dream of travel, The
NOT LONG AGO I FOUND MYSELF IN A CALIFORNIA AIRPORT en route to visit an ailing parent in Seattle. With two hours to kill, I stopped in one of those terminal bars where you can fill your stomach and, cocooned in anonymity, read a newspaper. One of the two bartenders was a Russian, the other of mestizo, south-of-the-border extraction. They were both very good at their jobs, but as I watched them I wondered how historical forces had flung them together in this nearly placeless environment, not to mention how they made ends meet in the vicinity of our nation’s most expensive real estate. Obviously, there are motives for travel more pressing than mine had usually been.
Another Latino fellow at the bar, evidently a soldier in golf club mufti, responded to the solitude of drinkers around him by making one call after another on his cell phone as he ordered ever-taller glasses of beer. I couldn’t help listening-an old habit from my travels-and learned that he was on his way to a friend’s wedding, and after that to a posting in Kabul. When he wasn’t on the phone he chattered away in Spanish with the Latino bartender-another brief, remarkable connection emblematic of modern mobility. These two men could, for all I knew, have had ancestral homes anywhere from Texas to Tierra del Fuego. Their social and economic circumstances were no doubt very different, yet though one served his country in dubious battle and the other had moved up the ranks of the service industry, their fluency in two languages gave them a bond that made me wish I could more easily converse with them. Instead I made do with the New York Times.
Any student of history can tell you that such mobility is nothing new. Whole cities, whole civilizations have traded places in the global to and fro of humanity. I think ofYeats’s lines in “Lapis Lazuli”:
On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horseback, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilizations put to the sword.
And perhaps there was an odd connection between these refugees and other sorts of travelers. The traveling businessmen around me in that bar were modern counterparts of camel-back traders dreaming of Samarkand, only nowadays their hotel lobby destinations were nearly indistinguishable from one another and their domestic arrangements only a phone call away. How odd, I thought of the young soldier, to go from the safety of an airport bar to streets patrolled by gangs of competing warlords-a wrinkle in time and space previously unimaginable.
That the itineraries of immigrants and those who travel for pleasure or business can cross so easily is cause at least for wonder. Mobility can be liberating. It can be intoxicating and it can be dangerous. But so can staying at home, assuming one is lucky enough to have a home. All the great travelers must have felt at some time the powerful desire to be still. Before his untimely death, Bruce Chatwin declared he was through with travel. And Patrick Leigh Fermor’s most ambitious project outside the composition of his magnificent books was the construction of the villa in which he would write them.
Perhaps these literary travelers are always at heart divided souls. No one is forcing them to travel, yet they fall in love with the prospect of new encounters while simultaneously pining for a workable home. I wonder if the modern travel industry is not in part an outgrowth of new technological ease, in part an increasing estrangement from our surroundings and desire to find something better. The architect Christopher Alexander wrote in The Timeless Way of Building (1979) that “good” patterns in architecture “help us to be alive, because they allow us to resolve our conflicts for ourselves.” Perhaps this peripatetic urge, this seeking after new or different environments, is also an effort to resolve our inner conflicts.
Think of that moment in Shakespeare’s As You Like It when Jaques goes on about “a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which, by often rumination, wraps me in a most humorous sadness.” To which Rosalind responds, “A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s. Then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands.”
The person who travels out of desire and not necessity may, of course, have felt a powerful compulsion to escape some private nightmare but must acknowledge that such travel is at heart a luxury. It is an act simultaneously investigative and imaginary, a dream of encompassing unity. Why else would one seek lost wholeness in this multiplicity of experience? And travel writing is, in short, an art, like poetry or the novel. As with any art, there is no point in doing it unless you intend to do it supremely well, and by the same token it hardly differs from writing about “home” of the sort one finds in Ted Kooser’s recent memoir, Local Wonders, about his life and observations in rural Nebraska. It is a form of attention.
