Ten Visits to the Union Canal and Environs
[freely translated from Visiting the Mountain Grove of General He in the Company of Instructor Zheng by Du Fu]
I — Lochrin Basin to Viewforth Bridge [notes]
I did not know the path to Lochrin Basin,
but now I recognise the old lift bridge.
The grass between canal and student halls
is fringed with reed beds, home to coot and swan.
I meet my friend who lives on Viewforth now,
debate with her the happiness of fish.
I don’t begrudge a bit of extra cycling
to find a pleasant, green and, peaceful spot.
II — Harrison Park, Spring [notes]
On the breezy path by Harrison,
pleasantly cool, the air beneath the trees.
The far-side branches low, touching the reeds,
where nesting water fowl protect their broods.
Fish paste from LiDL, saladed in rolls,
a can of Irn Bru, paradise enow.
But in my mind I’m back in Bainton’s cabin,
with fried egg butties in the Seventies.
III — Dalry Cemetery, Summer [notes]
Impatient balsam grows among the dead;
when did it leave its Himalayan home?
This strange pink flower grows in distant lands;
here trailing stems surround the tumbled stones.
I doubt if Banks or Fuchs cared much for it;
my namesake never built a balsam house.
After a hissing Scottish summer storm,
its once-pert hats hang down in sorrow.
IV — Reverie [notes]
Our bedroom window looked on Hampstead Heath,
at treetops verdant in the summer sun.
The Ponds you swam in, far too deep for me,
the vegetation, hiding toads and rats.
My poems fail to bring me fame or wealth,
can I mooch among these graves much longer?
I will sell my works and all my other shit,
and make my home a bench on Primrose Hill.
V — Winchburgh, Late Summer [notes]
Snaking in the distance, the slate-grey canal,
round Greendykes Bing, a man-made Uluru.
Still-greenish reeds, bent over by the breeze,
a foreground for arrays of golden bales.
You practise scales upon your bamboo flute,
while I lay out sashimi, pour the wine.
Go with the flow, don't go with 'should',
but sit, when fancy takes us, on the bank.
VI — Water of Leith Visitor Centre, Winter [notes]
Flurries of snow whip over the water's face,
beneath the viaduct the stream flows fast.
Hung over from last night, we brave the bench,
wishing we had on more and warmer clothes.
The old barista brings us steaming bowls,
and tells us, "on the house, to keep ye warm."
Peace and human kindness sit well together,
with views of hills and the voice of water.
VII — The Cities of the Dead [notes]
Butterflies frequent a cloud of bramble flowers;
aromatic sorrel, rumex acetosa, hugs the ground.
The latter's bitterness a piquant tang in soups,
the former's fruit helps relive Sunday pies.
Wrens and blackbirds sing their morning songs,
the ghouls and vampires hide among the graves.
Dalry, North Merchiston, Corstorphine Hill —
grey-green, scattered stones for miles on end.
VIII — Canalside Journey [notes]
I remember cycling back from Wester Hailes,
edging, nervous, over Slateford aqueduct.
Wine, going straight from bottle to my head,
I left behind my linen summer cap.
I yearn to steer a narrow boat once more,
working the locks with a cheerful fellow rover,
Recalling sunsets seen from lock-side inns,
the gypsy life still calls out to my soul.
IX — Looking Back to General He's Time [notes]
He lounged upon a couch piled high with books,
looked out upon his trees that brushed the clouds.
The general had no love for things of war;
his children all grew up to write or paint.
Each morning, breezes helped him sober up,
listening to poetry in the wee small hours.
And, after centuries, the green moss still —
the stones shine white beneath the waning moon.
X — Back at the Basin [notes]
Anxiety breaks into tranquil solitude;
the time comes when decisions must be made.
Leaving the cut, for underpass and home,
as white clouds start to dot the pale blue sky,
I wince at last night's raucous Tik Tok dancing —
what sober man admires the drunkard's songs?
I can't let storms or distances deter me,
but really should seek out my friend once more.
Dai Lowe, June 2020
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Du Fu or 杜甫 (712-770) was a Chinese poet and politician of the Tang dynasty. Along with his mentor, Li Bai (Li Po, ??, 701–762), he is frequently called the greatest of the Chinese poets. His greatest ambition was to serve his country as a successful civil servant, but he repeatedly failed the very rigorous Civil Service exams.
