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The Music in the Silence

La musique du silence
Andrew Parkin
p. 9-25


Cet essai retrace ma création poétique, ou tout du moins celle que je produis en réponse à des œuvres peintes de différents artistes. Au commencement, il y a mon expérience de l’image visuelle, ma façon d’y répondre. Puis, tandis qu’un poème prend forme, il se produit en moi une sorte de méditation qui m’absorbe ou de questionnement qui m’aiguillonne, et c’est alors qu’une attraction particulière peut advenir. Des images de l’œuvre visuelle peuvent advenir dans le poème et des connexions thématiques se tisser entre les deux œuvres. Un dialogue s’instaure, dans lequel un artiste fait signe silencieusement par la peinture à un autre artiste qui lui répond dans une langue musicale. Il n’y a pas de fin possible, car l’art de métamorphoser des images silencieuses en musique des mots est fortuit et interminable.

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  • 1  Walter PATER, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1873] (...)

1My interest in painting and sculpture dates from my first visits to Paris with school friends. Later, at Cambridge, I read Walter Pater, as part of my specialist period from 1880, and learned that he had famously written in his study of Giorgione, « All art constantly aspires to the condition of music. »1 I also found that Yeats had versified some of Pater’s description of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa simplybycutting the prose up into linear verse and making of it the first poem in his edition of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Pater’s remarks were themselves a poem, a poem in prose. Thus a critic’s thoughts prompted by a painting were recast as a linear verse poem by a later writer. Pater’s words had reached the condition of poetry by virtue of their intensity, their rich verbal music, and their focus on the imaginary, prompted by the mystery of the portrait and its model. This Paterian purple passage could serve as an English equivalent of some poems in prose found in late nineteenth century French writing. More immediately for our concerns here, it is an example of the many ways painting can inspire poetry.

2It was in Hong Kong that I first began to write poetry seriously and it was there that a Chinese friend told me that paintings were « silent music ». It was there too that I taught poetry, finding very soon that many readers, native speakers of English and Chinese speakers of English alike, always wanted rhythm and music in the poem, whatever its subject. Poetry, it seems, is musical speech, as well as the language of intensities of emotion and meditation. Looking at many Chinese paintings, I soon noticed that the picture often had a poem, or at least a few lines from one, written somewhere on the scroll. t. C. Lai and Laurence Wong inform me that the poem may be written by the painter or another person. It can also be a few lines of prose, usually related to or inspired by the picture. The calligraphy is « almost always in the painter’s own hand upon the completion of the picture ». The writing can also be a kind of commentary usually placed within the frame of the picture. Another friend and critic, Tam Kwok-kan, tells me that the writing on Chinese paintings may be used to reveal a hidden meaning in the painting, or a higher level of meaning, or to conceal the meaning by making a riddle of the painting ! The poet could also be the painter, and indeed all good calligraphy is a species of painting. When I last met t. C. Lai, this prolific writer was now concentrating on painting.

3Perhaps poetry and painting are similar to other kinds of art work in at least this major respect : they are not nature, but a formalization or even a copy of a selected portion of it. Further, art invites observation, emotion, and meditation. Magritte in his 1929 picture, La Trahison des images, painted a pipe and wrote in a fair hand underneath it on the picture : « Ceci n’est pas une pipe ». Correct. The picture is a flat copy of a pipe. It cannot be filled with tobacco and smoked. As if afraid of being contradicted, he painted a similar image with the same title but the sentence written in English : « This is not a pipe ». Magritte stubbornly, emphatically, stuck to his point. In 1952 he produced another pipe picture, same title, but on the image of a permanent plaque screwed to the picture below the pipe, we read : « Ceci continue DE NE PAS ÊTRE UNE PIPE ».

4Poetry and painting, though, have another common aspect. They not only select this portion of reality rather than another, they suggest a dimension that nature itself lacks. They suggest that there is human significance in their vision of a partial reality. The universe of real, inanimate things may be merely an indifferent environment that happens to supply the conditions for living things, whereas art selects, suggests, humanizes, and estranges this environment. It offers an opportunity for seeing and meditating upon what is seen, what has been seen, during that one moment, or indeed what can never be seen in the world but only in this particular painting or poem, amid all the jostling simultaneity of the world. Nature continues in its multifarious existence after the work of art has been accomplished and the artist has ceased to exist. Auden’s poem, « Musée des Beaux Arts » on Breughel’s painting, The Fall of Icarus, asserts that Breughel knew what all great artists know about suffering—ordinary life continues as if nothing had happened. A different example is Yeats, who spent much of his career as a poet amid other artists and friends, many of whom were painters. Yeats’s powerful « Leda and the Swan » and his longer meditation, « The Municipal Gallery Revisited », as well as W.H. Auden’s above-mentioned « Musée des Beaux Arts », were poems directly inspired by paintings. And we might add that Yves Bonnefoy, arguably or in my opinion at least, the greatest living French poet, worked also as Professor of Fine Art at the Collège de France. His work shows great sensitivity to the spirit of the artist who creates the work. In « Sur une Pietà de Tintoret », Bonnefoy puts the question :

