Wednesday, May 23, 2007

ON THE DHARMA BUM(S) WITH THE HEMENSLEY BROTHERS, #6

Melbourne
7-12th, March,2007

Dear Bernard, A delight to have your January/February letter. The late Summer humidity knocked me around --couldnt really write in a concentrated manner. I'd made a couple of notes waiting for yours, though, which I'll include here. Since our last communication I've been reading John Steinbeck whom I always regarded as a precursor for the Beats, at least in Cannery Row. Describing its characters recently to an acquaintance I ineptly used the term "disenfranchised". He yelped disdain and quoted Scott Fitzgerald's contempt for Steinbeck. I hate the disenfranchised, he laughed. I corrected myself : they're not disenfranchised; they're just not bourgeoise! And that's the crux. Steinbeck's characters arent properly working-class either although the fishing-town of Monterey accomodates the bums, the lost & down & out, the whores, the eccentric loner marine-scientist-ecologist. The whole place seems fuelled by alcohol but the marvellous mess of their lives isnt a footnote to alcoholism --it's the real thing; life completely outside of the Protestant work-ethic & the bourgeoise ideal. No sense of respectability or upward mobility, which was the model threatening us when we were young.
Time for me then, this Summer, to revisit Doc (Ed Ricketts) & the bums after a year hobnobbing about Steinbeck with his greatest fan around here, short-story & haiku friend Michael de Valle. Of course I remember you as a reader of Steinbeck in the'60s. I still remember the smell of those new paperbacks --not only the Steinbecks but your other love, H.E.Bates (whom I quickly collared as our time's successor to my master, DHL). This isnt purely nostalgia : we luxuriated in the pleasure of purchasing, collecting, reading these books, apprentice seekers & writers connecting to the wider world! You shocked me, though, when you recently told me Dad turfed out most of your books, including the Steinbecks, when you moved out for your first away-from-home jobs. I'm still shocked.
(14/2/07) My Steinbeck binge is full on : three-quarters through Cannery Row, a third into Travels with Charley, begun The Log From the Sea of Cortez and today Retta gives me Sweet Thursday for St Valentine's Day! Realizing Sweet Thursday was Cannery Row's companion volume I've been searching in Melbourne's second-handers. Rett found it at the book market in Federation Square on Saturday at a stall I'd twice approached earlier only to be told by the bookseller that he was still unpacking his boxes, nowhere near his esses! I complained to Michael, who's been running his own stall for a few weeks, bravely trying to move his own titles. He also promised to keep an eye open for me!
(18/2/07) On page 50 of Travels With Charley, Steinbeck's describing "the strangeness of Deer Isle" --the "sheltered darkling water seems to suck up light , but I've seen that before." I'm thinking somewhere else in America during a life of travels, but then he mentions Dartmoor. And then the coup de grace : about Stonington, "Deer Isle's chief town", he announces "it very closely resembles Lyme Regis on the coast of Dorset, and I would willingly bet that its founding settlers came from Dorset or Somerset or Cornwall. Maine speech is very like that in West Country England..." and so on until, almost inevitably, the similarity proceeds to Avalon! I knew I should be reading this book today after our good phone-call (our constant recapitulation feeding ever-present pasts into the future) abruptly ended : quickly got my things together for Retta's early-morning excursion to the beach.
Something meant-to-be about that also : for there was Dimitris Tsaloumas standing at the water's edge. Havent sen him for a few years --you know, he spends Melbourne Winter on Leros, returns here for Summer. I told him we had his new collection (Helen of Troy, UQP). He said it contained 4 typos! I said I hadnt read it except for the haiku series. He laughed sardonically. He said he hadnt thought there were any poems left in him, and he was ill with a mysterious dry-skin condition, but then the haiku came. I said it was only when I counted the syllables that I realized the poems more than simply resembled haiku! He sucked in breath, pursed thin lips and said that only me with my close reading would expose the truth that one of his tanka wasnt syllabically (he said metrically) accurate! He laughed, one arm around my shoulder. Haiku? Shrugged, laughed. Haiku!
(19/2/07) Actually, I think it's one of the haiku that's "wrong" --six syllables in 3rd line of IX ("now sunset fires gold / of autumn in your soft hair. / Birds riot in the plane.") --But the two series of tanka (57557) are impeccable. And yet, elegant poems though they are they lack the immediacy of, say, Kerouac, Welch & Saijo's Trip Trap. Hardly any of the Trip Trap poems fit the formal scheme but most have the haiku spirit. Like all beat writing, conventional literary values & imperatives are called into question. As for me, I'm probably more likely to emulate Dimitris than Trip Trap although I have played with the instant mode forever --from Kerouac to New York & Bolinas --wherever the Buddha sits!
How do you characterize your own haiku or the kind of thing in the American mag you publish with, Hummingbird [ed Phyllis Walsh, PO Box 96, Richland Center, WI 53581]?

