‘After the frivolities of the morning session, I shall re-establish my credentials as a serious and melancholy poet,’ said Robert Gray to the large crowd attending the session Location, location: the importance of place in writing. Place is not only associated with the locality but the people, said Gray before reading Among the Mountains of Guang-Xi Province, in Southern China.
A few years ago he was invited to travel to China by the College of Fine Arts in Sydney and the Chinese Academy Of Arts to write a landscape poem. He was accompanied by a painter, and translator and they travelled along roads “like rough creek beds” between country regions and universities
Gray will forever associate this poem with the translator who travelled with him. At universities he would give talks, one paragraph at a time, not knowing what he would say, and she would translate. He was told that she did a wonderful job. “I was disappointed when I was introduced to her because she seemed about 12 years old but she turned out be 27,” he said. “She looked prepubescent, a skinny little thing but absolutely with a brilliant mind and she helped out me a great deal with the food in country towns.”
Gray would ask her abour the food as it came around on the turntable. “She’d say, ‘Maybe chicken,’ and I would say, ‘Maybe dog?’, and she would nod, and say, “Maybe dog,” and I would say, ‘maybe omelette’.”
When Gray got back to Beijing he was so grateful for her brilliant help that he asked to take her out for dinner. She accepted saying that she’d like Italian food.
“Why would you like Italian food?” Gray said. She said she had lived in Rome and while she lived there she decided, ‘I want to marry a gypsy and lead a wild free life’.
Gray asked, “what does yout mother think?”
“My mother say, ‘you stupid girl,” the translator said.
The translator is always in his mind when he thinks of this poem, said Gray.
“She also said by the way that she had three boyfriends, she had eating boyfriend, loving boyfriend and talking boyfriend.”
This a poem about those extraordinary mountains in the south of China, accurately the limestone core of the mountains, that have been under the sea, and washed away, said Gray. Some are shaped lie pagoda or pyramids.
“Among the Mountains of Guang-Xi Province, in Southern China I had been wading for a long while in the sands of the world and was buffeted by its fiery winds…….
The work can be found in entirety in Gray’s Nameless Earth, published in 2006 by Carcanet.
By Marian Edmunds
* Other notes from this session on Marele Day and Peter Goldsworthy to follow.