Monthly Archives: October 2015

Ghosts of Stanley, Part 4: Notes from Visits to the Camp Cemetery on January 18 and 21, 2009

January 18th

I got off the bus and started to make my way through the outlying part of Stanley Village towards the cemetery.

This Supermarket was the Kempeitai Headquarters during the Occupation

I walked passed the old Post Office, a building that had also seen the years of the war:

That was it. I knew that part of me was, in some mysterious way, back in the 1940s.

As soon as I climbed the steps to the cemetery, I felt that I had never been away, even though it was more than twelve years since I had first returned to Hong Kong. It had the familiarity of a landscape that had haunted me, or that I had haunted, for the whole of my life.

After a quick preliminary survey of the whole terrain, I sat down on a bench close to the memorial to those who died in the accidental January 1945 bombing of Bungalow ‘C’. The feelings welled up strongly, but I didn’t know what they were and couldn’t express them. After a time, I walked to the other place in which I felt most intensely the power of the Camp, the slope on which is to be found the memorial to the victims of the Christmas Day massacre in the emergency hospital at St. Stephen’s School (which itself became part of the internment camp):

There were a number of visitors to the Cemetery, but none who seemed particularly interested in the tombs and memorials. At some point word seems to have spread amongst young Chinese couples that this was a good place for the woman to pose for photos with a picturesque background. It seemed somehow right to me that today this area should, for most people, mean nothing more than a place for pleasure. In a strange way I found it a proper tribute to the suffering of the internees: I wished I could reach back into the 1940s and say to them,

‘One day people will come here and do the absolutely ordinary. They will enjoy themselves, get upset, argue, chat, smoke…do the countless petty and pointless things that make up a life in peace time. Nothing can take away your suffering, but this will be one of the things that follows it.’

Ordinary enjoyments in a society in which those people down there could be Chinese, English, Israeli, Nigerian….

South China Sea from Stanley Cemetery, January 18, 2009

A society in which, whatever prejudices may still sadly exist (for an update see no-one’s life chances are predetermined by their nationality or their skin colour in the way they were during the British period or during the intensified racism of the Japanese occupation.

But there was more to it than that, and part of my presence amongst those graves related to that ‘more’.

Years ago I was struck  by a passage from Laurence Van Der Post’s Night of the New Moon. Van der Post was a British officer in the Pacific War, and he and his men were captured by the Japanese and imprisoned on Java. As the fourth year of the war drew on, and it became clear that an Allied victory was inevitable, all over Asia men and women oscillated between hope and fear, longing for liberation but knowing that cold blooded butchery was equally likely – my parents were told by their guards that all internees would be shot when the first American soldiers landed on one of the main Japanese islands, while others expected a massacre when Allied troops tried to retake Hong Kong itself.

In different ways the prisoners prepared for the worst. Laurens Van der Post records that the POWs in his Camp hid stones and sticks, so that if they saw the final massacre was imminent, they could fight back – not that they had any illusion that they could defeat soldiers armed with rifles, bayonets and machine guns, but in the hope that someone would be able to slip out in the confusion and tell their story to the world. I was greatly moved that it should have been so important to these starving, suffering men that others should hear the story of their afflictions, their achievements and the manner of their dying.

So standing in the Stanley Cemetery I felt that the ordinary enjoyment I could see around and beneath me needed to be supplemented by acts of remembering. Van der Post had taught me this – it was important enough for dying men to rouse themselves to one last effort in the hope that, against enormous odds, their story would be heard amongst the living. I understood more deeply the importance of the work of historians like Geoffrey Emerson and Bernice Archer, both of whom have written about Stanley in a way that combines scholarly accuracy and thoroughness with an unmistakable empathy for the people whose lives they were seeking to reconstruct.

And on that day, in that place I, in a different way, had also come to remember.

I have no belief in life after death. To remember and to honour the dead does not imply that they are in any way ‘still with us’. But, as I stood there on that bright morning early in 2009, I was still haunted by the Ghosts of Stanley.

January 21

I stood in the Cemetery at dusk waiting for the ghosts to speak.

I knew that these ghosts were my own creation, yet, for some reason, they could not have been brought into being anywhere else but here, in this cemetery and in this light. I had brought the raw materials with me, but it needed the power of what had once been Stanley Camp itself to give them final form.

