Book Review: Farang by Peter Blair

To read Peter Blair’s Farang is to find oneself in a lucid dream. Set in Thailand and wavering between Bangkok, the “Up-country” and Pittsburgh, Blair’s language moves readers through scenes with the elegance of a foreign dancer: the rhythms are mesmerizing, the experience transcendent. Having spent three years in Thailand in the Peace Corps, Blair knows what it is to be a farang, the Thai word for “foreigner” that means so much more than just that. He writes as an English teacher in a foreign land, his main speaker working through the joys and sorrows of instruction, of class bonds, of trying and sometimes managing to fit in. The nature of duality that defines those who are bound to contradictory memories, places and interests comes to life in the existence of Thai culture. Thailand is duality—it is the land of pleasure but also the land of restraint, of the Buddha—and this conflict is woven into this collection. Whether illuminating saffron robes or Pittsburgh’s “cold November drizzle,” Blair details the beautiful nature of memory, loss and uncertainty in these luminous poems.

“Thai and American cultures, two dreams / of one world, the Dharma,” he writes in the opening poem, “Discussing the Dream of Culture with Professor Kwaam.” Blair’s speaker questions the Dharma—the word of the Buddha and the way of life in his new home—and finds himself grasping for answers. To accept Buddhism is to accept the loss of ego, and throughout these poems Blair’s many speakers question tradition, reality and the life that unfolds around them. What is it to dream, to exist in this reality? Buddhists love confusing those unversed in their word, not to be cruel, but to crack open the uninitiated mind to a new perspective. As the speaker in this first poem works through a streetside meal of noodles in Bangkok, he is confronted by the “emptiness deepening” in his companion’s bowl. This is a powerful poem, for its lack of resolution sets the tone for the collection. As the seasons and locations change, the principal speaker becomes more firmly entrenched in his dual nature, forgetting who he is and questioning what he knows. Yet strong voice is not the only element that unifies these poems. The ever-present reminder that at some point we are all foreigners in our own lives binds each scene to the reader. And so, like any good dream, another strong element of craft swirled into the sounds of Blair’s poetry is his way with delicate images: the flash of ocean as a student drowns, the scent of an indescribable soup steaming from a bowl, the brilliance of a silent Buddha flaking chips of soft gold. Despite the confusion of this dual world, each image provides clarity in description, adding texture to these poems.

In “From the Window,” the first poem in the second section of the collection, the speaker abandons all he has come to know. He leaves Siripan, his Thai lover; his former students; his now-familiar Bangkok, the City of Angels. Yet there is continued uncertainty, and continued growth. Blair’s inquiries and insights in this section become as vaguely precise as a monk’s questions: What comes first, the mountain, or the valley? Is life as an outsider choice or consequence? In this section readers find a different country, and with it, another set of lyrical poems that lead deeper into the Thai dream as remembered by a foreigner gone native.

The train pulls away from Bangkok station,
away from Siripan, from the closed
school and into a myth of rice fields.
What’s older, the farmer plowing
a glass sea, or the idea
of motion, of wheels and wind?

A small blue comma, the man’s body,
hunches over the plow in the distance.

The speaker questions movement here, his motion as well as the wheel that turns for all who live. Later, in “Barubador Temple,” he examines a new conflict:

If I wasn’t in love
with stones I could be the one
monk statue sitting free, nothing but air
and light around me.

This is intriguing scene and language because on the one hand this speaker is free, not just of traditional American constraints, but also in his ability to move from place to place. Yet his struggle to let go of his Western notions of life and attitude bind him to his body. Is it possible, he wonders, to sit, to know one space, and yet be grounded? Is it right to be happy in that place, yet wistful for another? As Blair moves through his two lives the question continues to haunt him.

One of the joys of reading these poems is that they work like a traditional Koan—a Zen form of poetry that confuses, yet (hopefully) enlightens the reader or listener. Each piece in this collection presents questions and lessons that prompt the reader to consider his or her nature. Getting into the meat of these poems, then, is like meditation, like getting to the moment or near-moment of Nirvana. The careful reader will suddenly, abruptly, feel the click, the ah-ha! of understanding. It takes loss and confusion, these stories say, to find the truth of being.

In “Night House,” contemplating a student’s paper about a Thai fairy tale, Blair’s speaker unites the abstract and concrete by exploring emotion and necessity:

How can I grade its agreement
or tense? I want to hear the mother’s
voice, her spirit calling like the frogs
in the paddies. Is that her, that magic
mother who speaks the language of rain,
husks and the night house?

English teacher or not, the reader can understand the speaker’s problem: Is it better to maintain the order of structure and expectation and ignore the beauty of the content, or is it best to let oneself go to the whirlwind of feeling created as structure is broken? This is a question answered in the literal form of Blair’s poems. The rules of storytelling apply to each poem, allowing each character to have his or her voice. It’s a paradox that Blair as the principal author/speaker could accomplish this only through losing and questioning Blair as person. This cleavage is strongest in “Two Farangs” as the speaker transcends location and color, forgetting his own body, his own identity, while watching another farang from across the street:

Look, at that farang strutting
down the sidewalk, I think,
sweaty, hairy chest and shock
of frizzed, blond hair bright
in sunlight. Ragged pants,
no shirt, that beard.
I’m about to cross the street
to warn him we Thais
find big white bodies unsettling
as ghosts, until I glimpse
my pale reflection in a store
window, my round farang eyes
staring back at me in wonder.

Life as metaphor in this inquiry into self and reflection on who he is and who he’s become challenges the speaker throughout these poems, and Blair’s gentle way of setting up this tension pushes toward some kind of long-sought release. But as he brings his collection full circle in his return to Pittsburgh, that desire, like all desires, must fade in order for the speaker—and thus, the reader—to feel at peace with what is.

In “Back in Pittsburgh” the speaker feels out of place during the ceremonies surrounding his father’s funeral. The memories of the times mentioned and people conjured are no longer his to cling to. Lost among once-familiar faces and streets and bars, the speaker attempts to return to the familiarity of his Thailand.

what I expect
to see throws me: not Singh quart bottles
but Iron City ponies on the table,

not sunshine on the wide Bangkok Boulevards
and palm trees waving in glare, but overcast sky,
narrow streets hugging hillsides, my tires
drumming cobblestones between old steel rails.

Those who have left home for distant lands and returned to once-familiar shores will connect with Blair’s words here. The expectations, the memories of what once was—after life in another country these things too, are simply dreams, fading from grasp as times flows.

Driving the old streets I spot a blue bicycle
like the one I ride everyday in Ubol.
I want to follow it, as the rain thickens
into curtains between us, want to believe
its wavering silhouette will guide me home.

Home? Where is home, for this ghost of a man, this drifting voice here, that stone statue elsewhere? The speaker’s dream has faded at the end, and caught between the reality of what is, now, and what was—both in Thailand and at home—he cannot find a place to plant himself. In the end, he dreams of two worlds again, his Thailand, his Pittsburgh, and both are gone, leaving him forever changed.


Filed under: Book Review, Poetics, Prose