A Review of Vagabond Song: Neo-Haibun from the Peregrine Journals, by Marc Beaudin. Elk River Books, Livingston, Montana
“I learn by going where I have to go.”—Theodore Roethke
“A tourist doesn’t know where he’s been and a traveler doesn’t know where he’s going.”—Paul Theroux
“A poem is a mirror walking down a strange street.”—Lawrence Ferlinghetti
One has to get the right grip on this book. One needs the right kind of hook. It’s a book of dreams, and a book about how dreams come together on gossamer highways, and—stone by stone—on hardscrabble byways. Drunk on cervezas, ganga and poetry, Beaudin delivers travel journals that one wants to have lived—and re-live—with the author.
“Only connect,” Forster wrote, and this is a book about connections—to strangers on “blue highways,” stretching to the prairie’s endless horizon; to kind, wise truckers on the soul-destroying maze of our Interstates; to “angels” on a “chicken bus” in Guatemala; and, encompassing all, to Nature: full moons over dark seas, ceiba trees in Copan; birds carrying sunrise on their glowing wings. And, “moonlight in the woodpulp of this page.”
It is a book that may change the reader, deepen understanding, remain with one—a vade mecum of the soul—long after one has read it. The book leaves one hungry for more books by this author: his unique blending of prose and poetry.
The great Japanese poet, Basho, blended similarly in his 17th-Century classic, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North.) Basho girded his feet and calves with thick straw, covered his head with a pointed, straw hat, and, with bamboo staff, headed north on Honshu Island, far from the refinements of Edo (Tokyo). Beaudin is a similar type. He wants to confront life raw: he climbs a volcano into Zapatista (“rebel”) territory in Mexico; wrestles with a wind-torn pup-tent in stormy Ireland; makes an offering of sage and tobacco at Wounded Knee, South Dakota—site of the ignominious massacre of hundreds of Lakota tribal people by US Federal (i.e., imperialist) troops.
In 100-degree, “annihilating heat,” Beaudin, alone, scans the “arid landscape that was once the floor of a sea. Eroded cathedrals of banded rock—rust and ochre, sienna and ebony—stand silent in the rage of the sun. Suddenly, I can see it, or rather feel it: the vastness of water, the strange prehistoric fish hovering in the depths. The salt scent of this ancient sea mingles with today’s aromas of sage and flaking limestone—or is it merely the salt of my own sweat that conjures this image?
“The distinct sound of hoof beats approaches from behind. When I turn, there’s nothing there. I move to continue walking and hear it again. In my imagination, I see the horse and rider. A large tobiano pinto stepping deliberately across the rock. A Lakota man in traditional dress. I can hear the jangling of claw and bead ornaments, the rain-whisper of dewclaw-covered arm and leg bands….”
A book of visions; a book of dreams; emanating—not from marijuana smoke (though that’s there, too)—but, primarily, through life hard-lived, on the edges, in “Squatemala”—Beaudin’s and friends’ less-than-paradise dwelling in broken-down Saginaw, Michigan (his hometown); and, in the best Kerouackian fashion, “On the Road.” He’s a word-mage, a la Joyce…, but can we trust the visions?
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It is trust that is garnered over time.
The book is written over a 10-year period, Beaudin confides at one point, but actually it feels more like 20 years! It begins more frenetically than prophetically:
“If I don’t get back on the road I’m going to lose my dog-damn mind howling mad and barking crazy like some burning saint. Give us this night our vagrant moon. Give us this day a double yellow line flashing like a beacon of endless possibility. Kinetophilia.”
“Dog” for “God” is a bit of Beaudinesque word-play to which one quickly adjusts. His “kinetophilia,” may take a bit longer. What one feels immediately is Youth!—its restlessness, sweetness, anger, hope. We’re back in the 1990s, post-Reagan and into line-in-Iraq’s-bloody-sand Daddy Bush. The Soviet Union has collapsed and Capitalism/Consumerism/Imperialism is our cup of triumphalist tea. Except—it stinks! Souls like Beaudin know it’s toxic. So, he’s got to get out, got to move, fledge wings, don’t know where--somewhere, anywhere, nowhere, everywhere!
I had some trouble with the first couple of rounds of the book because of that topsy-turvy style. Younger readers might respond very differently. I had some trouble with his too-oft expressed animosity toward Catholics, and Christians in general. Surely there are some good ones somewhere? (It doesn’t take long to realize: it’s hypocrisy of any sort that’s anathema to him!)
The book is layered. It is, after all, a “peregrine journal” of decades. I understood the author better as I kept delving--and I did want to delve. If there are future editions of Song—and I hope there are—we may see some of the info appearing on Page 204, integrated earlier; viz.:
“I was born into a culture defined by its lack of culture. A middle-of-the-block house in a midsized mid-Michigan Midwestern town. Dragged to a Methodist church where the singing was flat and muttered, and the slightest show of religious fervor made everyone uncomfortable. Communion felt as spiritual as the coffee and cookies after the service. For the rest of my week, school was little more than a daily taste of prison….”
Whitman—one of Beaudin’s writer-heroes—re-worked “Leaves of Grass” for many years until it was one of the life-altering monuments of world literature. (“You must alter your life,” Rilke’s archaic torso of Apollo tells the curious onlooker.) With its synthesis of poetry and prose, travel writing and social and political commentary, Beaudin has created a splendid vehicle for capturing the vagabond song of life:
Louder: the music of the trees.
Sweeter: the aroma-voices of the mountain.
Brighter: the sunlight on each rock.
These are the gifts of a venomous snake