These meditations are occasioned by the publication of a new book of travel memoirs, Improbable Journeys, by the poet Robin Magowan.1 It is not the seamless account of a single journey but a collection of discrete essays, some of which were previously texts to accompany photographs in art books. After an eloquent introduction attempting to stitch these pieces together, the book begins with a Caribbean journey in 1958. What follows are chapters on Persia, Greece, Zambia, Madagascar, Nepal, Burgundy, Soviet Central Asia, Trinidad and New Guinea. In a nice structural move, Magowan ends his book with a meditation on staying in place: “On Learning to Travel in a Rock Garden.” While he’s not the sort of traveler who, like Chatwin or James Fenton or Redmond O’Hanlon, sets out to make himself a character in his narrative, we do get in this book a protracted coming-of-age, so the book has, willy-nilly, a satisfying narrative arc.
Magowan’s other books include a selected poems called Lilac Cigarette in a Wish Cathedral (1998) and Memoirs of a Minotaur (1999), the latter an account of a privileged family background (grandson of Charles Merrill, nephew of poet James Merrill) from which he rebelled in various literary, sexual and pharmaceutical ways. Though he had a respectable academic career and authored a study of pastoral narratives, his major project has been, he admits, the pursuit of happiness. Money does not appear to have been a problem. There have been, we learn, upsets along the way-domestic failures, professional frustrations-but the impression made by this book is of a man free to write his own ticket, who has used that liberty to live as a pilgrim in search of authentic life, something other than what he felt at home in what he calls the stifling fifties.
Educated at Harvard, Columbia and Yale, Magowan was steeped in French literature. Among his early literary models were Baudelaire and the modern painter and author Henri Michaux, whose Ecuador Magowan has ably translated. His early motives for travel were partly the emulation of these authors and a desire to escape his home life, the search for “paradise” in the land of its etymological origin, Persia, and the pursuit of ecstatic states of one sort or another. Right off the bat it’s obvious that ordinary life would alter, if not obliterate, these ambitions. But Magowan has been dogged in his journeys over four decades, and remarkably consistent in his willingness to test experience.
He seems at one time or another to have been a connoisseur of prostitutes, starting with this rather mechanical encounter in pre-Castro Cuba:
Unable to sleep, I let myself be taken by a young married Cuban from Tomkins’s office-a man of the Left who was sympathetic to Castroon an all-night round of floor shows, jukeboxes, slot machines, until by 5 A.M. of the second night, I was willing to put up with anything rather than spend another dratted night beside a nonworking air conditioner. So I plunked down my remaining pesos, the female machine blinked and emitted its one wee grunt as I came, and that was that.
By the time he gets to Zambia in 1971 his taste for anonymous sex has developed considerably:
. . . the emotional advantages don’t always compensate for the beer you have drunk while outwaiting everyone else, which turns lovemaking into the progress of a salmon gasping his way up over waterfalls. Not that the girl hasn’t been well coached. And for sheer willingness in reviving a limp penis she has few rivals. She raises her knees until they are up over your shoulders. She makes her labia press out like an elephant trunk. Before you know it, you are sucked in, not knowing by what right all this is being done but willing enough to accept the hardening miracle.
Shortly thereafter Magowan finds himself in Madagascar with a case of clap (in hindsight he’s grateful it’s pre-AIDS Africa), and the STD has the salubrious effect of slowing him down, causing him to take notice of his surroundings. One of the curious characteristics of this book is how differently each of his chapters emerges in its literary technique as well as its emotional depths and shallows. “Persian Mirages,” for example, is a series of vignettes or impressions predicated on his sense of travel’s “inherent promiscuity,” occasionally settling into acute social or historical observations:
In Kerman very little had survived the two Afghan wars. Almost apocryphal was Agha Mohamrnad-the founder of the Qajar dynasty and a eunuch-who levied on its people a tax of ten thousand eyes. he had them laid out in piles and then counted them himself. The oldest of the palaces housed the American Point Four Mission. To its bureaucrats it was obvious enough why we had come-to spy on them-but for which agency? The province reminded them of their native Indiana. But we couldn’t get them to tell us which they preferred.
