Five Travel Haikus and a Digression on Unfamiliarity

Isabel Hernandez-Gil Crespo

To pick up a book from a tradition I am not familiar with, which I have arrive at through elusive references and recommendations, I need to set aside some reservations and a little self-consciousness. It is a similar phenomenon to taking short trips to new places: I am too aware of the fact I’ll be missing out on its influences and vocabularies; that all my interpretations will be inevitably lopsided, and that I am in some sense neglecting the depth of its aura. Moreover, the neglectful tourist lacks the romanticism of the explorer; the tragic aura of the emigré; the promise of the foreign student; she is the least glamorous of travelers. Nevertheless, I wanted to explore this figure because embodying it, in a literal and literary sense, has had an effect on my approach to writing, and because of a description of ostranenie I came across in one of those novels that I barely had the baggage to decipher: “that way of looking outward, from the distance, in a different place and so making it possible to see reality beyond the veil of custom and habit. Paradoxically it is at the same time the gaze of the tourist, and also, ultimately, the gaze of the philosopher.”

Through subsequent research, I found that the concept of ostranenie, or defamiliarisation, is what Russian formalists had identified as the technique of all art; a way of looking at individual objects that transcends routine and habit and transforms experience into an aesthetic and potentially enlightening perspective through the constraints of form. What interests me, though, is not so much the original context but the fleeting comparison I have just quoted from Artificial Breathing, a novel through which Argentinian writer Ricardo Piglia develops a series of concepts in literary theory. Regardless of its general applicability, the concept of ostranenie reflects quite accurately what I feel I do when I write throughout the year, working mainly with the images that have been tattooed on me with the vivid colours of routine to give them a new and enriched significance.

Nevertheless, precisely because travel involves coming in touch with the radically unfamiliar, it is especially hard to defamiliarise in the way that poetry and art demand, maybe not essentially but in a way that has always been part of my creative process. All in all, it becomes harder to write as if objects were unfamiliar because they are already given as utterly alien, leaving nothing left for me to mediate. Piglia’s distant, outward gaze, remains on the outer surface of the eye, and what I had intended to gain a new meaning turns becomes painfully banal.

Fortunately, throughout the holiday I chose to put aside my reservations and borrowed from a travel companion in Amsterdam Matsuo Basho’s The Northern Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches; a blend between travel writing and a series of concentrated, photographic haikus written in the spur of the moment. As I started reading on the coach to Brussels, I found myself trying to fit in my most recent experiences into verses of five and seven syllables, including these:

makes the dimples of the world
soft as a petal.

I put my finger
under the city’s cheekbone
despite everything.

The night before, a friend had challenged me to write about the experience of touching a rose petal. Already as I stroked the flowers in the centrepiece of a glamorous pub of the Red Light District in Amsterdam I had felt the threat of vulgarity, and I knew would augment as soon as I held the pen in my hand. If I wanted to avoid cliché, I’d have to avoid sounding sentimental, and anything longer than just a few lines would have felt forced. But here I felt safe trying to capture the intensity of the experience and, on a different level, the sensuality of Amsterdam toned down in ambiguity.

I faced a similar worry in Brussels, where every description I started of the studio that had drawn me there, filled with amazing dancers with the most exotic backgrounds, seemed much more familiar and sentimental than any scene I have ever taken from my daily life into my poetry, precisely because I was trying so hard to transcribe the obvious. The following are inspired by the words of our Mozambican instructor, but given the dense, compact approach required by the constraints I had set for myself:

The dance teacher said:
“yawn your imagination.
your arms become legs.”

In the studio
Pina Bausch is still dancing.
Our feet swell with hers

and once, upon a night-time stroll with my flatmates,

Old blood dripped on us
hidden in the metal bridge
of Brussels’ ribcage

Although they do not have the unadorned soberness with which Basho illustrated his journal, and the themes are not in line with his traditional portrayals of the natural world, my short journey through 17th century Japan and Argentina some three centuries later had inspired a way in which to combine my taste for layered, surrealistic images and a direct portrayal of immediate reality.

Let me zoom in again on the figure of the tourist, on which for a fleeting but revealing moment, Piglia – whose discovery I owe to a different friend– casts such a peculiar light. I believe I am correct to interpret this figure as a deliberate contrast with that of the writer in exile who, according to his characters, fills the gap left by his lost home and relationships through letters. Exile is in this way most naturally associated with the epistolary genre, both conceptually and practically. On my own account I’d contrast with that of Walter Benjamin’s. Unlike the tourist, the flâneur has a comfortable and familiar life to turn back to, but is unaware of the distance separating her from the reality she purportedly examines. In a similar spirit, the genre cultivated by Basho has unearthed for me a new way of working with ostranenie; since the rushed passer-by has no occasion to polish the dull surface of routine, she must find the glitter and scrape it off; shape it into chunks of layered angularity to form a new but reminiscent crystal.

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