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IN Paris the Arab tea-houses and corner-store dervishes debating uncommon theologies, the sad-eyed students and Malian street enthusiasts, are doubtless still on the street where they have been left in imagination, there yet not there – there was an abstract argument implied in the act of removal: to be is to be perceived, yet to be perceived is to exist as a value, and what value do things lost, abandoned or unremembered still possess?

You would go into the Turkish place for sweet mint tea that it was impossible to pay for. Had you wanted or intended it, it would still be impossible to offer money for the tea. It was a gift, out of nowhere. After the tea, a nargileh of cinnamon or apple-flavoured tobacco or both together. The people, men with neat hair, women moving behind them, secret stage-directors, would happily talk – French, Arabic, little English. What language is spoken in your country? We would not know, we have never been there, we have never thought of it. It was the most limpid kind of communication, tiny glasses balanced on our knees, strangers come out of the grit of streets, the traffic and constant street-cleaning machines spraying down man, dog and tree alike, Catholic cleanliness an echo of all the pure pilgrimages, how they spoke of Mecca and the purity of white cloth, the white heart of renunciation, the white light of illumination.

You never wore white.

They were illuminated, as all things were, by the twilight emergence of the café-lights, the more lurid reddish glows from regular bars and the glaring fluoro of West African hairdressers, a heightened bustling with the starlings in the plane-trees at the coming of the night. One of the men there said his name was Hassan and he had sought refuge in Paris from old war and old disintegration: uncles, family house, sisters, sisters’ children, disintegrated in Beirut, Jerusalem, Tehran – which birds of Paris were flying there now? You both could see starlings erupting over the twilights of rubbled walls, minarets saintly pink in the fading, foggy sky, fumes of holiness and disintegration from mosque and car-yard, a million two-stroke engines beetling under the swoop of the birds, which still carried Paris in their hidden bird’s ears…

It didn’t matter that you had never been to those places, though you had been to others. Hassan showed you his hand, the missing joint of the fourth finger, a street-bomb when he was twelve – but what’s different now? he yelled, there in the tea-house, five miles away in the suburbs there are a thousand burning cars tonight, Molotov cocktails, bonfires, celebration, sacrificial joy, you destroy and smash it down so it can grow and be built again. The creator-destroyer – you know him? Him? you asked. Yes, Him! Him! Hassan was excitable, then he could laugh as easily, replenish your glass and speak again, of his own relocations and removals, his fiancée who he had never seen again, the sound of his brother’s oud in the courtyard in the warm evenings – my friend, Hassan said, you were never there but you know already how it sounds, the strings in the light air of memory, how she came to me with a serious face and her textbooks in her hand – she always wanted to go to Australia, become immunologist, immune from what? I would ask her. You can’t be protected from anything, it all comes in, there is no escape, no reason to be safe – she called me fool, me, Hassan, a fool! Maybe she’s there now, strange place Australia. I cut my chances, come to Paris, you see the lights, coming on all over the city, everywhere, this is why I love it here, there is always light, somewhere in the city, my friend, please remember this, I would not lie…

It was true, the city was seduced by lights of fruit-sellers, Metro corridors, ambulances and police-cars regularly sheering through light-filled people, nicotine or hashish-lights, cinematic lights, Jean Renoir and Edith Piaf glowing lanterns and blitzkrieg halogens blaring in the memory of the others who passed them on in prismatic reflection to all the unknowns, milled there under the nuclear Tour Eiffel daring the night every night with the lights of a million sacrificed fireflies, the insect-world summoned and thrown into that extravagance of illumination, enough to roll cigarettes by down by the lit-up slow water, the faint lights of hunger under the bridges, walkways, shadowed space between candle-lit boats. Hassan had said, every time, what do you see today my friend? Always a light in his far-travelled eyes and he knew the question was a metaphor and a koan because if it could be easily answered, as easily as he himself had asked it, it might be merely something glimpsed or supposed, in the light of reason, or happenstance, not seen as you see – he would point her out – the small girl on the pavement who went by singing at the top of her lungs and blowing kisses to all the passersby, or the old woman with the wheeled crate of groceries who passed by at exactly that moment every night, 7.04pm, as often in the rain as in the balmy late-summer, the imam or the intellectual in his robes touching his moustache, adjusting his glasses, coming from a meeting where he has been plotting total world illumination. Do you see, Hassan asked always at those end-of-days. Do you see?

You saw and you didn’t see. You saw that you and Hassan might have been brothers, along with the Bulgarian or Ukraine illegals, that tomorrow he might not be in the tea-house at dusk, sent back into the dusty places, or you yourself snatched in the night by ancient ghosts or unforeseen fears and kept to your own unquiet dark, the unlighted room, the blindness to light. So many were there for a week, a month, always there at a corner table, over a Turkish coffee and a cigarette, and then one day gone. Where was the henna-hair woman with the Marseille tarot-pack? In Marseille? Hospital? Council-house in the dark banlieu? She would be sure to reappear, surely. In the passing of days, though, she she never did. You looked out for her, la rouge, hard to miss…

You saw the Chinese toy-seller moving from café to restaurant always trying out the same wares on an unlikely clientele, dragging plastic gewgaws out of the same huge laundry bag, frayed at the handles, his suit never changed, silver nylon, tie wound too tight around a chafed neck. You never bought anything, though you wanted to. You had no use for anything he could offer – plastic machine-guns, talking poodles, flimsy sunglasses, made in Shanghai, Shanghai, Shanghai. He would never give up, all the way back to Shanghai, had learnt the hard way, good bosses like Mao or Deng, hard worker, no sweat, no problem, cigarette behind greasy ear, whipped out in one of many idle moments, snapped between big white teeth. He would stay long after the invitation, even Hassan snarled at his approach. Refuses my tea – can you believe it? Too much sugar, too sweet for him. Bonne courage, seller of useless toys.

