Back Door Side Door Front Door : Which door might a Confucian take

Written by: T Wignesan

 
                   for René Etiemble  (Jan. 26, 1909 – Jan. 2002)*

 

 Barely a few speechless moments before your first words

           burned the « Coplas por la muerte de su padre » :

            

            ‘Nuestras vidas son los ríos       

       que van a dar en la mar,

       que es el morir ;

      ………………………………

       y llegados, son iguales

       los que viven por sus manos         

       y los ricos.’

 

      Is the open back door which emboldens courage

No untarnished name to be remembered by

No selfless mate to lay by your honour

       No issue laying about themselves for your prize

 

       Decidedly it was a door of stealth

As if choosing it  you let it be known

you were only merely passing by

       and stopped to hang your hat here for a while

 

Yet you let your kin and callers believe

      your whims were worth putting up with

      your mischievous tantrums and gripes

merely the mental athlete’s unwinding antics

 

The poïetic birth pangs of imminent glory

      just the mounting stones in the monumental lighthouse

that ages from hence would pick forth

      your works  your unfathomable literary resource

 

You upheld dozens who did leave behind a name

     a lasting name  not quite torn from solitary pain

Yet who could deny you could have bettered their fame 

     What undisclosed pain you harboured in your brain

 

Oh so strangely were you endowed with the intelligence

     of the Chun Tzu - that uncanny eagle’s scan

To rout out of the mazes of your students’ past lives

      just that one passqge through their Tierra del Fuego

 

But then you who completely espoused the rigours

      of that step by step mounting of respectful steps

Were unsparing in your demands of adherence

      to old Master Kung’s hierarchical obedience

 

An open hand ready to sign any cheque

      to succour the caller’s needs

     was alas ! also the whip hand

To keep the renegades in constant check

 

You were possessed of a rare brand of anger

      which shook the land about you

At those who bent justice to their unsavoury will        

      such thunder boiled from the guts of the earth

 

Now you’re gone and empty lecture halls echo your

     uncontainable ire where forged resounding silence

You said at the start of a seminal master-seminar :

     « Nul n’est prophète dans son pays ! »        

 

With the distaff side hanging on your every word

     wondering if your plans were for something yet undone

 

No stray notes lie about to record your travail

     No visible correspondence to make it all credible

Only books and books  files magazines and books

     and an overcrowdedly conquered mental pad                                    

jumbled words scratched into shaded inchoate sketches

     ganglia synapses   shot-up neurons

 

     no clues to a ragingly flailing mind

           none to record the lives you succoured

                   nor even the beneficiaries’ hurriedly scribbled thanks

          nor besides to the beclouding relations with one and all

                 not even a hint at why you may have refused

                        to forge a name beyond the beaten path of fame

 

Would going by the front door

in a fanfare of tv talkshows conference papers prize-giving ceremonies paper- interviews in ample studied poses and thoughts for future auto-memoirs volume one to seven the rest put-together posthumously in an omnibus

expurgated version with prefaces notes introductions critiques eulogies

 

          would it have been less like you

                                          to exit by the side-door   

the baywindow leading to reflected glory

     in a cool cloister of loosened leaves

stray poems in the tradition of your schooled masters

 

or did you burn them all

                                                in a fit of (cou)rage

     tore them to bits   incinerated by your fiery mind 

                     or squashed within yesterday’s leftovers

 

not caring who thought what

                     the mocking condescension

                       towards

 qu’en-dira-t-on

 

* The late Professor René Etiemble held the Chair of Comparative Literature at the old, pre-1968 Sorbonne University but retired in 1978 while a professor at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle University. In later life, he even refused nomination to the French Academy of Letters, though he did accept the Academy’s Prize. He was a prolific critic, essayist, and memorialist, having published some poetry and three novels. A renowned linguist and grammarian (a graduate of the prestigious and elite Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris), he remained until his very last days an inveterate Sinophile. He edited the Gallimard-instituted UNESCO oriental literary classics series, a fitting tribute to his encyclopaedic learning.

© T.Wignesan,  6 novembre 1997, Fresnes-94, France  (from the collection : Poems Omega Minus, Paris, 2002)