AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW, Andrew Mulvania
The collection (T)ravel/Un(t)ravel begins with a titular prologue poem cataloguing—in vertiginous, Whitmanesque fashion—the mementoes acquired by the recently returned traveler (addressed in the second person) who is here seen still reeling (“un-raveling”) from her adventures:
You’ve met them, travelers half-
returned from afar, curled on a couch, comfortable,
uncomfortable, worrying gifts from elsewhere—
a tattooed cow skull, a friend’s gamelan inlaid with bone
and pearl, a chipped tiki from a tohua.
You’ve seen them unravel as the other world
spins into view. Perhaps you’ve felt the vertigo, too—(1).
The poem—and the collection—opens with an image of dislocated (or, perhaps more accurately, “bi-located”) travelers washed up on the shores of what should be their familiar homeland. Surrounded by the souvenirs they’ve acquired on their far-flung voyages, they cling to these objects in a desperate attempt to recover some stable notion of selfhood only to discover they can no longer comfortably inhabit either the world to which they’ve returned—or the one they’ve left behind.
Related to this notion of the making and unmaking of the self is the idea of gaining compassion for or understanding of other selves, something the book argues is a crucial aspect of travel. Poems like “Following In The Footsteps of Melville,” and “Duzi” show the poet, often accompanied by his wife, attempting to adapt (sometimes to quite comic effect) to life in another culture. In “Following In The Footsteps of Melville,” the poet accuses himself of engaging in the cultural imperialism of other white Americans and Europeans who came to the South Seas, including, “Melville, Gauguin, Stevenson, / London, Brel, Brookes, and a hundred / more rovers from Suggs to Theroux” (26). But the poem is, finally, less about the poet’s own fears of imperialism than it is about the unique customs of the people he’s found himself among. Of these poems emphasizing other lives, “Duzi” (which one gathers from the context means something like “diarrhea” in Chinese), is perhaps the best—and certainly the funniest. The poem finds the poet and his wife (“Kate”) stuck on a seven-plus hour bus ride through the Taklamakan Desert in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Province, riding among “Uighur and Kazakh squabbling with Han” (48), when the poet’s wife is suddenly struck by a fit of “Duzi”: “No bathroom / on this bus. No rest stop. No tree, bush, or rock” (48). The poet alerts his fellow travelers to his wife’s condition, a fact that brings together people of many different nationalities—united by our common fate of being subject to our bodies—in an effort to halt the bus so Kate can hurry out of the bus and up the dunes to a crude, open-air toilet.
Finally, all this self-unmaking and border crossing suggests for the poet that ultimate border-crossing into death—“the undiscovered country,” to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “from whose bourn no traveller returns.” The poem “Blue Banlieue” finds the poet feeling resigned to life in an extended stay in a Paris suburb until the thought of the secret lives of its residents leads to an epiphany about life’s endless variety: “Once, I closed my eyes to this blushing little world. / Now they’re wide open, and the gray weather’s disappearing in my beard, / at my temples. It’s just the end of one life, the beginning of the next. / Nothing serious” (41). Though clearly self-conscious about aging and stasis in his life, the moment in the banlieue leads the poet to an acceptance of the inevitable journey of death toward which we daily travel.
Another poem in the collection, “Giverny,” about the famous garden of Impressionist master Claude Monet (one of two poems about painters in the collection, the other concerning Vincent Van Gogh), treats this theme of acceptance of our mortal condition with great beauty and skill. Perhaps the strongest single poem in a strong book, the poem is addressed to the aging painter, who continued painting his gardens and water lily pond even as his sight began to fail. Perceiving his own aging, Shepard seeks wisdom from Monet, who, like the poet, spent his life in the service of beauty. “Old man, I’m almost ready to join you / in the lily pond with the Asian green bridges,” the poem begins, continuing with a lush catalogue of the flora in Giverny only to find the poet lamenting the loss of his youthful body: “I’m not blind to the fact my green body’s growing / darker as it breaks down and all the little blossoms / wither” (66). Shepard wonders whether, like himself, Monet felt compromised by aging or whether the painter greeted it with greater patience than the poet finds himself capable: “Did you already picture the signs: this way / to the water lilies, that way to the limed pit. / Or did you turn your back on all future plans / and trudge happily down the thronging paths / of flowers opening” (66). The poem closes with an image of acceptance, as the carefree lilies—true to their biblical reputation of unconcern for the present or the future—simply take what nature has in store for them: “And they [the lilies] never, / as far as you [Monet] could see, complained of / the coming and going of light. / They just opened as far as they could / each morning and prepared to close / when they sensed it was time to close” (66-67). This lesson—of greeting with equal calm the experience of joy or disappointment, even the experience of death—is, Shepard suggests, something we must travel very far, indeed, to learn.
In a volume as varied and compelling as the destinations Shepard describes, the poems of (T)RAVEL / UN(T)RAVEL would make good travelling companions for your next around-the-world voyage—or even for your next trip to the local coffee shop.