canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Dragon and the Pearl
by Henry Beissel
Buschek Books, 2002

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Poetry that attempts to introduce and interpret a culture always flirts with the prosaic. In order to guard against travelogue, the poet must employ careful word choice, use an essential brevity; he must concentrate on the poem first and anecdote second. Beissel’s preference is immediately apparent in The Dragon and the Pearl (the first poem is tellingly titled "Ancient Chinese Landscape.") Laden heavily with local colour, overlong explications hijack any momentum the poems could hope to build. "Chancheng: The Great Wall" is a good example:

Like a giant petrified snake the Wall of a Thousand Li twists and turns
across plains and mountains from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert.

It coils over mountain ridges, plunges down slopes and loops through
river valleys across half a continent to safeguard an empire of the sun.

So the deathless map poem continues for another 23 couplets! Therein place is made for vacuous statements like "…Greed and ambition are often the progenitors of culture…" and "…cruelty is seen to be the condition for breeding an elite to eclipse the common lot…" Excess detail is one thing; verbal excess another. Why the "years and years" of one verse and not simply "years?" Why the profusion of cliché (peasants build the "mightiest wall the world has ever seen?") Why the utter absence of music in verses like this one:

Wails, one whispered, are not worth dying for because they invite their own
destruction by inflaming those on both sides who covet what they harbour.

Whew. Anecdote must be microcosmal in order to gain significance to the reader; anecodotes as related by a skilled poet are always distillations of experience. This concentration of detail and pruning of words reduces anecdotes to their essence. It is this essence that becomes macrocosmal- that is, generalizable. Beissel’s windbag poetry is poetically destitute, comparable to prose lifted from a bad history textbook. The third verse of "The Terracotta Army" is but one rancid passage:

More than two millennia have passed and the terracotta army
hasn’t moved. Yet many of the soldiers have broken limbs,
others are headless, and all are hollow. So was the glory
Qin, the first Emperor, sought when he decreed the construction
of a necropolis underground, with the Yangtze and the Yellow
rivers flowing with mercury in a model of China to scale
where he could marshal his army, for he wouldn’t have death
diminish his might. But the people he lorded it over rebelled
when he died, ransacked his delusions and seized his warriors’
weapons. Speechless and without orders they offered no resistance.
Shards of clay horses and men, crushed or shattered, fill the pits
where pride signed and pomposity sealed the emperor’s defeat.

Beissel’s fat and overlong poetic favours extended description over powerful image, cliché over newly-minted metaphor. It is a poetic that clunks as it chugs, that essays compound sentences as units of sense:

If there is sanctity here, or grace, you feel it flow
from bamboo groves whose slender resilience
cradles the sky with tenderness and fairly dispenses
the light in slim measures green and golden to all.

Here abstract notions like ‘sanctity’, ‘grace’, ‘resilience’ and ‘tenderness’ aren’t tied down to nouns. Instead they float in a mystical ether that becomes vapid after just a few pages.

Perhaps the only redeeming quality of this book is the genuine love Beissel holds for China. He’s reverent of the country’s past and respectful of its present. Unfortunately, he’s unable to venerate the land with memorable verse. Even his translations are failures- embarrassing metrical efforts like "Spring Reflections" where ‘bloom’ rhymes with ‘gloom’, where ‘birds of spring’ ‘sing’, where a lover cannot tie a love knot in his lover’s heart. The forced rhymes in these poems are awful, sub-Dick-and-Jane stuff. From examination of The Dragon and The Pearl, it is clear that Beissel is better as a tourist than as poet.

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor at The Danforth Review.







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