THE DHARMA WHEEL OF EXPAT LIFE
American-born UK-based poet Robert Peake is back, this time with a poem he wrote for HSBC in response to its annual survey of expats.
This year as in years past, HSBC’s Expat Explorer surveyed 16,000 expats about their experience of expat life. But in 2016 they added a new twist: they invited three international creatives to draw on their own expat experiences in interpreting the data.
One of the trio is displaced American poet Robert Peake, who has been on our site before, when we published “Smoke Ring,” one of his poems related to expat life.
Today we are publishing the poem that he wrote for Expat Explorer, with their permission. It’s called “Eightfold Expat” and has eight sections, each of which explores a word that many survey respondents used to describe their lives:
Notably Robert chose the term “eightfold” for the poem’s title—an allusion to the Buddhist’s eightfold path to nirvana, comprising eight aspects in which the aspirant must become practiced.
This allusion suggests that as we move along the expat path, we are challenged to move beyond conditioned responses, to unlearn what we have learned—and that only then might we reach the “nirvana” of the displaced life.
I like the allusion very much—and am curious to hear what you think!
* * *
I. [Great, the Expanse of an Opened Mind]
With both hands, take it, this piece
of mind, a gift to yourself, a selfie
taken on a stick that extends into space.
Wave at the dot that was you, a seedling
on the prairie, allotment, or balcony pot,
bursting from husk to sapling, grappling
up, and spreading two leaf-shaped hands
out in the simplest prayer: to grow—
and so you water the one thing depending
on you in this world that was humming
before you arrived, and will hum the day
you depart, planting out and patting down,
packing out a greater part of you in you,
edging grains of dirt from your nails.
II. [A Challenging Chrysalis]
The doors slide open as you pass, the doors
slide shut. Do not take this lightly.
Do not take this personally—the doors
do not know who you are, but who you will
become. Sealed in glass, your beating heart
apparent as your accent, veined to stimulate
the nerve-goo forming its scribbled blueprint,
tunnelling down the spine’s mine shaft,
reclaiming what you thought you knew,
in light, in heat, the gear work whirring
deep inside the leaf-perched skyscraper,
where already cracks are scaling the sides.
You blink. The winds pursue you at this height.
You flex to find your wings are dry now. Go
III. [A Most Interesting Spy]
Ordinary is overrated. But you carry a secret
through the ubiquitous coffee shops, giving
them one of your names to mispronounce
over the hissed disapproval of frothing milk.
You could be one of them; they could be you.
A film as thin as the sheen on your flat white
separates you from the camera-clad throng,
standing like bowling pins on the thoroughfare.
They will ask directions in your native tongue,
and you will pretend that you don’t understand,
the way a lens misunderstands the surface
of places you now inhabit, as if ordinary
could describe the burning pleasure of a sip
that used to scald you, cooling in your mouth.
IV. [Exciting, the Strapped-In Ride]
You never saw it coming—the pothole, cobble,
pavement crack that sends you to the roof
of the clattering rickshaw. Can you remember
the word for aspirin? How much to tip?
Remember to duck when the lights go amber,
wear your backpack, like armour, on front.
This will force you to be flexible, if your bones
can take it and the frame (yours, its) holds up,
adapting to vibration, mole in an earthquake,
fish in tsunami’s wake-wall, you are the whirl
in whirlpool now, swirling whatever way it goes
this part of the grid-parted, shrinking globe.
Close your eyes, clutch both hands in your lap.
Press down, tuck in, and mind the closing gap.
V. [Rewarding Yourself with Yourself]
Who wants to be just whelmed? Who wants
to find the golden ticket in the wrapper
whipping down pavement strewn with trash?
Late, over drinks, in a clean and crowded
metropolitan hide, you’ll strain your eyes
in the black-glossed window, trying to make
out anything besides your own reflection,
freckled with lights from the harbour.
