Erenlai - Focus: City and Poetry
Focus: City and Poetry

Focus: City and Poetry

Can city inspire poetry?

This issue of eRenlai explores these three dimensions: what kind of poetic feelings will a city arise within our hearts? How can the city proper be read as a giant poetic work? And how can we foster the poetic soul of the cities we inhabit? Let us hope that this issue will inspire all of us, and that it may reach the ones who are responsible for city planning. Our future will not depend only on their technical ability but rather on the way they will be able to respect and foster our dreams, our fantasies and our creativity…


Wednesday, 21 April 2010

City and Poetry

Can city inspire poetry? Traditionally, Nature is the first source of poetic inspiration: lakes, mountains and trees move the heart and the lips, and the music of the Earth becomes the one of our soul. However, city has become like a “second nature” to us, and its streets, its moods, its people and its scenery work on our emotions and our aesthetic sensibility as do waterfalls, pine trees and rocks.

When thinking about the poetic nature of cities, there is something that can strike even more our imagination: a city looks actually like an immense poems; its avenues, buildings or underground can be read as a giant network of rhymes, metaphors and verses. The city is like an elegy that men write, carve and erect on the surface of the earth. And these poems of glass, iron and cement inspire to them artworks of words, images and stories. The city is poetry itself - the poetic work erected by men to the face of the sky.

Lastly, cities are not always good poems – they can become dry, repetitive, uninspiring… For sure, no builder or developer can fully control the poetic impact of a city, for a city is first and foremost the creation of its inhabitants. Still, planners, artists and elected officials can nurture the poetic soul of a city though well thought public arts projects, humane city development and encouragement to citizens’ initiative. Ultimately, the more a city truly belongs to the ones who inhabit it, the more it will become the trigger and repository of the emotions, thoughts and inspirations of the people who will wander through its streets, its parks and its labyrinths.

This issue of eRenlai explores these three dimensions: what kind of poetic feelings will a city arise within our hearts? How can the city proper be read as a giant poetic work? And how can we foster the poetic soul of the cities we inhabit? Let us hope that this issue will inspire all of us, and that it may reach the ones who are responsible for city planning. Our future will not depend only on their technical ability but rather on the way they will be able to respect and foster our dreams, our fantasies and our creativity…

(Drawing by Bendu)

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Untranslatable poems: Codes scattered in the city

When I think of poetry in the city, two films immediately spring to mind. The first is Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation, the other Wim Wenders 1987 film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin). The first one is set in contemporary Japan, the other in post cold war Berlin (complete with the Wall). In both films, the city in question appears to be observed from the eyes of the outsider. In Lost in Translation, Charlotte and Bob's destinies cross paths in Tokyo. They both feel alienated and ill-fit in their surrogate society; they are both outsiders and loneliness brings them together. Their chance encounter takes place in multicoloured Tokyo, yet like two floating reeds passing by, Tokyo is also where they must part, such is their wandering impermanence. In contrast, The Angels Among Us, is seen through the eyes of an angel; quietly, calmly, observing the human world that he so adores. He adores it enough to be willing to descend into the human world; however, living a different type of existence he is completely unable to transcend the role of observer. He hears every humans' secrets, he is captivated, fascinated by the joy, the love, the rage, the sadness;  the fullness and variety of their emotions. Therefore he eventually leaves his position as an onlooker in heaven, to become a mortal human of flesh and blood...

Of course the subject matter that make up these two films are present in many other literary works;  however, the image created in Lost in Translation is much closer to classical Chinese poetry,  specifically the poets who wrote of their drifting from place to place as the outsider, or sighed the tragedies of separation and death.  For example, when Bob and Charlotte are about to part,  standing on the street embracing, there is a sense that they may never meet again, which for me brings to mind the words of two Chinese poets: Li Shangyin, a Tang Dynasty poet "Though this moment will turn into a precious memory, I cannot help but be devastated at its passing" and Northern Song poet Liu Yong's poem - Yu Linling "The smorgasbord of emotions in times of parting has always caused a world of pain". It's an unfulfilled love story,  no doubt dooming them to separation and feelings of loss, and as Charlottes tears roll down, the two of them keep rolling on. Wings of Desire, in contrast, is a piece of western theology, a reinterpretation of Christianity's fallen angel. When the film starts, a poem is read:

When the child was a child 
It walked with its arms swinging, 
wanted the brook to be a river, 
the river to be a torrent, 
and this puddle to be the sea.

