Earthenware model of a horse, unglazed
I, too, am a survivor.
My eroded coat dappled with lichen and stars.
My spirited tail has long
One millennium and then another
has wheeled on by
since the potter squatting on his dusty stool
thumbed my jowls
to the perfect roundness – a gesture
tender despite his production line – and nicked
my nostrils in this haughty flare. ‘Stocky’
they called me
in the catalogue. I admit,
though hollow, my belly’s a swollen gourd, buddha-full.
Ears pricked, mane brush-stiff,
my grin is quizzical, sometimes
even a grimace
behind the smudgy glass.
My hooves were long
buffed by clay ranks of imperial grooms.
Reserved for only the finest tombs
my kind maps out the trade
between civilisations –
one squat stallion for fifty bales of silk.
They rolled out the Silk Road before us
all the way to the walled city of Chang’an. The Han
emperor sent for us to fill
his echoing stables. He called us his Tian ma,
‘celestial horses’, expecting our hardy stock
when the time came
at last to carry him up the narrow passes
into heaven. Some nights
of galloping across scrubby plains, the herd’s sweat
tart as highland apricots around me –
far blue peaks retreating into memory.
Porcelain tea caddy painted in underglaze blue
Far blue peaks retreating into memory
as wizened cedars twist against a glaze
of sky. A pagoda perched on a lonely outcrop
where a scholar might withdraw to think –
or dream, perhaps, of cicadas thrumming
through misty branches, singing of past lives
as long-sleeved concubines, or frustrated literati.
These painted scenes of oriental whimsy I reveal
might snatch the gaze of a well-heeled visiting gent
but are studiously ignored by these lily-fingered
daughters of the prosperous Liverpool merchant –
a man of great taste, my owner, he spotted me
half-buried on a stall of flighty fans and girdles.
His girls will learn to pour this steaming, still-exotic
brew that measures everything from Empire’s
horizon to the charms of fashionable girlhood
while glancing coyly – spout poised – from the corner
of an eye. I watch it all from my silver tray
and try not to think of the time the footman
(inaptly named) nearly lost his footing
and flung me clean into the air, scattering
my precious cargo all over the Turkish carpet.
Thank goodness its pile cushioned my fall.
Though I might – like it – have hailed from foreign shores
I’ve made a home for myself, you see. One day
the English will forget who invented tea.
Finely potted white glazed porcelain cup, Dehua ware
The English will forget who invented tea.
The way you might not guess, at first,
who made me, or why. The riddle of my origins
begins on a spinning wheel in Fujian, and ends
across two continents, with a silversmith
in Restoration London. I was made once
in a kiln’s stark flame, feeling the translucent
glaze harden at my lip. Once cool, I was ready
for the kiss of alcohol. On summer evenings
between friends I brimmed with rice wine
no less refined than my own pure moon –
this white the Chinese call Dehua, but you
might know as blanc-de-Chine. Some twists
in my provenance are lost even to me:
a Pope’s embassy, the halls of Versailles,
hands that held me up to the light in awe
at my lustre; placed me in locked cabinets
with seahorses, sextants, unicorns’ tails.
But somewhere along the way that clod
of a smith insisted on gilding the lily.
I still remember the grip of those red-hot
scallops clamped around my rim, the strange
weight of this metal foot: never again
will I rise for a toast, bright against the night’s
black silk. Remade in your imagination:
a sugar bowl. The brittle lumps would clink
against my delicately tapering sides
like coal into a pail. A creature of two
worlds, but belonging to none. Tell me,
is there a word for it in this new tongue?
Thinly potted porcelain Kraak dish painted in underglaze blue
Is there a word for it in this new tongue?
The class of ships the Portuguese named caravela,
and the French caraque. Swift three- or four-masters,
they were kraak to the Dutch, whose guttural pitch
I first heard from the sailors who loaded us up
in our straw-stuffed crates: Porcelain vessels of diverse sorts
the manifest called us stowed by the hundreds
of thousands. Wares named for those stately ocean-
going craft sailing homeward from the mythic East
freighted with silk and damask barrels of oakum
quicksilver, cinnabar, camphor. Till disaster struck:
wrecked off Goa’s golden coast. As the cold current
of decades flowed past us, my stacked brethren crusted
with barnacles and powdery salt, mouths filling up with
silt. Still, some of us continued to gleam like the shells
that yawned in those depths. Dredged up from the dark
they pieced my fragments back to wholeness, masked
each crack with filler and skill. At last I came to rest
in this museum: a heavy Victorian vitrine, whose subtly
distorting glass recalled for me light filtering through
underwater weeds. That night in the Blitz was my last
near escape. Nothing like the kiln’s clarifying flames
that fire was something else: ranks of precious artefacts
blasted into tinder, their cases smashed; rare specimens
reduced to scattered feathers, shards of wired bone.
In the aquarium, fish boiled in their tanks or swilled
down drains; the model fishing boats went up in smoke.
I’ve seen what it takes to cradle a wreck back to the light.
Leaving the fractures for all to see they rebuilt this place.
From the other side of ruin we found safe passage
Pair of Incense Burners: Dog of Fo
A queer old pair, like two
you can tell by the ribboned
our left front paws. Widowers.
our yang, once dandled upturned
to signal their maternal sides.
a singed mane, a broken
you’d never guess from these
Panting, we proffer the leashes
as if bounding up for walkies.
ferocious guardians flanked
door or shrine, driving off
growl – or a puff of smoke
Thrust together by chance
muddle along. Two centuries
Not exactly native here
haunting your country piles
Most recently we took up
mantlepiece to sentinel
We did this duty solemnly
like secret service agents
As for that spell in the
there. We still shiver at
We are lions, you know.
we do resemble pug-nosed
because our maker never
as he did on China’s east
would stroke our backs
more flamboyant than hers
left shoes. Male and male:
balls we crook beneath
Our long-lost mates, yin to
cubs like eerie miniatures
Still, we’re not unscathed:
spout, betray a tragic history
benignly dentured grins.
gripped between our teeth
You might forget our role:
either side of a traditional
ill-spirits with a deep-bellied
from the other end’s hole
or a canny auctioneer, we
on, we hardly ever quarrel.
we’re adopted denizens –
while failing to blend in.
station on a dusty English
it seemed, a carriage clock.
heads erect, ready to leap
from our blocky pedestals.
museum store, let’s not go
the sight of bubble-wrap.
The dog thing’s a common
foreign ghosts like you. True,
shih tzus, but that’s simply
saw a lion up close, living
coast. The lady of the house
with their armoured plaits
The admiring this fine green glaze.
Stoneware dish, Longquan kilns
Admiring this fine green glaze
might bring to mind
mountain pine, undertones
of grey and jade
ringed like tiny moons
along its darker side.
Or the travellers among you
of the desert aloe –
its pale spines
picked out by starlight
and by camels
in caravans, scenting hidden
veins of green
across the empty sand.
Once upon a time
dishes of my shade
were known as celadon –
a shepherd in a French romance
sporting grey-green ribbons.
Others say it’s a garbled echo
of Saladin, who
a thousand years ago dispatched
forty greenware pieces
fired in far China
as a gift for the Sultan of Syria.
Later the Ottomans
prized us at imperial banquets
since in the presence
of poison’s slightest
– it was said –
such vessels would begin to
or split apart with a terrible crack.
the pomegranates that bled
their ruby drops
across my face
the heads that rolled.
Thanks to my vigilance
outlived every single meal –
until the Silk Road’s
led me deeper west.
I, too, am a survivor.