After Bansui (1994)
‘And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now;
Nanking . . .’
W. H. Auden
Steps climbed into bushes
at a turning as the road
chicaned through curtain walls;
a sign’s arm pointed at rushes.
By hinge-posts, leaves and berries
papered over faults where blossom
of late-flowered cherries
had stained the grey pavement.
Further, a pine-coned path
snaked by grazed bark, the shins
of pines, and headlight shards
glinted over reddened earth.
These fragments of a car
or scooter come to grief
were more memento mori
of each bright thing’s brief life.
That evening, walking home
across the castle site, I saw
grass stalks pierce crazed asphalt
like so many flashing swords,
a full moon scud through trees
above these green remains
of fortifications, its pale face
as in the local poet’s lines.
A traffic-filled street in the city bears his name,
its glittering offices clearly seen
beyond this castle’s fire-bombed gatehouse,
from an approach road cresting the rise
as it twists through outworks of a wooded mound.
Here was the place by which he’d mourned
changes under a vine-strewn wall,
the moon above the ruined castle
shining an unchanged, luminous glow
while for centuries that structure stood its ground.
So where is the brilliance of long ago?
No ghostly retainers or GI Joes
are transferred over white cars and coaches
convoying tourists by the switchback road
you climbed, fumes fog-like in these pines—
where the occupying armies once camped round.
Now when the emperor was restored
these trees were on the losing side:
their trunks, paralysed sentries;
leaves, plumes shaking in a breeze.
Holding the hill gave material advantage.
Power gravitated in an earlier age
to this natural fortress of river cliffs and gorges.
Partly dismantled by restoration forces,
the rest burnt down in a single bombing raid.
Inside its main defensive walls
a statue of the warlord on his horse
with one blind eye and helmet’s crescent moon
overlooks the city’s blinking neon.
Here his past reappears in simulation—
come back as a wheeling bird’s eye view
of lookout towers, the banquet halls,
and peacock-painted sliding screens
are reconstructed as computer graphics
on a series of flickering video screens.
From a plinth in ornamental shrubbery
this dress-coated, bronze politician
has blank eyes fixed on an era of wars:
his selectively related histories
miss live experiments, rapes
when just remembered foreigners died
(however much it’s denied, denied
by interested voices) and maps
could really point to places
where life was evil then, perhaps.
Bansui, you’re their local poet, not mine
with moon-viewing parties and blossom
of that late-flowered cherry, a pink stain
on grey pavement, glimpsed against the hum
coming through trees from a tour bus engine;
a uniformed girl at its door waves her pennant
beckoning veterans or children by the shrine
to their dead: it’s what fleeting blossom meant;
and though some still insist it never was,
others have been ready to apologize at last
for the mounds of unearthed skulls, the burden
of documents in archives, stored or lost,
that would likely vindicate the poet Auden
in his journeying to and from those wars.
‘After Bansui’, written
between May and September 1994, was first published in Prairie Schooner
70.2 (1996), and is collected in About Time Too, available from
Carcanet Press here.
The epigraph is from the closing lines of section XVI of Auden’s
In Time of War.
For a note about Peter Robinson and his titles in print
see At New Year.