When the child was a child, 
it didn’t know that it was a child, 
everything was soulful, 
and all souls were one.

When the child was a child, 
it had no opinion about anything, 
had no habits, 
it often sat cross-legged, 
took off running, 
had a cowlick in its hair, 
and made no faces when photographed.


Als das Kind Kind war, 
ging es mit hängenden Armen, 
wollte der Bach sei ein Fluß, 
der Fluß sei ein Strom, 
und diese Pfütze das Meer.

Als das Kind Kind war, 
wußte es nicht, daß es Kind war, 
alles war ihm beseelt, 
und alle Seelen waren eins.

Als das Kind Kind war, 
hatte es von nichts eine Meinung, 
hatte keine Gewohnheit, 
saß oft im Schneidersitz, 
lief aus dem Stand, 
hatte einen Wirbel im Haar 
und machte kein Gesicht beim fotografieren.

The original German version from the film is in fact read by the main actor Damiel (Bruno Ganz). The poem is called Lied Vom Kindsein (Song of Childhood) and was written by Peter Handke, a poet and scriptwriter. He got his inspiration from another German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke's great work Duineser Elegien (Duino Elegies).

There is a subtle metaphor here: before the angel fell down to earth, he could maintain the innocent eyes of the observer, like the purity of a child without any preinstalled beliefs or standpoints. However when he becomes human, it's just like when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit; they became aware of their naked bodies and had to find leaves to cover themselves, they then began to nurture a sense of shame and thus had to endure human suffering. This notion stems from a biblical allusion and although the words used in the poem aren't especially profound, what they represent is far deeper than what meets the eye. Another interesting aspect of this film is that when the angel transcends to the human world, the frame switches from black and white to a colour. His head is bleeding as he encounters a pedestrian and asks his first question as a human: "Is this the colour red?" This echoes the meaning in the poem, that whilst he was still an angel he did not possess the human sensory system; after humanisation he felt pain, but he also saw colour. This is the beauty and the tragedy of being human. For him however, it's all worth it, because he experiences love.

Wings of Desire is set in pre-unification Berlin, with many of the city's landmarks appearing in scene. The angel often stands on the famous Siegessäule overlooking the bleak, desolate post-war Berlin. The huge Berlin wall encircles and demarcates the isolated island of democracy that was West Berlin. For those, like myself, that have never been to Berlin, it matches the image of Berlin we imagine, a numbing chill hanging in the air, freezing all the poetry and songs we mutter to ourselves. Perhaps, if I eventually visit Berlin, I will look up, searching to see if there really are angels occupying the skies. Going back to Lost in Translation, the hustle and bustle of modern Tokyo, is in great contrast to the lonely souls of the two protagonists who have nowhere to anchor. Is this not indeed a feeling that all drifters, travellers living as outsiders in a foreign land have, as they walk alone down a road full of traffic? Another Tang Dynasty poem written by Zhang Ji comes to mind:

The moon descends and the birds call, through the frosty midnight bite

Fishing lamps and maple trees lining the riverside accompany my anxiety induced insomnia.

From the Han Mountain Temple outside the Suzhou city walls,

An echo descends from the midnight gongs all the way to this passenger boat

Even if these two examples couldn't be further apart in time and setting, they nonetheless express the same emotions; one follows the insomnia of the drunken immortal Zhang Xu on a boat in ancient Suzhou, the other has Bob and Charlotte lying sleeplessly on their beds in a deluxe hotel in modern Japan; the nostalgic feeling that the moonlight is always brighter in your hometown.

