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.
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. Nakul.