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I note you make the same point about haiku vis-a-vis great literature and extend the thought in your conclusion about ordinariness & enlightenment. At the same time, realization remains crucial --that is, it isnt the mere doing but the quality achieved --without sacrificing the purity of the act or the art. I suppose that conundrum is where the Zen comes in!
You have your Chafey's & Radipole-lake pathways as I have my Elwood/Point Ormond coastal walk to St Kilda or even the daily crossing of the bridge on High Street overlooking the blessed Merri Creek. Our dreams of the big treks is definitely linked to these. Travels With Charley relates to this too --"once a bum always a bum" he jokes, but at age 58, on the cusp of older age, he surrenders to the innate restlessness, to be on his way and on the way. He wants to rediscover "this monster land", the wild sociologist, one truck, one dog.
For myself I care less about the sociology than for the "monster" within, whom one reintegrates into the world, especially the world beyond human saturation --a pathway or a mountain provide the same opportunities.
We've talked about Taoism recently in the context of your second thoughts about the value of emersing yourself in the complexity of Buddhist philosophy. Your abbreviation of the whole thing was Buddhism deals with Mind whereas the Tao is concerned with man in Nature. I know that's a cartoon but I like it. The Dharma Bums is somewhere in that frame.
Rereading Arthur Waley's Han Shan translations (my 40 yearold paperback of Chinese Poems), in acknowledgement of Han Shan as the figurehead of Kerouac's book, I'm inclined to fabricate the ancient mountain poet as skirting one (Buddhism), escorting the other (Taoism). Han Shan in the mountain country, the mountain's daily visitor whose witness is of mind, pincered by sight & seeing, poet of the bafflement of what-is. More or less what Ray Smith is in TDB.
Japhy spins the Buddhist lore all day & night, wherever he goes. He's in Buddhist heaven! I must reread Snyder's Cold Mountain translation, but in my head is the thought that the reflection of Han Shan in TDB, in Smith's ultimately ambivalent excursion, is true of a poet for whom neither parable nor analogy banishes existential trepidation. No Zen in this song, Han Shan wrote --wistful & brave.

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I'll end on that note but must slip in a new title which came my way recently --Iain Sinclair's Edge of the Orison (Penguin, 2006), sent to me by jazz musician & literature fan Scot Walker in Sydney. The subtitle, "In the traces of John Clare's Journey Out of Essex" says it all. I hope you can track it down in the wilderness you sometimes imply of provincial England's bookshops. I've begun Sinclair's latest adventure and have to say it achieves the tone I strive for in my topographical writing. Simple difference : Sinclair is a walker, practices what he preaches. The job's all before us, bro'; we'd better get cracking!