Ida_UntranslatablePoems05Another way the film shows the changes in Charlottes state of mind is that at the beginning, after she visits a temple, she rings a friend and tells her: "Today I visited a temple. Monks were reciting passages, but I didn't feel anything." Finally at the end of the film she takes a high speed rail to Kyoto, moving from one city to another. Transport is a very important setting for travellers and contemporary urban nomads. Staring out of the window onto the ever changing sceneries has a mysterious charm. In the same way life is like a drama, scene after scene, one appears temporarily but then eventually all scenes come to an end. Fittingly, the accompanying background music for this part is 'Alone in Kyoto' provided by the French duo Air. And for me, her time spent in Kyoto is the most poetic of the whole film; strolling the temples of Kyoto, Charlotte eyes catch a newlywed couple passing by, dressed in traditional wedding garb. As she stops and watches them, the groom takes his partner by the hand and the lens slides over to Charlottes face. She is no longer the girl who didn't feel anything; subtle changes in her expressions show us that where she used to only feel a cold alienation, she now feels warmth.

In big cities, one constantly encounters different people; sometimes these can become true lasting relationships, other times we just brush by transient visitors. And this, this is the fatal attraction of the city. People are just words and the streets just phrases, freely interweaving together to create a huge fantastical poem. And every city is a poem, regardless of all the tiny words whirling and dancing within. And every encounter between two of these tiny characters can kindle a moving story, and every story can be a poem;  some disappointing, some tragic, some helpless, some soul destroying; yet some heroic, some romantic, ecstatic and tantalising!

Translated from Chinese by Nicholas Coulson

(Top photo by Ida Yang/ Bottom left photo provided by AtMovies)

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Cities in winter: a wanderer in Europe

December 2009 has been cold in Europe, and snow has been falling everywhere, something that is not seen every year. When I was a child, the spectacle of snow piling into the streets was rather common. It became more rare as the years passed by.

I had to travel this winter, going to Paris and Toulouse in France, Munich and Aachen in Germany, before crossing Holland to go back to France. I had to go to offices and universities, I had to hasten through the streets and the underground, but I had also time to wander through the parks and the squares, to dream when looking through the windows of trains slowed by the weather, and to let recollections come back to my mind. I was thinking of all the cities I had lived in, of their minds and structures, of the way they have become engraved into my soul, as is a novel to which you often come back, as also are a movie, a piece of music or a voice that is dear to you. It was so hard to me to separate the core of my being and of my memory from these places in which I had lived and wandered: Paris, as a succession of villages, the Seine river separating the city as does a sudden twist in the plot of a novel, the capricious streets turning around and making you suddenly lose your way, like the disorderly dreams of my student days have been doing to me; Brussels, tragic and gray, where my first job and the first apartment of my own were awaiting me, and that sounded to my ears so melancholic and disenchanted; Toulouse, where I worked afterwards, with its pink melody of bricks, coffeehouses and spacious riverbanks; Lyons, as an elegant elegy that tunes down emotions and passions to the level of a quiet, discreet melody; and the contrasted cities of Holland, Spain and Italy like symphonies resonating with wind instruments and percussions; for two years, I had known New Haven, New York and Boston, and they had sounded to me like a poem in prose or like the lyrics of a song by Ella Fitzgerald…

And then I went to Asia – and different music and poems filled my mind. The walls of Tokyo had been to me like neat lines that separate chapters in a Japanese novel, the unity and plot of which you are unable to discern; Taipei had slowly become like an old-worn poetry anthology, which you know so well that you automatically go the page you wish to reread; Hong Kong has been like a surrealistic poem of which you renounce to penetrate the meaning, just letting you be drawn away by its rhythm and associations; Chengdu was like ancient poems that you do not understand very well but that you turn page by page, just letting the atmosphere enter like smoke into your body and your mind…

flavie_kersante_bristol1I was back in Europe, and it was like finding again the poetic anthologies I was reading as a child, words, turns of sentences and rhymes that sounded familiar like the noises of the street where you are living and that awaken you every morning.

