I never met an expat, you know, who found anything to replace his homeland. I mean, they don’t miss it necessarily any more—they can be happy and all that—but they don’t find anything substantial to take its place; consequentially they are a bit insubstantial themselves.
Henry Klein, letter, 1984
Haiku pounds its beat,
Truths that skulk are flushed and trapped—
Dark torch of insight.
I blame it all on Henry Klein. A short stout Jewish poet from Golders Green, bearded and balding (by the time I met him), Henry walked out on London one day, a lover taking leave of his mistress, at the ash end of the hippie era (though no hippie he) and headed south to Franco’s Spain, before answering an ad in the paper in 1979 (16 years before I would answer another fateful ad, 16 years ago), and pitching up in Ecuador, self-styled “El Mitad del Mundo”—“the world’s great waistline” as he dubbed it—then undergoing its last weary rites of rule by military junta, where he stuck—or got stuck, who can truly tell the difference.
I first met Henry around the pine kitchen table, deeply grooved with the elbows of numberless small-hour conversations, of a mutual friend. How they met, I forget, and neither is around to ask. Not three years in, I was sick of criminal lawyering, sick of the ceaseless parade of late-night cop-shop cell-blocks and their stink of shit and piss and sick, sick of crack and smack and Shoot-up Hill, sick of Kilburn, then the undisputed street crime capital of Europe, sick of being a state-sanctioned accessory to murder in an adversarial Anglo-Saxon legal system, and sick of the investigation that had been launched against me by the Metropolitan Police on suspicion of complicity to destroy evidence and pervert the course of justice in a big drug and guns case up Hendon way, Henry’s old stomping grounds.
Henry invited me to come and teach at his language school, Lingua Franca, in the capital, Quito. So one leafless and withered autumn day in 1993 I walked out on London in my turn and pitched up in Caracas, meandering south while reading Proust (“Proust one, South America nil” read the laconically un-Proustian scorecard in a postcard home) and the Venezuelan red-tops, whence I learned of the verdict in the trial of the killers of Jamie Bulger (24 November) and the death in a police shoot-out of Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar (2 December), just a couple of days before crossing the llanos into Colombia, then the undisputed homicide capital of the world, finally showing up bedraggled but bewitched on Henry’s new turf just as the Christmas lights blinked on in the watery Andean air.
Henry and I didn’t see a great deal of each other outside of work that year. That was all his fault, too, as he let me in on a well-guarded secret—the one-bullock cloud-forest town of Mindo, halfway down the Andes as they tumble toward the Pacific, where I passed many an ecstatically drenched and mud-caked weekend in search of ant-pittas and sun-bitterns, tanagers and toucanets, sicklebills and manakins, sleeping under rain-spattered eaves in a creaky, leaky hotel that reeked of rotting timber and the mythical deluges of Macondo.
Being paid ten bucks a day, though kind by local rates, made me fret that if I let my ticket home explode I’d be trapped for years, so it came to pass that on my final Sunday I found myself at last at Henry’s adobe hut deep down in the Tumbaco valley east of Quito, guzzling gutrot rum, shooting the silly breeze, and petting his mule Rocinante, the same hut where he blew his brains out with a pistol after falling in rash and unrequitable love (“woo the wench I shall”) with a girl-woman almost young enough to be his granddaughter. It was August 18, 2000, he was 56, and the 21st century hadn’t even begun.
Back in England in the mid-nineties, there were precious few orthodox employment avenues left for someone whose CV had started out so promisingly but had already deviated so distressingly—defender of robbers and rapists, traveler down drug-addled and lawless roads—as mine had. After a hateful Liverpool interview at one of its last shipping firms, all whispery teak-panelled corridors, model schooners of long bygone eras entombed under square Perspex vaults, and the unmistakable whiff of condescension and death, I gave up on England one fine spring morning and flicked open the Tuesday “education” Guardian, still in those days eight-months pregnant with opportunity. “Take me somewhere rich but strange,” I implored the genie of the ads.
Henry wrote on July 5, 1995, a month after I arrived in Iida—the only letter I ever received from him—addressing me as “Dearest Dos Botas” (“Two Boots”, one of two affectionate—I hope—nicknames I garnered that year, the other being the unmerited “Wrong Way Richard”), chiding me for not staying longer (“maybe ‘personal management’ isn’t high on your list of accomplishments…”), asking me to sell him my left-behind sleeping bag (“it was blotched with mildew and heaven knows what else”), and enclosing a sheaf of a dozen typewritten poems, a few of which adorned the walls of my bohemian (read: decrepit) digs for years. Henry was only published posthumously, but published he was, in a slim but bilingual and handsome volume, Obra poética.
