This is a slightly revised excerpt from my memoir of my travels in the mid-70s, “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.
The Lost Poem
Looking back at my traveling days from the perspective of time, I can hardly believe that I did some of the things I did back then, all in the name of literature. Sure, it was in the grand tradition of hands-on experience: the need to get right into the heart of things, to be able to squeeze meaningful prose from the depths of the soul. Whatever it took to find my voice was worth it, I told myself. But now, having passed fifty, with a wife and five kids, struggling with bills and other responsibilities, I have to honestly say I wouldn’t do it again, at least not in the same way. I don’t regret having done it then, but I wouldn’t, and couldn’t do it now.
But what I need to tell you about is the lost poem. It never had a title, but it epitomizes what I was searching for at that time. Some writers look for it all their lives and never find it; some writers, prolific and profitable though they might be, never even know it exists; some find it in brief moments of mystical experience, flashes of the supernatural, glimpses of another reality, as Coleridge describes in “Kubla Khan”.
It happened in the middle of my epic flat-broke journey from Seattle to India, hitchhiking, begging, scrounging, suffering, and so on. I had just about given up on writing, and had either tossed out my notebooks or thrown them in the bottom of my bag. I had been traveling for over a year, trying to emulate everyone I admired in the world of letters: Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac and Hemingway and London, those who had set forth in a spirit of adventure to live life with raw vitality and write it all down; and as far as I was concerned I had accomplished nothing. I had failed. Nothing I had turned out was worth anything, and my ambitions had turned to dust. I had decided that I had to return to India, that only there would I find the enlightenment I sought so desperately.
I had left Seattle two months before and was tired to the marrow, tired with a tiredness that went far beyond merely physical weariness. I was in a state of despair, yet at the same time endued with a crazy hope that if I could reach India I would find what I had been seeking.
My way took me through Iran, back in the days when the Shah was in control and there was a middle class who were able to help out hitchhikers. I was somewhat of a novelty, and as such was frequently treated to rides, meals, and small gifts of cash. I was in the southeast, in the town of Kerman, near the border of Pakistan, when it happened.
Pakistan was next to India and I imagined myself very near my goal, so I felt the sort of joy a runner feels as he nears the finish line.
Someone had bought me a bus ticket and I’d ridden all night, dozing now and then. I awakened to the splash of lemon cologne that was distributed to all passengers on Iranian buses, and got off about five in the morning just as the rising sun was spraying its rainbow over the desert.
A group of Iranians invited me to a breakfast of goat’s head soup. The eyes were brought to me, of course, as the guest of honor: disembodied orbs staring at me from the dented aluminum plate; after I had dutifully eaten them we ate the rest of the meal together.
One of the Iranians followed me as I left the restaurant. He insisted that he could help me get my visa for Pakistan, that he knew the proper authorities and could expedite the process. I didn’t really see why I needed his help, but he was so persistent that finally I acquiesced and gave him my passport. He told me to wait around the corner from the embassy, that he would go and see the man he knew and be back in a few minutes. Then he disappeared. And I waited. And waited. And waited. And waited. And the guy never returned. There was no embassy around the corner.
I know what you’re thinking: that I was a stupid idiot to give my passport to a complete stranger. Looking back, I agree with you, but at the time, it seemed the right thing to do.
So there I was in Kerman: no money, no place to stay, no passport, and no American Embassy where I could get a new one. I was faced with the prospect of having to turn around and retrace my steps all the way back to Tehran, hundreds of miles in the opposite direction from which I wanted to go. I felt as if I’d almost reached the summit of the mountain I’d been climbing but suddenly had slid right back down to the bottom; no worse: I’d fallen into a pit at the base of the mountain from which I saw no hope of ever getting out.
Well, I had to do something. The first step was to report the theft to the police. They in turn directed me to a hostel full of beggars and drug addicts where I could get a free bed while they processed the paperwork I had to take with me to Tehran. Then, somehow, I had to get a bus ticket. Someone suggested I talk to the mayor about it, so I did. He was very sympathetic as he listened to my tale of woe, and finally drew money from the city treasury to see me on my way.
All that to say that when I boarded the bus and sat down, I was in an indescribable state of mind. No pretences, no illusions, no defenses. I was completely open, completely empty. The theft of the passport had put a pin in every delusional balloon that I had, and I was left with nothing but the truth.
The truth was cold, stark, raw. An emptiness that had to be filled with something.
And that’s when the poem came.
Verse after verse flowed out, as if a voice was speaking to me, and I wrote it down in my notebook. If I couldn’t write at that moment, because the bus was bouncing too much, for example, I would memorize it until I could. Verse after verse, stanza after stanza, on and on; thirty or forty stanzas came out all together. I don’t know the length exactly because I don’t have the poem anymore. It came in perfect cadence, without any premeditation. It told the story of my travels, of my loneliness, of my attitude towards the West and western materialism, of my search for meaning and fulfillment in the East. It was all there, beautifully expressed, handed to me without effort while I was in an almost trance-like state. When it was done I read it over and over, and it gave me hope and strength. I read it so many times I memorized the whole thing.
Now, not much of it comes back to me. For some reason, I recall a few of the more cynical parts: bits and pieces of that which can never be reclaimed. I mentioned Colridge earlier, and the poem “Kubla Khan”, but in a way the situations are dissimilar. Colridge had a vision and was unable to complete the poem before he lost it; I, on the other hand, finished the poem but later, at a moment in my life that now I don’t understand, destroyed it. How many times have I kicked myself for it mentally and wished I could undo that action; but it’s a moment gone forever, never to be reclaimed.
And I can’t go through that again. If I really knew what I’d have had to suffer, I never would have done it the first time. But I plunged into the fray in my ignorance, in my youthful idealism, in my literary zeal. Now I can understand why Hemingway committed suicide, why London and Kerouac drank themselves to death, why other artists have turned to drugs and perversion. You have to come to a place where you can stare death in the face, in order for that fountain to burst up from within you. And it’s a terrifying place to be. It’s almost impossible to stay there indefinitely, but you have to keep going back again and again, or you dry up. Each time you set yourself on that path, you have to make the decision to begin afresh, to put one foot before the other as you approach closer and closer to the edge. And when you get there (and you have no idea how long that will take) there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Something will, but you don’t know that for sure until it does.
Well, that’s about it. I don’t really mourn the lost poem anymore. I wish I still had it, but then again, maybe it served its purpose. It kept my spirit alive when I needed something to hold on to.
And I realize now that you don’t have to go to Africa or the Klondike or Paris or even India to find inspiration. You can find it wherever you are. You can find it while changing a baby’s diaper for the seemingly millionth time, or trudging off to your job for one more day because people depend on you, when there’s nothing you’d rather do than cut loose and be free. But you have to come to the point where life and death meet, that vague place like twilight or dawn where there are no sharp edges, or perhaps nothing but sharp edges, having left behind all pretences, all illusions, all defenses; and then you have to open your mouth, and speak.
Copyright 2010 by John Walters