There is something in the fallen snow in the streets of a city that make nature and culture meet suddenly, and culture then shows its basic frailty, how it can be engulfed by a sudden surge of nature’s hidden energies. It is also as if the intense poetry of the city’s lines, memories and trajectories become incarnate, unveil their essence to the eye of the wanderer, suddenly able to penetrate the secret that makes this conglomerate of buildings, empty spaces and people hold together as a whole. Snow always speaks of the invisible.

And, through these leisurely train trips, cities in Europe were extending a kind of fraternity across hundreds of kilometres. Scattered on the map, they were gathering in the palm of my hand, composing a dense, intense community of desires, fears and sounds that was transcending its material form. In the course of my winter travel, the cities of my youth were gathering into one, becoming smaller and smaller, denser and denser – a short and eternal poem that will float around you on your deathbed.


(Photos by B.V. and Flavie Kersante)

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Canberra: A David Lynch film come to life

“I love dream logic.  I just like the way dreams go.”
David Lynch in “Catching the Big Fish: Mediation, Consciousness, and Creativity”

Growing up in Canberra, I never thought of it as being a particularly remarkable city.  It was just the place where I lived.  Then one day when I was about 13, I read an interview of some backpackers in the local newspaper.  When prompted for their views on Canberra, one suggested something along the lines of “it is like a David Lynch movie – everything is neat and tidy but you wonder what is really going on below the surface”.  Not having yet seen any movies by Lynch - America’s legendary surrealist chronicler of urban life - I was a bit puzzled by this comparison, but with time I came to see what that scruffy backpacker was alluding to.  My hometown was not quite like other places.  And this is good.

Nestled in the mountains in the south east of the continent, Canberra is the capital of Australia.  Commonly known as ‘the bush capital’, it is filled with parks and open spaces, and is bisected by a series of freeways and large arterial roads. There, the car is king.  Construction began in 1913 following an international architectural competition won by Walter Burley Griffin, the famous American architect.  Canberra was instigated to satisfy the grand ambitions of Sydney and Melbourne to be Australia’s home of government.  As a city built completely from scratch, Canberra offers a glimpse of how the designers of yesteryear envisaged the city of the future: decentralised, dispersed and blending with nature. Over the years governments, commercial interests and architects have all challenged Burley Griffin’s vision.  While the city has turned out considerably different to how he envisaged it, Canberra remains unique.

Built with its important role in mind – parliament and bureaucracy – Canberra has long being the butt of jokes.  It is commonly derided as being boring, a bunch of suburbs in search of a city, full of public service drones and a waste of a perfectly good sheep paddock.  And the traditional response from Canberrans is just as hackneyed – the city is pretty, clean, safe, a great place to raise kids and so on.  But there is something more to the city than these well-worn claims, all of which sprout some tendrils of truth.

It would be easy to arrive in Canberra and think, “Strewth, what’s goin’ on here?”.  Compared to other cities, there is not a lot of human activity on the streets.  This lack of traffic and pedestrians can easily deceive you.  One day when riding my bike to school, I managed to ride for 5 minutes before encountering any other traffic.  It was as if everyone in the city had vanished overnight.  This was slightly eerie, but energising - I felt like I had my own private city.  Just as a dream takes a familiar scene and tweaks it, so too was my trip to school flipped on its head.  It is such moments of serenity shape the disposition of Canberra.  Perhaps this is what caught the backpacker’s imagination.  The thrum and buzz so often associated with seats of government is not there.

Lynch once said “A sense of place is so critical in cinema because you want to go into another world.  Every story has its own world and its own feel and its own mood.  So you try to put together all these things, all these little details to create that sense of place.  It has a lot to do with lighting and sound”.  Lynch succeeds in doing this in his films.  While presenting everyday settings and scenarios with which we are familiar, but then managing to skew these in a way that puts a slight slant on reality, Lynch masterfully injects a sense of magic into the mundane, making the normal feel other-worldly.