Although solitude may have felled him ultimately, being a bachelor who only met the world on his own most demanding terms had its advantages: by the time he’d hit his half-century, he’d devoured all that mattered in the Western canon, from Catullus on, and all that mattered in the Spanish tributary too. How to choose just one from the precious dozen he left me? “Landscape”—“Sand like old bones, the surf flowers / With death”? No—too unrepresentative, Henry was never a poet of outer landscapes. “Poe’s Tomb (after Mallarmé)”, which he worked and reworked for ten astounding years—“Like Hydra vilely startled hearing thence”? No—too metaphysically arduous for this narcissistic age of ours. “Dark Ending, New Year’s Eve, 1994”, which he wrote the month after I left—“I could die right now and know less of love than art”? No—brilliant, undoubtedly, but just too much of a bitter, hollow laugh. So by a haphazard process of elimination, here’s a Petrarchan sonnet that isn’t, one that’s long lingered in my mind as the one of the simplest, most awful, and finest efflorescences of his.
The dark allows no end
It’s not the sound that tears his mind apart
But what his mind allows the sound to be:
The dread of sunlight, the dark’s embrace—he
Takes phenomena as ends where horrors start…
“It was good and right for us both”, she said,
Informing him in tones that most of us
Would reckon merely sanctimonious,
While the words, like iron, went through his head.
No, not the sound (his mind apart), but what
The dark allows no end to: the cold, that place
Without a name, some shape beyond his sight.
“For us both”, she said, his iron head not
Held in that embrace—the state of grace
Her voice assured him was both good and right.
Inspired perhaps by Henry’s letter, perhaps by the novelty of new surroundings, I chanced my arm at haiku for a month or two that first summer, before setting down my pen, perhaps because I realized—if I hadn’t already known—that the genre in international hands has become the Britain’s Got Talent or American Idol of poetry, beloved—alongside fifty-word stories—of tidy schoolteachers who ache for short and easily markable assignments—teen haiku about self-esteem, anyone? I’ve now come to think, though, that haiku as a genre shouldn’t be dismissed too cavalierly, as a lot can go calamitously wrong in the space of seventeen (or fewer) syllables. Compare and contrast, if you will, without my commentary, two offerings apiece from our latest Nobel laureate in literature, Tomas Tranströmer (top), and the President of the European Council, Herman “Haiku” Van Rompuy (bottom), while making the allowance that all (I believe) are translations.
My happiness swelled
And the frogs sang in the bogs
Climbing up a hill
In the full blaze of the sun
Goats devour fire.
In a nearby ditch
Toads mating passionately
Birds in concert,
One sings above all others.
I don’t know its name.
As any self-respecting amateur who felt he’d been caught with his poetic kecks down would, I buried my haiku, unseen and unread in a box under the stairs these past 16 years. They would have lain there longer had I not tried to summon forth what that summer of 1995 had been, in any slightly recoverable respect, like. Memory had played its usual tricks: what I thought had been neatly recorded in fountain-pen ink in a ring-bound folder turned out to have been scrawled on scraps of crudely folded copier paper, many criss-crossed with mysterious Stanley knife incisions, written in propelling pencil (an early Japan infatuation), mostly rendered half-indecipherable by crossings-out, marginalia, and a numbering code I can no longer decipher.
There were far more than the dozen I suspected: eighty all told, sixty stripping out variations on a theme. The couple that had stuck around in my head were wretched; others, long forgotten, perhaps forgivable. Here for starters, anyway, is the only one occasioned by South America, in memory of a nighttime walk into the—still—tiny and remote hippie homestead village of El Paují, on the Venezuelan/Brazilian border at the threshold of El Abismo (“The Abyss”), where the last gasps of the Gran Sabana and its Lost World tepuis give out on an escarpment that overlooks the headwaters of the Amazon, one of the very last places on the planet where it is—still!—possible to gaze down in naked awe on nothing but virgin rainforest as far as the ravished eye can see. This one, then, is for you, Henry, however slight and however belated, wherever you hide in death’s dateless night.
By a moonlit path
Fireflies starbright flit and rise,
Comets as they fall.
Completely vanished from recall was a short senryu series, in which I’d thrown not one but two poetic rulebooks to the four winds and immodestly titled “Aubade Haiku”—a tiny uncollaborative renga of wildly dissonant vignettes on the sour stale end of a love affair that had never been.
We’re drunk; your tai-chi
Moves, me slumped, you grab, turn, kick—
Your pissed elegance.
We sit, you and I,
At separate tables, writing—
Your mate’s a migraine,
You’re a bore; what keeps me here
Is the girl next door.
