Title: Railway China

Author: John Newton

In: Sport 39: 2011

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, 2013, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Verse Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 39: 2011

Railway China

page 132

Railway China

‘Towards the end of the day I stopped at a small tea house, where a young woman named Butterfly handed me a small piece of white silk and asked me to write a poem choosing her name as the subject.’

Bashö, ‘The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton’


What was it drew it me, supplicant, to the land of umbrellas and overhead wiring?

Looking back, all I remember is shame.

I tore off the bedclothes and threw my dead marriage in the street.

In the difficult second half of one’s forties, in the darker waters of the second act, an intemperate history gives up its harvest of incomplete labours and a solitude indulgent and methodical.

This was the darkness in which I looked East, as if I could sense what the poets had promised, walking by starlight, gradations of blackness, a lemon-coloured rumour of light below the pre-dawn horizon.


Taking leave was a sickly matter, like the fantasy of one’s own funeral, a drawn-out, onanistic fore-pleasure. Visitors played their assigned role with poems and flags.

My goods were bestowed on deserving friends.

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The ritual trash-fire gobbled my abandoned manuscripts.

If I travelled as bones and bare sinew then Asia would restore my flesh.

On far Okinawa, where the old live forever, I would swallow the toxic fugu fish and death itself would spit me out like Jonah from the maw of the beast, inoculated, alight with vision, bloodstream fizzing with sugar and oxygen.

I would raise my trembling lips to the liquor that dripped from the bamboo pipe to the stone.

I would gaze slack-jawed at the neon pagodas and ride the mechanical bull at the Pinkerton Chophouse.


Though a typhoon was rumoured towards the equator, our vessel moved sweetly through the East China Sea.

Clouds boiled lazily on the horizon. Cold beer discharged from the coin machines with reassuring heft.

Towards evening, schoolgirls in remnants of uniform stormed the cafeteria.

The corridors hummed with pyjama fever as they laughed and gossiped in their musical tongue.

There was English to practise and photographs to pose for.

Piratical running-lights leered in the gloom.

In my bachelor berth, with its unblinking mirror, I pawed at the ruined elastic of my skin.

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There were documents; I filled them out as I waited in line at the customs desk.

But how should I nominate the purpose of my visit? I ticked in the box labelled ‘other’ and waded ashore.

I emerged in the daylight of my own delirium.

I boarded a train that was scarcely a train.

And yet what I had dreamed was exactly this. Everywhere I looked there was something beautiful.

Teams of technicians with recondite instruments barbered the scaly, reptilian pines.


In a ramen shop in Okayama I made my first attempt at a poem:

We arrived just too early
for the maples
at Koraku-en.


In the willowy night of old Kyoto white herons fished in a shallow canal.

Minnows, it seemed, were drawn by the lights that spilled from the restaurants of Pontocho, as I was drawn by the sound of a saxophone calling from deep in the cobbled labyrinth.

Thus it was I came to meet the horn player Chouko Kobayashi.

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Bass and drums, meandering loosely, Chouko, myself and the barman made five. Between sets she sat with me and asked many questions.

When the rhythm section called it an evening I showed her some verses:

Bossing that big brass ax
with your pelvis, your cheeks
blew up like the fugu fish.

Where does it blow from, this hot wind:
the land of granite
or the land of cranes?

‘Better,’ she said, ‘you write land of trains?’ At once I perceived she was right and amended the poem.


Chouko explained that though my hokku had sabi (loneliness) it lacked shiori.


‘Forgive, I show you.’ She wrote down this poem beside my own.

Asleep on one another’s shoulders
young people
clutch their shopping.

This season’s jeans are the most distressed.
It is not quite autumn.
The first blush.
            Written by Chouko Kobayashi.

Together we improvised a sequence of linked hokku.

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These I transcribed at furious pace in felt-tip pen on a table napkin, gouging the paper in my haste to keep up as the images flowed back and forth between us.

Finally excitement and thirst overcame me: I hurried to the bar for a pitcher of beer.

On my return to the table, alas, water had worked its elemental synaesthesia. Our words had opened out into pictures, an aqueous blue calligraphy. Fish surmised in a blue current. The poem you imagine you have written in a dream.

Of Chouko herself there was no sign.

The rumour of iris blossoms.
A dry pool.


In the antique Sumiya pleasure house, lounging zone of poets and courtesans, the peacocks lit on their shady bough in the mulberry tree. Such a head-turning couple!

Yet it filled me with sadness to think of the branches we climbed all those summers ago in our bare, callused feet.

Berries as ripe as our plump young bodies, warm as a brown egg. Railway china.

I hurried away to the North on a slow train.


Along the ancient road to the capital fields of sunflowers lit the way, but dimly, drooping, nodding off as autumn began to splash out in the forest.

page 137

A pheasant broke from a thicket of firs, flying the colours of a fabulous dynasty.

In an alpine village millwheels turned back the clock. Painters copied them. Film crews had travelled from the far corners of the Jade Empire to admire the way the wooden buildings maintained themselves in perfect replica.

Strings of chillies held the heat of summer.

Beside the tumbling river persimmons ripened.


