Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Barbarian's Vacation


It swims toward him out of the
mists of his idealized vision, its
swelling reality massaging his
tired heart as the view turns from beach to
quilted countryside to coiled
urban warrens in breath-giving
Its life washes over him
as its densely drawn picture
follows him everywhere,
punctuated by the Roman letters
placed there for illiterate
gaijin like himself. He is
there, after uncounted
years of aspiration, exhilaratingly
lost, swimming in their patient
kindness as they guide him
with quiet grace.
He gapes through the rushing window
at the impossibly dense
concrete, steel, and brick
forest, its towers filled
with lives lived within
a few hundred square feet,
proceeding endlessly across
the Kanto Plain as the megacity
swallows him with indifferent ease.


He gawks at the Blade Runner nightscape,
its inhabitants swirling around him
in purposeful journeys toward
home, or
toward beer and sake,
or toward rendezvous
with quietly waiting lovers
or toward laughing revelers
snaking their way
through the myriad watering holes.
Buildings from fifty years in the future
oversee the ordered tumult,
either in quiet business repose,
or blaring out eye-blazing neon messages
into the humid night, lurid with the
promise of excitement, sex, status,
and the rewards
of money spent in the lunging pursuit
of elusive happiness.
Could this really have been
the place where on that
burning night the heat flipped
the bombers upside down
and the blackened dead
lay piled up in haystacks
of shriveled arms and legs?
No trace of the ravaging fire
remained any more,
as the Shinjuku District's engine
revved higher and higher, the neatly trimmed
business people and the spiky haired
teenagers flowing in eddies of
brightly lit consciousness
all around him.
No elders ventured into this night;
it was no longer their world,
and it was no longer interested
in their gray memories.


Dotted throughout
its meticulously organized
newness, he found
cross-legged Buddhas,
gracefully sloping roofs,
pious monks,
and orange torii gates.
Clap! Clap! to wake up the gods
so that they might hear our petitions.
Wrap the delicately written prayer requests
and toss them into the big incense burner,
fragrant with tradition and hopes.
Gautama is no longer a starved seeker
after the Light.
He is huge, green or bronze, luxuriant
with prosperous fat, bowed toward,
prayed to as he hoped never to be,
idolized, frozen in poses of Bodi-like
contemplation, while surrounded
by the gold
and sumptuous decoration
he scorned and fled from
in life.
The ancient native faith for this world
(please bless our new Lexus),
Siddhartha's doctrines for the next
(please keep me from rebirth.)
The sweet-faced, petite guide told him
that a million worshipers
packed the Meiji park on New Year's Day,
all imploring the ancestral spirits for good luck
in the unfolding year to come.
He imagined them all leaving
afterward on the immaculate trains and buses,
perhaps to hit the 7-11
or the neighborhood McDonald's,
ears pressed to cell phones, and anxious eyes
checking Blackberries, the world of the kami
now left behind.


It was as if they lived to be polite,
generous, helpful, and tolerant
of his bumbling, child-like attempts
to communicate in the clipped,
subtle music of their language.
They were unsurprised by his tall,
aging Scots-Irish appearance; they
were old pros at this, after all.
Sweet faced children on school trips
sometimes joyously said "Hello!" to
him as they passed, bravely using the strange
word to talk to one of Them.
In the lobby one little
sprite tried out "Good morning!"
He said, Ohayo gozaimas'! back to the
bold young explorer, much to the boy's delight.
And everywhere
in every clean street
and every safe night time
and every right-on-the-dot train door opening
their diligence and their
quiet pride were in evidence.
He wondered how it came to be
that they had raised the ordinary
up to the extraordinary,
and whether the white-gloved
men on the Shinkansen really knew
how abashed they made him feel
about the slacker tribe
of which he was a typically
disheveled member.


He could find the quiet parks
and the elegant gilded temples
of the guidebooks and postcards.
He reveled in the lazy, spoiled deer
nuzzling him in the park by the huge temple,
and his eye was caught by the occasional
old woman venturing forth in the kimono
that a proper lady always went out in public in.
He was awed in the presence of the ancient
castles that had stood as bastions in blood-drenched
landscapes of centuries past, and he found himself
reverent during the quiet dignity and fussy etiquette
of the tea ceremony.
But he knew
that the giant train stations
and the fleets of little cars beetling their way
through the perfectly maintained streets
and the thundering factories
and crowded docksides
and the endless delivery trucks
and the ubiquitous manga figures
leering out at him
and the crazy game shows
and the garish Pachinko parlors
and the school uniforms
and the office lights still burning at 8 PM
said more about their world than
ever could.
He was under no illusion
that his brief incursion
into their precision guided,
buckwheat noodled world
had revealed their nature to him.
He was smart enough to know
that the preserved villages were a past
they kept alive more for him than
for themselves. He would never
know their Zen essence,
their private anguish,
their secret hopes,
their unspoken desires.
Beneath the silly t-shirts
and conservative suits were souls
that he would never see.
He was not of their tribe;
he was not of their tongue.
He had merely dipped his foreign toes into
their crowded world, seeing its surfaces
He knew something of their story;
he knew the meaning of the empty,
furniture-devoid rooms where their shoguns
had ruled with imperious command.
He knew of the upheaval those like him
had brought to this land.
But he did not yet know them;
and like a novice defeated by a
puzzle box
or a koan, he left
wanting to once again
immerse himself
in the smiling mystery
of the islands that obscured
more than they revealed.