Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Swimming Ginger by Gary Geddes

Swimming Ginger

Artists have never been as guilty as historians, of turning the destiny of mankind over to sociological or environmental forces, but Gary Geddes goes further than most in redressing the historical tendency to downgrade the “nature and scope of individual agency.”(1) War and Other Measures personalised one of Canada’s perennial political issues by giving voice to an individual Quebecois living in a language not his own, The Terracotta Army conjured up the comments and opinions of individual soldiers in a vast pottery army, designed to protect the emperor Quin Shi Huang in the afterlife, and in ‘Sandra Lee Scheuer’, Geddes managed to distil the political conscience of an era into a brief poem about the life and death of one girl.

Swimming Ginger takes an early 12th century Chinese scroll depicting life in the capital city of Bianliang just before it was sacked by invading Jin Tartars as a starting point. The scroll, thought to be the work of Zhang Zeduan, depicts the celebration of the Quingming Festival on the banks of Bian River, beginning in quiet countryside and ending somewhere in the city centre. Chye Kiang Heng, in his analysis of the scroll, notes that every detail is studied separately with equal attention as if seen through a telescope and then pieced together again to form a composite whole. “Rather than an objective study of the physical world, Zhang Zeduan has composed a subjective understanding of the capital, one laden with his own values and worldview. In it the artist went beyond crafting a narrative, beyond the description of an urban setting and its multifarious activities; he seemed to be seeking and probing the order of things. Social and economic orders were woven into the formal structure of his composition.”(2)

Geddes obviously shares the artist’s interest in the order of things but believes the best way to elucidate it is to focus on the individuals that constitute it - the mass of people getting and spending, and the crowd flowing over Shuncheng Granary Bridge. It is easy, as you range over the big picture, either of history or of a society, for the individual to be reduced to a tiny figure moving across the parchment, and for his few lines to be lost in the larger, anonymous story, but Geddes has managed to bring those lines into sharp focus. An apothecary, a girl who works in the ginger guild, a woodcutter, a young man about to enter the civil service, a pickle seller, a storyteller and the artist who painted the scroll, among others, all have their say about the major and minor concerns of their small lives.

The poems in Swimming Ginger share something of the style and concerns of Song Dynasty poetry– the frank first person narration, the colloquialisms and use of the vernacular, the inclusion of erotic material, the concern with the ordinary and the mundane, and with the particularities of the world, and not least, a tendency to social critique. Mei Yaochen’s theme, for instance, in lines like - “The potter uses all the clay before his door/ yet has not one tile for his own house. Those whose ten fingers never touched clay/live in tall houses with fish-scale tiles” – echo throughout Geddes’ collection, in the voices of his narrators.

Sedan chairs, parasols, fancy
eateries. Rights and privileges
of the well-to-do mean nothing

as I bend beneath the weight
of history and firewood.

In his introduction to The Terracotta Army Geddes says of the sculptor who made the figures, “Lao Bi was a strange mixture of artist and anarchist, wit and iconoclast, as capable of understanding the psychology of his subjects as he was of capturing their appearance and essence in clay. Bi’s iconoclasm – a peculiar term to apply to a sculptor, who is a maker rather than a breaker of images – lay in his determination to insist on the individual characteristics of the men he sculpted, in his resistance to the pressures to mass-produce an army of clones or look-alikes.” He might have been speaking of his own approach to the residents of Bianliang. The poems in this collection preserve what he calls “the sanctity of the idiosyncratic self,” insisting that the individual, as historian D.G. Shaw has put it, is “where meaning gets made and unmade, and where history is waged and witnessed.” (3)

The eponymous poem, Swimming Ginger, tells the story of a young woman employed at the ginger guild, beginning as she sets off for work in the third watch of the night – around eleven. She begins with an observation about her job –

Three weeks at the ginger guild
marks a girl for life.

- but she doesn’t say how or why this is. She only comments on the effect the mark has.

turn when you pass by, smiles
or expressions of distaste.

Whatever the nature of the mark, it’s discernable by casual passers-by. Something visible or able to be smelled, but she doesn’t specify. Instead, she tells us she goes out of her way to avoid the attention it draws, and, as if to deflect even the reader’s attention she diverts us with a description of her route, what she sees and what she would see if she passed by a little later.

I take

the back streets on my way
to work. Third Watch, no one’s
out this early on Jieshen Alley
sorting gold, gems, coloured

silk. Only hawkers of tripe, lung,
sheep’s head, clams, udder,
dove, quail, rabbit. Several wave.
Others try to sell me produce.

She’s moving through the night market, where men up to their olfactory nerves in blood and offal don’t seem to notice whatever is amiss. Her comfort amongst the butchers suggests she smells of something noticeable, and since she’s told us it’s her work at the guild that has marked her we can assume she smells of ginger.

In spite of her own attempt to change the subject, the narrator suddenly reverts to her opening comment for one cryptic sentence, almost as if the thought of it had intruded on the market scene in spite of her efforts. It’s not the job that pops up though. It’s the commodity she works with. The ginger guild, like all other Chinese guilds of the time, was set up to protect the merchants from exploitation by the government, but it presumably exercised control over the product they sold as well, perhaps sorting and grading the roots, and parcelling them for distribution. The narrator doesn’t bother to tell us what, exactly, she does. Her thoughts run to the uses of the root, without sharing them with the reader either, before veering back to the things she’s passing, the wine merchants, the Calabash Mutton Stew Shop, and then the bird dealers.

Fourteen things done with ginger,
two unspeakable. I can’t afford
wine on Crossroads Street or
Xu’s infamous mutton stew,

but I like to watch the merchants
trading hawks and falcons, claws
slicing into leather wrist straps,
What don’t they know, these birds

of prey, fierce eyes that miss nothing?