The message of the Ghosts, I believed, would be about suffering and its role in life, but it would not necessarily be a pessimistic one. There seemed to be something that drew the freed internees back to their wartime experiences. I had come to Stanley literally, but I’m convinced that, metaphorically, my parents came here often

Two days earlier I had spent most of the day in Stanley, under the expert guidance of Geoffrey Emerson. I had been shown round the prison buildings that had once made up part of the Camp, and after lunch we’d gone along the Stanley ‘trail’ set up by St. Stephen’s College, whose buildings had included the actual bungalow where my parents had been interned. One sign of the way in which the Camp had shaped my parents’ post-war lives is that when, in the middle of the 1950s, my father had been in a position to choose the kind of house he wished to buy, he had settled on (and designed) a bungalow that must inevitably have reminded him of the site of his internment. This recreating of the scenes of wartime imprisonment is also present  in the novels of J. G. Ballard, the best known former civilian internee, who was held as a boy in Lunghua Camp, close to Shanghai.


Image: Wikipedia

Even before Ballard wrote about the Camp openly in Empire of the Sun (1984) and to some extent in the sequel about ‘Jim’s’ post-war life The Kindness of Women (1991), almost all his novels had  recreated indirectly his time in Lunghua. At the end of an account of a return to the scenes of his captivity, he stated unambiguously that for him internment had been the best time of his life.

The first thing that happened in the Cemetery was simple: the emotions that had built up but not been expressed during my day in Stanley with Geoffrey Emerson welled up irresistibly,  and I cried. Perhaps surprisingly, it had been helpful that I’d agreed to be interviewed during that day’s visit by journalist Annemarie Evans for the programme Hong Kong Heritage. Annemarie was an amiable and skilled interrogator, and her questions had helped me focus clearly on the past, and answering them, while trying to take in what I was seeing, and catching as much as I could of what Geoffrey was saying, had helped me stay active and engaged at all times. As for the emotions the Camp brought up, I knew I could store them somewhere and find them later.

The time to allow them to emerge was now, back in the Cemetery, at dusk.  But I knew that the emotions were not – as so many of us believed in the sixties and seventies – the most important part of what was happening. It was essential not to deny them, as that would have blocked everything, but they were only the key that unlocked a door, and it was the view of the room I wanted.

I stopped crying and a thought – if this is the right word for something so drenched in emotion – replaced the tears:  it was right, absolutely right, to be standing here in Stanley Cemetery, at dusk. The only thing that wasn’t right was that I hadn’t walked from England to get there! Please don’t misunderstand me: next time I visit, I’ll fly to Hong Kong, check into a comfortable hotel, and arrive at Stanley on the most convenient bus from Central. Feelings are not necessarily guides to action and they don’t always provide accurate knowledge of the world. This one was there to remind me that, for me, coming back to Stanley was the most important thing in life. It was a kind of italicizing or underlining of the whole experience.

It made me realize again how superficial is the idea (held by some therapists) that we children of the camps should seek to leave behind our obsessive concern with the war, to ‘let go’ of the limiting patterns of the past, and make our own lives free of the imperatives of others. Here in Stanley – if anywhere – I was free, and nothing in my ‘own’ life offered me such wide horizons as following these Ghosts wherever they wanted to take me.

I waited for the Ghosts to tell me more. I could sense them in the air all around me, flitting around the darkening graves, unafraid of the murderous blandness of the electric lights from the new apartment block at the back of the Cemetery

So far, these Ghosts had given me tears, and told me – with that strange proviso – I was right to have come back to Stanley. They had two more messages.

The first was that everything I thought I knew about life was wrong. In particular, all my ideas about the transmission to me of my parents’ experience of Camp were beside the point. I simply did not understand how human beings worked. I was right not to be satisfied with all the accounts I’d read of this transmission, but none of my own ideas had got very far in helping me puzzle out the truth. I would have to investigate much more deeply than in the past 12 years the ways in which human beings influence each other.  I was directed to examine particularly my earliest post-womb experience, the three or four months I’d spent in Hong Kong before my parents returned to England.