  • 2  Yves BONNEFOY, « Sur une Pietà de Tintoret », Poèmes, Paris : Mercure de France, 1986, 225.

Oh, qui est plus réel
Du chagrin désirant ou de l’image peinte ?2

Artist and poet work from close observation of what exists. They invite us to see and reflect upon what we see, what they have seen, and reflected upon. But there is always a question, sometimes unanswerable. The poet invites us to listen as well, for the poet must find the right song for the vision.

5Despite these connections, in spite also of the fact that I have published more than two dozen poems inspired by art works, I have not set out consciously, like Paul Durcan in his book Give Me Your Hand, to write a collection of poems inspired by the fine arts. In fact, theatre design has also been an inspiration for me.

6In the mid 1960s, when I visited Japan expressly to see the Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku theatres, I was inspired by the sheer theatricality of the stage pictures. The rich costumes, haunting masks, ritualistic dancing, and music of the Japanese Noh theatre, together with my friendship with a Noh actor, gave me my first published poems. The stage picture, always splendid, was a theatrical revelation. After a later performance by the same actor, Umewaka Makio, of The Ground Spider, a famous Noh drama, in London, I wrote a brief poem, « Flower Power, Noh Style : The Ground Spider at the Aldwych Theatre » :

Two fingers hook the web,
paper coils the air you spin :
red wig, gold grin.

  • 3  In Andrew PARKIN, Dancers in a Web, Winnipeg : Turnstone Press, (1987) 1991, 67. The play features (...)

Rich sword, bright and sharp
as your stage, your part,
that cold flute: they score the heart.3

7The haiku-like triplets recall the Japanese tradition, in keeping with the poem’s subject. The first triplet gives a picture of a climactic stage effect, as the ground spider emerges from behind a white paper web to festoon stage and warriors with coloured paper streamers ; the second reflects on image and sound. The word « score » suggests a musical score that represents the emotions on-stage and those of the audience. The word also has the meaning of cutting, as when a butcher scores the skin of a pig ready for roasting. This picks up on the image of the samurai sword. The heart, or emotional life, is cut or engraved with that unforgettable stage image, as wood blocks are cut to make Japanese prints. The stage images and sounds became poetic description and then compressed meditation, enabled by the ambiguities of words. The stage action and properties also provide resonant imagery.

  • 4  Andrew PARKIN, « Guided Tour », Dancers in a Web, op.cit., 53.
  • 5 Ibid., 56.

8The ruins of the palace at Knossos in Crete have some famous frescos of Cretan athletes somersaulting over the bulls. The pictures, full of graceful action and vitality, set me re-thinking the myth of the minotaur and then re-imagining and re-telling it in the poem « Guided Tour ». They also gave me details that for me evoked the reality of the past, when « Ariadne’s painted bird/stares with the red eye of love. »4So in this case, painting led me into narrative. In the poem, too, I was able to imagine the painter who « stood on a board/and filled a wall with us,/the dark Cretan girls. »5 Out of the tragic extremities of human lives and deaths come the impulses to tell and hand on the story through myth, legend, and art. In a later poem, « Muse 9 », a local painter, like the ancient Minoan, is doing a mural : this is the head of the nineteenth century poet, Rosalía de Castro, and also depicts some lines of hers on the wall of a village bar across the street from her house. The painting, following unconsciously perhaps a Chinese habit of uniting picture and poem, is a sign of the local fame of her poetry written in Galician speech. My poem records my own encounter with this poet through translations and a visit to her house, now a museum. The act of painting, in the little bar, is made « real » by the detail of the fly, as if the painter were still at work, just as her poetry is still alive in Spain :

  • 6  “Muse 9” in Andrew PARKIN, The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, Frankfurt : Peter (...)

