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  • Among the Mountains of Guang-Xi Province, in Southern China
  • Robert Gray (bio)

Among the Mountains of Guang-Xi Province, in Southern China I had been wading for a long while in the sands of the world and was buffeted by its fiery winds, then I found myself carried on a bamboo raft (I am speaking literally       now), poled by a boatman down the Li River.

A guest in Beijing at the Central Academy of Arts, brought to the countryside, I'd wandered out alone. A sheen on the night and across the ranks of       water, and close mountains that joined smoky earth and sky.

When I saw the landscape around Guilin City and realized it was the same as the painter Shi Tao had known it I felt suddenly exalted, as though I were riding in the saddle of a cloud.

The mountains' outlines were crowded one behind another and seemed a wild loosening of the brush, a switchback scrubbing, rounded or angular, until the last fibres of the ink had been used up, again and again.

Those narrow blue mountains make endless configurations. They are by far the main crop the province bears. Chuang Tzu said that a twisted tree is not useful and so it can survive for a thousand years.

A lead star plunged behind the mountains as if the galaxy were crumbling more quickly than them. How to convey the strangeness of this region? I thought of migrating whales that break together, almost upright,       out of the sea. [End Page 163]

That suggests their power, but not their stillness. Some mountains reminded me of tall-hatted mushrooms, some of veiled women, among a laden caravan, but all had a corroded       edging of trees. We drifted by a few other rafts and their lanterns.

At times I saw rhinoceros horns, or a blackened cathedral; at times the beauty of an old carnivorous jawbone. One place was as dramatic as a vertical windsock. There was a broken palace in a fog-bound wilderness.

The next day we travelled to the village of Xin Ping and found there drabness and squalor, a terrible indifference and       listlessness. Worst of all, the poverty in people's faces, the smallness of those lives. Everything was the colour of dust and of       smoke.

How can they not be embittered, and millions with them? They see the comfort of cities, each night, on the communal       television, just hours off, and behind a stone door. Earth could not bear the waste, were they to have a fraction of what       they know.

We who'd alighted there, for a few days, could love nature because of its indifference, and found our freedom       in that. To do so, one must be secure. The same type of mountains were at       Xin Ping but I saw in them the sadness of eternal things.

Robert Gray

Robert Gray was born in Australia in 1945, grew up on the north coast of New South Wales—where his father owned a banana plantation—and moved to Sydney at nineteen. His collections of poetry include After Images (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2002), which won both the Age Poetry Book of the Year and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry. With Geoffrey Lehmann, he edited two anthologies, The Younger Australian Poets (Hale & Iremonger, 1983) and Australian Poetry in the Twentieth Century (W. Heinemann, 1991). In 1990, he received the Patrick White Award. An avid amateur painter, he has also published art criticism.