A hundred years ago this August, a French diplomat named Alexis Leger, posted to Peking at the height of World War I in 1916, rode into the Xinchan mountains, west of the city, and wrote, in an old temple there, one of the most haunting ever meditations on the rise and fall of civilisation. He had found, he said, the perfect alienation from space and time, to write a placeless, timeless epic of the wanderings of peoples. He had escaped, for a few brief weeks, the pressures of history. Having written Anabasis, he shelved it, before publishing it back in France in 1924, under the nom-de-plume Saint-John Perse, in which name, decades later, he was to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1960.
Why, in Ireland, should this centenary be remembered? Firstly, because of his friendship with WB Yeats, whose own “Anabasis”, with its Chinese mountain philosophers contemplating the collapse and rebirth of civilisations, appeared as the poem “Lapis Lazuli”. Secondly, because his upbringing on the colonial island of Guadeloupe makes him a child, like ourselves, of the Gulf Stream, at the intersection of history and epic. And finally, because we too live in a new nomadic age, where anabasis, or the wanderings of peoples, is as old as the first Anabasis of the Greek writer Xenophon.
Saint-John Perse, Peking, 1917
Far from Ypres or Passchendaele, looking out
Beyond Mongolia, lies the hinterland
Of imagination. Watchtower and redoubt,
The lost Qing dynasties, are grass in the wind.
Gone the binary world of time and place,
The Occident, the Orient, interchangeable –
Pieces in a chessgame … On he plays
With Liang Kichao, with Liu. Already the Stranger
Forms inside him, like a pure idea –
He who writes the book of yellow dust,
Who contemplates the ends of civilisations,
The beginnings … Of all hours, these the happiest
While the stable-boy from the Legation
Currycombs his horse of desert fame
And tree frogs, a mosquito, oddly tame,
Perch at his plate, a woman pours green tea
And the epic goes on forming. Anabase –
The movement of peoples, after Xenophon,
To and from the ocean ...
The north-west wind. She lights the Russian stove
In the winter garden, where a lizard plays
At killing insects, and the War goes on.
Liang Kichao has moved. A counter-move
From Liu Tsiang-tsen. Outside, blown sands
Of plague, oblivion, warlords at the gate.
Tomorrow to set up a quarantine.
Tomorrow Li and his hundred concubines
To be sheltered here, in this state within a state,
The diplomatic zone ... Minutiae,
Duties. Let the real thing grow
Inside, where no man sees it. Lei Hi-Gnai
His chessmates call him. Thunder beneath the Snow.
And some day, come the summer, he will go
Behind the veil of time and history
Where the gods lie around, in smashed theogonies
Of stone, to sleep in the ruins of Tao-Yu
And wake to the human caravan setting out
All over again, forever going west –
The wild geese flying, absence of whereabouts,
Mountain cold, a mythic space as vast
As Inner Mongolia, setting itself free.
By the roads of all the earth, the Stranger to his ways …
The child of an island race, in the Gulf Stream,
Who sees it all already in a dream
(Gone the binary world of time and place).
The horse on the desert route, who scents the sea
And dies inland. The son without a mother
Grown into a man eternally other
Sleeping under the stars, in high Xinchan
Tonight, Beijing in the distance, incoming flights,
Thalassal surge of traffic, avenues of lights …
Here comes the boy, from the other side of time,
With eggs, a pullet, legends of Verdun,
A child of the future, beating a little stone drum
Below by the river, for the ferry across
From Tiananmen Square to Xenophon’s wilderness.