In the village bar across the way
flies buzz the hand of one who paints
that now familiar face
and her farewell to life,
learned by heart in local speech.
Poet, your clothes hang empty and cold in your room
but your words are warm and filled with your presence.
I take them with me, like the gift of a friend.6

  • 7  Michael SULLIVAN, “The Art of Liu Kuo-Sung”, in J. J. SHIH and Autumn LAI (Eds.), Paintings by Liu (...)
  • 8  “The Four Seasons Handscroll” in Andrew PARKIN and Laurence Wong, Hong Kong Poems, Vancouver, B.C. (...)
  • 9  Idem.

9When I met the Chinese painter Liu Kuo-sung and saw his work, I felt an immediate compulsion to write. Soon, I had published my time-conscious poem « The Four Seasons Handscroll » on his painting, Landscape of the Four Seasons. The Oxford art historian, Michael Sullivan, called Liu’s scroll « a work of great energy and changing moods, that range from the lyrical opening through the almost too tempestuous summer and autumn to the glacial silence and grandeur of winter »7. Somewhat paradoxically, Sullivan reads into the painted image the silence of a snowscape, when he contemplates the silence of the scroll itself. And paradoxically, my poem starts from a winter snow fall, whereas the scroll starts from spring, and the winter part of the scroll itself has fallen, settled snow, rather than falling curls of snow. My two opening lines refer to Liu’s work : « the scroll of seasons unfurls/a relief map of the feelings »8. The remainder of the poem is a western, not the Chinese painter’s, inventory of seasons, and it is made personal by ending where it began, with winter, the inevitable death of the poet or author, who identifies himself with autumn : « but I am Autumn/ready for the artist’s brush/to spread the ripened days »9. The painter becomes an image of God the creator, making and undoing the seasons as well as our lives. The scroll, then, becomes in the poem an occasion for a meditative assessment of my own mature, autumnal years, the sense of one’s aging, and plays off the western sensibility, personalizing the landscape of seasons, against the Chinese sensibility with its fantastic, tempestuous landscapes. The great artistic problem for Liu and the poet Yu Kwang-chung is how to combine Chinese artistic traditions with modernity without being slavish imitators of western modernists. This sums up an interesting relationship of poet and painter faced with the same artistic problem, though in different media. In fact I believe the desire for continuity in modernity is common to many western artists as well.

  • 10  Andrew PARKIN, « Ripolin on Hardboard », The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, op.c (...)

10Most of my poems relating to artists and painting are, in fact, collected in my most recent books, The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience (2003) and Shaw Sights and Sounds (2006). A visit to Melbourne, Australia, happened to coincide with an exhibition of Sir Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings. My excitement at seeing these works stirred memories of my boyhood, when Nolan became famous for his paintings of the outlaw, and I had been fascinated by the images of a « cowboy » in home-made armour. In the exhibition I began to jot down lines and phrases. Later, in Canberra, the poem was written and, indeed, read with others to an audience in the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. The title of the poem, « Ripolin on Hardboard », makes the point that it is as much about Nolan’s painting as about the narrative of Ned Kelly. The poem swings between the paintings and scraps of Kelly’s real or reported words. It involves a counterpointing of life and myth, history and art, within the frame of the manhunt for Kelly, his capture, trial, execution, and death mask. The impression of a real face hardens in plaster. Reality and art mingle at certain points in the poem : « Kelly’s hazel eyes stare red,/sometimes painted blue » and « Litres of ripolin dry/in streaks of energy and distress./ Sprung from history’s jail, he rides/red landscapes of legend, his true mistress, »10. The impulse to make a legendary hero from an historical figure is the way the imaginations of the people and the artist break out of the enclosure of fact and evidence. Breaking out of a frame — in this case art and historical fact — was something I explored also in terms of the painting of myth by Claude le Lorrain. In « On a Painting by Claude : Coast View, the Origin of Coral », I wanted to describe Claude’s image of Perseus on the beach ; immediately myth took over. The arch of eroded rock becomes a horse’s leg, as if a living beast had been already turned to stone. The poem’s three stanzas describe the painting and become a personal addressing of the artist by the admiring poet :

  • 11  Andrew PARKIN, « On a Painting by Claude : Coast View, the Origin of Coral », The Rendez-Vous : Po (...)

