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Suszynski: The hinterland

When I moved to Vietnam in 2017, I did not anticipate the monsoon season. It arrived swiftly at the end of October. For the first month, I impatiently watched the tropical rains wash the windows.

To me then, the monsoons were stillness and muggy waiting. Then it dawned on me that the mildew growing in my interior was partly my fault.

Shortly after I arrived in Colorado after my time in Vietnam, a poetry chapbook was published called “Eye Level” by Jenny Xie.

Her collection addresses a few themes that resonate with me: travel, solitude, exile. She spent time living in Cambodia as a copywriter, “in the business of multiplying needs,” while I was heading the editorial department of a travel company in Da Nang.

She begins her chapbook with a quote by one of my favorite Spanish poets, Antonio Machado: “The eye you see is not/ an eye because you see it;/ it is an eye because it sees you.”

Here she lays the groundwork for the relationship between the seen and the seer.

In the poem “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season,” the narrator says: “Rainwater mars the tin roofs,/ melts a sticky bun left in the alley./ It worries down the final tips of daylight.”

The narrator asks, “How long will it be like this?/ Water growing out of water.”

I haven’t been back to Vietnam since I left in 2018 but when the rain decides to stay like it did last week in the valley, I return to that monsoonal mood.

Last Saturday, I woke up to a low-hanging horizontal cloud. These horizontal ones seem like ghosts to me, spreading out their arms to reach from peak to peak.

Travel has come to mean something different this year. Xie’s chapbook, on the surface, is certainly about travel but more importantly, it is about the journey into the interior.

The etymology of the word “travel” reveals a few things. It comes from “travailen” in the 13th century meaning “to make journey.” And travailen is most likely related to “travail” which means “painful or laborious efforts.”

In Vietnam, I discovered that I could leave my little apartment, to see things as I wouldn’t normally see them. To shake the creeping mold.

I would take the motorbike to the beach and walk toward Son Tra peninsula, a long finger that stretches out to sea. The horizontal cloud came into view. The ivory Lady Buddha of Linh Ung pagoda, who guides the fisherman home, peeked from the top.

When it rains in Vail, I travel to landscapes I am familiar with and see them in different ways. I visit with the ghost cloud— touch its outer reaches. Clouds are great mufflers, muting the distractions, letting me project what I feel in my interior upon its soft skin.

In Xie’s poem “Long Nights,” the narrator says: “If there is a partition between/ the outer and inner worlds,/ how is it that some water in me churns/ between the mountain ranges?”

The partition lifts when the clouds settle in. The monsoonal rains wash away the boundaries that we have become accustomed to, so we can look inward and perhaps assess what’s there.

In that same poem, the narrator ends with: “Traveling and traveling,/ but so much interior/ unpicked over by the eyes.” The final line: “Nothing is as far as here.”

The interior life is a wilderness that may grow too wild if we do not tend to it.  While Xie spends her time in places around the world, Sapa rice paddies, Corfu, a Cambodia ad agency, she does most of her traveling inward: “To profligate in taking in the outer world is to shortchange the interior one.”

Machado wrote a beautiful poem titled “Proverbios y Cantares.” I particularly like section XXIX because of its meditation on travel. The final line is seemingly simple: “Caminante, no hay camino/ sino estelas en la mar.” Traveler, there is no road; only a ship’s wake on the sea. “Caminante” can mean a few things, walker, wayfarer, but in this poem, traveler seems to be the more translated term. Camino is another word with many meanings: path, way, road. The word “estela” is a ship’s wake and also trail (of dust or smoke). One might translate this last line to: “only foam trails upon the sea.”

The monsoonal cloud reminds me that I can walk to the beach and wave at the Lady Buddha. The water holds no path for me, my footprints like foam trails are the only reminder that I have traveled.

I drove to Homestake Road last week after it rained. I sat on top of my car, coffee in hand, bantering with the expansive ghost hugging the trees that stood out like burnt matches. I pulled out my interior and teased the knots. The untamed vines and patches of paintbrush, the troughs of stocky lettuce — my hinterland. I observed these pastures and twined the vines around a lattice to the sky. Traveling into the interior is laborious, so when the clouds say goodbye and recede over the peaks, I can arrive at the doorstep of the exterior and feel as though I have traveled very deeply into the “here.”


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