Another chapter, “Dancing Outside,” details Magowan’s effort to learn not just the steps of the zembeikikoon the island of Lesbos, but also its soulful essence. Here the writing is colored by intense summer heat, drunkenness, and the obsessive pursuit of a dance. There’s an odd way in which ordinary Greek scenes are well matched by Magowan’s surrealist tendencies: “Before me nothing. Olives. Nothing. Olives. Occasionally cobbles. White and Roman looking and going nowhere.” Or in the midst of the dance itself: “What he has been doing is setting fire to himself. And not only to himself, but to a landscape of which he is the shadow made flesh. Made hair and bones and forty-eight years of age and now, grasshopper-style, dancing. Creating spoon, fork, apple with a red center. Creating with every gesture something new, out of this world, and now by him, for the eyes of all within drinking distance, spun, twisted, erected. I am me, he says. I burn the knife. I cry.” It’s the sort of thing you can’t quite understand if you haven’t experienced it yourself, but I think Magowan’s writing here is very close to the entranced mood he intends to convey.
Small wonder that his Greek pursuit of this ecstatic state brought on the end of a marriage. Indeed, literary travelers are also like other artists in the sheer difficulty of managing domestic affairs while chasing their personal dreams. If you are writing a poem, for example, you are not being a good husband or wife or son or employee; you are in a sense not paying proper attention to the world. The travel writer’s odd position is that, by paying attention to the world, he or she is inevitably doing something rather selfish-not paying attention to things at home. Either chosen existence-solitary travel or solitary writing-demands a lot of the people we love, and Magowan’s book is permeated by this realization. He’s not a great conveyor of personalities like Henry Miller but is very good at stamping his broader impressions into words:
… in Kathmandu the phantasmagoria is people: blue people, green people, red people, orange people; more flash of canes, necklaces, caps, belts, bangled arms and ankles than in the most eye-popping Persian bazaar. Each worker is his moment, bright eyes in red-beaded calm, standing by a construction project or putting out a cigarette in a hotel lobby. To struggle about under a great bag of cement cannot be much fun. To do it while surrounded by comrades, each clearly a spoke of light, might also atone.
This impressionistic style, governed to some degree by the author’s spiritual questing, is both a strength and a weakness of the book. Magowan is not at heart a storyteller, and there is too often a static atmosphere of sensibility laid over these impressions. One wishes he would spend more time in one place and get to know the people a bit more.
And this is precisely what he does in the chapter following his transformational trek through Nepal. he buys a Burgundian house, a kind of stylish money-pit, and tries on the life of an expatriate for a few years. There is a subtle deepening of his observations here, though he is still capable of forcing surrealism a bit, as when “Charolais cattle blossom like still cigarettes.” But the passage goes fruitfully on: “Afternoon waves a diaper cloud. A settling crow sinks just out of sight into the orchard. I, too, have settled, buried the morning’s misgivings in my hands. Rising through the pasture onto a plateau, a husk of moon lights my way. Slowly the moon folds me in its gravestones while, farther off, tomorrow’s hills beckon, green slips of air. I liberate myself from silences. As I step, I am.” It’s the same meditative state he had sought years before in the zembeikiko, only now it does not seem so personally ruinous. Magowan is moving toward his garden.
`First he offers a long, history-laden chapter called “Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva,” containing some wonderful passages on cities that I have no space to quote here. Then some bird-watching in Trinidad and New Guinea. all this takes place on the way to a rock garden in Connecticut, a place of stillness populated by plants from all over the world. Here Magowan seems to go about making what Christopher Alexander called “good” patterns, places that allow us to resolve conflicts on our own. Thus, Robin Magowan’s improbable journeys have been a civilizing process, one that necessarily began with a rejection of his family’s received culture and led him at no small risk to his own, deliberately chosen forms of cultivation.
Down on my knees, /become rooted. There is only so far I can travel. Like it or not, I start seeing things from a plant’s own perspective. It is not time that matters, but the soothing warmth of the dirt in my hands, the play of the light on my back and shoulders, as I prop myself with one hand and pluck with the other.
This laudable activity, crawling about on all fours in devotion to lives outside oneself, making a bit of order in a tumultuous world, provides an appropriate closure for a traveler’s book of dreams.
1 IMPROBABLE JOURNEYS, by Robin Magowan. The Marlboro Press. $26.95.
Copyright Hudson Review Autumn 2003
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