Canberra-Mt-Taylor3_smallIn many ways Canberra can feel like another world, and much of that can be attributed to the light and sound there. The city is nestled in a series of valleys and plains.  Views from any of the nearby mountains show a reasonably low-rise city threatening but not really managing to poke out from beneath the leafy canopy.  Canberra’s generous endowment of trees, parks and nature reserves attract a great range of wildlife (birds, possums, kangaroos, wallabies) that are hard to miss if you spend any amount of time in the city and particularly around its fringes.  In most parts of town the good burghers of Canberra awake to bird song, songs which can continue throughout the day.  I fondly remember the calls of the Currawong echoing from one building to another on winter evenings in the Woden town centre. While not particularly common, it is not unusual to see a kangaroo hopping down a suburban street, such is the overlap between city and country.  And the sun shines an awful lot.  Even a bitterly cold winter’s day is made bearable by the warming rays of the sun.


At some point I came across the idea that Aboriginal designs are reflected in the street alignment.  I’m not sure how true this is, but it certainly is an intriguing proposition.  Australian Aboriginal art is often influenced by myths from the Dreamtime, the time in the past when the world was created.  These Dreamtime myths are reinterpreted on the canvas in a unique style, generally comprising dots and striking patterns.  When viewed from above, or on a map, the streets in the older and central areas of Canberra appear as a series of circles linked by straight lines, mimicking some aspects Australian indigenous painting techniques.  Canberra’s large circular roads, some of which are concentric, conspire to baffle out-of-town drivers.  But given that so many towns are built on boring yet functional grids, for some this lack of lineation offers a round type of respite, at least to those who know where they are going.

canberra_04And just how is the landscape of Canberra manifested in its residents?  Barring the odd traffic jam or booners[1] in Toranas[2] doing circle-work[3] in a suburban cul-de-sac, the city tends to have an air of calm about it.  Not unlike that of a country town.  For most residents it is not too far to get to a park and the surrounding mountain ranges are also conveniently accessible. But at times it seems like Canberrans think too much (on average, they are the most educated and highly paid in Australia), are too eager to complain and too prone to melancholy.  For those new to town, it can be a bit difficult meet new people as cliques prevail.  Like most places, there are many people struggling to make ends meet.  It is by no means an urban utopia.  And for a lot of people Canberra is not much more than how I saw it as a child: a reasonably pleasant city that while bland, is comfortable. To these folk I suggest that if you are willing to let it work on your imagination and dream a bit, like the backpacker did, Canberra can inspire.  Maybe not in the same way as a scenic mountain vista or a mega city bursting with life, but the potential is there in Canberra.  You just need to surrender yourself to it.

In referencing David Lynch, perhaps the scruffy backpacker was hinting that away from the quiet leafy streets and behind the front doors, lurks a seedy unfolding nightmare that is at odds with the well-manicured image that Canberra tends to display.  Think Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks or Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.  No doubt this is true, for if you look for it, human misery and intrigue is just as present in Canberra as it is everywhere else.

Who knows what that backpacker really meant?  He probably left Australian shores some time ago, undoubtedly more tanned than when he arrived, and hopefully enriched by having taken the time to let his mind wander, inspired by his days in Canberra.

(Photos by Stephen Dann, Andrew Schroeder and Pascal Vuylsteker)
by Pascal VuylstekerPascal Vuylsteker

[1] Unrefined people, often young, prone to ostentatious acts of stupidity.

[2] A late model iconic car produced by Holden, favoured for its muscular performance.

[3] Driving a car in a manner that the wheels spin and a large amount of smoke and noise is produced.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

On the wire with Chris Churcher

Chris Churcher shares his experiences as a film director in Taiwan: what does Taiwan need? To encourage its creative pool!

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Notes on impermanence

Being an outsider in the city can give rise to a poetry of sorts. Whether we are business ex-pats, exchange students or foreign workers, we all eventually face the same problem of our wandering impermanence. For this months Focus on poetry in the city, I look back at some written scraps and ramblings on my own impermanence and identity issues whilst I was a student of Mandarin in Taipei. Of Anglo-French descent, studying Chinese, for me it was fitting that I could find scrawlings in the three languages (and cultures) between which I’m torn:

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A postcard of Taipei

Taiwanese conceptual artist Nat Niu introduces us to his two videos concepts: The Line and Postcard.


Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Bristol, a love of fire and ice

"How can such a beautiful thing can be so annoying??" Flavie says...

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Thursday, 22 April 2010

Taipei in four acts: Scene I

I - The typhoon

The city, asleep behind a curtain of rain; I wanted to feel the air of Asia, I tried to spur the magic in the small antic streets, I, ready for some exotic discoveries; my heart, ready for tortuous trees amid sweating concrete walls, smoke from beneath the street, food stands vanishing in the air, like some genies from an old tale.

But it was dark, all human sounds flushed by the heavy rain, each drop splashing the ground as if a giant drummer was releasing deep scents at every beat – all odors splashed to the ground like on a giant keyboard, it has no beginning and no end – I knew there was a city, there, into the heart of the island, I couldn’t see it, merely the tallest skyscrapers emerging from the chaos, some lost ambassadors born out of desolation and fear. Would they crumble already, just today? But I was nowhere; the island itself was nowhere, heart of a beating monster hidden in the rain. Nature, nature all around. How would I have known?

You don’t know where you are, all beauty is hidden, you feel the first poetry of a place you can’t call a city yet, before everything else appears; feel the thin line between this place and any other place, somehow hidden, somehow abstract, but so wide and powerful it will follow you in your dreams for a long time; you don’t even know it, not yet, you can’t stare at the future, this storm won’t let you focus, lack of sleep, oh the noise, the Earth groaning.

That’s the bass poetry, the one you won’t ever see, made of history and geography, the raw Reason behind all those walls and streets, all those buildings and parks, why they were born exactly there - you know, the same feeling as when you stand on a observatory, watching the streets, the horizon blinded by high walls, and you feel: “what’s this place? What would there be if mankind hadn’t come here?”. You watch the place again, you see a flat area, maybe some trees, some rivers, a forest here, and it’s flat, flat, empty. Suddenly you understand; this river, where someone thought he might drink, those mountains around, that would protect from the storms, this plain, where the winds would blow unabated and whisper the story of the gods, those flat lands would become the root of their dream, the very soil where they would stand, human without a destination on the island, where everything would live and grow, year after year, maybe welcome citizens of the world and maybe turn into the wild capital of some obscure poets, in this small land of nothing where one breathes so freely, even if it is nothing, even if it grows ugly, no matter what cracks and hopes time will insidiously wrinkle everywhere; this will be our land and from there we shall spread and fight, fight for those who dream and fight for those who will love it, the Neverland they’ve been looking for, I can imagine this, they would name the hills and summon elephants, leopards and lions; O nature, let us settle here and grow our history humbly, far from the powerful and far from greed, a land so insignificant everyone shall be welcome and it shall warm thy heart.

Sitting on a sword when one side is the raw desolation of Reality and the other the sweet power of dreams; the city, at its very core, will be a deep hole where time is suspended before something happens, it’s there but no one ever mentions it.

The rain stops, the curtain open, rays of light, fuming dragons, the city awakes, like a giant eye on top of a beast, beloved dragon, son of a millenary history, jaws full of blood, deeply wounded though, Taipei. Did I dream?