Your brush strokes light along the shore.
That tough stone-rooted tree
thrusts at a tranquil sky
contingent realities of leaves.
Are the birds about to sing ?11

11The poem speaks to Claude and his picture. The silence of painting would paradoxically offer birdsong to the imagination of the viewer ; in grimmer contrast, the refrain suggests that the severed head of the Gorgon also gives voice, even as it turns into coral : « What cries are choked/when coral sprouts along the throat ? ». This refrain, repeated twice, suggests a further dimension to the myth, bringing sound and its frustration, as it were, into the picture. Looking at the painting, I felt I was a witness on the beach.

12Another poem, written in Canberra, but occasioned by going to a lecture by the restorer of paintings, Bettina Jessel, drew me into a picture in another way. Aided by vivid slides of the process of restoration, Ms Jessel described how she had cleaned up a mediocre eighteenth century fête galante of ladies and gentlemen in splendid clothes, realizing that a far older painting lay behind the later work. The slab of ancient oak used for the paintings was a clue that some old, possibly medieval image, might be uncovered. I was excited by the lecture and by the realization that I knew of no poem about the erasure of a painting to uncover and restore another. Simultaneously I realized that I must write about it. In writing the poem I discovered a theme that also excited me : modern eyes looking into ancient ones ; one historical period being erased by a later one in search of something older and more compelling. And yet different epochs of history become coeval and collide :

  • 12  Andrew PARKIN, « A Portrait of Charles the Bold Found under a Later Painting », Ibidem, 158.

She lifts the veils of dirt.
Your now lustrous eye
outstares five vanished centuries
and promises a master’s image
on this slab of oak.
A camouflage of wigs and postures
slides from you, dark Lord of Burgundy ;
taffetas and lap-dogs slink
from the cold glint of armour.
You elbow powdered elegance aside.12

Poet speaks not to painter this time but to the subject, Charles the Bold. As the portrait of Charles is gradually revealed, the poet evokes the warrior and the history of France. My poetry is one of palimpsest and (cinematic) montage. The covering and uncovering of images invites meditation on successive ages of history and the processes of imagination itself. The restorer, Jessel, brings Charles back to life in the meditation of the poem. And in reality, Jessel had discovered something rare indeed : the second known image of this Duke of Burgundy. A portrait once thought to be unique is that shown in Le Petit Larousse Illustré (2001). There, Charles is in normal dress ; in the Jessel portrait he is in armour. Elegance and bloodshed: these are two motifs that recur throughout history. The poem looks back at medieval warfare and anticipates the French revolution in its clearing away of the eighteenth century figures from the slab of oak. The « lustrouseye » revealed by Jessel is masterly ; the detail means that the older painting is very good, not a mere hack’s work. This bit of procedure from the restorer’s craft is also an indication of the craft of painting. The poem obliquely celebrates craftsmanship.

13The process of painting and self-conscious awareness of it by a most self-conscious artist are themes that emerge very clearly in my poem « Velazquez in the Mirror » :

  • 13  Andrew PARKIN, « Velazquez in the Mirror », The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, o (...)

Master of this moment, lover of candled night,
he faces himself, the mirror of judgment,
back turned on imaged monarchs
even as he paints them in.
In an eternal present smelling of oils
he discovers the mystery of things real,
the polished, shadowy court,
the plain back of his canvas stretched on its frame.13

  • 14 Ibid., 214.

14In every true work of art, I believe, the artist confronts himself or herself, confronting also surfaces, reflections, and the humble reality of the means from which art is made: canvas stretched to accept the paint, the pressure of brush or knife. The textured cloth, or just simple wood, or cheap, modern hardboard, whatever surface is at hand, may bear the weightless weight of human significance. The scene of the painter at work is viewed by a figure pausing in a doorway, « […] in the knowing light/never to enter/nor yet to leave.14 » The picture gives us a past circumstance, now an eternal present.

  • 15  Andrew PARKIN, « A Model for Magritte’s Blank Signature »,The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural (...)

