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The Shard Box, by Liz Niven

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In 1792, four years before the death of Burns, Henry Dundas struck a deal with Lord Macartney and sent him off to lead the first British expedition to China. When they were received into the emperor's presence almost a year after they set out, King George III's delegation were treated with cool formality, their gifts—telescopes, planetariums—were declared no more than amusements for children, a lens amusingly scorched a eunuch's finger, a suspension carriage was declared unusable as the emperor would never allow anyone to sit higher than himself with his back turned. Seventy years later, when the imperial palace was destroyed by British and French troops, the gifts were found untouched, relegated to a stable.

China is closed. The cliché of the inscrutable stare has a truth in it. Yet it is also open, an economy growing on the world stage: a paradox. There is no Great Wall. There are lots of walls, built in different places, over different eras, and there were always ways to get around them.

Liz Niven's new poems are not emulations of Chinese forms, perspectives or attitudes but rather firmly and confidently earthed in Scotland, reading parts of that massive country in the east from the point of view of our infinitely various, much smaller one here in the north-west European archipelago, after a number of visits there. Her techniques are diverse: translation into Scots of Chinese poems, Brechtian observation of foreign things, jokes; they are often understated, ironic, compassionate, unsentimental, unobtrusively restrained. Some are very funny, some poignant, some angry. None are grand: there is no trace here of the pompous or pontificating. Many are prompted by particular events in recent history: the protests in Tian'anmen Square, the investment in the show for the Olympics, the one-child family policy, government enforcement of social organisation. They are not moralistic in any self-righteous western way; they do not proceed from the sense that the west is morally superior because of the facile rhetoric of democracy and justice. Rather, they proceed from two unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions.

The first is social: to ensure freedom, you need regulations. Ah, but what sort of regulations would you like?

The second is to do with the structure that underlies all human relations, communist, capitalist, the ground of all great tragedy and likewise all comedy, that which connects us and keeps us separate: the family. What sort of family do you come from? What sort of family do you belong to?

Two of Niven's children have lived in Beijing and her visits have been prompted by family. This is a perennial and happy connection, but the novelty of the poems also reflects the strangeness of foreign encounter and the particularity of the historical moment, in this transitional time. So we are vouchsafed both security and uncertainty, both reliable affirmations and unpredictable encounters and outcomes. We read the book at various levels: immediately, for the freshness of the verse, more deeply, for the uniqueness of the circumstance, and more deeply yet, for the different connections and patterns that emerge, and then again historically, as if some poems were good journalism in verse, reporting on events of consequence.

For example: the global economy is a cautionary reminder of the relativity of cultural value, in 'Maybe made in China': '"Made in China" clothes much of the West / Maybe check that before voicing protests.' In 'The Song of the Migrant Worker', the building of the ring road round Beijing is described in the voice of one of the labourers, although the language is unaffected English, as if to eschew the novelty of a vernacular voice and to suggest that the same story might be told in just about any country: 'Family back in Hunan Province wait. / Three hundred yuan a month we send them back.' When I visited China in 2007, the anthology of poems and essays in which my work was published in Chinese translation was for sale at two hundred yuan: two-thirds of this worker's monthly wage. 'Migrant workers' takes the theme further, this time in Scots, and linking out to America: 'flittin frae citie tae citie' ... 'Mair Steinbeck than Kerouak.' There's a lovely, poised, wry poem called 'Stable economy': a man fills the cart on his bike with pottery horses for sale, proceeding steadily as the currency is 'fluctuating wildly.' Specific places—the 798 Art District—call to mind the factory workers whose ghosts might inhabit these now élite art venues and exhibition-spaces. [...]

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