And the final, precious, message was that it was impossible to tell me more. As I write this now, it seems obvious: how can a man like me hope to be able to comprehend the legacy of people who like John Fraser, for example, had suffered torture and death unwaveringly rather than reveal the names of their fellows in the Camp resistance?

Memorial to Defence Secretary John Fraser, Executed for Resistance Activity, October 29, 1943

Or the missionaries – both Catholic and Protestant – who had turned down the chance of a safe passage home in order to minister to the internees others were leaving behind?

Image: Amazon

Protestant missionaries Beth and Ancil Nance and their family chose to remain in Stanley, as did Catholics Bernard Meyer, Donald Hessler and – until forced home by illness – Charles Murphy

In death, as Mallarmé said, people become what they actually are; in life such people had been beyond me, but as Ghosts they had become something that I couldn’t even imagine. Unlike Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in today’s epigraph, I was not ready.

It was a wonderful message. And I felt and still feel liberated by the clear sense of my own unworthiness. This is not a religious sense, a question of moral judgement, but a simple statement of fact: to learn certain lessons you have to be a certain kind of person.

I would be told no more that evening. The judgements of Ghosts are without appeal, but they are not final because no person is ever a finished creation. It had been twelve years since I first came to that Cemetery, and all that I had done in those years had won me no more than a few tears and the answers to three questions. It was enough, more than enough.

But some day I would return. I knew that I ‘d have other chances, and there was nothing for me now but to prepare to take them.



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The Ghosts of Stanley: Part 3 – First Visit to The Camp (1996)

In 1996, as part of this search, I visited what had once been Stanley Camp for the first time. I was prompted by the imminence of ‘handover’ to China (1997) and the fear (totally ungrounded as it turned out) that getting to Hong Kong might not be so easy in the future.

I arrived at my hotel in Causeway Bay at about 10 in the morning and, after a quick bath, I took a bus into Central and then one on to Stanley. The only part of the former internment camp that is open to the public without special permission is the Military Cemetery, so I climbed the hill behind Stanley Village and walked up the steps, past the memorial cross, to the graves.

I was overwhelmed from the moment of my coming to this place. I wanted to see everything at once. I dashed around, looking for things I knew from photos and guidebooks were there, and gradually built up a mental picture of the cemetery and its contents.

Then I stopped, slowed down, and looked out at the South China Sea.

That beauty was a comfort to the internees, who used the cemetery as a place of meeting and relaxation as well as for the burial of their dead. It was, I thought, a beauty that held the horror of the Hong Kong war and in some mysterious way brought a peace that didn’t deny or in any way protect against those horrors. In fact, never had I been more aware of the suffering of my parents and the other internees than during those moments.

As I looked out at the sea and the hills I realised that, even if my childhood had been in every other way perfect, merely the reflex of my parents experiences in this camp would have been enough to destroy me. This was an immensely comforting insight, not because it excused my failures or licensed any slackening of effort to make what I could of my life, but because it marked the acceptance of what I’d always known but had never before been able to accept as fully and with as sharp a focus.

But I needed to explore the rest of the cemetery, the tombs of nineteenth century soldiers, their wives, and, as often as not, their children, who’d succumbed to the disease-ridden tropical squalor of early Hong Kong, and the granite stones erected by the internees when the cemetery was re-opened during the war.

Gradually two particular places emerged as those that evoked most strongly my feelings about the Camp. The first was a slope with a view of the sea close to a memorial stone for the victims of the St. Stephen’s Massacre. The  main building at St. Stephen’s School (which was to become part of the Camp) had been turned into an improvised hospital. On Christmas Day 1941 Japanese soldiers entered, and what followed is described, in the sober pages of The Journal of Contemporary History, as a ‘bloody rampage of murder and rape’. My father, on one of those rare occasions, when he abandoned his attempts not to talk to me about the war, told me the story of Doctor Black who, attempting to defend the nurses and patients, and for this was brutally bayoneted. What followed was unimaginably horrible, and some of the victims are commemorated on these stones:

The second was the area around the three stones marking the graves of the residents of St. Stephen’s Bungalow ‘C’, who were accidentally killed by an American bomb on January 16, 1945:

After my 1996 visit I wrote a sequence of poems about Stanley Camp, which included a piece inspired by the part of the graveyard close to the St. Stephen’s memorial:

I stood in Stanley

            I stood in Stanley

            Coming on for Christmas 1996.