You didn’t want to feel sorry for the Chinese man but you did, and every time you thought to offer money for something, it didn’t matter what it was, the hard sting in his eyes stopped you, you thanked him before he moved on, but he was alone, slipping into the little India flashing restaurant-lights with the laundry-bag over his shoulder. It was always full, always pregnant with unspent abundance, potential, an excess of life.

Everywhere the same abundance. Untested, untasted, very often. It was a fullness that wouldn’t be exhausted by use. By day’s end the streets were again occupied with a guerilla army of dancing men, moving from foot to foot, exchanging hand-slaps and Euro bills, confidence, radical doubt. Not long before it was AK-47s in their hands, long black arms, khaki drab dulling the eyes. For some it had started even earlier, as ten, twelve year-olds in the Congo, the Sudan, Uganda. Where there have been craters of loss, life floods back in. Large tracts of emptiness assaulted with sudden rainfalls. A flip of the cards, a visa, a passport to unseen worlds.

Fullness, freedom at hand – so why untested? You could hold potential in cupped hands, but it needed something more. You were luckier, not a refugee, nor black, nor illiterate, you could move through all things like a chameleon. They had the widest smiles but the least to choose from. They could pull brooms through the streets, pick up garbage-bins at dawn, hanging on the back of the trucks, still laughing in bright green and yellow fluorescent clothes. You laughed as well, the same jokes, the same loneliness, and caught the Metro to work in an office at a blackboard with black ink on your fingers. In the courtyard the black children always playing with plastic balls – large families, a lone mother, the fathers never nearby, never showing face. They had less choice than you, though their French was native, their songs at play so loud they ran into the classroom, upended tables, sent distracted students out for cigarette breaks, standing apart, the children at one side, the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie at another.

You stood in the middle and waited. In the abundance, the Paris drizzle, a mild rainfall, nothing too spectacular, your potential, and theirs, still held in the hand. The Parisian youth, sharp tousled hair, Cocteau clones ambisex cool, looked out for the same thing – in America, land of plenty, full with towers of milk and honey. The anthrax was a thing of the already-forgotten past. You could offer them the language, they promised continued hegemony. Paris would have culture bleeding like haemmorhoids from its pores til the end of time. So much fullness there was always too much to see, too much art made the retina go slack, too much mental sex and things began to droop. Such rich ideas with such negligible effect. The children would start yelling again, singing songs from Abidjan, listen to us, they yelled, crying now too, listen to this song, you’ve never heard it before.

You hadn’t, it was true, but the traffic was loud and constant, and there were people singing on almost every Paris street-corner. Accordions, steel-drums from Senegal, balalaikas from Belorus, punksters from Iowa in front of a reassuring Starbucks with Uncle Sam berets. When it was time for lunch, cigarettes still smouldering, the students went to Burger King. It was good practice, they thought, to learn how to speak as the locals would, if they were here.

At the Archipel Cinéma on Sebastopol she would be there, reading the reviews, though you never went inside with her. She was too critical of all the films, nothing ever satisfied. Levinas in the no-name wine-bar was better. Levinas was always there, would live forever. Totality and Infinity was her bible – her M.A. thesis, parachuted into the Congo Civil War, how does the Other pass muster now? her father from Strasbourg staying there only so long for her to be born there. She never saw him now, only the mother, divorced, in the country house in Aix. The cultural strain, she said, it couldn’t be sustained. And she was the filet in the middle. She would never see any movie with you – none of them were serious enough, and you were, after so much talk still an unknown quantity. A passenger in space, moving through. You will be gone soon, she said. Another white man with a plane to catch.

The fruit-seller was always there, at Chateau d’Eau, even at near-midnight. He knew it by heart after a couple of weeks: five Euro of red grapes. Thank you Sir, in his Sri Lankan English, and you wondered if he would ever open his own fruit store, in a fixed place, or was his visa truncated as well. You didn’t even have one. The white man with a plane to catch didn’t need one, and no-one asked questions. The French, you already knew, would never talk about money, though they gauged its absence or abundance at first glance. You didn’t want to deceive them, and it’s not easy for nothing to pretend to something.

The nothing, the emptiness, could only fill so quickly, and the rain didn’t always fall, despite the elegant drizzle over melancholy cornices. Everyone went to Paris to suck on its beauty like oysters, but sometimes even beauty took off its mask and a blank, bare face, hard to place, was left there, only something negligible left underneath – a park after dusk, the torn pages of a diary left in the street. Les Invalides, les Tuileries, le Grand Palais, sometimes, when the facade fell after the long, rapturous season – an aging lady wiping off the greasepaint and lying down for a rest and soon she was asleep and nothing was there but the future anterior tense.

