Near the end of his writing life George Scarbrough (1915-2008) used an alter ego, writing in the voice of the legendary eighth-century Chinese poet, Han-shan, whose poems were simple, direct, and frank, never failing to call attention to the flaws in society as he saw them. Writing in the voice of Han-shan gave Scarbrough the means to speak directly about the social abuses he saw around him but could not address so clearly in his own first-person voice. “At the Last Festival” appears in Under the Lemon Tree, a new, posthumously published collection of Scarbrough’s Han-shan poems. In this essay Robert Cumming, the book’s editor, explains the significance of Han-shan to Scarbrough. He will also discuss George Scarbrough and his work at the 2011 Southern Festival of Books, held October 14-16 in Nashville.
At the Last Festival
“All things happy and true
Happen under the lemon tree,”
Han-shan remembers saying
To the young prince on
An April day when order and
Arrangement ruled the garden
And gnomes were still in style.
“Poetry originated in gardens,”
He had said, “among exotic trees
And flowers and the mazes
Of topiary art. Music’s provenance
Had been among fountains, aided
And abetted by birdsong,
Wind chimes, and verbs that moved.”
The armature of any garden,
However, he believes is words,
And he had sought to charm the boy
With the mysteries of philology,
Missaying in order to say, he said.
But words failed him now
At the sight of ruined imperial
Arcades and belle tournures.
Around him hedges were untrimmed,
And once exotic flowers allowed to go
Wild in unkempt corners.
No yellow bird sang above
The brackish pool where golden carp
Once glinted in the sun.
The lemon tree was gone.
Through the open door of what
Had once been his beloved house,
“Come buy! Come buy!
Oranges fresh from the country!
Melons from a far province!”
Settling himself among cushions
Of silk and figured leather, studying
His manuscripts, Han-shan began the journey
Home as if he had never been away.
Copyright (c) 2011 by the estate of George Scarbrough. All rights reserved.