Apart from my library, I have three comparatively small bookshelves which I visit every so often when my chain reading habit has ground to a halt for some reason. The books on these shelves are not in alphabetical order nor are they classified by subject matter, so that, starting from the top left hand corner, I come across all sorts of different things when I’m being systematic. The latest book to have emerged from shelves of earnest long past reading intentions is one called Grass Soup (Zhang Xianliang) which I remember half-reading some time ago. I determined to read it last week in a couple of days.

In 1958 Zhang Xianliang, was sent to a Chinese Labour Reform Camp for writing a poem which the Authorities deemed to be against the interests of the State in some obscure way. He survived prisons, labour camps and state farms and only ‘graduated’ to Relative Normality in 1979.

Since many of my own poems have themes which the Fascist State we are moving into slowly but surely would take objection to, I think I’m glad the Power Possessors haven’t yet got as far as organising Labour Reform Centres. I don’t think it will be long before they catch up with China.

To start with I found myself comparing the dates of Zhang Xianliang’s experiences with my own life-dates and then marveled at his survival mechanisms. It was a relentless read.

These three poems are constructed from meditations on Zhang Xianliang’s writing; they use phrases and expressions of his.

in the year

when I left the mandated prison of the army
supposedly serving queen & country
for twenty-four months to adjust myself
to being a life-long dedicated pacifist…
in another far off continent Zhang Xianliang
(then making notes for his book called Grass Soup)
was sent to Labour Reform Camp
to adjust his world-view

‘to become a New Person
you must shuck off
your body and exchange
your very bones for new ones’

the group of intellectuals he went with
had never done a bit of farmwork in their lives –
that first harvest in 1958
the Old Commissar would curse a convict
doing some kind of work inadequately
take over a pick or shovel and yelling loudly
demonstrate how to do it properly;
the convict had to stand on one side
to watch
instead of being hit he was relieved
to find he’d gain a moment’s rest from toil

‘those who are disobedient
are not intellectuals
they don’t deserve
to be intellectuals…’

such a lot in universal contemporaneity –
so much going on while we are sunk
in our own being that we never think
about or feel even to be possible;
so much that might prove to be instructive:

‘human beings
are the spirit
of all things…’

suddenly (after the initial build-up)
there’s a moment in a Shostakovitch
string quartet composed ten years earlier
when you can sing the emergent tune
which puts paid to thought
and you have to hang your head in shame

the written word

has given manunkind
plenty of headaches
ever since we invented it;
the rectification
of documentary material
is a constant process
not just in Labour Camps

some do it deviously
to suit their own ends

when money is eradicated
the Confucian ideal of Big Harmony
will emerge but for now
to write a poem
you just have to borrow a body
to put your soul in:
love for one’s mother
must be changed to
love for the Party;
anything to do with the sun
or moon or any great natural ray of light
must be applied to Great Chairman Mao;
any tender emotion
relating to a young woman
or lover must be applied
to lauding the fine achievements
of textile workers
or female tractor drivers;
any so-called divine inspiration
has to be bestowed
on something to do with
hydroelectric processes
modern farm equipment
or a steel furnace –
new things produced by Socialist magic

it’s just the same
as not caring what kind of receptacle
you use to relieve yourself in

and so in order to give
a good impression of myself
and since Goethe once noted
that there is nothing in the world
that cannot be written into poetry
I’m writing a poem
about Aerial Pesticide-Spraying


up at the starlit sky
from a Labour Reform Camp
the contrast
between human insignificance
and the vastness
of this universe
became even more powerful –
you could not help
but wonder why
in such a vast boundlessness
you stood
on such a tiny spot –
why it was mandated
that you should be
anchored to it

The next book on the shelf from where Zhang Xianliang’s Grass Soup had languished for a few years was a book of short stories by Anthony Trollope, The Two Heroines of Plumplington – something of a contrast…

3 thoughts on “CLEARING THE SHELVES (R16)

  1. I enjoyed your poems Colin! I too have bookshelves of unalphabetical books – many unread. Lets see, taken at random I’m looking around at a bookcase now: HG Wells’ Kipps, Aldous Huxley’s Ends and Means and (even) Moby Dick! (I could go on. . .)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating that other people do this as well. I too glanced at a nearby shelf and noticed that left to right are:- Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Verne), Franz Kafka and Prague (Salfellner), Moby Dick (Melville), The Jungle Book (Kipling) and Dr Faustus (Marlowe). I have never thought about this before but now I am wondering why I have done this.


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