Friday, February 29, 2008


Water Shining Beyond the Fields: Haibun Travels Southeast Asia by John Brandi. Tres Chicas Books: El Rito, NM, 2006. ISBN: 1-893003-09-4. Perfect Bound, 5 ½” x 7”, 190 pp., $14.00 US.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Woodward

The book at hand, while covering separate journeys in Cambodia, China and Thailand respectively, may startle many by its sheer bulk. “Haibun Travels,” John Brandi’s sub-title proclaims, and common expectations of a Bashō-like travel journal are aroused. Basho’s most ambitious journal – the Narrow Road to the Interior (Oku no hosomichi) – ends after 40 or 50 modern text pages and Issa’s Spring of My Life (Ora ga haru), while lengthier, doesn’t surpass twice that number. Meanwhile, book-length collections of modern haibun in English are relatively few in number and lean more closely toward the Basho norm.

Certainly, no writer, however accomplished, might aspire to sustain over such breadth the verbal compression and emotive tension common to classical Japanese or modern English haibun. The prose in Water Shining Beyond the Fields, while rising on occasion to such heights by the common haikai methods of abbreviation and understatement, adopts no single style. Brandi echoes the breezy style of popular guide-books, imitates the excited breathlessness of the Kerouac of On the Road or Dharma Bums, reveals his social and political angst in passages of diatribe and, occasionally, writes with the lucidity and pithiness more commonly associated with the haibun genre.

Brandi, at Angkor Wat, rises to the occasion of the scene before him:

Narratives depicting Hindu myths adorn the inner galleries: architecture as storybook, the “pages” exquisitely carved on two meter-high walls, the detail minute…. “The Churning of the Milk Ocean” is our favorite. I’ve read translations of this story, seen episodes in New Delhi street plays…. Now the story leaps off the wall in front of us: gods and demons oppose each other, pulling on a great rope (the cosmic serpent) to churn amrita, the elixir of immortality into the world. Not only do they succeed, they froth into existence … dozens of erotic apsaras, heavenly dancers whose fingers flutter with secret mudras.

The apsaras float across the wall in dreamy trance, with sumptuous breasts and diaphanous outfits, heads adorned with flame-like tiaras. Their rapturous eyes and smiles evoke a state of communing with the Other …. Finally, there are half-parted lips that convey transience, a whisper emerging from a celestial realm.
China, with its now pervasive and rapid modernization, calls forth one of Brandi’s finest passages:

Awful town, torn up, getting ready – for what? Earthen walls, tiled roofs, cobbled alleys, sheltered markets, landscaped entranceways, all that is (was) traditional, now in a heap. It’s challenging to walk; conduit and rebar pokes up everywhere, concrete tubes are rolled into open sewers. No one is working. Come next year, and the next, the town will likely still be under construction, the dream put off, everything sagging under abandoned scaffolding, money gone, the place bankrupt. The sweepers continue their task, though there aren’t really any streets to sweep. A warm breeze stirs yellow dust into whirlwinds; we mask our faces with kerchiefs, looking like bandits dragging suitcases of questionable weight:

in the wind
a man without a hat
holds his head.

The poet’s revulsion is palpable here in the rubble and dust of the past being swept away by the new. The wry portrait of Brandi and his wife with the burden of their dubious suitcases is set off nicely by the haikai humor of the closing verse.

Brandi, at times, reflects clearly upon his own absorption in a culture he often rails against and openly reviles:

Cambodia, too, opens itself full-out to the world’s fastest growing industry: tourism. No matter the languages I speak, how cheaply I travel, how down-home I lodge, I’m part of it. Even if I go to Mongolia, stay for awhile, and shit in a hole, I’m hooked into the industry. Call myself traveler rather than tourist, seeker rather than traveler, so what? I’m the same old foreigner to the visa man, customs official, cyclo driver, food vendor, red-light girl, monk, charity worker, guide, innkeeper, pancake lady, shoeshine kid – all who want my money, however much, whatever little. I’m a walking dollar sign. (45)

This recitation of characters who are captive to a power greater than themselves (tourism!) is understood, at last, to include the poet.

In other times and other places, however, the author displays only perplexity as in this description of a bus trip in rural China:

And the passengers? Each was a knobby backwater bumpkin right out of a fairy tale: dirty, coarsely shouting non-stop over the unmufflered engine, chain smoking (windows rolled up), heaving butts, sunflower shells, and wads of spit to the floor, dust slowly powdering their dark, threadbare attire. In 40 years of travels I can’t recall another journey (save for a Greyhound in West Virginia’s coal country) where I felt more unacknowledged, purposely ignored. Eerie, indeed, to realize how truly vague and dangerous it is to be among humans (wild animals are more predictable and lovelier to watch)…. (102-103)

Brandi is shocked by being shunned and “unacknowledged.” When these Chinese peasants fail to recognize exactly how interesting our poet is, he can only sulk and resort to insults – “backwater bumpkin,” “dirty,” “threadbare.” His underlying middle-class sensibility, suppressed elsewhere, is here allowed free rein to see in his fellow passengers something akin to those mean-spirited mountain folk in West Virginia’s poverty-stricken coalfields who likewise treated him as invisible some years ago. Brandi does not reflect that the peasant and coal-miner, while sharing his bus, do not share in his sightseeing trip but are engaged in the mean and difficult business of securing a meal.

Quite fortunately, such scenes are not common in this book and the poet more readily shows empathy with the displaced and poor met in his travels. Brandi, too, convincingly conveys a sincere longing for simplicity that will find its admirers:

In America everything is big, except the computer chip. Big mugs, big cars, big schedules, big football games, big pills for big people, big flags over big malls, big talk from big sissies who run big business. Give me a twig fire. Cup of sake. Tea leaves unfurling in a clay pot. Narrow path through a parsley garden outside a willow shack. Chinese herb pills that slip easily down the throat. No smart bombs. No information bomb. No one going birth to death without chance revelation stirring the doldrums. I sometimes think America invented instant coffee, then sat down to avoid itself. Today, on a path to the beach:

In grains of quartz
from the sweeper’s broom.

Water Shining Beyond the Fields, the first title from Tres Chicas Books that I have examined, is a sharply designed trade paperback with full-color cover and pleasingly legible typography. The price is reasonable and John Brandi’s prose, despite occasional lapses, is quite enjoyable on the whole. Along the way, the poet adds some sparkling haiku, also, which really leaves the reviewer little room to quibble.

by Jeffrey Woodward
Detroit, Michigan
first published in Lynx, Winter 2008

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