My violin heart—
No Strad, but must you pluck it
Summer: love kindled,
Stoked by noon’s blaze; fires that burn
Brightest, soonest fade.
That sodden night you left—
Blood-soaked tears poured down the street,
Signals blinked on, red.
I’ll frame and freeze it,
It’s best viewed chilled and kept on ice—
That night you left me.
Life apart goes on,
I suppose; you summon sleep,
Now I’ve dismissed it.
Life’s strangely slanted,
Now you’re gone; summer crows cross
The moon at midday.
Lonely at nightfall—
The far dull throb of traffic
Helps to ease the pain.
Iida life settled soon enough into a Tin Pan Alley ditty of hummable insubstantiality: desultory classes in the evenings, in a time and a place where just to be foreign was still just about enough for everything, and otherwise nothing but youth’s last vestiges and huge helpings of time, big brimful to overflowing bucketfuls of it, time enough indeed to cock a snook at time itself.
Thirties looming large,
I find a Mini, makes me smile
At that tortoise, time.
Time enough for petty sessions of sweet thought, to dredge up reminiscences of imaginary places never visited, nor visitable, time enough for a writer’s sentence of hard toil—spending the whole morning putting in a comma, and the whole afternoon taking it out, as Oscar Wilde once wisecracked—time enough for multitudes of indecisions and revisions.
Smoke town closing time.
Scuttling cabs sweep up the shards
Of nights spent, smashed again.
There was a new-old flat to be filled out and grow comfortable in, only the tenth place I’d ever lived, a flat whose balcony looked across the somnolent streets of the Ina valley to the Southern Alps. “Promise me you won’t sleep with my daughter if you come and work for me,” she said. That promise, glibly made, proved harder to keep than expected, as the pert sixteen year-old sat cross-legged—for shame—on the tatami at my low table and, egged on, told of sexual conquests and the conquistadors of her no longer new found lands, but kept it was.
Wet night junction, calm.
“Blue, amber, red,” chant the lights,
Unheard their mantra.
Mountains, valley clouds—
Pasted-on white paper strips
By children playing.
The hospitality, which spilled over from all directions, was lavishly rural: it was impressed on me from the first day on that Iida was, in the local cosmology, irretrievably inaka—the boondock backwoods, home only to hicks and rubes, bumpkins and yokels—although it was swiftly apparent that the train north never leaves a built-up area for the hour or so it takes to trundle to the end of the line. It was an age of indulgence—in a bad way—in a culture of indulgence—in a good way—and it was only too delightful to be indulged, on one occasion by a kaiseki feast. “French food is a symphony,” he analogized, “but”—with a note of pride—“Japanese food is a string quartet.”
After lunch, the others bathe.
Hung-over, I watch carp swirling.
“Satori?” Not yet.
Lacking a TV,
I watch carp weave bright mosaics,
Their scales the pixels.
Without wheels of any kind those first few weeks, the only way to get from here to there and back again, aside from the odd charitably extended lift, was to walk. No matter though, when even to pop round the corner to stock up on eggs and milk was an adventure.
Swallow nestlings wail for food,
Plump tots gape below.
The walk that meant the most, the one that mattered, was the one from flat to school. Because of the eccentrically elliptic way the city had grown up, spilling down east from a plateau up on the west toward the river that runs north to south through the valley, it took only a quarter-hour stroll from my flat on the half-farm fringe to the school in the center.
On airborne racetracks,
Above wind-rippled paddies,
Windless summer’s day.
Sedge grass fronds sway and rustle,
Insects take off, land.
The school stood hard by the main railway station, which every weekday afternoon disgorged throngs of chattering, tittering teens: the rebels would fan out into town in quest of kicks, of which only the tamest were to be had—karaoke, perhaps, or an hour whiled away browsing the bookshop manga—while the studious would soon be found crowding our juku cram school desks, brows tilled deep in concentration or puzzlement.
Abroad, new faces, vistas—
But nothing as strange
As another nation’s trains.
Across the tracks lay the central business district. Wracked repeatedly by fires, the last time in 1947, it had been relaid in as rectilinear a grid as watercourses allowed, one that would have contented Mondrian. Tell-tale malodors of incipient decay were already awaft for those with a nose for them—one of the two department stores, Seiyu, had already rolled down its shutters for the last time—but in my naivety I failed to inhale. “The streets are humming,” I ventured to a tightly-laced accountant student of mine one Saturday night as we sauntered downtown, gesturing at knots of revelers carousing from bar to bar. “Oh no,” he plainted, “It’s nothing like it was five years ago,” making that half-decade span sound like an unbridgeable chasm—as it proved to be, though neither of us could have known that then.
City street swelters,
A shop’s doors part, gust cool air—
Hands release a dove.