My guide to the megalopolis was distinguished Occidentalist Keith Kurosawa. We met by arrangement in a coffee shop. He had the trim, salt-and-peppery distinction of the liberal professor.

His work had lately taken an unorthodox turn—in pursuit, he explained, of a travellers’ tale, a rumour inscribed like a fossilised footprint concealed in the dust of forgotten spice routes.

Paranoid bowels of the Vatican Library: the fractured stem of an opium pipe; a carboniferous accretion unknown to modern pharmacy.

Thus a trail had opened, at the end of which hung a sinister fruit of the Datura family, the notorious ‘crazy eggplant’ of jingly Cathay.

A drug, then? (One had hoped for more.)

Well, yes, but not just any drug. For the substance that had made its way with the caskets and camel-bags of those earliest adventurers was credited, Kurosawa told me, with unveiling the mysteries of perpetual vigour.

‘Absurd, no doubt?’ Amusement played at the crinkly corners of his level gaze. ‘But I see I have piqued your interest, my inquiring friend.’

page 138


Of the evening I then spent with Dr Kurosawa only a few vivid fragments remain: the rest is no more than an aura of colour and sensation.

Was it even a single night?

When at last I awoke, in diffuse daylight on a pallet in an unfamiliar lodging, I had no sense of where or even who I was, or of how much time had elapsed in delirious transport.


It began in a small izakaya not far from the Shibuya metro.

At dusk Kurosawa took a jug of hot water and dribbled it into an earthenware cup at the bottom of which lay a spoonful of powder somewhat the colour of dried blood.

He added a few drops of colourless tincture.

‘The key,’ he said, with a certain pride. ‘From the common herb known as Reminiscence. The poet describes it. Davallia bullata.’

Even the weedy Reminiscences are dead.’

‘Precisely, yes! It might be omitted (you could still admire the scenery). But I hope you’re feeling strong, my friend, for these cunning alkaloids know where you live! They will visit you there with their tender addresses. You do understand, we’re not going dancing?’

The baleful liquor burned my throat.

The barkeep laughed. Kampai, he said.

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Friday night foot-traffic jammed the streets as my guide led me into the jubilant neon.

We entered a vast department store and followed the stately ascent of the escalators.

Here it was Mothers & Daughters night. Fathers and sons were watching baseball or emptying buckets on the driving range, while in endless succession the well-heeled mothers and their teenage offspring glided heavenwards, talking in their courteous, amused voices or here and there nuzzling tiredly at one another’s flanks.

‘Turn around,’ said Kurosawa. ‘Tell me, what are you seeing now?’

I saw the ranks of label stores. I saw the escalator descend. I saw that it carried, like some bright cortege, the ordered procession of my former selves, and of all my former wives and lovers, younger with every floor we fell.

And that each new floor was like a bend in the river at which we removed one more article of dress, while the rusty feathers of summer fescue shivered at the touch of our splendid limbs.


In an undersea cavern I clung like a limpet to the glass of a bubbling tropical tank.

Butterfly fish and blazing fire fish (ichor their hearts’ blood, champagne their element) flew through the corridors of coral like shards of pure spirit.

Deeper, the trim silhouettes on the dance-floor finned to a gelid metropolitan groove.

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My breath was a drool, a soundless song, as I hung there in heaven. But what was this?

Suspended upside down in the foam, sliming the glass with its viscous hide, some bovine mammal. Manatee? Dugong? ‘Kurosawa,’ I wailed, ‘In God’s name, what is it?’

‘Why that, my blubbery gaijin friend, is you.’

My cry was swept up the by the music.

‘Me? Am I dead, is that what you’re saying?’

My guide put his kindly arm around me.

‘Death? Of course there is always death, but all in good time, not today. No one is about to eat you! Come, there is more you need to see.’


Next I recall it was broad day as he led me up from the maze of the subway. There were drums and ghetto blasters playing. Thunderclouds were piling lavishly.

I couldn’t have said what day it was but the weekend was humming on the Jindu-bashi.

With the cos-play kids, it was somehow as if they were both there and not, in their other dimension.

They shoaled and skittered, and preened for the cameras, but silently, neither friendly nor otherwise; they moved through a different element, breathing through their nose bandannas.

Everywhere I looked there was something beautiful.

Tartans, bandages and bells.

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A girl held a rabbit in her fake-fur embrace and their small neat features twitched in synchrony.


‘How are you feeling?’ the doctor inquired.

In truth I felt the near edge of something like joy.

‘Youth …’

‘Exactly. That nervous pony! The whole town’s lover, no one’s bride. You see these children, the way they shimmer in their adolescent breeding colours, they have fallen for her too, though they can’t yet know it. And you share this, yes? So don’t be jealous, you are almost family! Do you have children?


‘I thought not. So let these be them!’

A tiny Lolita spun her plum-coloured parasol: kohl and black lipstick swallowed the light.

The storm broke open with a tearing sound and autumn soaked me to the skin.


When I woke later in that unfamiliar ryokan I found neither clothes, nor belongings nor anything I recognised; only, on a single sheet of paper, in a firm clear hand that resembled my own, a poem I could not remember writing.

Look how the season completes itself:


a spent umbrella.