Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Discovering John Brandi's Travel Haibun in Phnom Penh

  • ( From my upcoming book, a literary travelogue set in SE Asia - in this excerpt I'm staying with friends in Phnom Penh 2009).      

    ' After our massage we browse in a small second hand bookshop called D’s Books. I ask about Duras – at least they don’t give me the blank stare but instead direct me to another bookshop three minutes walk away. Ellie heads home to do Saturday things with the boys and I continue on crossing Norodom Boulevarde and find Monument Books without any problem. It’s huge, air conditioned, has a Java Tea Room and a whole section devoted to Duras, albeit mostly in the French language. I pounce a copy of her play L’Eden Cinema. On a quick browse I can understand enough of it to get the gist and it is worth buying for the cover photo alone - one I haven’t seen before of the teenage Duras standing behind her weary mother, hands resting on her burdened shoulders, smiling cheekily out at the camera  as if to say ‘come on Ma lighten up…it’s not all bad’.

    I’m tempted to buy another copy of the Lover to have in reserve but I resist and move on to browse the travel section deciding on Dork Whore-My Travels Through Asia as a Twenty Year Old Pseudo Virgin, by Iris Bahr and Water Shining Beyond Fields – Haibun Travels, South East Asia, by John Brandi. How I haven’t encountered Brandis’ writing before seems odd but that I am discovering him in Phnom Penh is perfect. Haibun, Brandi tells us in his introduction is a form of descriptive prose, punctuated by haiku, the three line poem form made popular by the Japanese wandering monk Matsuo Basho. My mother introduced me to Basho and had most of his works in hard cover which sadly on her death were long gone, loaned out to friends or lost. They included an illustrated copy of  “Narrow Road To The Interior”, which I now recall, is also written in the haibun form. Brandi has written many books, the blurb tells me, mostly published by small presses, but this one is from his travels in Cambodia, China and Thailand, including Siem Reap which is where I am headed next.   I flip to his section on Phnom Penh:


    “ More beers, then to a quiet, surreal restaurant, furniture piled downstairs, clock ticking by 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 ragged rickshaws, parked between moonlit frangipannis, 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.”

    John Brandi just became my new hero. For me this has to be the ultimate writing form. I love the moment of reflection the haiku brings at the end of the description. While I don’t consider myself to be proficient in this form but I always try to introduce the idea of haiku inspired writing when I’m with a group out in the desert or wilderness. I carry Cor Van Den Heuvel's        fabulous Haiku Anthology (modern English haiku)  in my day pack,  so when we stop for a cup of tea looking out across a desert range, or a dry river bed, we can take turns reading at random the short three line poems (some are only one line). They remind us that simplicity is best, less is more and when you combine something from nature, something from human nature with an observation of the present moment, it’s hard to go wrong. I pay for my new books and retire to the Java Tea Room in the rear of the shop to savor Brandi’s haiku with tea and poppy seed cake.'

    • fields shimmer
      beyond a gate
      made of reeds

      in the empty niche
      where Buddha sat
      bees at work

      old self new
      self, still

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