Two weeks ago I went to Peru for my sister’s wedding. I was there last summer as well, just to visit her, and didn’t know I’d be returning so soon. Last time we traveled around some, and took a (grueling) four-day trek to Machu Picchu. This time we stayed put in the town where my sister lives: Pucallpa. Pucallpa is in eastern Peru, on the Ucayali River in the Amazon. It’s a jungle port town, so men are constantly loading and unloading small boats at the makeshift-looking docks. They run up and down the steep, uneven hill to the river with enormous loads on their backs. My sister takes one of these boats (she pointed out to us the exact one) twelve or so hours up the river and back, since she works with a Shipibo community in the jungle. On those trips she is always sure to keep her main store of money in one place, and a smaller amount tucked elsewhere. The smaller amount is ‘pirate money,’ she says, since sometimes river pirates come on board the boat and you have to give them something so they’ll go away. She told me this very matter-of-factly. (Did I mention this is my little sister?)
The primary way people get around within the town itself is not by car, but by mototaxi, which are small rickshaw-buggies attached to motorbikes. They zip loudly around the streets, weaving between each other unpredictably (unpredictable to me, anyway). There are no seat belts, of course, to keep you from springing into flight. There are also no lanes, but, as my mother pointed out, they mostly manage to move like a crowd of people would, not running each other over, making room as they go. (Still, the no-lanes thing was almost enough to push my dad over the edge…) And maybe it’s partly because many of the roads are dirt-coated, so that there’s a fairly constant cloud of dust suspended in the air, but the scene reminded me a little of a futuristically-tweaked Old West. My sister mentioned (also off-handedly) that it’s best not to take the mototaxis at night because sometimes the driver will hold you up and rob you. But during the day it’s fine, as long as you don’t get a drunk one.
For all my talk of valuing uncertainty as an artistic quality and as an approach to life in my last post, I must say that my sister handles a certain kind of uncertainty better than I do. While not unraveled or affronted by it, as some might be, I’m not particularly good at casting myself breezily and un-self-consciously into the flow of disorder either, especially when it has a dangerous edge. I scare more easily than my sister does. River pirates would almost certainly be enough to keep me off the river. It’s true, though, that she has been pretty much fine for these two years – nothing terrible has happened (knock on wood). And since she speaks fluent Spanish (I speak very little), has a Peruvian partner, friends, two dogs she’s in love with, and a life in Pucallpa, the place surely feels less uncertain to her than it does to me, or to my parents. Like the mototaxi-drivers, she has learned the current of the place and discerns a vague order behind the veil of chaos that our fresh-off-the-plane-from-DC eyes couldn’t see past. Our perceptions were necessarily shallow. And this is why I have always preferred longer trips and/or living in a place to being strictly a fly-by-night tourist. It’s awkward being outside of things, and causes uncomfortable realizations about one’s own significance. The first time I walked around in New York City as a teenager, I felt the same way: stunned at how little I mattered there.
It occurs to me that how a culture approaches and handles uncertainty is a fairly defining element of that culture. Careening noisily and windily down the street in Pucallpa, cutting off one mototaxi, veering closer to another because it held pretty girls, I couldn’t help but think of the green bumper stickers that have proliferated lately in Howard County, Maryland, where I grew up and where I’ve been visiting this summer. “CHOOSE CIVILITY,” they say. “Choose Civility”? Aren’t there better things we could choose for ourselves and each other than civility? Apparently the campaign springs from a book by the same name. I didn’t read the book, but recently I stumbled upon its prominent shrine in the public library (…better books a library could get behind…?). It looks like the premise is basically, be considerate of others, don’t be rude, keep off each other’s toes and bumpers; the book lays out twenty-five rules one should abide to accomplish this lofty goal. It’s funny to imagine these sentiments plastered to the bumpers of Peruvian mototaxis…. It’s also funny (funny?) to imagine how many people in Howard County, Maryland, might be reading Choose Civility for moral guidance. There’s nothing wrong with being civil, of course – generally speaking, it’s a good thing to be; but to congratulate people for it, more than other (more worthy) virtues, seems spiritually anemic to me. It also seems like an unwitting attempt to muscle the unknown (in each other, in ourselves, in the world beyond Howard County) out of mind: Be polite and disorder will be held at bay.
That said, I have often felt threatened by what I can’t control too; an unnerving ride in a mototaxi is only a minor example of this, but illustrates the kernel of the feeling well enough. I think I have my moments of embracing a more Peruvian acceptance of uncertainty, but I have my own difficult balance to find. And just as each culture has its particular, complicated relationship to uncertainty and the unknown (the U.S. a virtual basket-case, with its mania for order and addiction to risk) that shapes so much the thoughts and goals and assumptions of its individuals, so does each writer live out her own complicated relationship with uncertainty each time she sits down to write. On the one hand, a lack of control over the world’s happenings or non-happenings is what brings many of us to writing in the first place. A poem is a place to say it just right, to give form to what has no form, and to assume some agency over what small portion of existence one has the power to shape. A “blessed rage for order,” Stevens called it. On the other hand, we can overdo the order, and risk dousing the very life-spark we sought to come into contact with through writing the poem. I think a writer knows when she has managed to walk this magic seam in a remarkable way. And certainly (I think so anyway) we know it when we see it in another’s work. What’s a poem of this sort that springs to mind for you? I’ll leave you with a poem by Elizabeth Bishop (that avid, anxious traveler), which has always moved me this way.
The End of March
For John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read: Duxbury
It was cold and windy, scarcely the day
to take a walk on that long beach
Everything was withdrawn as far as possible,
indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken,
seabirds in ones or twos.
The rackety, icy, offshore wind
numbed our faces on one side;
disrupted the formation
of a lone flight of Canada geese;
and blew back the low, inaudible rollers
in upright, steely mist.
The sky was darker than the water
--it was the color of mutton-fat jade.
Along the wet sand, in rubber boots, we followed
a track of big dog-prints (so big
they were more like lion-prints). Then we came on
lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string,
looping up to the tide-line, down to the water,
over and over. Finally, they did end:
a thick white snarl, man-size, awash,
rising on every wave, a sodden ghost,
falling back, sodden, giving up the ghost...
A kite string?--But no kite.
I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream-house,
my crypto-dream-house, that crooked box
set up on pilings, shingled green,
a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener
(boiled with bicarbonate of soda?),
protected from spring tides by a palisade
of--are they railroad ties?
(Many things about this place are dubious.)
I'd like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.
At night, a grog a l'américaine.
I'd blaze it with a kitchen match
and lovely diaphanous blue flame
would waver, doubled in the window.
There must be a stove; there is a chimney,
askew, but braced with wires,
and electricity, possibly
--at least, at the back another wire
limply leashes the whole affair
to something off behind the dunes.
A light to read by--perfect! But--impossible.
And that day the wind was much too cold
even to get that far,
and of course the house was boarded up.
On the way back our faces froze on the other side.
The sun came out for just a minute.
For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
the drab, damp, scattered stones
and all those high enough threw out long shadows,
individual shadows, then pulled them in again.
They could have been teasing the lion sun,
except that now he was behind them
--a sun who'd walked the beach the last low tide,
making those big, majestic paw-prints,
who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.