Alley, Rewi. Fragments of Living Peking and Other Poems. Ed. H. Winston Rhodes. Christchurch: New Zealand Peace Council, 1955.
Since there was so much response to my post on Duggan's copy of Hopkins, here are some pictures of another, not dissimilar, find I made a couple of years ago in a second-hand shop in Devonport:
Once again, it was the book itself that attracted me initially, but then, looking inside, oh ho!
Could that really be R. A. K. Mason's signature? I knew he was pretty keen on China, but surely he would have had rather more flowing calligraphy than that?
If it is him, then his annotations seem more bibliographical than interpretive in nature. He marks poems which can also be found in Rewi Alley's previous book Leaves from a Sandan Notebook (1950).
He does put a little mark by the passage in H. Winston Rhodes' preface recording "the impact that a People's China has made on one [i.e. Alley] who has spent his life in the effort to prepare for what he has called 'the new day'." This is Mason the committed Communist, remember, the author of "Sonnet to MacArthur's Eyes" ...
Besides that, most of the notes and marginal scribbles record pieces of factual information to be found in Alley's text, together with hints about places to visit. Mason did, after all, visit China "as first president of the New Zealand–China Society in 1957", according to his entry in the Oxford Companion to NZ Literature (quoted on the Book Council site), two years after the publication of this book, and so he was probably looking to Alley more as a source of information than of poetic inspiration.
This isn't the place to go in to my views on all those pat judgments about the (alleged) "failure" of Mason's poetic gift - I put my opinion on record in a review of Rachel Barrowman and John Caselberg's twin, competing biographies in WLWE: World Literature Written in English (UK) 40 (2): (2004) [144-47]. Suffice it to say that merely keeping on churning out verses into old age can scarcely be regarded (necessarily) as being true to one's muse ... Mason chose a different path, but only a fool (or a dyed-in-the-wool social conservative) should feel him or herself qualified to write him off as some kind of failure.
I guess what I like most about the book is the sense of Mason carefully preparing himself for his upcoming trip to China, eager to see the "new day" for himself, and probably equally keen to meet Rewi Alley, too.
By now Alley had been forced to 'closet' himself again, after living pretty openly as a homosexual in his early years in China: the puritan new government of the People's Republic made this a necessity - as Simon Winchester records in his fascinating new biography of that other great friend of China, Joseph Needham (Bomb, Book and Compass: Joseph Needham and the Great Secrets of China. 2008. Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin Group (Australia), 2009).
A wandering Lama from Kumbum
looks in, sees the boiler, puts hands together.
Says 'Om mane padme um.' and scuttles
head down. [p.43]
Mason's note at the top of the page seems to read "ambivalent attitude born of practical acquaintance."
So do we start anew, with
new wine in old bottles, as we have
been taught not to do. Yet, is the wine so new?
Perhaps it has just been mellowing
these thousands of years,
now is ripe for using ... [p.44]
There's something rather moving about these carefully marked passages, written long before the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four, and all the other great disillusionments really started to take their toll. As with Mason's career as a whole, I feel, it's best to listen patiently than commit oneself to hasty, pat judgments - "ambivalent attitude born of practical acquaintance", in fact.