Sprinkled and scattered
By the priest’s watering can—
In the cake shop chill,
Two inflated mobiles sway,
Frog and tortoise kiss.
I fell in with the inevitable crowd. There might have been three dozen Westerners, strangers in a strange land about which we mostly shared an encyclopedic ignorance, dotted across the lower reaches of the valley, in area as large as greater Tokyo; in all likelihood there are few more now. Our patriarch—although he would have resisted that appellation—was Old Tom, a gnarled cane of a shakuhachi flute-maker who had blown in from Kansas one windy day in 1967 and forgotten to leave, siring four sons along the way. Divorced (but partial to mistressy), he lived alone burrowed in a ramshackle warren of a bungalow, worthless now, up a precipitous single-track road high in the wooded foothills of the Alps, above the slope of blueberry bushes he’d planted to supplement his threadbare flautist income.
Far-off mountain crag,
And the pine trees painted on
With the thinnest brush.
Old Tom had a deshi apprentice—although he would resist that appellation—Bill from the Mersey, in appearance then every inch the hippie, in character a mutterer of sardonic asides, asides at which pieces of the jigsaw began falling into place. On a friend in a fluster at having parked in a bus stop: “It must be hard work, you know, being Japanese.” On a hillside flattened and clawed chalk-white by excavators: “They never met a mountain they didn’t want to move.” For want of any better offers, I found myself a few times that summer at al fresco shakuhachi recitals at which Tom and Bill performed. The polite bemusement with which the audiences reacted put me in mind of Samuel Johnson’s comparison of women preaching to dogs walking on their hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Bill and I carved out time to scramble around temples, most obscure though some, such as Zenkoji, of more than local fame.
Specks the path; no bride, no bells—
A midsummer shower,
And from nowhere, moss returns
To its element.
A temple garden.
Through pines some pagoda thrusts
In vain mimicry.
It was a time of women, women of every hue, black and brown, wheat and white. Never before had there been so many women in my life; never since have there been. Women to companion in drink and smoke, women to share and make secrets with, keep and break secrets with, women to seduce and in turn to be seduced by. In time, the foreign women at least would melt away, most returning home—for every woman that sticks around, I’d hazard five men do—but for now they were an organizing principle of life. Lonely E~, with her pastel blue house and her nervous laugh and her carousel of remote controls; lovely Y~, lost as water is in water lost in the behemoth of her SUV, tripped at every turn by the small-town values in which she had against her will been trapped; effusive G~ from a mid-Wales caravan park, who turned up at one riverside picnic with squeeze in tow, later revealed to be the grandson of legendary back-room dealmaker and seventies prime minister Kakuei Tanaka; and elusive L~, Texan heiress and neighbor—back home—of Ross Perot, who had wound up in a tiny valley-end village where she went contactless for many a moon, an undiscovered Amazonian tribe all to herself. Once she told me of her mother, who after a fortnight’s stay exclaimed, “But darling, I’ve been here two weeks and I haven’t seen a single chandelier!” After various misadventures, she ended up for a spell as a CIA spook in the Tokyo bureau; what must it be like to spy on a nation in whose junior high school classrooms you’ve spent so much time, I wonder. Then there was J~, inspiration and inadvertent muse, nicknamer of me “Rickshaw”, and now a Gestalt therapist back in her native Toronto; the day the plum rains broke we took a road trip north to catch a celebrated taiko drum troupe.
Distant hillside house,
White walled with its roof tiled blue,
Far from shore, a wave.
Staring through mossy windows—
In blue ocean sky,
A signal stuck on amber—
Tiny suns we make.
Autumn came, and laying aside my poet manqué pen, I began to gather the accoutrements of language study—vocabulary dictionaries paper and electronic, kanji character dictionaries introductory and all-encompassing, flashcards, grammar guides, and a charming textbook geared to factory-hand trainees where one of the first words learnt is “welding”—and embark on a romance that has lasted to this day.
Geologically, Iida is a place where the bedrock of life’s banalities lies much closer to the earthen surface of works and days than it does in the painted face of the big smoke, which makes her a more honest, death-embracing locus, but she was not somewhere I could hold on to for very long. I treat Iida nonetheless as my furusato hometown, though no parents, siblings, or relatives wait for me there, and truth be told I’m a neglectful lover, rarely returning now. It was with a touch of trepidation, therefore, that I accepted an invitation from Old Bill–fellow Withnail & I obsessive, connoisseur like me of quality knobs, electronics tinkerer extraordinaire, self-styled “Dipso Dad”, now husband to long-suffering Shinako and father to the adorable Lynne and Hannah–to visit for a sultry September weekend.
(To be continued…)