When Paris took off its beauty you would repair to the back streets – the back-backstreets. A bar, wholly nothing, on the rue des Favorites, what was there? Nothing there, not even “no symbol where none intended.” It was a jaunty show, not a sign of a tourist, not even a half-decent coffee. It was nothing  coffee so nothing it wasn’t even bad. Afterwards you could pass through Denfert-Rochereau and make for the Salpetrière and present yourself to the newest specialist in le néant and show him your wild, empty palms. Look doctor – nothing there! It wasn’t merely being condemned to be free, it was the way they gave your stolen goods back to you after you’d stayed the sentence, full again, fed well on solitude, and you were to go out and lose it all over again. Tant pis!

Sooner or later she was sure to succumb, to the cinema and the dream, and surrender to a story she’d never yet heard. You wouldn’t leave Paris, and she’d understand it before long. No-one would ever leave again. Where was there for you to go now? Istanbul? Sydney? Madras? The boss wanted to send you to Moscow: the zero kingdom. You thought of the snow, the ice, the vast, flat horizons, the Siberian future laid out like a denuded chess-board, everything become two-dimensional in the cracking air. The flat earth won out, you stayed earthbound, you caught the Vincennes line, you unlocked the house of fidelity and made your bed there. You would marry the city and pay court to the gods of Levinas, blind men with agile feet who would bring village singers to your door. They would come from everywhere – from Dakar, Cotonou, Minsk and Des Moines. Let the plenty rain down, let the traffic stop in its tracks, the Metro shut down, the Seine run between our sheets.

You would taste that love, its salt on the tongue. All of them, all the gods of Levinas, would be there, Hassan, his sister, the noisy children trailing after. Even after you had gone, and lost their names on small pieces of paper, they would still be there, passing light from hand to hand.

 Copyright © 2006

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The day before I left Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi had been released only two days before from nearly fifteen years of imprisonment. I had deliberately avoided the scenes of jubilation and fervor that had greeted her at the gates of her house on University Avenue on November 13th, and again during her address at the National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarters in Yangon, just near the Shwedagon Pagoda, on the following day. The few dozen international media who had until then perhaps ambiguously maintained cover as tourists, would be exposed for their real identity on Myanmar TV and by government scrutiny alike. (It is always easy to spot a journalist: they wear baseball caps, camo gear and sometimes weather-inappropriate clothing – one young woman I saw dressed entirely in black and with a woolen cardigan and vast shading black hat that might have suited the onset of a Parisian winter.)

I was only an occasional journalist, but I felt it behooved me to visit the NLD office myself, as it was where my real political sympathies lay during those heady and exhilarating days of ‘the Lady’s’ release – only a week ago yet somehow surmounting an age of political and human oppression, itself resisted in the iconic image of ASSK herself – noble, feminine, infinitely fragile yet strong at once. I wanted to see her in person at least once – as a living figure who has inspired me perhaps more than any in the current time of world upheaval and crisis.

I waited along with a couple hundred others in the crowd outside the gates, largely made up of Burmese sympathizers but also a handful of Westerners – journalists, curious tourists, passersby with perhaps only a passing interest. I was soon absorbed by a group of Burmese women into their entourage at the threshold of the office entrance, offered food and iced drink in celebration of U Tin U’s wedding anniversary being held that day. The NLD was also meeting in a session that ASSK herself was addressing, and the media hoped for access to this. But as an hour, then two, passed in the sweltering heat, it seemed unlikely any would be allowed to enter that day. We all stood and grinned and frowned and perhaps at certain points wondered what we were doing there. I left my camera in my bag, unconcerned to maintain any pretensions to touristhood at this late stage of my visit. I could also see likely government agents on the other side of the main road with cameras and videos documenting as much of the crowd as they could. I stood discretely behind a wall, speaking only to Burmese and Hong Kong media reps nearby.

Then I was approached by a Burmese woman wearing dull black clothing who claimed, in very broken English, some affiliation with a women’s association. She seemed a part of the NLD members who dominated the group, organized people and sent food around to people from the makeshift kitchen that had been set up just inside the wall. I was taken up by these NLD women also, offered small gifts of ASSK portraits, and generally cared-for. I felt privileged and unwarrantably well-treated. The woman who approached me was the most attentive of all.

She also wanted to know everything about me, and on my last day in Burma, after weeks of travelling all over the country, on the verge of seeing ASSK for the first time, I chose to let my guard down, trusted her and told her almost everything she wanted to know. This included wanting to know where I was staying in downtown Yangon. This seemed odd, and I dissimulated for awhile; she was so insistent that finally I caved in and told her this as well. I also presented her with the card of the Burmese exile organization I had been working for, both in Thailand and Burma – an enemy of the Myanmar military state, as I well knew, and a document I had kept well-hidden during my travels. But to this woman, who offered me food and generosity and the famed warmth of the Burmese people, I divulged almost everything.

She copied it all down, every last detail, with a barely-concealed alacrity I should have understood at once. Only one thing I withheld – information that here too I can only allude to. She now knew my affiliation with the exile organization, with Western Burma-democracy activists, my public-domain name under which I’ve had articles condemning the regime published, and the street and name of my Yangon hotel. Then she disappeared, presumably to aid others. I assumed I would see her afterwards – she spoke of introducing me to U Tin U and other members of the NLD.