(Photo: B. Girardot, Taipei, 2008

Read the second part


Thursday, 22 April 2010

Taipei in four acts: Scene II

II - Night and Morning

So here we are, in the city, and before we even can see it we feel its blood, the place where it is, its inclusion in the surrounding landscape, in the bright sunshine; light as a traveler, we watch the grid of roads and avenues, we see how they lovingly shape the hills, how the streets lose their perfect neat order from the center and start climbing the hills, how some manors push their fatty protuberance and bend the concrete lanes, we see where the ground is deep and moving, in those pockets of small, old houses forgotten by the city planning, we see the floodable areas and the new districts, far away, rational, arrogant, just tall. Each district has its own voice, planes landing in the north, roaring constructions answering innocent singing exotic birds, sometimes the mere whispering of trees, when everything else has turned quiet, sometimes, for no reason, a pause in the night, constantly pushed away by all instruments, water pipes, water heaters, fridges, taps, choking windows spreading their life while humans quietly sleep, all the small metallic articulations of the city in the warm quiet hot summer nights, all windows open, dreaming about the magic of some secret places we just discovered, the places where you would bring your girl, maybe, if the time is right, where it’s not too crowded, if it’s not too hot, like that moment you just surprised in the morning, where the city will devote you a small shrine for love, protective, touching your heart. You dream of the places you don’t know yet, your imagination wanders between what you know already and what is likely to appear, once you’ll have understood the idea behind the glass and the stones, the concrete and the clay, you’ll be a living architect for the city, you’ll put high rises and nice parks, and you’ll watch it spread around, grow bigger, you’ll see the prices soaring then the people move further, you’ll smile and put more high-rises, you know they are love it here, you’ll also clean the rivers and restore old barracks. That’s it; maybe you love the town already.

But you wake up, you’ve got to go for food, you’re back in a tiny fraction of this city that just a while ago appeared so huge, you can’t embrace it all anymore, you’re left with foggy thoughts and fragments of reality murmuring you the city, you’re not sure, you see the trees are still there, you hear some noise in closed shops, you breathe deeply ‘cause you know it’s gonna be hot, you watch old men meditating, everywhere they are more of them, exercising in public parks, slowly moving their bodies to the Qi Kong, lost in their tiny world they still can call the World – nothing awake yet, you slow down the pace, turn into a new street, greet old temples fuming with incense some mysterious visitors have put at night – you didn’t hear that – once again the feeling emerges, this is all an old theater scene, the city there, not exactly like another neighborhood, not perfectly what you think it ought to be, but this cart, there, on the corner, the 包子, the 豆漿, the 水果汁, you forget already. For a moment you won’t remember the city, just enjoy what it has to offer, the Real gets suspended before normal life starts again, stressful, crowded, fluid, a sea of men assaulted with threatening silent “small yellows”, like many sharks slowly, slowly patrolling the city looking for a prey in their long, long slender, long long low carcass, everywhere up to the darkest alleys, everywhere slowing down when they see you, turning their necks; endlessly patrolling.

This is where you live now, nothing before and nothing after.

(Photo: B. Girardot

For mainland readers:

Read the third part


Thursday, 22 April 2010

Taipei in four acts: Scene III

III - People of Taipei

What would be the city without its people? It is so true in Taipei, not such a beautiful place, not so perfect, but full of grace and poetry, so much that just one person will make you smile, and you will do this experience over and over again, you will enjoy the city with everyone, half accepted and half tolerated, you will go to the bank and try to retrieve money, ah, such an adventure, you will smile at the lady behind her desk conscientiously using her rule to draw a perfectly straight line at the perfectly right place, such an effort she has to curl her tongue and summon all concentration in the world, so touchingly; once outside you will chat with taxi drivers, students, protesters, shopkeepers– oh don’t worry, you won’t even have to understand, sometimes, in the beginning, they will talk to you for hours, and you will nod, and you will smile, and even grab a bit of what they say; you will argue with the bus drivers disguised into Santa Claus outfits because it’s Christmas, you will see people running 10 minutes after you to give you back your wallet, you will also find your landlord in the middle of the night crying softly in your living room repairing a broken canalization – you will find her also cooking when you come back earlier from a trip, quite funny- you will make complicated tests to check if it is right that people smile more when the stock exchange goes up and you will eat a lot of strange vegetables supposed to help you get a promotion, even if it didn’t work the first year and even if it seems that your colleague has gotten it and not you – who cares, you will flee the big concrete walls and hide behind the tall herbs, just there, with your friends who just know everything and show you, a secret privilege, some hidden spots, you will learn how to make insects sleep so that you can quietly make snapshots of them, you will discuss with them the ECFA, the world flower international exhibitions, put your winter clothes when the temperature goes below 15 degrees, woolen pullovers, ski jackets and thick caps; ride the metro and watch everyone sleep after long days, spend whole days eating, laughing, guided by the Chinese characters on the walls, on the streets, on the doors and between the buildings, throw sky lanterns in the air and rest in hot springs, play the old wise man in ancient tea houses, live there, just live there.