So far the ginger girl’s story has raised some not very significant seeming questions about her work and her scent and piqued our curiosity about all the things done with ginger, but her awareness of the watchfulness of the birds suggests perhaps something more is going on.

They note my peregrinations
on the weekend, slipping from town
on my lover’s wupan, hidden

under sacks, head and shoulders
nestled among unsold cabbages;
They watch us bathe in back eddies,
couple like mink beside the river.

You taste like ginger crab, my lover

There was a re-emergence of Confucian ideals in the Song dynasty, which included ideals about women. A woman was subject to the three obediences – – to her father when young, to her husband when married, to her sons when widowed, and sexual purity was to be preserved at all costs. Women of social standing went out only if accompanied by chaperones or servants. In this context the ginger girl slips away with her lover. She specifies his boat is a wupan is a smallish craft with a shallow draught that can slide easily into the backwaters. She indicates that he sells produce in the city, that he carries it in sacks and has left over cabbages. She lets us know the smell and taste of ginger has permeated her body. These details are somehow more important than those about her work in the guild. She hides herself as they leave the city, passing, with the rest of the water traffic on the scroll, through the East Water Gate, but once beyond the city she loses herself, for a brief period, in other possibilities.

Though I dress like a man
and learn to hold the steering oar
hard to starboard for hauling


One of the less obvious aspects of the poem, is its play with history. Our heroine ‘perambulates,’ as she puts it, through the city, following almost exactly the route taken by her contemporary Meng Yuanlao, a well off young civil servant in his late teens, who recorded his walk in a memoir called Record of a Dream of Splendour in the Eastern Capital, after the city had fallen to the Jin and he had fled south. Her footsteps follow in his. She walks down the same streets, through the same markets, past the same vendors, selling the same goods. Her restrictions shadow his freedom, the things she risks everything for are his to take for granted. When catastrophe strikes, he picks up and moves elsewhere. She doesn’t have the same option. She dresses like a man and steers her own course knowing this is the case.

I know the time is brief
before my belly starts to swell
and the merciless raptors single
me out, pick up the scent.

It is the final lines that bring the meaning of the entire piece into focus. The narrator, we have discovered, smells of ginger. What is it about the scent – invigorating, fiery and spicy, used in the perfume trade to give a warm top note to a blend - that makes some people smile, perhaps knowingly, and others to express their distaste? The smell is a pleasant one, and ginger was an indispensible part of life, for both medicinal and culinary reasons, so we can only assume it was something it was used for, not the smell itself, that caused the reaction. Fourteen things done with ginger, she says, almost as an aside. Two of them unspeakable. These are the things she has learned at the Ginger Guild, the things that have marked her, as surely as the smell of the root has. Ginger reputedly brings women “into season,” and was taken as a sexual stimulant and as an aid to conception. It was also used to encourage late or delayed menstruation. Any of these options would be common knowledge and likely to provoke one or the other response from a knowing audience. Perhaps the title “Swimming Ginger” provides a further clue to the narrator’s situation. That she’s pregnant she freely admits. That there is ginger oozing out of her pores is definitely implied, suggesting we’re to understand that ‘swimming’ here, is used, at least in part, in the sense of ‘abundant, copious, overflowing.’ To induce a miscarriage, one takes a large quantity of ginger over several days. She doesn’t ever come right out and say any of this. To the very end, she is both telling and not telling her story.

The girl who works in the Ginger Guild – we never do learn her name. For all the intimacy of her story she is completely guarded in the way she shares it - has somehow managed to slip, temporarily, out of the constraints imposed by her gender and the expectations of society. She is living in what the narrator of ‘A Recipe for Change,’ a later poem in the collection, calls

A pause. A brief interregnum
when freedom, when anything,
seems possible...

but when catastrophe strikes there will be no possibility of real escape for her. If the ginger doesn’t do its job, the raptors are gathering, and she’ll pay a steep price for her freedom. That the Ginger Guild girl and her story work as metaphors for the change the narrator of the later poem predicts is perhaps obvious, but she’s no less real for that.

(1) David Gary Shaw. Happy In Our Chains? Agency And Language In The Postmodern Age – History and Theory, Volume 40, Issue 4, Pages 1-9
(2) Heng Chye Kiang. Cities of Aristocrats and Bureaucrats:The Development of Medieval Chinese Cityscapes. NUS Press. 1999
(3) David Gary Shaw

Fourteen Things Done with Ginger
Although the narrator of ‘Swimming Ginger’ shared many things with Professor Geddes, I suspect the fourteen things one can do with ginger (two of them unspeakable) were not among them. Fortunately, we were able to ferret out the secret.

1.Brew it with sugar as a remedy for a cold or dice it with an egg to stop coughing.
2.Give it to infants to soothe their colic and their mother’s nerves.
3.Hang it on the front door to ward off evil spirits.
4.Give it to pregnant women for relief of morning sickness.
5.Give it to the elderly to relieve pain in their joints.
6.Grind it to a paste and apply to the temples to relieve headache.
7.Eat it while travelling, to prevent motion sickness or seasickness.
8.Give it to those prone to fouling the air with their wind to prevent the formation of gases, and to those who haven’t taken this precaution to facilitate the expulsion of their gases.
9.Give it to those with retentive bowels, to facilitate clearing.
10.Give it to your husband to improve his dyspepsia and his disposition.
11.Give it to your lover to increase lustful yearnings and guarantee success in love.
12.Stuff the body cavities of a corpse after its organs have been removed with powdered ginger and wadding, to forestall putrefaction.
13.Brew it into a strong tea and drink four cups a day for two days to bring on menses.
14.Take it in even larger quantities to induce a miscarriage.

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