28/30 December, 2006
The day I read your letter at the Shop I'd just opened box of books from Ingram International and imagine my astonishment, with your reference to Anthony Bourdain fresh in my mind, to find him quoted on the back of the John Fante Reader (Ecco,'o2)! To wit, "John Fante was the grand master of So Cal underbelly fiction. His unblinking eye and heroically unsparing prose gave no quarter and took no prisoners, yet his work --however debased, deluded or cruel his subjects --remains always beautiful. No one working the same side of the street --then or now --can touch him." Fante was always one of yours, via Bukowski I guess, but how interesting to find Bourdain there as well --the "brotherhood of the grape" perhaps?!
I cant claim synchronicity for the Bourdain I'm now reading. Retta has been aware of my new enthusiasm for a while, which then climbed a notch after the July UK visit when you & I watched a couple of episodes of his tremendously entertaining television series together, but her Xmas gift was a pleasant surprise. His chapter in Kitchen Confidential (Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly) about the precocious little kid he was, in France holidaying with brother & parents, hating everything except fries & burgers until the moment of his life-determining gastronomic awakening, is guilelessly poignant. His humour hardly disturbs the text's limpidity. I'd like to see his fiction now if only for a test of his narrative style. But what could beat this : "I'd sit in the garden [in the Gironde] among the tomatoes and the lizards and eat my oysters and drink Kronenbourgs (France was a wonderland for under-age drinkers), happily reading Modesty Blaise and the Katzenjammer Kids and the lovely hard-bound bandes dessinees in French, until the pictures swam in front of my eyes, smoking the occasional pilfered Gitane."
I'm also reading Vanity of Duluoz and, you'll be amused to hear, enjoying it. A great deal changes in 40 years! Because I havent yet located a copy of my rejected 1969 review in all my mess of manuscripts & diaries, I'm intrigued to find what might have been the references & passages that offended me back then.
Perhaps the address "wifey" provoked me from the outset --I could well have conjured mysogeny from that device. Today I immediately pick up on the Celinesque gambit of regailing the recent past from the very present with a narrative profitably unsentimental & spikier I think than earlier Kerouac. But "wifey" gratuitously makes one eavesdropper rather than direct recipient of the narrative. I suppose I'm being too literal --after all, Kerouac is really only ever talking to his reader. Vanity of Duluoz is subtitled "An Adventurous Education, 1935-46". It is a concertina of a book, expanding, encapsulating, digressing and eventually reaching both the chronological & philosophical conclusion signalled at the beginning.
How & why then is "mysogenist, anti-Semitic, conservative rant" the main memory I've coddled all these years? Che as Fascist would have been a severe irk in 1969! "In those days [the Fourties] we were all pro-Lenin, or pro-whatever, Communists. It was before we found out that Henry Fonda in Blockade was not such a great anti-Fascist idealist at all, just the reverse of the coin of Fascism, i.e., what the hell's the difference between Fascist Hitler and anti-Fascist Stalin, or, as today, Fascist Lincoln Rockwell and anti-Fascist Ernesto Guevero, or name your own?"
My 1960s leftism was, I've come to realise, influenced as much by "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" politics as by genuine idealism --psychologically explicable for a 20-yearold though ethically monstrous at all times. Kerouac's equation of left & right-wing politics as the same kind of gangsterism employing the same lies was too confusing then for me to comprehend. It took me a long time to appreciate anti-totalitarian dissent. "Commitment" blinkered me for years --mind you, by the end of the 1970s getting into the 80s, I was beginning to see clearly again...
Something about Snyder I found in Rebecca Solnit's stimulating Wanderlust : A History of Walking (Penguin, 2000) : quoting from David Robertson's book, Dharma Bums, in Real Matter (Utah,1997), she refers to Snyder's encounter with the banned 19C mountaineering religion Shugendo while he was studying Buddhism in Japan in the 50s. Snyder & Kerouac's climb was "not the object of a quest, as for the grail. Instead it goes round and round and on and on, rather like the hike that Kerouac and Snyder took and even more like the poem [Mountains & Rivers Without End] that Snyder projected writing..."
This brings me to the book I sent you for Christmas, Opening the Mountain (S&H,'06) : Searching on the internet for David Robertson, jumping around the Gary Snyder sites, I found the account of the 1996 circumnambulation of Mt Tamalpais when Snyder & Robertson led what has become the annual hike. It's a lovely book & record in itself but the inspiration I hoped for you wasnt at all on the Mt Tamalpais scale. The reverse, though definitely connected. About Tamalpais Snyder wrote : " Circling -- climbing -- chanting -- to show respect & to clarify the mind. Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg & I learned the practice in Asia. So we opened a route around Tam. It takes a day." Cutting to the chase alright!