            I looked from the graveyard to the sea;

            And I thought:

            Did my parents walk here

            Waiting for the terrible Christmas of 1944

            Believing it would  be their last?

            Or did they know that half a century later

            Their son would come to this place

            And look across the South China Sea,

            With such strange eyes?

            I turn, expecting to see them there.

This sense of my parents’ presence, and the presence of all the internees, the living and the dead, was still with me. But in fact, it would not, I’m sure, have crossed my parents’ minds that – even if they did live – their son would feel impelled to come to the place where they had suffered so much and would find there the most powerful of all his experiences. Nevertheless, I felt that I had been summoned to this place and that it was full of clues, full of messages, full of the most intimate and potent hauntings.

In the last post on this subject I mentioned Dina Wardi’s book on the children of the Holocaust. What I experienced on that first visit to Stanley Military Cemetery came back to me later when I read that book.

As I was reading Wardi’s book I thought it was excellent, so I was shocked when, almost without warning, she morphed from a sophisticated, sensitive and perceptive analyst of other people’s psyches to a rather  superficial ‘therapist’. It became clear as the book drew to a close, that the whole point of her efforts in unravelling the patterns of transgenerational transmission – whereby for many of the children of the survivors their parents experiences of the Nazi camps seemed to become their own –  was to enable those children to ‘move on’, to abandon their role of ‘memorial candle’ for the murdered dead and ‘live their own lives’, free of the burden of the past. I was amazed at the assumption – that’s all it was an assumption without supporting argument – that this was obviously what anyone would want to and should do. Ancelin Schutzenberger falls into the same trap, and I think the problem is the limited view of human nature embodied in the traditions of psychotherapy.

In reality, we have no ‘own’ life, free of the concerns and imperatives of others, to get on with.  The past is indeed a burden – as Marx famously said Ein Alp – an incubus and an intolerably heavy weight;[1] but it’s also what makes us who we are and who we might be. It’s like gravity – it holds us down, but without it we’d disappear from the planet.  Standing in Stanley Camp for the first time I felt happier, freer, more fulfilled – and closer to grasping the essence of my life – than at any other time.

I eventually learnt that I didn’t go to Stanley merely to free myself of suffering, to live my life more effectively through escaping debilitating patterns of experiencing and behaving – that’s what I thought during that first visit in 1996, and, of course, it was true to a certain extent. Like everyone else I sometimes suffer and sometimes behave in ways that harm myself and others, and going to the Camp did indeed help me to alleviate such pathologies a little. But there is more to it, much more, than that, a ‘more’ that I could not understand while I was in thrall to the agenda of Western ‘therapy’, with its certainty that it knows how human beings should be and how they should live their lives.

I revisited the Cemetery on my final day at Hong Kong. It was dusk. I went first to the graves of those who died in the January 1945 bombing:

Then I went to the place by the Memorial to the victims of the St. Stephen’s Christmas Massacre and looked down to Stanley Bay.

As I stood staring at the disappearing light on the South China Sea I felt, rightly or wrongly, that I was close to understanding all I would ever understand about human life.

The ghosts were in the air. They were speaking, and I hoped that one day I would understand what they were trying to tell me.


[1] For a discussion of this pun, see Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, 108.

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William Empson in Kunming and Some Notes on ‘Aubade’

I’m republishing a post from a now defunct blog on the poet and critic William Empson. My excuse for this is discovering that on March 4, 1947 my parents and the Empson family departed from Southampton on the same ship (the Strathmore).  My parents were returning to Hong Kong after a much delayed ‘long leave’ for my father – he hoped to get back home with his new wife in October 1945 but the liberated Colony’s need for bread kept him in Hong Kong until August 1946. William Empson, Hester his wife, and their sons William (Jr.) and Jacobus were going all the way to Shanghai – Empson was resuming a career in Chinese universities that had been interrupted by the war and that was to lead to his being one of the few Europeans in China in the early years of communist rule after 1949. 

I wrote this post a few years ago after I’d followed in Empson’s footsteps by taking a teaching job in Kunming. Discovering the Strathmore’s manifest on (my father’s name stands directly before the Empsons) has inspired me to republish it.

