Mark Leech Chang’an Poems, 28pp, £3
Original Plus, 17 High Street, Maryport, Cumbria CA15 6BQ
Mark Leech’s Chang’an Poems is a sequence of 41 poems and fragments.
The note on the title page disclaims any relation between Leech’s “imagined” Chang’an, and the ancient Chinese capital of the same name. The ironic effect is that this draws attention to the sequence’s relationship with the real world. An ecopoetic heritage threads through the sequence, from Arnold’s Dover Beach, to Bunting’s “Tongue stumbles, ears err” (Briggflatts), audible in Leech’s “phones dead doors locked / screens dark trees still” (iv). Edward Thomas’s “Home” poems are as much about alienation as belonging; they explore concepts of home central to Leech’s work.
The sequence begins with “i. Landscape with Nightmare”:
The husband in the jade room
the wife on the turning road
the bridge long across the river
down towards Chang’an
This cinematic opening continues in the next lines: “Over the scene, the harried geese / the echoing of guns …”. The guns, the soldiers, who “fill the village lanes, drag / the weakest down into the vans”, are only in focus briefly. This disinterest in the wider world creates the illusion of privilege, for the husband, his regrets while “gathering his clothes”, for the wife, stamping down “her hopes of going home”, but it also isolates them in their narrow lives.
Although this couple’s moods dominate the poem, there are no names, and the distance created by the long-shot view adds to this sense of ambivalence. As a result, the lack of intimacy between the husband and wife, between them and their environment, is mimicked in the relationship between the reader and the poem. This is clever, I think, but frustrating.
However, the jade room returns later in the sequence, as does the turning road. There is a circular narrative at work. The repetition of such motifs is key to how the sequence draws the reader in. The theme of return comes up again and again, until we share the wife’s longing for home:
Engulf yourself in patterns, comfort of chairs, of drinks;
allow home to be in you, look out at the road, and be still.
and all that has
changed and all that
has changed and all
that has changed and
all that has changed (xxxix).
The space between the strange and the familiar, an awareness of, and anxiety about change, is key to the sequence and its concept of home: “Coming back the way you came you are in a world subtly / rearranged. The beggar is two shops down”, and a man’s moustache has disappeared (xiv). But it’s not just the world that can’t be trusted; the reliability of “you” is also questioned: “Sure? … Is it true …?” This is a fragile existence, one where our most comforting ideas of self and home are destabilised.
This instability is, in part, achieved by an intricate play of language and form. Intangible things, thoughts, for example, “arrive” and are unfolded softly (ix. He Dreams of Coming Home); shapes can be settled in “a drawer, / a quiet.” (v); “your neck carries sound / that … floats on the sweat of the crush” (xxxi). Leech’s playfulness unpicks his close observations, his concern for the world, and renders them mimetically to create a fractured, shifting picture. Is this how we experience our world? This is a carefully woven sequence that is astute and uncomfortable.