We waited for what seemed another hour or two, legs growing numb and stiff. I was closer to the entry-door now, a privileged position, in the full rays of the fierce Yangon afternoon sun. Suddenly the crowd stilled and hushed and Aung San Suu Kyi was there, directly in front of me, I hadn’t even noticed her approach, speaking to an aged Burmese man standing right in front of me who was imploring her in distressed tones. She humored him, lightly teasing him for his near-tearful state, as if encouraging him to perseverance and strength. Despite her 65 years, Daw Suu was herself much as I had seen in photos, TV and internet footage over many years – compassionately gazing at the man with remarkable, luminous, curved brown eyes, her unlined face quietly radiant with a depth of calm seeing and also sorrow for the man when he seemed to morally collapse in front of her. I couldn’t understand their Burmese, but I understood the human context, and the effort it took the old man to tell his story, the concern Daw Suu Kyi herself felt to prolong her stop with him and talk with him at greater length, and with the Burmese people on both sides of him.

Daw Suu Kyi stood less than a metre from me, I had my camera in my pocket but its battery had just run out of power, and even if it hadn’t I would be unlikely to attempt a photo. I felt I was in the company of a rare, and wholly ordinary, human solidarity that took in epochs and unseen lifetimes of struggle and effort – not merely during ASSK’s own lifetime, but that of her famous father General Aung San, himself killed by his fellow countrymen after he moved mountains to secure the freedom of Burma from centuries of British domination. And now the story was still in train, the endless human karmic trail of retribution and false power-mongering, of the obtuse and amoral domination of the freedom of a people through a force that had no obvious cause or sense outside of sheer human greed for power and wealth. I had the small gift of a keyring with a double portrait of ASSK and her father on either side, tight in my hand. I felt no need to try to speak with the Lady as she spoke her last words with the old man, though everyone seemed to be importuning her.

Soon she was gone, though her image was distilled, acutely, in my mind. I heard her move on to the sounds of great cheers and well-wishing; I joined in their celebration of her long sacrifice, and that of all the unspoken others’, and raised my fist with them. I didn’t care who was in the crowd, photographing all of us there. I didn’t care that all during her stop to speak with the old man I had been in the full frame, under the lens of dozens of cameras, the booms of microphones. I didn’t care about the ominous and obscure men frowning on the other side of the road, obvious regime stooges with their pens in white shirt pockets, little tote bags and low-slung caps. Hard eyes largely hidden behind tinted glasses. I just didn’t care about them.

Of the woman I’d met not long before, though, I should have. She disappeared during this, and afterwards, when I went inside to speak briefly with U Win Tin about his work on behalf of political prisoners. I saw her again only afterwards when I went outside to see if I could spot her – still assuming she was an NLD member. I saw her distractedly crossing the main road, brows creased, and when I spoke to her again she seemed shifty and uncertain and copied out again her address on a tiny piece of paper, in full view of the men still lingering on the other side of the road. I soon got away from her, and caught a sluggish taxi back to the downtown area. (It seemed to take an aeon just to make a turn, and even stalled a little in front of the NLD office as if the car had engine trouble. I was annoyed to be kept there, and hoped it was only a paranoia that was beginning, for better or for worse, to become second nature.)

That night back at my hotel, relaxing with a good Burmese cheroot on my hotel balcony, government security came to the hotel to question its proprietor about me at length: where I had been, what I had done, what I had said. They called twice more afterwards on the phone to confirm more information. I retreated to the hotel toilet to burn all the paper evidence I still had in my possession. The next day a local, smaller-fry police inspector also paid a visit. That night and the next day it became abundantly clear I was being followed. Almost everywhere I went I noticed men eyeing me for too long a moment, giving me a wry, knowing smile, waiting for sometimes an hour outside restaurants and internet cafes. Some approached me when I sat with young Burmese friends and joined us as if in friendship, and eyed as if memorising the (decoy) e-mail addresses I’d written out for my friends. In the morning my e-mail access was repeatedly blocked and shutdown, while others around me enjoyed the new-found online freedom following the week or so of shutdown during the election.

That night, the day following my visit to the office of the NLD, I caught a broken-down old jalopy in the rain to the airport, crunching along with an engine that threatened to collapse every minute. I carried with me a suitcase not belonging to me, also, and though I was questioned at immigration, a special notice with my name on a pinned-up piece of paper by their computer screens, it was perhaps pure chance they had not looked inside the case when I checked my baggage in just beforehand. The young women at immigration merely laughed grimly and looked at me as at some foreign absconder when I thanked them in Burmese.

I was out of their hands now. I was able to leave, with my Western passport. But now I have some sense of how it must feel for those others who have no choice but to stay in Burma, with their freedom effectively locked up in the prison of an unforgiving – and unforgivable – total state control.

Bangkok, mid-November, 2010

Copyright © 2010 Martin Kovan

(Linked to New Mandala: new perspectives on mainland South East Asia: http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2010/12/08/surveillance-in-burma/; also http://www.tourismtransparency.org/news-and-reports/lady%E2%80%A6and-black-shadow-behind-her)

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It’s a truism that real people, real lives, especially famous ones, are always other than their public simulacra. We live—even the less ‘famous’ (what defines fame exactly? a question of degree rather than of kind?)—variously memorialised by those who know and remember us, more or less otherwise than who we more authentically ‘are.’ We are all, as Levinas might say, more or less ‘otherwise than Being.’ We are points of light, in flux, we are ephemeral, we are always On the Way, never yet quite arrived.