William Empson was a fine although usually obscure poet, but he’s probably best known for his literary criticism, particularly the extremely influential Seven Types of Ambiguity.  One of the nice things about being offered a job in Kunming (Yunnan Province, south west China) in 2007 was being able to think of myself as following in his giant footsteps.

Early in 1937 Empson was offered a three year post teaching at the Beijing National University. While he was making the final preparations for his journey, he heard news of the outbreak of war between China and Japan. He decided to go anyway. He took the Trans-Siberian to Beijing, linking up there with his old Cambridge supervisor, the distinguished critic I. A. Richards, and his wife Dorothea.
On 27th November 2007 I was guided around some sights associated with Empson’s stay in Kunming by four graduate students.Empson’s University was forced to flee Beijing because of the Japanese desire to crush any independent intellectual life in China. In August 1938 it ended up in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, where it stayed until 1946.
On its way down the National University amalgamated with the other great Beijing University, Qing Hua (where Richards had been visiting professor) and with Nankai University to form The National South West Associated University (Lianda).
The main campus of Lianda is now used by Yunnan Normal University (a ‘Normal’ University trains teachers.)

The Normal University has preserved this hut as a memorial to the students and teachers of Lianda…

…who, in conditions that British people of my generation can hardly begin to imagine, carried on the intellectual life in China as an act of deliberate defiance of the Japanese invasion and all it stood for:

These people taught and studied with very few books, harassed by Japanese bombs and with almost nothing in the way of material comfort. Empson voluntarily shared their deprivations, teaching English poetry almost entirely from memory, sleeping on first arrival in Kunming on a blackboard stretched between trestles, and voluntarily accepting a big cut in his salary in line with the sacrifices of his Chinese colleagues.

Empson quickly abandoned his blackboard for lodgings at 78, Bei Men Road. Although he was a well-known hater of Christianity, by a nice irony he lodged in buildings owned by a missionary society. Number 78 seems to have been demolished but the similar Number 68 remains.This restaurant’s the part of Number 68 that’s in the best repair.

My guides managed to get me permission to go up to the balcony:

No doubt Empson often stood on a similar balcony looking down on Bei Men Street.

We found a quiet spot near the ghost of Number 78, and I gave a short talk on Empson and Richards in China, followed by a reading of his poem ‘Aubade’. I’ve read many works of literature at places associated with the writer, but this was one of the two occasions I’ve found most moving: the other was reading ‘The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower’ at the grave of Empson’s friend Dylan Thomas.

‘Aubade’ is a poem about Empson’s early-1930s affair with a Japanese girl called Haru. (Empson taught in Japan between 1931 and 1934.) It touches on the difficulties of cross-cultural relationships (‘the language problem, but you have to try’) and the problems posed by the coming war in Asia, which already seemed unavoidable.

Empson remains – and will almost certainly always remain – the greatest ever foreign teacher of English in China. Those of us who have done the job in unimaginably easier conditions should look back with admiration and sometimes astonishment at this great pioneer.

Note. Those who want the best account of his time in Kunming should consult John Haffenden’s excellent biography, William Empson, Volume 1: Among the Mandarins.
Some notes on ‘Aubade’

This is probably Empson’s best poem – it’s not as difficult as some of his earlier work but is full of his famous ‘ambiguity’. It was written in Tokyo in about 1933, published in a journal in 1937 and then printed in the slightly shorter version given here in his second book of verse The Gathering Storm (1940).

My notes offer some interpretations that are controversial – critics disagree as to many details.

The general sense is clear: Empson and his Japanese lover are woken by an earthquake, and she says she must go back to the house where she is employed as a nanny, as the child might also have been woken up. This raises for Empson the issue as to whether or not his relationship can survive: the earthquake becomes a symbol of the coming war between Britain and Japan, a war that would make his marriage to a Japanese citizen difficult or even dangerous..

I’ll give the complete poem and then the text accompanied by my notes in brackets.


Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

And far too large for my feet to step by.
I hoped that various buildings were brought low.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

It seemed quite safe till she got up and dressed.
The guarded tourist makes the guide the test.
Then I said The Garden? Laughing she said No.
Taxi for her and for me healthy rest.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

The language problem but you have to try.
Some solid ground for lying could she show?
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

None of these deaths were her point at all.
The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know.
I tried saying Half an Hour to pay this call.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.
Till you have seen what a threat holds below,
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me again about Europe and her pains,
Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains.
Glut me with floods where only the swine can row
Who cuts his throat and let him count his gains.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

A bedshift flight to a Far Eastern sky.
Only the same war on a stronger toe.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me more quickly what I lost by this,
Or tell me with less drama what they miss
Who call no die a god for a good throw,
Who say  after two aliens had one kiss
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

But as to risings, I can tell you why.
It is on contradiction that they grow.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
Up was the heartening and the strong reply.
The heart of standing is we cannot fly.

Aubade    {= dawn song. In this genre the poet laments the fact that the coming of dawn forces him and his lover to end their night of passion. The most famous example in English is in ‘Romeo and Juliet’.}

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake. {We = Empson and his lover, a young Japanese woman who worked as a nanny for the German Ambassador in Tokyo. She should have been looking after his child, but had left the house to spend the night with Empson. Behind this line is a hidden joke: lovers in the past are meant to have asked each other, ‘Did the earth move for you, darling’ – in other words, ‘Was sex wonderful?’ The phrase became a half-joking cliché, but in this poem sex is followed by a literal earthquake}
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake. {Symbolically we could say that the first quake was the Japanese attack on Manchuria, the ‘bigger quake’ that Empson fears is coming is all-out war in the Far East.}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.  {The first time we meet this refrain it has a simple and obvious meaning: as there’s an earthquake it seems best to get out of the house.}

And far too large for my feet to step by. {The quake seems to large for him to avoid the dangers it creates.}
I hoped that various buildings were brought low. {He hopes that what is bad about the old order will have been destroyed by the quake – perhaps he means specifically the headquarters of Japanese militarism.}
The heart of standing is you cannot fly. {1) This is a sexual pun: it’s hard to move fast when you have an erection! 2) It also means: maybe we should stand our ground and not try to flee the quake}

It seemed quite safe till she got up and dressed.
The guarded tourist makes the guide the test. {The cautious tourist notices what the guide does in a new situation. Here the guide is Haru, who is much more familiar with earthquakes than Empson.)
Then I said The Garden? Laughing she said No. {Empson believes that the Japanese advice is to go into the garden when there’s a quake – Haru says it isn’t. I’ve been told of an occasion on which Empson made fun of the idea that The Garden was a nightclub – but then why the capitals? Perhaps because it’s a formal Japanese garden?}
Taxi for her and for me healthy rest.{Haru says no – she’ll go back to the Ambassador’s and he should go back to bed.}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go. (Haru thinks it’s best she should leave.)

The language problem but you have to try. {Communication between people from different cultures and who speak different languages is difficult, but you have to try to overcome these difficulties – in other words, he doesn’t want her to go and he’ll confront what he suspects is the real issue: that she wants to leave his bed.}
Some solid ground for lying could she show?  {1) can she show him a safe place to lie down to get his ‘healthy rest’, given that the after-shocks of the earthquake will soon be shaking the ground? 2) what lie is she going to tell when she gets back if the Ambassador has discovered she’s missing? 3) Empson suspects she is lying to him – so why? 4) ‘can you show me  a safe place for us to have sex’ – Haffenden’s preferred interpretation.}

The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

{She should stay.}

None of these deaths were her point at all. {People regularly died in Japanese earthquakes, but Haru wasn’t worried about that possibility.}
The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know. {She’s worried that the child would also have been woken by the quake and when she didn’t come in response to his tears he would know she had left the house and she’d get into trouble – this is Empson’s own explanation, but some online sources wrongly claim ‘he’ is her husband or father.}
I tried saying Half an Hour to pay this call. {He asks her to come back in half an hour – or maybe to have sex with him quickly.}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go. {But she goes.}

I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.
Till you have seen what a threat holds below,
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

{Three difficult lines: John Haffenden in his fine edition of Empson’s poems points out that the primary meaning of ‘threat holds below’ is ‘gap created by the earthquake’ (p.321), so the second line is something like ‘until you have assessed  the continuing threat from the earthquake’, but he acknowledges the possibility of sexual meanings too: ‘I slept without dreams and wish I could remain unconscious until you understand the nature of my sexuality which you now feel threatens you’

I think it might also mean ‘until you see if the future is really going to be as bad as you think’ – and this might be the immediate future, as Empson’s house is on a cliff the Ambassador’s residence is presumably ‘below’ his, so the threat is of discovery and punishment for her right away, or it might mean the general future of Japan.

