A Brief Look at… ‘Dream Song #14’ by John Berryman

Most of my favourite poets are those that have a story behind them – not just technically skilful writers, but those that ‘have lived’. John Berryman certainly falls into this category with his backstory of suicide, loss, alcoholism, depression and more suicide.

His most famous work is the sequence of 385 three-stanza poems called ‘Dream Songs’. In #14 we meet the protagonist of many of these poems, Henry. Henry is semi-autobiographical but Berryman uses him, through his use of the first, second and third person, as a way of exploring the extreme parts of a life (and death) – the effect is a kind of poetic hall of mirrors which is simultaneously exhilarating and confusing.

Berryman’s choice of language in Dream Songs is curious too – flirting between archaic and slang – the combination of this and the identity-crisis of Henry makes the poems feel like we are witnessing a one-man stage routine.

The focus of #14 is boredom, and its key line comes between the first and second stanzas, which we can all remember our parents saying a version of: ‘Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no inner resources.’

But Berryman fully accepts this diagnosis – he is bored, really bored. How much is Henry, how much is himself, how much is he bored of Henry (presumably not much as he’s got most of his Dream Songs left to write)? Interestingly, he compares Henry to Achilles whose sulky and petulant demeanour in The Iliad reinforces the adolescent in us that we return too when faced with a period of boredom.

The language of the poem reinforces his boredom too – Berryman doesn’t consult his thesaurus for synonyms of ‘bored’ – he rams home the message by using the word a good seven times. Other words are repeated too, particularly at the end of lines which gives the poem a rhythm, albeit one that emphasises the monotony he is describing.

V0004452 Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim [Paracelsus]. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim [Paracelsus]. Etching by R. Gaywood after Sir P. P. Rubens after Q. Matsys. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

‘Thoughts, when they are visualised and brooded on for a long while, tend to become entities.’

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters’ is a film about the life of the great Japanese author, Yukio Mishima. Mishima was a superstar of Japanese literature, writing many novels, plays and short stories – he even dabbled in modelling and acting. However,  Mishima was a traditionalist and nationalist, who lamented and fought against the ‘westernisation’ of Japanese culture – he actively called for a return to traditional Japanese values and the samurai spirit.

His masterpiece is the Proustian tetralogy, ‘The Sea of Fertility’. On the very morning he finished writing the final volume, ‘The Decay of the Angel’, he went to an army barracks with members of his far right-wing militia and tried to start a coup. His speech to all the troops from the roof of the barracks was an embarrassment however; realising he was not going to get the support he needed, he barricaded himself inside the barracks and committed Seppuku – a samurai form of suicide by which the victim uses a special knife to cut into and across the abdomen.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters tackles his life by interweaving scenes from 3 of his books – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses (volume 2 of ‘The Sea of Fertility’) with biographical episodes from his own life. 

The film was never given a general release in Japan due to pressure from far-right groups who were unhappy with the film’s portrayal of Mishima, particularly as a homosexual. Most surprisingly about this film is who was behind it – it was produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola and its soundtrack was written by Philip Glass – yet it is an almost unheard of curiosity.

A Ballardian Treasure Hunt (III)

III

On the way back home from the camp/school, a scene from ‘Miracles of Life’ came back to me; I say ‘came back to me’ but in truth, it was such a harsh and defining moment in Ballard’s mythology that it was never far away from thought during my search.

After the war ended and the Japanese waited for the Americans to arrive in Shanghai, Ballard would leave the camp and walk back into Shanghai, especially to see what had become of his family home. One such time as he was walking along the railway track he came to a guard house where he witnessed the torture and (he expected) death of a Chinese man who had been tied to a chair by a Japanese soldier outside, despite the war being over. I won’t re-write the whole scene here but I had an urge to find where that true experience had happened.

I thought about the railway line I’d been along on my way out to the camp – that was the original Shanghai-Hangzhou line which the young Ballard had walked along in the days after the war.