In the beginning of the year 2001 I was in Varanasi, northern India, to speak at a conference dedicated to the theme of Buddhism and literature. It was late-February, the time of Shivaratri, or Shiva’s birthday, and the ghats were augmented daily by small colonies of dreadlocked naga sadhus come there to make obeisance to the yogi-god. Also many Westerners, fellow-travellers, Shiva enthusiasts, dreadlocked, drum-toting and chillum-toking, who sat at the high end of the steps smoking ganja all through the nights. There were young ambisexual Krishna sadhus floating around, mellifluous and unctuous. There were tourists, Buddhists, white-clad philosopher-sages, old hippies, neo-hippies, everyone really. And poet-scholar-writerly types like me. We were all well stoned on bhang lassi, near-mandatory and freely offered by gracious hotel proprietors during this blessed month in this holiest and oldest (continually-inhabited) city of the world.

The month previous I had been in Bodhgaya, taking Buddhist refuge under Gautama’s bodhi tree with one of my Tibetan teachers. Only a few days after that, on January 26, India’s National Republic Day, the western state of Gujarat was struck with a massive earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people and animals in a single night. (Some two years later I wrote a sprawling Faulknerian novel sprung from this real event.) It was a wild, disconcerting, typically intense time to be in India—people moved from states of euphoria to despair, mixed with an acute sense of compassion along with a necessary detachment, in a matter of hours. I have only ever known India to be like that—a symphonic chiasm of radical confrontations and realisations. It is hard to go blindly there (even when you might actually be blind).  The Great Matters of Life and Death turn in electric panorama-colour before your third, transcorporeal intuitive eye, and it’s impossible not to learn something of critical import to whatever is to follow. If existentialism hadn’t (in its more cerebral form) been invented by Camus et cie. in Paris during WWII, someone would have had to find it in India. (And did—countless aeons ago, the Buddha just one among them.) Its sheer numbers, epochal history, awe-inspiring leaders and appalling human losses, its earthquakes and massacres, truly cosmically-adjusted religions and staggering beauties give eternal witness to Existenz in all its myriad sublimations. It’s life, and humankind, writ as large as it gets.

The day after Shiva’s birthday (the bhang lassi still lingering) I took the half-hour bus-ride to the smaller town of Sarnath outside Varanasi (where in Deer Park around 530 BC the Buddha is said to have given his first teaching to his erstwhile fellow renunciates). I had met the conference organiser at another Buddhist conference near Delhi some months before, who had invited me to Sarnath to speak about the American Buddhist poet Gary Snyder. I’d just written an M.A. thesis on Snyder’s long poem Mountains and Rivers Without End, a poem forty years in the writing and finally published in 1996. Snyder’s work had been with me since early youth, aging paperback copies of the New Directions editions of the 60s quietly mildewing in my hippie stepfather’s capacious bookshelf. Riprap, The Back Country, EarthHouseHold, The Real Work and especially Regarding Wave (still my favourite Snyder) accompanied my years of requisite teenage experimentation with meditation, psilocybin and a general Rimbaudian dérangement of the senses.

But the clarity, concision and finely-cut nuance of Snyder’s language is what drew me. It was only some years later that I read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (of 1958), the first half-false memorialisation of Snyder and the Beat era that nurtured him. But by then I was more interested in Snyder’s mythopoetics, his biological thinking, his brilliant melding of a critical social-economic and Buddhist-ecological theory with the informed experience of years in the wilderness and Japanese Rinzai zendo. I would soon (literally) throw myself into old-growth forest activism in Australia, galvanised partly by Snyder and his work; during this time it was his essays in The Practice of the Wild, rather than the poetry, that took pride of place in my backpack when I went out wandering in the subtropical mountains of my native northern NSW, Australia.

To my mind Snyder was that rare writer, for our time at any rate: a Renaissance Man for real. He’d been there at the beginning of Zen in America, and had gone to learn the real thing in Japan, for twelve years, before anyone else. Alan Watts spoke of Snyder in his memoir In My Own Way as a kind of living embodiment of the creative dharma life—and for many he has remained that ever since. And all I knew, from about age 16, was that I wanted to live that way too, whatever it might cost. In India there seemed to be something inevitable in speaking publicly about Snyder’s work, in the Buddhist heartland of Sarnath, if only as a modest summation of a decade of deep immersion in its words and possibilities. Snyder was for me one of the great truth-tellers, and there seemed few around, who could also point out the most intelligent, sensible and beautiful directions our collective path could take into the 21st century—where we are now. Snyder’s work was prophetic, astute, deceptively courageous, utterly reasonable, deeply informed and, I thought and still do, universally indispensable. At the conference I didn’t really get to say that, time was short, ‘official proceedings’ (in India!) were langorous.

But the year before, living rough in the subtropical bush of southern Queensland while studying the Tibetan dharma for a year in one of the original Buddhist centers in Australia, I’d sent Snyder himself a brief and modest fraction of the regard I felt: little more than an extended haiku about reading one of his poems in one of those old paperback volumes. And while I was in India, he’d sent reply, inviting me to study with him in his last teaching semester at UC Davis, Spring 2002.

I’d been writing poetry, with all requisite (post-)adolescent dedication and self-absorption, for a good decade. I’d performed some early ones as a teenager but never been able to get them published, and had eventually let the poetic mantle go. As a writer, prose took over and by the time I set off for California in January 2002 I was if anything a poète manqué—with two unpublished novels, at least one volume of poetry, multiple stage-plays, and much else besides gathering attic dust, all somehow irrelevant to this new part of the pilgrimage. I would go to Snyder with a beginner’s mind, as a poetic newborn, and see what suspended poetic career might still lie before me.

