago, to an audience at the Shakespeare Tavern. Johnson had been invited over the water to read his poems; instead, he read a long, angry open letter to Gu Cheng, his friend and fellow Waihekean. Gu Cheng had killed his wife with a tomahawk and hung himself a couple of days earlier. I can still remember large parts of Johnson's letter:

Why Gu Cheng, why? I know that you had a sense of humour: I remember the funny cartoons you drew for me, when I came to visit you in the shack where you lived. I remember you smiling. Why did you do this?

Why Gu Cheng, why? Was it poverty? Why did you allow yourself to sit around all day, dazzled by images, while the cupboards were bare? Why did you force your wife to live like that? Why would you never even learn English?

Why, Gu Cheng, why? Was it the year you had just spent on a felowship in Berlin, that cold, gloomy city, that city of genocide, so far from the sun of Waiheke?

Why, Gu Chenge, why? Was it the pain of exile, being forced from your native land?

Why, Gu Cheng, why? Was it your childhood, the madness of the Cultural Revolution, your family's exile deep in the bleakest part of the country, far from the city and from books?

Mike Johnson was not the only one to be fascinated and horrified by Gu Cheng's implosion. Eliot Weinberger's article in the latest issue of the London Review of Books reflects the continued widespread interest in 'the most radical poet in all of China's 2500 years of written poetry'. Weinberger reviews Gu Cheng's life and work, and the treatment it has received in the years since his death. Weinberger's memory of a meeting with Gu Cheng makes for uncomfortable reading:

Gu Cheng, Xie Ye and I went to a restaurant in Chinatown. As we sat down, my first question, predictably, was about his hat. He told me that he always wore it so that none of his thoughts would escape his head. Xie Ye said that he also slept in it, in order not to lose his dreams.
Gu Cheng picked up the menu and chose a dish. Xie Ye was amazed. He had never before ordered anything in a restaurant, preferring to eat whatever he was served. She then put a tape recorder on the table. She told me that everything Gu Cheng said should be preserved.

We talked for hours, but I understood little of it. Every topic immediately led to a disquisition on cosmic forces: the Cultural Revolution was like the chaos before creation in Chinese mythology, before things separated into yin and yang, and Tiananmen Square represented their continuing imbalance; Mao Zedong, in a way I couldn’t follow, was somehow the embodiment of wubuwei, Taoist non-non-action. Xie Ye gazed at him adoringly the whole time, and both of them radiated an innocent sweetness. I felt I was in the presence of one of those crazy mountain sages of Chinese tradition.

Somewhere in the evening, Gu Cheng left for the bathroom, and as soon as he was out of sight, Xie Ye turned to me smiling and said: ‘I hope he dies.’ She explained that, in New Zealand, he had forced her to give their son to a Maori couple to raise, as he demanded her undivided attention and wanted to be the only male in the house. ‘I can’t get my baby back unless he is dead,’ she said. I had met them for the first time just a few hours before.

For me, the most fascinating part of Weinberger's article is its discussion of the revolutionary poetics Gu Chenge developed, under immense personal and political pressure, in the 1980s. After being associated in the 70s with the so-called 'misty' group of poets, who became notorious for rejecting the dreary myth-making of 'socialist' realism in favour of quiet, introspective poems, Gu Cheng 'had a revelation' in 1985:

Before, he had ‘tried to be a human being’, but now he realised that the world was an illusion, and he learned to leave his self behind and inhabit a shadow existence. Before, he had written ‘mainly lyrical poetry’. Now he ‘discovered a strange and unique phenomenon: that words themselves acted like drops of liquid mercury splashing about, moving in any direction’. He called one of his long sequences ‘Liquid Mercury’. ‘Any word may be as beautiful as water so long as it is free of restraints,’ he wrote...

It is extraordinary that Gu Cheng, largely ignorant of Western Modernism – the few poets he knew and admired in translation were Lorca, Tagore, Elytis and Paz – independently recreated much of the Western literary history of the 20th century. From the Imagism and Symbolism of the early lyrics, he moved on to Dadaism or one of the Futurisms. (Two earlier translators, Sean Golden and Chu Chiyu, said they were continually reminded of Gertrude Stein, whom Gu Cheng had never read.) He ultimately landed in a completely idiosyncratic corner of Surrealism.

It is a tragedy that Mike Johnson was one of only a very few New Zealand writers who had the opportunity to befriend and support Gu Cheng. The best we can do now is read the man's work.


Blogger Richard said...

Scott - this is fascinating - I read Weinberger's entire article -I think I also heard Mike Johnson but I was drunk at all those poetry readings and cant remember much (of anything!) (I was there to be HEARD - not to listen..) - some of, or one of Mike Johnston's poems was very long, but I recall (he was reading it at the Masonic in Devonport one Wednesday night); that it had some great imagery -but that stuff you quoted by him (remembered?!!) is great - I cant really picture Gu Cheng - I have feeling he may have read at Poetry Live in Auckland but I am not sure (another Chinese poet visited here in about 1990 and read with Murray Edmond reading the translations) - the personal-poetical things is difficult to unravel - it sounds as if even had he been born in England (like Clare) he may have been as strange - his strangeness - his madness - if it's that -may have been neccesary for him - a worry as that raises the chestnut that a great poet or great mind is (necessarily) "to madness near allied." The questions of the Cultural Revolution and his relationship with his father are complex
- and no revolution can - yet completely eliminate these personal issues and issues of culture, sexual jealousy (the major cause of homicide): and the issue of the indvidual versus the state - it is probably linked to ideas going back at least to Plato - (and also one thinks of Marx's concept of alienation)*
and, his time in Berlin -a long shot - how aware was Gu Cheng of the Holocaust - did he know of Celan? - wierd that it -or the ending of his life happened right here not far from you and I in Auckland -in the Waitemata - to correct Wienberger (he wrote that book with the simulated quotes from Egyption etc) - weird that we may have had one of the greatest poets among us - but couldn't (or unfortunately didn't) know him -and at least Mike Johnston tried to make some kind of bridge - I was too self-obessesed myself to appreciate Gu Cheng in those days... I was too drunk and Gu Cheng was too sober? - at least he couldn't speak English -I presume.
A strange tragedy -almost magically macabre.

* I have no doubt there is a huge field here for many Phds - and quite serously I think that scholarship on these issues and Gu Cheng etc are to be welocmed.

11:27 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott -it would be good if you could contact Wienberger and run some of these comments past him and tell him how we aware of Gu Cheng etc etc and send a link to this Blog to Mike Johnson? - also I have the email somewhere to a poet who sent me part of the poem of another Chinese poet in which there is a poem about Gu Cheng. I must dig it out - the poet that gave me that was Shin Yu Pai (I think she has a Blog) - she was thinking of coming to NZ.

I wonder what Michael Arnold and Hamish think of all this?

Jack has probably already written twenty thousand words on the subject...!

11:36 pm  
Blogger Shin Yu Pai said...

The poet that Richard is thinking of is Arthur Sze who wrote a beautiful elegy/serial poem on the death of Gu Cheng - you can find it in "The Red-shifting Web" - I can't remember the name of the poem just now, but if Richard can find his copy - he should be able to tell you!

9:23 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm looking for anyone... anyone who knows information about my father... to contact me.

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1:08 am  

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