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In the Chinese Ceramics Gallery

 

Earthenware model of a horse, unglazed

 

I, too, am a survivor.

My eroded coat dappled with lichen and stars.

My spirited tail has long 

snapped off. 

 

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 

 

I dream 

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

 

From the other side of ruin
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.
misconception amongst
we do resemble pug-nosed
because our maker never
as he did on China’s east
would stroke our backs
more flamboyant than hers
we found safe passage.
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

a lichened

mountain pine, undertones 

of grey and jade

ringed like tiny moons

 

along its darker side.

Or the travellers among you 

might think

of the desert aloe – 

its pale spines

picked out by starlight

 

and by camels

bound

in caravans, scenting hidden 

veins of green

across the empty sand. 

Once upon a time

 

dishes of my shade

were known as celadon

named for

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 

drop

– it was said –

such vessels would begin to

 

sweat

or split apart with a terrible crack. 

I remember

the pomegranates that bled 

their ruby drops

across my face

 

the heads that rolled.

Thanks to my vigilance 

the Sultan

outlived every single meal – 

until the Silk Road’s

midnight cactus-trail 

 

led me deeper west.

I, too, am a survivor. 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Note: These poems emerged from a residency at the Travel, Transculturality and Identity in England (TIDE) project, based at the University of Liverpool and led by Nandini Das. They respond to objects held in the Chinese ceramics collection at the Liverpool World Museum, and form part of a new multimedia installation on permanent display in their World Galleries. Special thanks to Lauren Working, Emma Martin and Alex Blakeborough.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a Hong Kong-born poet and academic. Her first book, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015), won the T.S. Eliot Prize. She teaches poetry at King’s College London.


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