The world, too, had its own typically perverse ideas. September 11, after I’d returned from six months in India, inaugurated for many precisely what was most feared about this ‘new’ century: fundamentalism, of too many kinds—whether religious, scientistic, intellectualist, populist. Then the anthrax scares followed, the sudden appearance of ‘the international threat,’ still more terror-attacks in different parts of the world (including India), Guantanamo Bay. When I landed in L.A. and stayed with a friend in her Santa Monica apartment, I almost immediately went down to Venice Beach and wrote an expansive, self-indulgent but acutely-felt Howlesque rant in part-rhyme, a long poem that seemed to come right out of my teenage revolutionary rhetoric, Ginsberg (I liked to think) somewhat cooled-down. Later Snyder, in the poetry class, thought as much himself, but I was already a bit embarrassed by it. What did seem clear though was that India, and the global events of 2001, had opened a new poetic lode for me, and it made sense to be writing poetry even though there seemed hardly anyone in the world still reading it. First love had struck again. I wanted to produce, and for the next three months or so, between classes and taking weekend trips to San Francisco or visiting a Buddhist center in the Santa Cruz mountains, produce I did.

It wasn’t easy being with the real version of the demi-god Snyder I’d constructed to suit my own needs as a callow revolutionary poet. He could be dry, sometimes prickly, often pedantic. He could seem obsessive about animals, plants and rocks; people and their ‘personal histories’ were it seemed dismissable. He sometimes looked like the gruff, misanthropic bears he was apparently channeling in many of his poems. (I met some of the real versions on a long hike that summer in the Yosemite mountains; they were very friendly.) Perhaps we want our heros to be our fathers, or mothers, not least our wise old men, woman warriors, or even saviours. Snyder was indefinably, courteously, drily, unemphatically himself. He liked my work and said so, even though we disagreed about some things—trivial technical details, such as the correct Sanskrit usage for a verse-unit—almost from the first class. It was coolly rigorous being around Snyder, who liked to be as correct as possible, in the technical sense, about almost everything. I was too driven by my own expectations, fuelled no doubt by arrogance, to have the presence of mind to fully appreciate the treasure-trove of lore and sheer perspective (Snyder was 72 that year) offered all of us in the class. Personally, I was at sea; but the dérangement in this case was a fertile one: I felt I was writing the best I knew how, and stayed almost constantly absorbed in the tuning of this new bandwidth I heard opening up in the inner ear: fiddling with the knobs and dials of something that in my fervor went beyond the analog sound-waves of 20th-century radio into the unheard fibre-optics of Buddhist emptiness, glimpses of non-dual insight, pulled into language. It was this challenge, as much metaphysical as linguistic, that Snyder and some of his poetic colleagues (Phillip Whalen and Lew Welch, to some degree Ginsberg also) had initiated from the 1950s in a minor miracle of poetic revolutionising I was not the only reader so captive to.

At the end of it all I read my Howlesque rant for the final class (Snyder said: it’s good but goes on too long), we all had a farewell dinner at a Nepali restaurant and after a few solitary weeks writing poems, I caught a train to New York. I paid the pilgrimage to Ground Zero, which in August 2002 was still a gaping maw in the earth, elemental and profoundly disturbing, giant iron girders sticking out of the wound of it. I wrote countless poems in sweaty Chelsea diners, saying goodbye, I thought, to America. Then I flew to Zurich, and from there travelled to Graz to work for the H.H. Dalai Lama Kalachakra teachings.

From winter in Vienna I returned in November to a sweltering India, where I wanted to see Bodhgaya again (I had the germ of a novel to incubate there), and worked as an English teacher in a village school. In the outpost leprosy hospital where I was staying, removed from any contact with the larger town, I soon fell ill with a mysterious fever that might, or might not, have been dengue fever, and hung in a fortnite of delirium trying to maintain a grasp on what was real and what was required of me. Suchwise passed also my thirtieth birthday, sung to by almost a hundred diseased, mangy or limbless dogs going steadily mad in the hospital grounds, collected as strays from the outlying area by indefatigable Western Buddhists (Asian Buddhists tend to just leave dogs alone). Fearing the same certain fate, eventually I just stood up from my bed and walked to the nearest town under a blazing heat, and caught a train to Delhi. After nearly a year away, I limped—literally—off a plane and back into Australia, ill in mind and body, deprived and demoralised, but full of poems, and a new novel, set in India: by late-2003 it was a finished text, dragged out of my overwrought and probably still diseased system, worn out as much by what I was writing about as anything I’d managed to survive. Prose had again hijacked my will—I literally couldn’t put down the pen, or abandon the grandiose intention of the novel, the entire year. But the poems didn’t stop either. By early 2004 I had the completed novel, and a finished volume of poems—most of them those I’d written in the class with Snyder.

I also wanted more of the world again, terrorism notwithstanding. I took off for San Francisco and the offer of a job in the Santa Cruz Buddhist center, and the same pull towards the Beat heartland, high in my literary throat. I was ambitious, and painfully dependent on it, like a gambler throwing all his chips on his last card. In California again, America felt broken and deluded, full of its own impotent power-lust; though I left a copy of my novel at City Lights Bookstore, Snyder reference in hand, I already knew it would disappear somewhere, and remain unread. Just when I thought a summit had been reached, it was understood as only a modest point from which to view the rocky landscape of the Eight Worldly Fetters stretched out in front of me: there the desire for fame and gain, praise and pleasure, battled with loss and pain, blame and disrepute, all still to be traversed. That would be the real work (as Snyder might say), traversing that relentless terrain intact would remain the true challenge.