So I retraced my steps and went back to the walled-off segment of track. At one end near the old airport terminal was an old building standing right by the track; it had a platform in front of it and I imagined the Chinese man seated and tied up, in despair and knowing his life was about to end, as a young white boy stared and slowly walked by, too scared to do anything. Could it have been right there? Who knows, but it was a reminder of another, brutal, terrifying world that Shanghai had once been, and in my own interpretation of events decades before and involving people I had never even met, this was the spot.

As I cycled back past Longhua temple and to Xujiahui an air-raid siren started whirring. It was only when I got back home that I found out it was the anniversary of the end of the war – when Japan finally surrendered and Ballard would soon leave war-torn Shanghai behind and move to an even more alien land – England – and the great writer he would become, inevitably affected by the first 15 years of his life in Shanghai. 

‘A man seems to pine for freedom even more in the Sun’s bright rays than he does on a wet day in winter or autumn.’

A Ballardian Treasure Hunt (II)

II

One September morning a few years ago I got up early and cycled away from my flat in search of JG Ballard’s childhood.

I was armed with a 1930s map of Shanghai as well as a modern version. I’d watched a BBC documentary following Ballard back to Shanghai in the early nineties the day before and had watched ‘Empire of The Sun’ again so it would be fresh in my mind.

The streets were fairly empty as I pedalled towards my first goal – Longhua Temple, which was just the other side of Xujiahui from where I lived. During Ballard’s internment Longhua Temple’s pagoda had been converted into a flak tower, each of its levels holding anti-aircraft guns. It was well signposted and simple to find as the site now also holds the Longhua Martyrs Memorial, commemorating the Chinese resistance of Japanese occupation. The pagoda itself had been moved and rebuilt a good kilometre from its original position which to me negated its significance. An entire book could be written on the subject of China’s historical memory, but suffice it to say at this moment – if something old or ancient is bulldozed and even forgotten about, all that needs to be done is for it to be rebuilt with modern means and materials and its historicity is continuous and undeniable: a bit like if Hadrian’s Wall was knocked down and rebuilt from scratch and people said it was nearly 2000 years old…

Nearby the pagoda, I cycled through bare alleyways – everything around had been demolished and lay waiting for developers. I saw a row of makeshift houses and huts offering scooter repairs and recycling (common services in old areas of Shanghai for some reason!) and made my way towards them over the canal. To my surprise they had been positioned on top of railway tracks which were visible between the huts; I followed the line as best as I could make out and came out onto a busy road. In front of me lay the former terminal building for Longhua Airport – its distinctive shape and tower long-since converted into shops.

Longhua Airport will be familiar to readers of Empire of the Sun as the airport where the young Ballard would watch from the camp the Japanese fighters taking off, and where he began to dream of flying himself. When I first went there, the airport runway was blocked off and being used as a place for coaches to park; in the years since I’ve seen it completely developed with office buildings and shopping centres being built over it. Today, names like Airport West Rd and the distinctive shape of the terminal are the only indication that an airport was ever there.

I continued following the partially submerged train tracks past the terminal building and along Longheng Rd. From here, the tracks were completely sealed off. I could see the tracks over the wall which were overgrown and rusted – it must have been a long time since they’d been used. At the end of the road the tracks went over a closed bridge across the busy Longwu Rd – on the opposite side someone had hung their washing across the unused train line. But I didn’t want to continue exploring the tracks – that was for later in the story – that was for after the war. I turned left onto Longwu Rd and went in the direction I thought the POW camp would be.

I don’t why I had gone out so unprepared – perhaps I wanted the feeling of discovering something for the first time – but in the case of the camp where Ballard had spent most of the war and that served as a backdrop to the events of ‘Empire of The Sun’, I knew it’s approximate location (past the airport) and that it had been returned to its original function as a school. In my mind I had the image of the school as it appeared in the BBC documentary 20 years earlier. The 1930s map I had of Shanghai didn’t go this far out so I had no idea how long I’d be cycling around before (if ever) I found it.
I cycled past Shanghai Botanical Garden which was one landmark on my route and which told me I was at least going in the right direction. A few turns, wrong turns, u-turns and then I saw it – the gates of Shanghai Middle School with its conifer-lined avenue leading to the familiar image of the old camp headquarters. In front, the flower bed that flew the Japanese flag was still there (minus the flag, of course).

