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Research in Jiangsu Province -- Vikram Seth

Guest poem sent in by Nakul Krishna
(Poem #1266) Research in Jiangsu Province
 From off this plastic strip the noise
 Of buzzing stops. A human voice
 Asks its set questions, pauses, then
 Waits for responses to begin.

 The questions bore in. How much is
 The cost and area of this house?
 I see you have two sons. Would you
 Prefer to have had a daughter too?

 And do your private plots provide
 Substantial income on the side?
 Do you rear silkworms? goslings? pigs?
 How much per year is spent on eggs?

 How much on oil and soya sauce
 And salt and vinegar? asks the voice.
 The answering phantom states a figure
 Then reconsiders, makes it bigger.

 Children and contraceptives, soap
 And schooling rise like dreams of hope
 To rise with radios and bikes
 Round pensions, tea and alarm clocks.

 'Forty square metres. Sixteen cents.
 To save us from the elements.
 Miscarriage. Pickle with rice gruel
 Three times a week. Rice-straw for fuel.

 Chicken and fruit trees.' In Jiangning
 Green spurts the psychedelic Spring
 And blossoming plum confounds the smell
 Of pig-shit plastered on the soil.

 Life and production, drought and flood
 Merge with the fertile river mud
 And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest
 And mandarin ducks return to nest.

 The Yangtse flows on like brown tape.
 The research forms take final shape,
 Each figure like a laden boat
 With white or madder sails afloat.

 Float on, float on, O facts and facts,
 Distilled compendia of past acts,
 Reveal the grand design to me,
 Flotilla of my PhD.

 On the obnoxious dreary pillage
 Of privacy, imperfect knowledge
 Will sprout like lodged rice, rank with grain
 In whose submerging ears obtain

 Statistics where none grew before
 And housing estimates galore,
 Diet and wealth and income data,
 Age structures and a price inflator.

 Birth and fertility projections,
 Plans based on need and predilections,
 O needful numbers, and half true,
 Without you what would nations do?

 I switch the tape off. This to me
 Encapsulates reality,
 Although the beckoning plum-trees splayed
 Against the sky, the fragrant shade,

 Have something tellable, it seems,
 Of evanescence, light and dreams,
 And the cloud-busy, far-blue air
 Forms a continuous questionnaire

 And Mrs Gao herself whose voice
 Is captive on my tape may choose
 Some time when tapes and forms are far
 To talk about the Japanese War,

 May mention how her family fled,
 And starved, and bartered her for bread,
 And stroke her grandson's head and say
 Such things could not occur today.
-- Vikram Seth
Note: 'Research in Jiangsu Province' appears in Seth's 1985 poetry
collection -- 'The Humble Administrator's Garden' for which he won the
Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Richly deserved, I think.

Written while researching China's economic demography for his PhD, Vikram
Seth's 'Research in Jiangsu Province' is typical of his poetry --
atmospheric and gently evocative, with an ear for quiet detail, placing the
narrator away from the centre of his narrative, passing from an almost
brutal banality to sheer music, epiphanies strewn along the way -- in his
own words, 'encapsulat[ing] reality' with a chilling conclusion that brings
it all together.


35 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Rhyne Susan D said...

Thank you for excellent and beautifully poignant words about sorrow, birth and hope. I would love to see this beautiful place.

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