15Human significance may arrive in many ways, often through the image of some life model. Returning to Magritte, I looked at his painting entitled Le Blanc-Seing, in Washington, D.C., where it was named The Blank Signature, and again in Paris, more recently. In both galleries the painting fascinated the people walking through, arresting them by its serene beauty, its teasing impossibility. The image has a surreal presence bordering on myth. Beautiful horse and impeccable horsewoman are inextricably and impossibly interlaced with the forest, as if this were a twentieth century version of the Daphne myth made discreet and ladylike, a surreal, jocular reference, perhaps, to the older figurative paintings of Daphne fleeing in the forest, or Daphne half-woman, half-tree, a surreal image if ever there was one. Magritte’s sedately mysterious image is so far removed from the panic of Daphne in flight as to be its contrary. My three-part poem « A Model for Magritte’s Blank Signature »suggests an earthy sexuality in Magritte’s model : « Many a time she has sprawled naked/ on the studio’s lumpy couch. »15

16She is naked in each of the three sections of the poem. In the first section Magritte clothes her in a riding habit, boots, and a certain dignity. The second part poses an elaborate question, defending her nakedness :

Why should she not sprawl naked
on the studio couch
and as the painted image dries
mount, as form and colour fit,
to tread on that fastidious mare
the tranquil thread of dignity
woven into the wood’s mysteries,
soft night gathering
among her trees?

The poet connives at nakedness with the model, and yet suggests that as Magritte’s paint dries, the model will enter yet another picture in the poet’s mind. The third section of the poem suggests that the model hopes the painter will make love to her rather than paint her. But Magritte, taking a leaf out of Daphne’s forest, eludes her, by painting her posing on the mare in the impossible wood :

She rides along those fibres of dignity
in a surreal wood never seen but here
or known, even by the old Douanier.

No startled jungle beasts
stare from a lush lair,
a wood dense as animal mind.

All woods are cunning with rustling mysteries.

Artistic creation is often a lonely occupation but artists are never alone. The strange woods of le Douanier Rousseau impinge on the painting in this observer’s thoughts. An artist’s model finds a life in the poem different from that in the painted image. Pater’s musings on Leonardo’s model provide the locus classicus. Paintings provoke poems and vice versa. The model’s life implies a tantalising but perhaps unanswerable question : what is her relation to the artist ? But life beyond the picture is another space. And so we are still with Magritte, as we are with Leonardo, when we speculate about the Mona Lisa. The Blank Signatureor Le Blanc-Seing has mysterious depths in the flat stretch of the canvas, for Magritte plays with space and spatial relationships.

17Probably the oldest living surrealist is Michael Bullock, the translator, novelist, poet, and painter. I met him when we both taught at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He has been a real friend for over twenty-five years, a debt I have tried to repay somewhat in two poems, « Transpacific » and « On the Wings of the Black Swan », both of them reprinted in The Rendez-Vous. « Transpacific » is a single sentence of eight tercets that joins real life details of Bullock’s fascination with the Far East, his home in Vancouver, and my sense of his simultaneous modernity, magic realism, and surreal transformations. « On the Wings of the Black Swan », however, refers to a specific moment, the publication of his book, The Wings of the Black Swan, and its wonderful front cover illustration, a pastel picture by the Canadian artist Lori-Ann Latremouille. This poem, in six tercets followed by a suspended single line, is also a resumé of some of Bullock’s current preoccupations but with a detail from his visits to his doctor made into an image from the fine arts — engraving. The poem ends by evoking Latremouille’s pastel :

In your doctor’s office
an ultrasound image of your heart
reveals that it, too, is engraved :

a dark woman caresses your face
as she embraces a black swan.
You make love to her

  • 16  Andrew PARKIN, « On the Wings of the Black Swan », The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experi (...)

as if you held a younger planet in your arms.16

The two poems result from many experiences of reading Bullock’s books, conversations, meeting him in Canada and Hong Kong, seeing a great many of his own paintings and coloured ink drawings, seeing many illustrations of his books by Lori-Ann Latremouille, and from reading Jack Stewart’s detailed critical study of Bullock. But Latremouille’s illustration for the book’s cover was the spark that kindled the second poem. Her image excited me by its energy, equilibrium, and colour. It also has the advantage that it contains a portrait of Bullock. He, as artist, is her model in this work, as he is in several other works by her. The book cover image is a marriage of two styles, one achieved in pastel, the other implied in the image of Bullock himself. For Latremouille as Bullock’s illustrator, the artist uses the writer as her model, while I, as an interloping poet, use the painter and her subject, the surreal writer, as subjects and provokers of my own images.