Being a Sunday, the school was closed; not that the guard at the gate would have let me in anyway. I cycled along the perimeter and peered in where I could, imagining the young Ballard being on this spot more than 60 years ago…

A Ballardian Treasure Hunt (I)

I.
JG Ballard’s experience of living in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in WW2 is well known to many through the Steven Spielberg film ‘Empire of the Sun’. But to work out the true events of his childhood in Shanghai, and to separate the facts from the fiction is not easy because of the different versions – some of which overlap events with different narratives and some which tell different branches and ‘versions’ of the story.
It is not hard to get confused and even mythologise his Shanghai story because of the many versions:

‘Empire of the Sun’, the novel
‘Empire of the Sun’, the film
‘The Kindness of Women’, Ballard’s sequel to ‘Empire of the Sun’ whose first chapter is set in Shanghai at the end of the war.
‘Miracles of Life’, Balllard’s autobiography.
Various interviews with Ballard – particularly a BBC documentary following him returning to Shanghai for the first time since the war in the early nineteen-nineties.

My specific interest in retracing the young Ballard’s steps started several years ago when I found by chance that an old house I had walked by hundreds of times had been the Ballard family home.

It was just starting to be renovated and turned into a restaurant. Located on Panyu Rd near Xinhua Rd it is a typically out of place but perfectly fitting architecture for that part of Shanghai – a European-style house with its triangular awnings and faux-Tudor facade that was built in the former International Settlement in Shanghai’s then far-western city limit.

When looking at a pre-1949 map of Shanghai, it’s quite easy to see familiar layouts of roads that exist today. But one glaring difference soon becomes obvious – the names of the roads. After the Communists won the civil war and the country isolated itself, all the original, colonial names of Shanghai’s roads and avenues were replaced – either with the names of Chinese cities, provinces, mountains and ‘revolutionary’ names or, in the case of a small few, transliterated into Chinese characters. So the first thing you need to track down Ballard’s childhood home at 31A Amherst Avenue near Columbia Road is a pre-PRC map.

I remembered Ballard writing about the view from his bedroom window beyond the edge of the city where he could see burial mounds; today, this part of the city is considered central and is completely built up – the burial mounds long levelled and likely churned up for the foundations of tower blocks.

About 5 years ago the Ballard house was renovated again – this time completely tearing out the original fittings, window frames and even walls. Its grand garden where Ballard would have played has been cut in half with a large greenhouse-like structure which is used for weddings and other large parties.

The front of the building seems like it has always been the front, with its facade and driveway facing the modern Panyu Rd. But actually, for Ballard, the front door was on the the other side of the building – today accessible by a narrow tree-lined alley off Xinhua Rd; the original doorway is still there but completely filled in and with a wall built in front of it – it feels like a metaphor for the old Shanghai which is subtly preserved but not lived; neither destroyed but equally, not acknowledged. Incidentally, Xinhua Rd is the modern name for Amherst Avenue and means ‘New China Road’ – a common road name and phrase used across the country post-1949. If you wander west along Xinhua Rd you’ll see, like in other parts of the old International Settlement and former French Concession, plaques stuck to the stuccoed walls of remaining old villas explaining the architectural styles and construction dates and occasional famous former residents of the buildings. Immediately it strikes the Ballardian that there is no such plaque outside his house, even today after it being well-known by fans that one of the 20th century’s greatest English writers had lived there as a child.

If there was no collective memory of Ballard living there then, I wondered, what about all the other places he described? Did those places remember JG Ballard?

In the next two parts I will be writing about the treasure hunt I embarked on to find the places of Ballard’s youth for myself – from his home on Amherst Avenue to the prisoner of war camp and airport that fill most of the scenes of ‘Empire of The Sun’.