Travel Notes (originally posted on facebook)
Outside, the mountains blunted
by the soft darkness.
We are all alone
in the spaces between words,
in breaths, in commas.
Before early dawn.
The vast terrain of China
as dark as the sea.
One bad sentence ruins
the book, he says, our young aesthete,
breathing the night air.
says the clock but nothing does,
nothing quite passes.
Age changes how one travels. Originally, I wanted to see everything: climb every staircase, take every picture, hit every city. When I became a little bit older, I sat more places, mainly cafes, bookstores, and bars, and talked to people. I lingered more in cities, seeing how people actually lived. I had a lot of fun trying this, but its ultimate object failed. I never made friends abroad. What I got from it was the same thing I got when I was younger. There were moments: sitting in a conversation about starting an art gallery with EU assistance, Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene, strolling around for hours and taking in the color of it all. With few exceptions, those moments were lonely. Appreciation and understanding seem to be ends one sets for oneself.
“Travel Notes” starts with an observation. “Air-conditioning:” inside, one has noticed one’s artificial comfort. That comfort, a limit of sorts on experience, mirrors looking out at the landscape. The mountains are made less jagged, less an immovable obstacle, by the soft darkness.
Is it possible to ever see well enough to make travel worthwhile? The fundamental problem is that of communication: “We are all alone in the spaces between words, in breaths, in commas.” Just as our seeing is conditioned by limits, our speaking depends on how we are received. Those spaces are where we are heard, where others are heard. But is anyone ever understood?
Practically speaking, this seems a small problem for most of us. Our lives go on one way or another. But in another country, it can be everything, as being elsewhere highlights necessity, the crisis where one would otherwise see solipsism. To be the outsider in many places, to take a contemporary example, is to be blamed for everything, to be considered not worthy of understanding. A tourist confronts this in a small, indirect way when she cannot see: “Before early dawn. The vast terrain of China as dark as the sea.” Something immense is happening, something immense is right before you. It’s all around you, and it feels utterly inaccessible.
The poem stays with the milder version of the problem, but it is not hard to think about the times all could have gone wrong in a foreign country. The times one could be helplessly stranded, feeling utterly without dignity. In the face of lacking communication, of lacking knowledge, it’s tempting to go back to the familiar. Sure, one’s family does not understand who you are, but that’s not necessary for being loved. In crucial ways, you don’t need to explain yourself to your country. Not to the standards which just feel right, because we’ve been conditioned a certain way. Countries and climes have some startlingly different notions about beauty, notions reflected in intellectual life. Hence, it feels possible to say that one foreign element could ruin everything: “one bad sentence ruins the book, he says, our young aesthete, breathing the night air.”
That one bad sentence is the moment of illumination, the one time a conflict is sensed, that conditioning might be put aside. That sentence may not be so bad. It may be a part which demands another whole, another way of reading the book. That sentence may be terrible, and perhaps one would be better served breathing the night air, trying to focus on where one is. Communication isn’t possible without those who want to communicate and those who wish to listen. It’s rare those conditions will ever hold.
But it’s a rarity worth searching for. Travel is an accumulating of parts: softened mountains, awkward exchanges, dark landscapes, bad books. And it might be all done before anything has been comprehended. Those parts demand to be put together; they point to a wholeness we want to recover. “Everything passes, says the clock but nothing does, nothing quite passes.”