STEEP TEA: Diana Bridge
I have made two visits to China so far, in 2010 and 2012. On both trips, I was chaperoning a group of students on their travel-study program. As a chaperone, I was supposed to be the responsible adult when what I wished to be was the irresponsible student. We saw a lot of temples, the most impressive, to me, being the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. I did not know how to write about what I saw, until I read ALOE AND OTHER POEMS by the New Zealand poet Diana Bridge. I bought the book after reading her lovely poems on trees in PN Review.
After reading ALOE, I wrote this response in my blog:
"Bridge is a poet of seeing. A scholar of Chinese culture and Indian art, she writes her finest and most ambitious poems by viewing and reflecting on ancient artifacts. Her poems are about Chinese vases, Japanese prints and Indian temples. Her descriptive powers are considerable, and her meditations never uninteresting. "Sequence, Sarnath" in the early part of the book is even stronger than the concluding sequence "Temple," perhaps because the earlier poem focuses on a specific temple instead of allegorizing explicitly a ritual of worship.
In the Sarnath sequence, Bridge first sees the statue of a seated Buddha by turning a corner, then measures the real distance to the base of the statue. In the second section, she contrasts her companion who likes to theorize and herself, who is "simply addicted to looking." Looking at Gupta sculpture, the third section considers the postmodernist dictum that "to look is never/ neutral" and then observes that the circle of stone closest to the head of the sculpture is completely free of ornamentation, "a plainness which stands in for silence." The final section is transformative. Changed herself, the speaker takes the sky for the stupa and grasps, without grasping, that all is changing:
You think you're getting closer to it, to what is real--the re-
arrangements of your mind like leaves adjusting to the light.
If some poems in this book follow a predictable order of description first, reflection next, at her best Bridge fuses observation and meaning into a whole of looking and thinking."
The way she measures the real distance to the base of the statue speaks of the respectful restraint in her poetry. In my poem "Temple Art" I turned that restraint into something quite different, the inability to consummate an overpowering desire. By comparing a scorpion tattoo on a muscled back to the stone lions guarding a temple, I tried to give voice to a strong but delicate sense of sexual frustration.
The poem is dedicated to Katherine H. who was my co-chaperone on the first China trip, and who taught me to relish China's many delights.