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Wednesday 26 April 2023 9:41am

DianaBridgeSigningWe celebrated the release of Deep Colour by Diana Bridge in Wellington at Unity Books on 20 April. It was a brilliant night of poetry, with a fantastic launch speech from fellow poet, Harry Rickett, and readings by Diana with special guest, Luo Hui (who read one of Diana's poems in Mandarin). A huge thank you to everyone who joined us to launch this wonderful new collection.

Here's the brilliant launch speech given by Harry Ricketts:

'Tena koutou tena kuotou tena koutou katoa

What a pleasure to be asked to launch a new book by a friend and fellow-poet, whose work I've followed for many years with increasing admiration. Deep Colour is Diana Bridge's eight collection of poems, and – before I forget to say so – very handsomely produced by Otago University Press. Price $25.

I'm going to begin with some words of mine that appear on the back cover of Deep Colour, because they provide the elevator version of what I want to say. After that, I'll elaborate a bit:
These subtle, understated poems timeslip between the here and now and the historically and culturally remote. Now we're walking in the Wellington Botanic Gardens; now we're spellbound by translations of the 'object poems' of Xie Tiao (464-499). But always beneath the lucidly precise surface, 'life gathers its themes' of loss, recovery and renewal.

So, in Deep Colour, from poem to poem, we travel in time and space – and, crucially, we travel across cultures. One of the great pleasures of Diana's work, and one relatively unusual in New Zealand poetry, is its strong curiosity about – and subtle engagement with – a variety of Asian cultures. In particular, many of her poems are, both directly and indirectly, infused with her scholarly knowledge and decades-long immersion in classical Chinese poetry.

This knowledge and immersion are wonderfully on show in the fourth section of Diana's new collection, 'Fifteen Poems on Things'. This sequence comprises fifteen of her translations of 'poems on things' by the fifth-century Chinese poet Xie Tiao (whose name I'm again no doubt mispronounced). Diana has included an illuminating note on 'poems on things', which are a sub-genre of the traditional Chinese lyric poem. She describes how these poems were often originally composed impromptu in a group situation their subject being some specific 'thing' or other – the wind, say, or falling plum blossom, or a candle. The poems had to be of a set length (the equivalent in English of eight lines), and the poet would be given a time limit, indicated by a notch in the wax stem of a burning candle. Anyone teaching a poetry class might like to try this: eight lines on some common object – but, perhaps, without the burning candle. Reading Diana's account reminded me of the impromptu sonnet competitions Shelley and Keats used to engage in: 'You have fifteen minutes to write a sonnet on –the Nile.'

Such impromptu challenges tested the Chinese court poet's descriptive powers, but also their ability to slip in allusions to other poems and songs as a kind of emotional shorthand, the allusion expanding in the mind like magic flowers expand in water. Such 'object poems' also challenged the poet's ability to introduce towards the end a sense of personal feeling or reaction, often from a woman's point of view. Part of the challenge for a modern translator, such as Diana, is to create poems which still work as poems in their own right, poems which sound at once foreign and strange, yet also almost local and familiar. This is incredibly hard to achieve, but Diana's sequence, I think, wonderfully succeeds in this. Here are a few lines from 'A candle':

Wavering her hair mass's shadow;
Dazzling brilliant on filigree gold.
How, on an autumn-moon evening,
Could you leave me to my bedchamber's gloom.

DianaBridge&Luo_newsletterWe'll be hearing more about this sequence in a moment. I've gone on about these translated poems, because I'm already really fond of them and because, as Diana notes in her acknowledgements, many of her own poems behave in a comparable way: they focus on an object, a scene, a moment, watching a caterpillar about to drop into a baby's pram in Singapore, walking in Karori Cemetery, thinking of Gus, her daughter's British Blue cat, riffing off woodcuts by the eighteenth-century Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro in a book in the New York Public Library (that 'tabernacle', as Diana so aptly calls it).

Whatever the starting point, the poem will usually begin quite calmly, even factually: 'Her pram is a walled garden open to everything that waves / in spikes and fronds over her head'; 'A British Blue's nature is puzzling; we're not sure / how he figures things out'; 'I am holding Hamlet in my hands. A play of foils, / true and poisoned, scaffolds a death scene.' The poem then creates, with a cool, deepening intensity, a kind of pool out of which there surfaces, or in which there is flickeringly glimpsed, some direct or glancing (but always somehow jolting) realisation or perception. The realisation is often of loss (a number of these poems are elegies of one kind or another), but that loss is often intertwined with a sense of recovery and/or renewal.

Of course, poems themselves are or can be a form of renewal, even if that renewal is simply to keep for a little longer in a wreath of words those who are lost to us. As the last line of the title poem of Deep Colour has it: 'Now she is gone and not to know is loss.' The concluding lines of this poem are just terrific, I think:

Day after day
the past waits for the present to fall

into its hands. One truth will soon displace
another. I am left with this. A life gathers its themes,
some of which it may never weave. Deep colour
twirls in the tank, standing in for what I didn't ask.
Now she is gone and not to know is loss.

There are so many 'hit' phrases in those lines – and throughout the collection as a whole; I'm especially envious of 'the past waits for the present to fall // into its hands': the past here simultaneously presented as nurturing carer (reassuring) and as lurking kidnapper (alarming). Incidentally, the term 'deep colour', as I'm sure you all knew, but I didn't, refers (according to Google) to 'a dark or medium colour that is relatively bright'. Google goes on: 'This is based on allegorical thinking whereby such colours look like a deep pool of rich colour'. Diana's new collection is certainly a 'deep pool of rich colour' and, beneath its 'lucidly precise surface', there also lies a deep pool of rich feeling.

Thank you, and a toast to Diana and her new collection, Deep Colour. Diana and Deep Colour'

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