Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Chinataur Dialogue

I promised I'd start posting the dialogues that took place over chatrooms or by email in relation to the Velingrad stage of this project. It's taken me a long time to get going on this, but here's a first go.

This is the exchange between Kristin and myself between 28th January and 2nd February 09 over my poem 'The Chinataur'. More -- and hopefully more about someone else's work -- when I next get a mo.

Here's the poem:

The Chinataur

soon after this debacle found himself
in tunnels lined with crockery, shelf
after shelf of chipped and half-remembered sets
of saucers, fruit bowls, dinner plates:

a coffee cup that, once in childhood, held
to the now-occluded sun, revealed
a brittle geisha haloed by its base –
where had he drunk in that drowned face?

a soup bowl landscaped with grey cherry trees,
the bridge that wished to be Chinese
from which all cuckolds, lovers, cooing birds
were washed away like once-loved words;

the wineglass asterisked in gold as though
at dawn the stars refused to go;
the sea-deep jug on which some rip-tide hand
sketched ‘crayfish’, leaving ‘shore’ unpenned.

He wandered for the only hours between
ghost rows that should be smithereens,
groaned as his skeleton by sharp degrees
transmuted into cutlery;

smiled at the cellars’ sentimental clack,
his salt-and-peppered scrotal sac,
and wept as one obliged to be reborn
to feel his new-grown porcelain horns.

And here's the dialogue:


Night Market and The Chinataur (The China Minotaur?) are your last two untranslated poems. Is that correct? Vasil and I will take them. Do you have any preferances, like who takes what?


As for the remaining two, I have no preferences, and am ready to answer all queries, so do please select between yourselves and ask me anything (except that, as Meatloaf explains, you can't ask me that).


I'll take the Chinataur. I have lots of questions. Please, tell me what there is to know about it beforehand.
As Schwarzenegger says, I'll be back.


I'm supposed to be writing a review, but I have to build up my courage to say all those things about poetry you don't write down in case it alarms the livestock. So I'd much rather talk about the Chinataur...

Yes, it's a portmanteau term, 'china' and 'minotaur', and the image is derived from the old cliche 'like a bull in a china shop' or, as I just wrote by mistake, 'like a bill in a china shop', meaning a clumsy person creating a terrible mess. In this scenario, the labyrinth is lined with china, and we realise that it all has significance for the central character, ie it's symbolic of a smashed-up life, reassembled as a type of punishment as he undergoes a metamorphosis into the chinataur.


1. How should I imagine the "He" of the poem - a middle age man walking among the shelves of a chance shop, trying to gather his thoughts?
2. "this debacle" is he himself or something that happened to him? Perhaps both?
3. The bridge that wished to be Chinese (I really love this one) - is it painted by the grey cherry trees or is it a china figurine itself (I find this less likely)?
4. "sketched "crayfish", leaving "shore" unpenned" - is there some "Crayfish shore" you are refering to? I couldn't find any. Do we need a set phrase? A phrase that once you mention the first word, the second one comes to mind?
5. "His salt and peppered scrotal sac" - is it just the colour? Are you implying something I cannot get?
6. "To feel his new-grown porcelain horns" - what do these horns mean? He is turning into a porcelain figurine, a useless, dusty and fragile ornament for the rest of his life because he cannot find a place for himself the way he is in this one? Or somebody had cheated on him (a cornuto)? Or the connection to the Minotaur suggests some strong out-of-the-way masculinity which he finds regretfully improper/useless/misplaced/unfeasible as it is, but which is strong enough to make him feel reborn as a horned beast, albeit a pocelain one.

I hope I am not too much out of track.

The rhyme scheme is AABB, alternating five iambic feet with four.


1. He is already in the Labyrinth, but it isn't at all the place he/we imagined it to be.
2. Both, but the idea is something embarrassing/shambolic/terrible has just happened to him, which we don't learn anything more about -- in a sense this is his default mode, something like this has always just happened to this character.
3. The whole image is depicted on a plate, actually a soup bowl.
4. The idea is the image on the jar is at once a sketchy crayfish, and like a pictogram standing for 'crayfish' -- no equivalent pictogram/sketch is visible for 'shore' -- it's an elaborate way of saying 'all at sea,' lost.
5. He is turning physically into tableware -- instead of testicles he now has a salt cellar and a pepperpot, hence the clack -- there is also a suggestion of greying pubic hair -- we call it 'salt and pepper' when grey appears on a dark-haired person.
6. These are the same assumptions I came up with -- I suppose which is dominant depends on what you think the 'debacle' was.

Yes, that's the structure, with the proviso that it's nearly but not insistently full rhyme.

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