Love, Kris


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Weymouth
April 2007

Dear Kris, If I still had the Steinbecks I'd get them out and share your delight and enthusiasms. I've looked out for him in second-hand bookshops, hoping to dip in again. Didn't want to buy new paperbacks. In collector mode I fancied 1st editions... but I'll never afford that. By the way, a 1st British edition of Kerouac's Vanity of Duluoz was L120-. It's still, needless to say,sitting in the shop I saw it in, in Dorchester. It's been there some time.
Talking of the 'lost' Steinbecks, I also don't know where my H.E.Bates and French classics are. Oh, well. At least my record collection is mainly intact. I have too many books anyway. I must slim down. Make the library more manageable. Especially if I have to, or need to, or want to move at some point in the future. So difficult, I've already found, to part with any. I'm a collector. I really must get Anthony Bourdain into my collection. If his writing is as good as his narratives on his t.v. programmes he'll be indispensable. Not that I eat his sort of food. I look to John McDougall, M.D., for that. I have a pretty regular dose of him every day. He espouses a low-fat vegan diet that I follow almost to the letter. 99%. It's an unprocessed, starch-based diet (e.g. rice, millet, potatoes, beans, corn, breads) with the addition of fruits and vegetables. He does allow occasional use of nuts, seeds and soya products (e.g. miso, tofu, spya milk) but not T.V.P. etc. And no oils.
McDougall is a very straight guy. But radical in his field. It was great fun to see him have a beer on his latest DVD --"McDougall Made Easy"! He's trying to appeal to everyone --ordinary people. He's telling us he's a regular guy. Anyway, I love him. And I love Bourdain. Who you follow will decide which way your weight, blood-pressure and cholesterol go! Tough choice for me. But I am decidedly vegan at the moment. With whom to have fun becomes an awkward equation. Does one want to have fun? Uchiyama Roshi in Refining Your Life : From the Zen Kitchen to Enlightenment" says something interesting -- "...somehow, the word 'fun' is not exactly the way I would describe my activities... Anyway I suddenly recalled one thing I do which you might call fun, and that is sipping three small shots of whiskey after the day's work is done. ....Personally, I do not care much for alcohol and cannot stand sitting around drinking with a bunch of people. The reason I drink is because even after I have been in bed for some time my feet never seem to get warm.... The life we lead here at Antai-ji, however, is far from the kind that allows the sipping of hot sake and the nibbling of snacks with it. I drink with the express purpose of warming my feet, and I have grown accustomed to taking the whiskey straight to maximise its effect.... Now if the word 'fun' could be applied to this situation,then this is the time I have 'fun'."
I remember Ted Enslin's lines in a poem from The Country of Our Consciousness --"I tend to congratulate a life, that lived, is harder than it need be." Enslin would congratulate Uchiyama Roshi. McDougall would understand. But Bourdain wouldn't see the point. Not sure where I stand. I know I'd like to be out in the world with Bourdain on his t.v. trips in my fantasy life --but I'd also be at Artai-ji doing 14 hours a day of zazen at sesshins. I think Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder would be a mixture too. But can't see Ray Smith on food for health. You never can tell what people will do though. Even Bukowski took to health foods, vitamins and supplements towards the end of his life because ill health forced his hand. There's no knowing what people will do when the elephant stands on your chest.
Presently, I'm reading in The Dharma Bums where Ray Smith goes home. It struck a chord with me --being home, meditating, trying to explain myself to the neighbours. I don't mention Buddhism to them. If only I had a trip planned to the West Coast, like Ray. I sometimes dream of living in the south of France and maybe being near Plum Village and Thich Nhat Hanh. And, of course, sometimes the dream is to be with you in Oz. I'd have to go back many years when I felt free enough to just take-off somewhere tho'. Too many! But there is still in me a seed for adventure. Ray is heading for his fire lookout job for the U.S. Forest Service on Desolation Peak. That great book, Poets on the Peaks by John Suiter (Counterpoint, 2002), gives a thorough account. No, I'm not suggesting anything like that for myself. But the spirit is there.

Love, Bernard

1 comment:

Michael de Valle said...

Hi Kris,
I'm more than halfway through 'Travels with Charley' myself at the moment. May I also suggest 'Tortilla Flat' as worth a read? It accompanied me to QLD in September last year and I enjoyed the humour. I like Steinbeck's characters; his love of 'bums' and 'bumdom.'The way they are as they are and refuse to subscribe or bow to the pressures that we ourselves have (to an extent) i.e. the 'protestant work ethic' you mention. Steinbeck also includes some wonderful stories in his novels - e.g. the pole sitter in Cannery Row. Also the body of the girl Doc discovers out on the reef.

In Travels with Charley (Part Two, around pages 100-105 in my 1965 Pan paperback edition) he has this wonderful little story about 'Harry' the stranger who occupied his hotel room before him and how he learns about the man by what has been left behind.

Cheers,

Michael de Valle.