From San Francisco I flew to Munich, the day after the Madrid train-bombings, and from there travelled to Prague. The whole world seemed quietly, irremediably, hopelessly on fire, appalled and shocked by itself, and I felt the burning with it. On April 1 a young Czech erstwhile friend in my hostel dormitory broke open my dorm-locker and stole my laptop, presumably to be sold cheaply on the black market. With it went back-up disks, versions of a new novel, short stories, journals, all the minutiae of the half-year spent with or near Snyder, including some of his handwritten letters: the crises, the breakthroughs, the minor revelations that had kept the work, and life, going. Everything seemed prey to impermanence, and I spent hours in my dorm-room meditating on the fact (as well as spending the next week making obligatory visits to Prague’s Mala Strana police-station to discover precisely what Kafka and Kundera had been talking about). I’d thought much of this material would still be stored in Australia in disks or hard-copy, but when I returned after three years’ absence much had slipped, as it does, through the net. Apart from a handful of pieces, nor had any of it been published. It was the moral pain that hurt the most—the sense of losing something just when you feel you can least afford to. But my loss was petty next to those lives lost in Madrid. And they themselves emblematic of so many others we never heard about.

Years have passed since those months spent in Snyder’s company: time has distilled the memory of a tough graciousness, and it remains—to reconsider a word, spoken or written, or a qualifying thought, not merely of my own writing, but often of many of the events of daily life. Snyder taught an etiquette of the cultured as well as the natural, wild mind that comes through his language with a rigour and aliveness that will last a good distance. With that blessing of language, the dharma for me also remains, where much else is gone. When I meet people, even writers and readers, and happen to mention Snyder, it is still a small shock to realise how few (even Americans of his own generation and since, and despite his pop-cultural status) are aware of what he has achieved. Yet everything is of the nature of impermanence, something which Snyder was often careful to reiterate, when I knew him.

The only loss I really mourned, of the things stolen in Prague that day, is that single volume of thirty or so poems—I’d called it Moving Through Still Earth—that had seemed to do so much internal work, had carried the weight of an incomprehensible world in some balance, however fragile (and, as it turned out, temporary): India, earthquakes, the Buddhist dharma, the epidemic of terrorism, American war-evangelism, the sense of a counterculture passing irrevocably from history—it had all felt in that moment of poetic immersion suspended, much like the wasp’s nest in the timeless summer of my novice meditation on Snyder. I lately came across that first small poem, written and sent to him before the pilgrimage had even begun, well before the others I couldn’t find. It’s a haibun—mixed prose and verse lines—the (originally Japanese) poetic form Snyder has lately embraced. It says something, via his example, of what language can witness of that Mind that lives within, and beyond, the sentient biology it also transcends:

 

Wasp-Nest Grammar

An old paperback copy of Snyder’s Regarding Wave forgotten in the verandah sun of a feral place, weathered by rainforest multitudes. In the stasis of cicada-song, curlicues of wasp-nest encrusted in its pages. Mosaic of interlocked helix, as if high with wasp-invention (who dared feed spiders LSD?) The nest a wild commentary to the printed words, barnacle-blunt, like parasite fish which travel vicarious with the spouting whale of mammal’s cortical play, echo what the words say, but in a language unknowable to either.

paper  poem cocoon wasp    all vulnerable –

but this gritty wasp-grammar

builds form from sequence      another

Witness      it says

what’s in the difference   between what we say?

 

 

*

Paris, May 2010

(published online June 2010 in GROUP Magazine Issue #5: http://groupmag.blogspot.com/)

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Jalgaon, 25.XI.08

 

Grit that seems to come from under the door. As if self-willed, stolen in by night. In the morning, before I turn on the TV, there is a small ritual of gathering this fine sand, come in from the street, from different travellers’ shoes, from the largely arid wastes of the plains beyond the small town. A minor ordering against general encroachments.

In the mid-morning, the TV doesn’t work. The general power is disconnected, though this is only meant to last for three hours: a struggle with a minor addiction to the World Movies channel. There is a disturbance, outside, down the corridor, a brief verbal skirmish between a Spanish woman and one of the Indian workers: she is impatient and he is repeatedly apologetic, both it seems in a familiar mode, a small scene of disorder they have played out many times before this one. The woman wins the minor contest – even in India. ( In bed reading early Bellow by torchlight, this room immured from light, the adventures of the prose exploit this one, a youth again, in hiding, picaresque fugitive between walls. I never know what will come next.)

Later, with the power returned, there’s more sense in going out to eat. The Mumbai ticket needs confirming, down at the local station, an obscure, stray satellite of one of Dante’s purgatorial suburbs. And always far more people than the existing system seems able to accommodate. A thousand men materializing always at the head of the queue. If I were not a self with a self-project to enact in the world I could stay there indefinitely, eternally, relegated to the end of the line a martyr a saint of patience and waiting except that I have by this time gone beyond suffering it seems, suffering is what real people do and I am a cipher a circle a zero or orobouros not merely chasing its own tail because this tail and all its imaginary outgrowths have been digested, self-fellated so many aeons before there is no more of that fictional shambolic passage to show for it has been told a million times what more another Cervantes Sterne Rushdie or Foster Wallace to repeat the tale of misbegotten quests? Please, steal this cheap plastic pen, the cheap imitation watch from this same wrist that itself imitates how many yesteryears of DNA? In this queue in this queue in this queue I am nobody nada to wait to be waited upon by others to wait for the enaction the event the happening I believe it has become a truism to suggest that the à venir never arrives or does it or does it or does it.

