Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Travelling with books - finding favorites.

This is a story of my favorite book, Water Shining Beyond The Fields, by poet and artist John Brandi, while travelling through the same SE Asian countries he was writing about.

Before I tell you about this wonderful book, I have to tell you how I found it. In 2009 I set off on a six week journey through SE Asia. For the first part I was following the footsteps of my literary icon, the French writer, Marguerite Duras,  (The Lover) through Vietnam. She was born in 1914 to French school teacher parents who were living and working near Saigon (when Vietnam was part of French Indochina) and she spent most of her first seventeen years growing up in small towns along the Mekong River.

I started in Hanoi, searching for the ‘house near the small lake’ that Duras lived in as a four year old. I didn’t find it, but it did prompt the beginning of my S.E. Asia bookshop crawl, as I went searching for clues in any bookshop I came across. In the process I found some other book gems, so perfectly in-sync with my trip, that I often felt they were placed on there just for me.

John Brandi’s haibun journal was one such find. I was fresh from the two day boat trip up the Mekong River from Saigon to Phnom Penh when I wandered into Monument Books, a large aircon emporium of great books ( and as I was to discover, with branches also in Laos and Myanmar).

Whether it was the cover, the title, the size, the paper, the pen and ink haiga drawings, that made it leap off the shelf into my hand, didn’t matter. I knew my trip was worth it just to find this book; a haibun travel journal written about the places I was travelling to. Too perfect!

After reading (no, savouring) Brandi’s book, haibun has become my favourite genre.

Haibun is a prosimetric (def: combining prose and poetry) form of descriptive writing that can be traced back to the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. He used it in his own travel journals, most notably his famous Narrow Road To The Interior.

In haibun the author describes a place, an event, person or scene in a paragraph or more, then punctuates it with a haiku ( a Japanese three line poem). The haiku shouldn’t merely repeat the description but take the reader to a deeper level of reflection and perception. (Modern haiku allows the poet all sorts of leeway and deviation from the strict 5-7-5 syllable rule; see Cor van den Heuvel’s excellent English language collection: The Haiku Anthology).

John Brandi is a master at it. Born in California in 1943 he is an inveterate traveller/painter/poet who traces his influences to the West Coast Beat tradition, Federico Garcia Lorca and the Japanese haiku masters. His work, published by numerous small presses and journals in the US has won a number of awards.

In the beginning of Water Shining Beyond The Fields,  Brandi tells how since boyhood he has always written down small incidents of travel, but not until the late 1990’s did he start punctuating his prose snippets with haiku.

In outlining his haibun writing process Brandi says:

These journeys were recorded as they unrolled, details usually scribbled in spiral note books on a bus, in a temple corner, cliff hopping, riding a bike rambling markets or ducking underneath a verandah in the rain. Late evening or next morning, cross legged on the floor, in a cafe, or on a rare chair before a desk, the scribbled prose blocks, with occasional haiku in between, would be transferred to a larger notebook. At home, after travels, I took to transcribing the journals. Donkey work at times, but mostly a pleasurable chance to relive the journey and discover where, exactly,  I had been - from a comfortable distance. The biggest effort  was to remain true to the notebooks, the immediacy of the first hand “takes” - no alterations to make the travels into something they weren’t .

The fact that he was describing a similar process of writing to the one I was practicing on my travels  was affirmation enough, but when I stepped into his haibun writing, all I could feel was excitement.

Brandi records what he sees, makes lists of concrete detail, evokes the senses: the taste, scent and texture of things in the same way Natalie Goldberg advises writers to do in her Zen classic: Writing Down The Bones. “He gets inside and outside things” says beat poet David Meltzer who first published his prose poems. " His work seeks source and renewal in new geographies and in the act of travel with its inevitable encounters and mysteries." It’s the opposite to 'fancy' writing, rather very down to earth, like his description of the sellers at Angkor Wat:

A few water vendors are hanging out; children mostly; and a woman hawking pirated guides to the ruins. Even at this hour the humidity is strong:

the postcard seller
folds out all ten views
and fans herself.

 He even turns others’ thoughts into a haiku as he retells a conversation his Angkor Wat guide, Ponheary Ly, a genocide survivor (who I met on my next trip).

We talk about world leaders, their inability to dissolve their egos, conquer their own greed. Ponheary punctuated the discussion with her thoughts about war:

“even if you win
you have the word
‘lost’ inside”

His haiku of course can also stand alone.You can skim through the book just taking inspiration from poems like:

in the empty niche
where Buddha sat
bees at work

stone vaults collapse

roof becomes sky, stars shine
from rain pools

fields shimmer
beyond a gate
made of reeds

One of my favourite passages describes his last night in Phnom Penh.

More beers, then too a quiet, surreal, restaurant, furniture piled downstairs, big clock ticking near the door. Jeff treats us to mint-onion-lime spicy shrimp salad, basil-beef curry and seafood satay. The waiters have smiles and dirty sleeves; they bring candles, disappear into the shadows. The dining room opens to a balcony overlooking a row of jagged rickshaws parked between moonlit frangipanis, as if in a sinister Shanghai 1936 movie. What a wonderful meal; what a strangely perfect place to say goodbye:

in the kitchen
fish playing in cold water
under the butcher block

 A couple of days later I tucked Brandi’s book tightly under my arm and set off for Angkor Wat. No Lonely Planet Guide for me, but the words of a poet leading me through temple ruins which for hundreds of years had lain hidden beneath the Cambodian jungle.

The sun doesn’t completely burn through the moist shade. Growth is turbulent, the odor herbal. A sweet exotic rot. Locusts whine among broken eaves and fallen porticos:

not the gods
but the banyans

(c) Jan Cornall 2013
Italicised text is from Water Shining Beyond The Fields - Haibun Travels, South East Asia.
John Brandi.

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Jan will lead Haiku Walking in Japan in Nov 1-11, 2016. This unique 10 day creative adventure will follow the footsteps of Japan’s famous haiku poet Matsuo Basho through an autumn landscape. Beginning in Tokyo we will follow Basho’s pilgrimage route staying in inns, hot springs and local hotels, walking 2-3 hours most days ( train and car in between) and ending our tour in Kyoto. Open to writers, poets and creative artists of all modalities. Daily creativity workshops will take their inspiration from our explorations of the haiku form. Bringing our attention to observing the small details of nature in the present moment, we learn how to take this stimulus into our chosen art form, creating a haiku journal of poems, observations, sketches and writings as we go. Itinerary, bookings and more info here

Jan Cornall is writer, performer and teacher who leads writing retreats in inspirational locations: Bali, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Bhutan, Japan, Morocco. A regular guest at festivals in the Asia Pacific region, Jan has performed her spoken and sung word at Ubud Writers Festival, Utan Kayu Literary Biennale (Jakarta), Hong Kong Literary Festival, Irrawaddy Literary Festival (Burma), Darwin's Wordstorm, QLD’s Reality Bites. Her novel Take Me To Paradise (set in Bali) was launched at Ubud Writers Festival in 2006. Jan is currently working on a book of short stories with Indonesian author Triyanto Triwikromo and a travel memoir that follows the footsteps of Marguerite Duras In Indochina.

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