18The artist may sometimes use a model or do a portrait from imagination or an amalgam of memories, perhaps unconscious. When I visited the Australian painter and novelist, Robin Wallace-Crabbe, he showed my wife Françoise and me some of his latest pictures. One was of a woman in a sun hat sitting in a garden. We had not seen Robin and his wife for several years. We were very impressed by the quality of this new work, especially the woman in the garden. When asked what the picture was called, Robin shrugged and said it had, as yet, no title. Suddenly he grinned and wrote a title on it, Françoise’s Australia, and gave her the picture there and then. This visit and incident gave me the poem, « Australian Light 1 ». It begins with early morning light faintly penetrating the bedroom and ends with the promise of afternoon light « fixed in a dark-room tray » but the artist in a moment of inspiration and generosity is caught between the two in the flashbulb at the poem’s heart :

…in warm mid-morning light
you put some of your work against the wall
and I see straight away
a different farmhouse…
startled by your paint. I hold art paper
textured with creamy pores

where you printed this artist’s proof
of the garden, signed, but untitled.
Grinning you pencil it : “Françoise’s Australia”.

  • 17  Andrew PARKIN, « Australian Light 1 », The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, op.cit (...)

Her eyes blink and salt light
stings her with joy.17

The poem surrounds the whole incident with different qualities of Australian light, the light that makes Australian painting so distinct, but the centre is the last moment of the artist’s creative act, the naming of the work. We are in the artist’s environment and in his action and in his mood. And yet we are aware of the eternal changes in the light and of its necessity for the photographer, Virginia Wallace-Crabbe, as well as for the painter. The poem ends with light annulled in a photographer’s dark-room, before the print emerges again in the light, with its chiaroscuro black on white.

19Landscape, of course, is a major element in painters’ and poets’ inspiration. The late Robert Jeannisson’s La Charité-sur-Loire (Nièvre)is a hand-coloured engraving depicting a stretch of the Loire with field and river in the foreground, the bridge to the left and main town to the right defining the horizon. As in other works by this artist, winter trees with their tracery of bare branches engrave the sky. Jeannisson was a master engraver as well as a painter and draughtsman of great power. The fashionable art world has wrongly neglected him. My poem, « At La Charité-sur-Loire », was written when I visited the artist’s home and studio, where I saw a good deal of his work. I was newly arrived in France from Hong Kong. I plunged into the cultural life of Paris and then discovered the old artist, through my wife, his niece, in La France profonde.

20I liked his engraving, but when I saw the real stretch of river and the real bridge he had engraved, I was walking through rain. This was the beginning of the poem. Lines of « At La Charité-sur-Loire » began to assault me, like the rain. Then a fisherman’s line seemed like a poet’s first lines, efforts to catch the poem. I used again the pun behind my previous poem « Trout Catch ». I like this kind of connecting cross-reference, a sort of montage of poetic imagery flashing from one poem to another. The poem opens with a sense of rapidity in contrast to the patience of the sudden solitary fisherman. But I become the fish. I sink into the waters of the Loire, as if into French life and art.

Camouflaged by weeds and rock,
I become the sinuous fish.
I watch from grey-green shallows
as in the water’s flow I’m reborn

In the gasping air,
in the middle of France
I recognize what Jeannisson sketched

then quietly, with a master’s touch, engraved,
before he printed his copies and added
deft subtleties of colour.

  • 18  « At La Charité-sur-Loire », Andrew PARKIN, The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, O (...)

And for me, everything, even the very old, is new.18

  • 19  « At the Bibliothèque Nationale », Ibidem, 171.

21An immigrant, even a mature one, is sometimes like a child at school, learning a culture, invented over centuries, before he or she arrived. I plunge into the picture and come up gasping with a new set of meditations, this time on my French experience. I am in many ways sinicized ; getting back to Europe was a bit of a culture shock. The meditations continue in poems not necessarily sparked by paintings, but my rebirth comes back in a reference to Poussin, in « At the Bibliothèque Nationale », where symbolic works of French culture cluster with « Moses/saved among the reeds […] »19.

22My second landscape example is an illustration to a poem. My poem « At Chinese University » was first published in Hong Kong and rapidly found four different translations into Chinese. Jacqueline Ricard, a Parisian artist and engraver, a specialist in fine hand-made artists’ books for the collectors’ market, engraved an album in the form of a traditional, folding Chinese book at her atelier. Thirty of the artist’s books were hand-printed with the poem in its original English with Chinese translation by Laurence Wong ; another thirty were printed, this time the English translated into French by Olivier Delbard and again with Wong’s Chinese version. Ricard made a panoramic image of Tolo Harbour, a long stretch of sea overlooked by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This engraving was printed with the poem in two languages for each batch of thirty on long oblongs, coloured and partly embossed, of papier vélin d’Arches 400 g.

