Cold Mountain and the Sea
Puncher & Wattmann, $25
In books like Four lines is (2009) and grass hut work (2016), Barry Hill has often attempted to enter cultures very different from his own. Cold Mountain and the Sea is another in the series – in this case, the Tang dynasty of China.
Although the book is in three sections, it is built around a single sustained (albeit variable) image, that of the poet swimming most days for two summers at Springs, a beach between Point Lonsdale and Queenscliff in Victoria. A frequent, if not constant, presence in this almost religious but also highly physical ritual is that of Han Shan, the legendary late Tang poet known as Cold Mountain.
Han Shan, of course, is a convenient figure for such a strategy. Very little is known of his life beyond the account left incidentally in the approximately 300 poems attributed to him. The extreme hermeticism of this life has become an ultraromantic paradigm. Beat writers, such as Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, were drawn there.
Han Shan on a south-facing Australian beach is a different, but no less interesting question. For a mature Australian poet, Han Shan is something of a sardonic and inspiring mentor. The Chinese poet seems to recognize the Taoist and Buddhist elements in his companion’s thought while mocking them somewhat – as he is reputed to have done in his time with the originals.
Something of this can be felt at the end of Yyesterday the sea was so“Yet you came out / as proud as an old seal man / to be among his colony / the sea pouring over him / Mute,” chuckled Han Shan. future in happiness. / You know it.”
In many poems, Hill writes of himself in third person or (as above) second person, thus creating a beautiful ambiguity between the two characters. In others he uses the first person – as in Sadness, which embodies some, but certainly not all, of the book’s recurring themes. After first describing a fisherman on the pier, the poem ends with: “The squid pass from the ink to dry on the planks — / tragic calligraphy: the character of the Poem / a Word beside the Temple.” / Still water remains the sweetest reminder / of endings we meet. The mist was revered by Han Shan.
While all background poets end up distinguishing themselves in their own way, Jordie Albiston is already clearly one of the most distinctive in the country. Since his second book, Botany Bay Handoutshe does things that hardly anyone else does and has (almost always) done them successfully.