Thursday, December 12, 2013

Poetry as Family History

This post was originally published at The Master’s Artist.

Founded by Hudson Taylor in 1865, the China Inland Mission played a major role in Christian missions to that country from 1866 to 1949, when the Chinese communists defeated the Nationalists and took control. All foreign missionaries were expelled.

The history of the China Inland Mission (today called the Overseas Missionary Fellowship) overlaps the period of almost a century of turmoil and upheaval in China – the decline and eventual overthrow of the emperor, the Boxer Rebellion, the presidency of Sun Yat-Sen, the period of the warlords and the rise of the communists, the Japanese invasion in the mid-1930s and the forces of Mao driving the forces of Chiang Kai-shek to what it now Taiwan. The missions had an impact; even today, house churches exist in China in the face of official government opposition, persecution and often imprisonment.

The story of the mission has been told in memoirs, biographies, histories and novels. Last year, author Bo Caldwell published City of Tranquil Light, a wonderful novel based on the story of her missionary grandparents in rural China in the 1920s and 1930s (I reviewed the novel last December). D.S. Martin, a writer and poet in Ontario, has also told the story of his grandparents, who were in China at about the same time as Caldwell’s but remained until expelled by the communists.

The difference is that Martin has told his story in poetry. And it is a close personal story, in that Martin’s mother was an infant when she accompanied her parents to China and grew up in the country.

So the Moon Would Not Be Swallowed is a collection of 16 poems based upon letters to and from his grandparents and relatives, as well as research on the mission itself. And what Martin demonstrates is that poetry can serve, and serve well, as family history, providing a depth, texture and understanding beyond a traditional family biography or history.

Martin’s grandparents, Ernest and Marian Davis, arrive in China in 1923 and settle in Honan Province. This is the time of roving armies and warlords; security becomes a daily thing to be considered and planned for. From “Darkening Landscape:”

From the open plain to our east soldiers
have driven the brigands across the rail line
& up into the shadowy hills we can see to the west
Up there somewhere
Are the missionaries taken five weeks ago

The poem reads like a letter home, describing their home and the city of Yencheng where they live, across the river from barley fields that “stretch to the horizon.” China in 1923 is largely an agricultural economy.

War and civil unrest continue and then abate for a time. Another report home is the poem “Good Housekeeping:”

Finally war is over
Trains are running
Mail’s coming through…

But there’s much teaching to do
& walks are taboo The beach is horrible
With blood and memory of war

The beheaded & shot were buried in sand
But dogs will be dogs
In China as elsewhere

These few simple lines convey both relief and the horror of what’s happened. You know exactly what the dogs are doing without it having to be overtly stated.

The poems remind everyone that the Davis family is a family of foreigners, and foreigners are often a target of blackmail or brutality by bandits and troops. Another poem describes how close to death they often are: “They lined us up / I took a deep breath hit the floor / & rolled under a bed / lying for two nights beneath the robber-chief’s breathing…”

“Evacuation” describes their required move to Hankow for their safety in 1927, followed by poems which describe letters home about everything except the evacuation. The Davises experience the Japanese invasion, and later are separated for a time. The chaos continues after the Japanese defeat. And the last poem, “The Weather is Changing,” uses weather to describe the change in government, and what will be the end of their time in China.

Martin has honored his grandparents with these poems, telling the story of young couple committed to serving God regardless of the personal consequences.


Martin blogs at Kingdom Poets.

Illustration by Fran Hogan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

Thank you for this interesting introduction to Martin's poems. What an extraordinary experience Martin had.