Through the Nan Da Gate: A China Journey

Description

63 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
$20.00
ISBN 0-920633-22-6

Author

Publisher

Year

1986

Contributor

Reviewed by Marilyn Chapman

Marily Chapman was a freelance writer living in Kitchener, Ontario.

Review

Ken Mitchell’s love affair with China has, to date, resulted in two dramas (“The Great Cultural Revolution” and “Gone the Burning Sun,” a one-man play on Norman Bethune) and this volume of poetry (Through the Nan Da Gate), which is based on the author’s experiences in China as a visiting professor of English at the University of Nanjing in 1981.

This is an attractive, classy little book. It has been designed with care and love, and I could not read it, and look at its twenty-four photographs and exquisite Chinese calligraphy, without becoming fascinated by this ancient civilization where “balance and paradox run together.”

I like looking at this book, I like the feel of it in my hands. I also like the way some of Mitchell’s images leap off the page and take on a visual or aural immediacy that stirs the imagination:

Against the American Embassy wall

grows a fungus of squatters’ shacks.

And:
Sa-ni girls run laughing
through the chaos.
Fireworks rearrange the night.

Mitchell is at his best when he explains deftly China’s endless fascination with the acquisition of face:

Face is everything
lost or won
in a single gesture
a thoughtful gift
a careless lie.

But for the most part, the poetry does not measure up to the book’s appearance. Mitchell has not found a voice compelling enough to unify his various experiences into a poetic whole. As his focus shifts from philosophy, to social customs, to history, to polities, to the landscape—and sometimes back again — the reader has no sense of a unifying personality. Oh, we get a lot of personal details, but somehow these don’t coalesce. Furthermore, the voice is often self-indulgent and lead-footed. When the author and his son get on their new bike, for instance, we read:

Then we’re off to Fuzimiao
the old market district
across town by the south gate.
We totter a bit at first,

Brian Bunch the bell clanging in blind panic.

Watch those potholes in the street!

Mitchell should have stuck to prose.

 

Citation

Mitchell, Ken, “Through the Nan Da Gate: A China Journey,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 13, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/35078.