On curiously abrupt slopes
foliage sharp with cicadas
hides the famous bird,
its dragon wings become ferns,
pike blade claws twigs.

  • 20  This poem, « At Chinese University », appears also in Andrew PARKIN and Laurence WONG, Hong Kong P (...)

Feng, with eagle beak and tongue,
build the nest of flames
in minds old and young,
beacon above the sea at To Lo,
and signal nine angels of wisdom.20

23In this case, I wrote the poem because I was stimulated by my renewed immersion into Chinese culture, returning to Hong Kong as I had done after some twenty-three years. I was living amid the students and faculty on the mountain above the sea. The campus is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, the staff cosmopolitan and preponderantly Chinese, guardians and instigators of Chinese modernity. I imagined the feng or Chinese phoenix as ever-present on the campus but hidden by transformation into foliage. I plunge not into water but foliage with the bird. The poem invokes this bird of good fortune and longevity as a sort of blessing for the university and its staff and students. The flaming nest becomes a symbol of a rebirth of Chinese greatness, a beacon signal to the mountains across the sea at To Lo. There are eight prominent peaks visible from the campus, called the eight angels. These angels will protect the work of scholars, the fung shui being excellent with the setting of mountain, wind, and water. Eight is a number of great fortune in Chinese tradition. But my poem adds another angel to ensure the nine muses are welcome on campus. After all, I write from a western tradition enmeshed with portions of the Chinese one. For this art album, my poem and photographs of the view over To Lo Harbour gave Jacqueline Ricard the material for her engraving, rather than the other way round. The album takes its place in the genre of the artist’s book.

24Finally, I return to the tools of the old Chinese painters and calligraphers, their four treasures of paper, brush, ink, and the stone on which the ink is mixed. I saw an exhibition of very beautiful ancient inkstones in Hong Kong. It inspired my « Four Treasures » :

First they took my brush :
I wrote with my own hair.

They stole my paper :
I wrote on walls.

  • 21  Andrew PARKIN, « Four Treasures », in Andrew PARKIN and Laurence WONG, Hong Kong Poems, op.cit., 6 (...)

They confiscated ink and stone :
I wrote in blood with a bit of bone.21

25I was envious of the craft of fine calligraphers, a craft totally beyond me, and yet I identified with them ; moreover, I felt that art is perishable but cannot be suppressed. The poem is about art and politics. Poetry cannot be suppressed, because it can be learned and taken into the heart. I was very proud when this poem was displayed in the public transport systems of British Columbia, with its large Chinese-Canadian population, for an entire year.

26From my own experience I have found that some works of art not only stimulate one as audience but encourage creation, their energy stimulating expression of another kind. The poems I have written inspired by looking at paintings can become word pictures ; they can be meditations on the painting in question ; meditations or discoveries of different kinds made during the writing process ; acts of homage to another artist ; explorations of emotions about a crucial feature of life revealed in a painting ; ways of revisiting myth or legend ; ways of finding another voice, another style. Or they can be a response in the sense of a reply, as if the painter’s image were a question aimed at the viewer. In the final analysis, art leads back to life and living : I encounter paintings as part of « ordinary » life ; the ordinary, though, is always extraordinary. Impossibility, illusion, and mystery : art insists on them and they all imply the existence of the real. Painted images are objects as real as any other, but the painted representation of things is not the reality of these things, just as words are real enough as sounds but are not the things to which they refer. Painting can be a way of observing and discovering facts about the world ; poetry is another way of discovering these facts and some of their implications about life.

Françoise’s Australia

Françoise’s Australia
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AUDEN W. H., Collected Poems, London : Faber, 1991.

BONNEFOY Yves, Poèmes, Paris : Mercure de France, 1986.

BULLOCK Michael, Wings of the Black Swan : Poems of Love and Loss, Vancouver, B.C. : Rainbird Press, 2001.

DURCAN Paul, Give Me Your Hand, London : Macmillan, 1994.

MAGRITTE René, a Catalogue of the Exhibition at the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, by several hands, with essays by Abadie Daniel et al., Paris : Ludion, 2003.

PARKIN Andrew and RICARD Jacqueline (Original engraving made at La Cour Pavée), Wong Laurence and Delbard Olivier (Translators), At Chinese University, Paris : Tanguy Garric art-print studios, 2000.

PARKIN Andrew, Dancers in a Web, Winnipeg : Turnstone Press, 1987 ; reprinted 1991.

PARKIN Andrew and WONG Laurence, Hong Kong Poems, Vancouver, B.C., 1997 ; reprinted 1999.