So ‘below’ might mean: 1) the future which is now hidden; 2) Empson’s genitals 3) the unconscious mind 4) the part of the city below the cliff ; 5) the gap created by the quake).}

Tell me again about Europe and her pains, {He now thinks back to Europe and why he left it.}
Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains. {Everyone there suffers some time or another.}
Glut me with floods where only the swine can row {Tell me all about the Depression, in which only those with the worst characters are prospering.}
Who cuts his throat and let him count his gains. {‘The swine’ lose out in real terms even if they make money – they kill themselves spiritually in order to make money.}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go. {It seemed best to leave Europe.}

A bedshift flight to a Far Eastern sky. {So he came to Asia – a new way of life and new lovers.}
Only the same war on a stronger toe. {But found the war he knew was coming in Europe was already present there – the Japanese attack on Manchuria began in 1931 – and ‘stronger’ because fighting had actually started.}
The heart of standing is you cannot fly. {So it’s a waste of time trying to flee war – you might as well stay where you are.}

Tell me more quickly what I lost by this, {What did I lose by leaving Europe?}
Or tell me with less drama what they miss {‘more quickly…with less drama’ – than in the previous rather rhetorical stanza.)
Who call no die a god for a good throw, {Die = dice; people who refuse to ‘pray’ to the dice to give them the numbers they want. This line either refers to Empson himself in which case it means ‘I have nothing to lose by being honest and accepting that a relationship with a Japanese woman won’t work’ or it refers to the British ex-pats who told Empson and other new arrivals: ‘Don’t marry a Japanese woman as we’ll be at war with Japan in ten years’. If the line refers to Empson, refusing to call the dice a god is positive – it means ‘being honest’; if it refers to the ex-pats it’s more ambiguous: ‘they’re realistic but maybe it’s good to deceive yourself in questions of love’ .

However, Haffenden likes the suggestion of another commentator that ‘die’ means sex – orgasm used to be called ‘the little death’ and ‘a good throw’ means a satisfactory sex act. The line would then mean something like ‘what do we lose if we like sex but don’t make a god out of it?
Who say after two aliens had one kiss {Empson and Haru – technically Haru was not an ‘alien’, but the line means ‘we were always alien to each other even when kissing – perhaps because of ‘the language problem’ – the difficulty of cross-cultural relationships.}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go. {The refrain now means ‘most people would advise me to leave Haru not to marry her and perhaps they’re right’.)

But as to risings, I can tell you why.
It is on contradiction that they grow.

{Multiple ambiguity!   1) ‘male sexual desire (risings = erections) is stimulated by contradiction = cultural difference’; 2 ‘male sexual desire is stimulated by arguments’ – e.g. Haru ‘contradicting’ him as to what they should do when woken by the quake; 3) ‘In my case a sexual relationship has come out of  ‘contradiction’ of the advice not to have an affair with a Japanese woman’. 4)‘Marx was right – it is social contradictions that lead to revolutions’. The fourth meaning is a general comment on the world political situation that makes their love so precarious}
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

{In addition to the previous meanings the line now also means: ‘That’s why I had or at least wanted sex with Haru – ‘up’ means ‘erection’ again and ‘go’ now also suggests ‘begin sexual activity’.}
Up was the heartening and the strong reply.
The heart of standing is we cannot fly.

{Haffenden in his biography of Empson claims that this last line means that Empson decides he has to leave Haru.  This is certainly what happened in real life, but it’s hard to see how not ‘flying’ means ending the affair, so my own interpretation is different: ‘Haru agrees to sex and that means she doesn’t go home and they shouldn’t abandon their relationship’. This would mean that the ‘we’ refers to Empson and Haru. ‘Up’ would mean something like ‘have an erection because I’m ready for sex now’ or ‘her reply made me have an erection’} or even ‘my reply to all this and to Haru was to have an erection’).

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