My journeys with Cathy O'Brien,in the late 80s & early 90s, to Port Campbell, where the Southern Ocean meets the limestone & bush of the national park adjacent to the green agricultural inland, had this celebratory & meditative quality. Our friend, the late John Anderson, had, as you might recall, suggested that the South-west Victorian coastline might be the closest I could get in Australia to what I'd been experiencing in Dorset, Devon & Cornwall. He was right. What would it have been like to have hiked with him? I can just imagine he & Cathy ambling along in endless, wide-awake dreamland! Dead nine years now...
Similar sensations on the small walks on the Dorset Downs, solo or with the family, and particularly many climbs up & around St Catherine's Mount in Abbotsbury overlooking Chessil Beach. And it all began with the circuits of Radipole, the RSPB sanctuary you introduced me to in 1987. As Snyder implies, it's the respect of nature & the clarification of mind the place affords. That's why Haiku Bums popped into my mind when we were on the phone at Christmas speaking about these things! We'd like to be Dharma Bums --and what an example Cathy is to us, there in Laos, schoolteaching, experiencing the animist & Buddhist life, continuing now waht she began as a hippy girl, overland with boyfriend in Asia, in the 1970s --but ours is an imagined project extended on the far smaller physical scale.Or what?
RE- TRIP TRAP AND ALBERT SAIJO
(7/01/07) I knew Trip Trap years ago --thought I knew, I should say, though it may not be faulty memory but the case this current edition has extras like the Lew Welch novel extract, his letters to Kerouac (1959-60) and perhaps even Albert Saijo's A Recollection (1973), which is one of the best pieces in the book. I ordered copies for the Shop after you mentioned buying a copy (from Alan Halsey's catalogue or your esoteric book distributor?) --they've arrived and I'm thoroughly charmed!
I reread the sections of Big Sur (Saijo refers to it as the "beautifully sustained prose of his book of suffering") in which Saijo , "a serious young lay priest of Japanese Buddhism when all is said and done", is a character alongside Lew Welch.
I'm writing this at Kris Coad's flat (I want to say "great little pad" a la Saijo's evocation of his San Francisco neighbourhood fifty years ago) : a ceramicist (for some reason I resist the present usage "ceramist")' s environment. It's all on display, her studio & living-space. Table-ware, prayer-flags, stuff found along the shore, objects she collects. Half Morandi, half Buddhist monastery! In the breeze now of the early morning "change" the humidity of the night-before disperses. Cathy's farewell dinner-party last night the reason why I'm still here with a little hang-over! She flies back to Vientiane via Bangkok tonight. Kris has booked her ticket to visit in February. Come & go, here again then gone again...
(9-01-07) How else to be but matter-of-fact when flux is so evident?It's a state of mind isnt it? Thus the matter-of-fact style of the Buddhist Beat writers, infused with the wistfulness of the ancient Chinese (Taoist?) poets they loved.
I "googled" Albert Saijo... The photograph heading the article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin for July (?) 1997 I've copied & sent to you, entitled "Running on Rhapsody", is exactly how one imagines Saijo from Kerouac's description of him as George Baso (surely pronounced Basho). He has the same kempt, bony, bespectacled features as Snyder --little, wiry & more ageless than the epithet "old" (Kerouac's "little, old, George Baso") confers (ditto Snyder).
If he's still alive he'll be 81 or thereabouts. In 1997 he'd have been in Hawaii six years, enjoying its multicultural alternative to mainland American "white-male dominant society." None of his books appear to be in print, aside of the collaborative Trip Trap. I'll write to Bamboo Ridge Press in Hawaii for Outspeaks a Rhapsody (1997) though --"a series of stream-of-consciousness rants and rhapsodies on topics such as the pain ("Analgesia --Land of Pain Free") and the horrors of a technological society ("Luddite Manque")." --according to the article.
I wonder if my attraction (yours too?) to the bit-players, the extras, is because that's where we also fit in to this weird & wonderful scheme of things. "All the world's a stage" etc. As you said, in different context, "sitting up, lying down, do the best you can." Add : And not giving in to conformity; not closing one's mind to wisdom, beauty, wonder; not disqualifying one's own contribution amongst the big glister & bluster! Hail Albert Saijo! Hail John Montgomery! Hail Will Petersen! Hail the Haiku Bums!