All of us share the secrets of the city, some kind of untold poetry coming from the roots, from the knowledge inside the secretive alcoves, hanging on the aerial roots of ancient trees like ripe fruits of happiness. A city as a center of freedom, arrogantly emptied from any need to produce food or industry, all looking at its services, all man-made, forgetting where it comes from and living within the imagination of men, a city of many books and stories, spinning on herself with its own rhythm, made by people for people, with freedom at its heart, the nascent feeling of doing what you want, just a smile passing by at the youth discovering discos and chatting with girls, a bit awkward, o sweet feeling, the city lives under the giant solar clock of 101 pointing successively at districts a welcome shadow, so thin, so real. “You know Ben, in Taiwan…” people fighting against promoters to prevent buildings from being built because some centennial trees, and even a white nose squirrel, live there, a city of contradictions, ugly and natural, yes a poetic city after all.

(Photo: B. Girardot

Read the fourth part


Thursday, 22 April 2010

Taipei in four acts: Scene IV

IV - Leave

And then one day, early Morning, you find yourself in a taxi, crossing bridges above rivers you know by heart now – the city that once appeared so big, you now know every corner of it – eyes wide open you keep watching the long thin smoky river flow all around the city; you lift the window and smell the air, the sun has lit the surrounding mountains already and the tallest buildings drain the lights from the top, draw the vertical energy from the sun into the plain grid of the same tortuous streets you’ve been through the first day, it’s all the same story, you think, some people currently land at the airport, they’re gonna live here, they come back home after a trip, it all starts again, here, among men heading for the same normal day they’ve lived so many times, slowly moving under the warm energy from the sky, you know it and there’s no way you will settle down, that’s why you see it, the poetry of this world is not yours, made of customs and habits to whom its people are blind, of places they love and places they have to go to, of their moan and laughter; you will leave soon, you wish you could grab it whole forever.

Soon, at the airport, the flavor of the place will start fading, some foreign elements appear that hurt your sight every time, the foreigners like you, the uniforms that you will see in other places too, Cathay Pacific and Hong-Kong invite themselves in your memory, another city, another life, another poetry, even the traditional characters seem to have started travelling to Hong-Kong, a city maybe more obvious in its arrogant rhythm, you are almost not there anymore, you wish you would call home the other cities as well; you know you can’t; one city took your heart, strangely enough, without any reason, you wonder what you would write if you had to talk about the poetry of it in particular; the only thing that comes to your mind is that it’s not poetry, it’s magic, the raw feeling of a place that can both welcome you and keep you at a distance behind its smiles, the magic that starts with concrete and ugly buildings, that runs along the streets, that goes deep into the heart of everyone, that hides beneath the exotic trees and irrigates a multicultural life; the power of a place you can compare to many others, where you also see how it could be, what people decided to build and what ideas are at work, and that very power turns it into a dream a close world open to the outside though still dreaming on its own, suspended in time and history as few others, offering you the face of a fallen dream if you can grab it, a bitter feeling indeed, it was once lively and it froze, it disappeared over time and opportunities, and now, the blank future of all possible opens its face as your plane takes off already, so small, so decided, straight ahead against the wind, it’s not over yet, one last time you fly over it, above the clouds this time you see it diminish in the air, you see the path to the sea and you see the grid, it’s an old painting from the ancient culture that spreads before your eyes one last time, an old forgotten lavish of ink and paper, bitten by time and dust it is a picture but you understand you’ve been living in it, day after day, for some time, you’ve embraced its sharp reality and now it’s gone, time to take the road again, and the memories will follow.

(Photo: B. Girardot

For readers in mainland China:

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