PARKIN Andrew, Shaw Sights and Sounds : A collection of oil paintings and poetry. In celebration of Shaw College 20th Anniversary, Hong Kong : Shaw College, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2006.
(The book contains paintings Chan Hang, prose statements by Prof. p. C. Ching, College Head, Chan Hang, Andrew Parkin, and Laurence Wong. Text is in Chinese and English, translations of poetry by Laurence Wong, and of prose by Prof. Chan Sin-wai. This book is available only by application to the Secretary, Shaw College, CUHK, Shatin, N.T., Hong Kong.)

PARKIN Andrew, The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, Frankfurt : Peter Lang, 2003.

PATER Walter, The Renaissance, Oxford : Oxford University Press (World Classics Paperback) [1873] 1998.

SULLIVAN Michael, « The Art of Liu Kuo-Sung », in SHIH J. J. and LAI Autumn (Eds.), Paintings by Liu Kuo-Sung, Taipei : Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 1990, 41-42.

YEATS William Butler, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, London : Macmillan, [1933] 1952.

YEATS William Butler (Ed.), The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1936.

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1  Walter PATER, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, [1873] 1998, 86.

2  Yves BONNEFOY, « Sur une Pietà de Tintoret », Poèmes, Paris : Mercure de France, 1986, 225.

3  In Andrew PARKIN, Dancers in a Web, Winnipeg : Turnstone Press, (1987) 1991, 67. The play features an enormous spider played by an actor wearing a golden demon’s mask and a wig of extremely long red hair. The spider entangles the samurai onstage with streamers thrown with extravagant gestures from where they have been concealed in his kimono’s sleeves.

4  Andrew PARKIN, « Guided Tour », Dancers in a Web, op.cit., 53.

5 Ibid., 56.

6  “Muse 9” in Andrew PARKIN, The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, Frankfurt : Peter Lang, 2003, 211.

7  Michael SULLIVAN, “The Art of Liu Kuo-Sung”, in J. J. SHIH and Autumn LAI (Eds.), Paintings by Liu Kuo-Sung, Taipei : Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 1990, 42.

8  “The Four Seasons Handscroll” in Andrew PARKIN and Laurence Wong, Hong Kong Poems, Vancouver, B.C., 1997 ; reprinted 1999 : 95. All poems by both poets appear in both Chinese and English versions.

9  Idem.

10  Andrew PARKIN, « Ripolin on Hardboard », The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, op.cit., 156-157.

11  Andrew PARKIN, « On a Painting by Claude : Coast View, the Origin of Coral », The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, op.cit., 218.

12  Andrew PARKIN, « A Portrait of Charles the Bold Found under a Later Painting », Ibidem, 158.

13  Andrew PARKIN, « Velazquez in the Mirror », The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, op.cit., 214-215.

14 Ibid., 214.

15  Andrew PARKIN, « A Model for Magritte’s Blank Signature »,The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, op.cit., 72.

16  Andrew PARKIN, « On the Wings of the Black Swan », The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, op.cit., 67.

17  Andrew PARKIN, « Australian Light 1 », The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, op.cit., 143.

18  « At La Charité-sur-Loire », Andrew PARKIN, The Rendez-Vous : Poems of Multicultural Experience, Op.cit.., 161.

19  « At the Bibliothèque Nationale », Ibidem, 171.

20  This poem, « At Chinese University », appears also in Andrew PARKIN and Laurence WONG, Hong Kong Poems, op.cit., 41.

21  Andrew PARKIN, « Four Treasures », in Andrew PARKIN and Laurence WONG, Hong Kong Poems, op.cit., 65.

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Andrew Parkin, « The Music in the Silence », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. V – n°2 | 2007, 9-25.

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Andrew Parkin, « The Music in the Silence », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. V – n°2 | 2007, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2007, consulté le 21 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.1212

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Andrew Parkin

(Chinese University of Hong Kong, Chine)
Andrew Parkin read English Literature at Cambridge. He later obtained a doctorate in Drama at Bristol. As a professor and administrator, he has taught at the University of British Columbia and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His main interests, on which he has published many books and essays, are Irish literature, poetry and drama. Five books of his own poetry have appeared and he has given readings in Canada, Europe, Asia, Australasia, and the United States, where his most recent readings were at Yale, in Hong Kong, and Paris (Jussieu campus). He now lives in Paris and spends time also in Canada.

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