His life, like the whole country, was devastated by the An Lushan Rebellion of 755, and his last 15 years were a time of almost constant unrest.
His works cover a huge number of poems on all manner of topics and in a number of styles. He is noted for writing as much about the plight of the common people of China, and celebrating their everyday lives as he did about high ranking officials and grand mansions. In this respect his work can be compared to Robert Burns' celebration and embodiment of the Scottish nation.
His most common verse form is that known as lüshi, in which pairs of lines, all with the same number of characters form a neat rectangle and follow conventions of rhyme and content. Pairs of lines should 'rhyme' in some thematic way. As to sonic rhyme, I have not attempted to emulate this, but a connection of meaning or reference within each couplet is something I have tried to capture. The originals are very elliptical, which is either a pain in the fundament or has given me a lot of freedom.
From a 2016 complete works with 'scholarly' translations by Professor Stephen Owen and lots of notes, I have attempted to fashion these poems of my own in English. While keeping to the original sense and imagery, I have transposed the setting to my own environs and life, reducing slided river carp to fishpaste sarnies and wine to Irn Bru.
I can only offer sincere apologies to Master Du, from Dai Lowe, Edinburgh, 2020. [back]
I — Lochrin Basin
Lochrin is the terminus of the Union Canal, and Leamington Lift Bridge is the first crossing, then Viewforth is the road that goes over bridge 2.
Meeting his friend on the ‘5th Bridge’, Du refers to an old anecdote about discussing whether the fish in the water are happy and whether humans could possibly know it. [back]
II — Harrison Park
A little further along the cut, the canal runs along one edge of Harrison Park.
Du Fu picnics on thinly sliced carp and wine and waxes nostalgic. 'Paradise enow' (enough) references The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in Fitzgerald's famous translation.
Bainton was a 70 foot narrow boat on which I and fellow students took holidays. [back]
III — Dalry Cemetery
Himalayan Balsam is an invasive species that infests Warriston Cemetery;
Dalry actually has Japanese Knotweed, but I plead artistic license.
Du Fu speaks of ‘Rong Prince’ a flower brought from afar, and speculates as to whether horticulturalists of his era knew of it or would like it.
My namesake in the graveyard (David Lowe, 1829-1901) was a horticultural builder. [back]
IV — Reverie
Du’s undergrowth hides snakes and things we have far fewer of here or on Hampstead Heath, where I used to live with my belovéd.
His feelings of stagnation and failure lead to thoughts of heading back East. [back]
V — Winchburgh
The Union Canal follows contours to the West, passing Winchburgh and Broxburn, where the old paraffin shale extraction works left huge, red slagheaps the Scots call ‘bings’.
I painted some of these in 2014.
Du links the scales of He's armour used as guitar plectra and the fish badge he trades for beer; he advises against resisting impulses too often and missing out on simple pleasures. [back]
VI — Water of Leith
The Canal and the railway cross Slateford Aqueduct and Viaduct, high above the river, by the visitor centre about 3km SW of the basin, where there are (just) views of the hills at Craiglockhart, where PTSD was invented.
Du is served river fish by an old rustic who refuses payment, as he and his drinking companion sober up, reluctant to lie on snowy ground. [back]
VII — Cities of the Dead
Du waxes lyrical on the flora (jujube tree, artemisia) of the grove, and the wild cranes and hill spirits that visit at morning and evening, contrasting with the stony bleakness of surrounding areas. [back]
VIII — Canalside Journey
A sign says to dismount bikes to cross; I don’t need telling; other nutters cycle at speed, even past people pushing their steeds on the narrow path.
Du gallops a horse past Dingkun Pond, drunk, and takes a drink of water using a lotus leaf as a cup. He leaves his ‘jieli’ turban behind, as I have left so many hats before.
He wishes for a ‘fellow from Ying’ to punt his boat or a lad of Wu. He longs to be back among the rivers and lakes. [back]
IX — Looking Back
At this point, doing a pretty literal rendering, I noticed the tendency of Du’s final couplets to appear disconnected, but in reality to shed new light on what went before.
The picture is of the poet, as I can find no image of the Tang Dynasty General He. [back]
X — Back at the Basin
Du closes the circle, but with a resolve to make a move of some sort.
His life had much uncertainty and disappointment, not least because he repeatedly failed the Civil Service exams. [back]