I leave, I can’t wait, I abandon the confirmation side of the process, the ticket is in my hand, this is enough, this will be my way out of here, I will leave, I will be delivered in Mumbai, three hours away, tomorrow, my birthday, of all days.

 

Five more hours of powerlessness. It is good, it is better, to read, cut toenails, wash a dusty shirt, prepare cups of electric black tea and biscuits in my small escape-hatch, Bellow to hand. The town itself bellows, aches and roars dimly, beyond the single, barred window. The Spanish infanta departed. The Indian peon (archaic word, strangely permissible) – chastened. He eats his unlit lunches on the cool floor right in the corridor. In the early evening the TV appears to work. I seek ‘the world news’: but there is no English broadcasting. Hindi, Marathi, some Tamil, apparently. Perhaps Gujerati, even Malayalam. (Listed here only for phonetic pleasure.) But only brief skirmishes into English, occasional morses of escaped worlds: bandits, world summit, cholera, one-day test. Field day for a collagiste. (Be my guest, while I am yours.) Soon the transmission buzzes out, exhausted in the swinging temperatures. I sleep early, Bellow patient, near-silent (there are still echoes) by my ear. And it slips into the decision-making apparatus that I’ll go to the caves enter the grotto Buddha place, what wombs still there simple sublime, but here here but what I know but sublime but this desiccated wasteland outskirts of town, dried heart, small pitted dried fruit they sell like shrunken yellow dried pussy in the streets on a cart, to the caves on a cart thus have I heard Lord Buddha once saw lying beyond the palace gates a cripple an old man a corpse on a cart on a cart on a cart a corpse on a cart a corpse

          and saw a robed giver-upper in the muddy street and did the same did the same did the same did the did he did he did did di di di didididididi

*

There’s no entry for the real-life journal, unlike this simulacrum. Strange European companion for the day, I never knew her name. Children, impeccably poor. Touts, scammers and shysters. Big thick horde-groups of French and German burghers. (Where’s my bacon, where’s my beef?) Not charitable, on my birthday, can’t afford to be, when so much is lost. Already gone. Gate gate parasamgate. Many of the finest wall-paintings ruined by vandals. But the echoing vaults there still. Buddhist sutta bled clean and transparent into the walls. Schist and basalt. Centuries of industry. Centuries passed now, only these marks here, nameless workers, unknown bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, carving into the empty vast of earth: full weight of elephant ear, chariot, flank of deva girl, so many breasts limpid fruit hung from the boughs of mango trees, how many sweat monsoons slipped away but for these austere dripping fruits of time. Before the body became an item, commodified by an unreal market value, gave supply a demand. Gave need, a craving. Tanha, or the Noble Truth, re-told by Cervantes and Co.

I pay the guide vastly inflated sums merely to regain my solitude. The beggars demand spiritual succour in the form not of mangoes but of Euros. Even the children disdain the bunches of bananas I offer them. While I am there I’m accosted by three local children, near-violent in their demands. I teach them to teach themselves how to make an offering – a Marathi folk song for paid lunch, a Bollywood shimmy for the schoolbooks they say they need. They are nervous at first, outside the regular routine, tentative as young horses drinking at strange water. Then satiric, parodic of themselves without ever knowing of punk or post-New Wave or postmodernism. They understand the disguises of irony, its self-protection, not yet ten years old, never gone to school. After their debut concert, shambolic but brave, leave them most of my last rupees. By then their song has been sung true. They can join the greats.

End of day dusk, before the bus is leaving, a poor farmer with splintering crystals gathered from his fields. Another I had had was stolen, weeks before. So I buy, just one, to replace it, the lucky charm from the Womb of wombs, the Door of all doors, the Cave of all possible recesses, refuges, and places of eternal safety. I buy, and will buy again, to pay penance, to placate the demons, to make feeble mark on my slate of credit out in the unreachable sky, I pay, I pay because in this world here below it is the only way we now know the only sacrifice we now make the only intermediary between the gods and ourselves we still trust in. So we will pay. And pay, and pay again. On the bus ride back I’m the only one standing, no-one offers me a seat. The ticket for Mumbai somehow between my fingers, November 26 ill-printed, foregone now, let slip through the window into the darkening night. The sunset is supernal. An ache of surrender.

Next morning the TV doesn’t work. I go for late breakfast, a year to add to those that have gone before. Back at the hotel the Jain proprietor offers me the front-page Times of India, shakes his head, little more. Then the TV is working, as if self-willed, I can’t follow the Hindi, but we watch, we watch, craning old survivors’ necks, lizards in the largely arid zones. Still alive, yes. Hell three hours down the line, the line that divides. But we know we have paid, as they have.

As they have but not as they have.

*
Published in Percutio 2009, No. 3, Paris: http://titus.books.online.fr/Percutio/html/PastContents.html

 April, 2009 Paris

 

 

 

 

 

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