17th January, 2007
Dear Kris, Too much! Your letter just in! It's a huge thing we're doing! I hadn't dreamt it would grow and envelop so much. I do like Albert Saijo. Many thanks for printing that stuff off the internet for me. He's a little man, isnt he? Looks like a Japanese Gandhi in the picture. I like that. Small people are more handy. Less expanded. More yang. I'm reminded also of Haru Arai --a traditional Japanese Barrel Maker (Okayasan) as described in one of my favourite books, Cullinary Treasures of Japan. "He was very small, under five feet tall and about eighty pounds, with gentle black eyes and short silver hair. He was dressed in a traditional thick cotton vest and baggy pants with a split for his big toe... Arai-san was exceptional; his skill, strength and wittiness are rare at any age." He's described felling a large bamboo (thirty-f00t and one-hundred pounds), picking it up and shouldering it down a steep mountainside at 71 years of age. Albert Saijo would be good company for him. The same breed I'm sure. You say Saijo is Roshi now. I wonder,living in Hawaii, if he's something to do with Robert Aitken.
"A Recollection" by Saijo is great opener for Trip Trip. I wonder what stirs in our imaginations to relate to the "trip" so strongly? I guess it's voyage of discovery. Inwards and outwards. As you say --we'd like to be Dharma Bums / Haiku Bums. Got to get my shit together!
By the way, I ordered Trip Trap from my 'friends' at Green Spirit Books in Wiltshire. They belong to the Schumaker Society (small is beautiful) and are a not-for-profit business. They'd never heard of Kerouac when I asked for a list of his books in print!
The haiku/poems in Trip Trap are playful and fun to read but not eminently great. Maybe it's not the point to make great literature. Just get it all down, record the trip/ the journey.
I picked-up on the fact that both Kerouac and Lew Welch had their mothers figuring in their lives. And here am I living with Mum. Twenty years now. And alone together now since Dad died. It made me laugh that we had that something in common.
John Fante? I haven't read him for over twenty years! I was very excited when I received Ask the Dust from Black Sparrow Press, knowing he was one of Charles Bukowski's inspirations. That would be 1980. And unfortunately Black Sparrow is no more. I can agree with Anthony Bourdain, whom you quote from that John Fante Reader, that the writing is "debased, cruel and beautiful." For example, "Treat her rough, Bandini, treat her around and she'll wrap around your cock and die there." (Prologue to Ask the Dust, Black Sparrow, 1990.) Buk was onto a good one there! Sadly, I've so many books piled-up here and there about the house I can't find Ask the Dust --I've just had a look for it. It must be upstairs in the loft maybe. So many books. Might well be a good idea to finally get that bookshop and be a bookseller like you. Who would be interested in Fante and Bukowski in Dorset tho? But I did see a mass-market paperback of Buk's Factotum when I was in Dorchester last week. Shop might be the best thing before the books get damaged. Been dreaming of a bookshop for thirty years now! Two of my social-work friends and I were actually looking around Gosport for premises in the mid'70s...
(11-February'07) 4.15 a.m. Still very dark. Birds chirping outside --accompaniment to the radio. I thought birds waited until first light? Maybe it's the street-lights. I've been reading George Crane's book --about the monk T'sung T'sai again. But I've just been downstairs to fetch up TDB and Opening the Mountain. Birds and radio apart nothing intrudes and obsessions of the day haven't started on at me.
Opening the Mountain was such a wonderful present to get from you for Xmas. I love the photographs. That picture of mushrooms... Just me to pick out food!
I do understand what you say about making our own walks a ritual, our own environment 'sacred'. Don't have to go to Tamalpais or Higi or Kailash. But wouldn't it be great to do just that. To be able to do it. Walking up to St Catherine's at Abbotsbury that first time with you last summer (June'06) was great for me. It took me 20 years to think my heart would take the effort. Ah, the view. But we climb the mountain to climb the mountain. As Snyder says, "The main thing is to pay your regards, to play, to engage, to stop and pay attention. It's just a way of stopping and looking at your self too". And Smith (TDB, p63) quotes "the famous Zen saying, 'When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing.'" Smith realises then that he doesn't have to climb the mountain. And that everyone's trip is going to be different. "Now there's the karma of these three men here : Japhy Ryder gets to his triumphant mountain-top and makes it, I almost make it and have to give up and huddle in a bloody cave, but the smartest of them all is that poet's poet [Morley] lyin down there with his knees crossed to the sky chewing on a flower dreaming by a gurgling plage, goddammit they'll never get me up here again."
This ascending mountains, or circumnambulating is not about getting to the top or walking all day. The journey is the thing. Just being on the path is enough. Being on the path is enlightenment. "Ordinary mind is enlightenment itself," as an 8th Century Chinese master said, talking about zazen. Being ordinary is enlightenment... I have my Chafey's and Radipole paths...
(to be continued)