What the hell are you doing here?, you’d
like someone to ask above the clink
and chit-chat, emphasising you as if
familiar. And so, you ask, and ask yourself.
In the glint of your martini, constellation.
You’ve come so far to find out who you’re not.
VI. [Difficult Beauty]
If it were easy, we would all be doing it—
hauling up on a humid red-eye, surrendering
to the body scans and stale sandwiches,
slumping deeper into a crumpled suit at signs
of a fourth delay, getting it wrong, then wrong-
er, our knuckles out for the endless raps,
unwitting child in a full-grown body, stepping
on every hidden crack, and yet—no-one else
can see the daisies growing there, hear music
in the language stripped of meaning, take in
what’s taken, like spare change to a stranger,
for granted, for grounded, given like air.
Notice the air. How it wants to fill your lungs.
Invisible, pervasive. A second world un-sung.
VII. [Better, with a Catch]
The stairs have flattened, the step
beneath you precisely that, how could
you have been that other person,
narrow enough to fit a mail flap?
Home is a stream you can never two-
step in. Home is a rain-washed flat.
This is more than a phase, this is
the new you, smiling benignly
at the new recruits, hazing them gently
with your song, a medley of tales
in which you finally see unclouded light,
changeling having shed your winter coat.
And yet, a phrase on Skype, familiar
and remote—catches in your throat.
VIII. [Different Like Narnia]
Not this dust, but a different dust
clung to the sides of your shoes,
and the light in the sky was different—
more yellow, more pale, more or less
savagely warm to the skin. More or
less is not the same as same, degrees
quicker, more shallow the currents,
more guarded or friendly, the streams,
passers-by, and you a passer among—
chin-up to the skyline, jagged or flat
by comparison, and when you undress,
the light switch flipped, the sounds
of the room gently restless, you sleep
halfway between this world and home.
* * *
So tell me, readers: are the eight “folds” Robert suggests in his poem the tools the expat needs to construct a raft that moves them to a more enlightened place? I for one appreciate that Robert catches so many of the nuances of the expat life.
On the one hand, there’s the raw excitement of being in a brand new place, along with the burgeoning self-knowledge that perhaps can only come from being so far away from the familiar. On the other, there’s the realization that living somewhere different isn’t always better, and that one can easily fall victim to arrogance. In other words, the path to enlightenment doesn’t simply come from the thrill and the novelty of being elsewhere; it also comes from an awareness of the limits on how much one can grow in a foreign environment. We expats will only ever be halfway between our new worlds and home…
But the brilliance of Robert’s writing is that it’s open to interpretation. What was your reading of his poem? Do tell in the comments!
The Displaced Nation would like to thank HSBC Expat Explorer for granting permission to republish Robert Peake’s poem here. Please note: You can also listen to Robert reading the poem on the HSBC site.
Robert Peake grew up on the U.S.–Mexico border, in the small desert farming town of El Centro, California. He is now living near London. He created the Transatlantic Poetry series, bringing poets together from around the world for live online poetry readings and conversations. He also collaborates with other artists on film-poems, which have been widely screened in the US and Europe. Robert is a tutor for the UK Poetry Society and writes reviews for Huffington Post. A computer programmer by training, his current pet project is Poet Tips—a crowd-sourced poetry recommendations website designed to help you find your next favourite poet. Robert’s collection, The Knowledge, deals with expat themes and is available from Nine Arches Press.
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.
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Opening visual: Created using Dharma Wheel, courtesy Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Visuals for poem:
I. Selfie Stick in Rome[https://www.flickr.com/photos/30478819@N08/23950053839], by Marco Verch via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
II. Departures at Midway, by Daniel X. O’Neil via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
III. Fractal coffee/milk, by Nick Ludlam via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
IV. Motor Rickshaw, by Jeff Warren via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
V. Martini, by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
VI. Airport lounge via Pixabay. Insert: Flowers via Pixabay.
VII. E5 colored glass, by Sludge G via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
VIII. Sleeping woman via Pixabay.