First things first: if you are the sort of person who prefers package tours of the Chan Brothers variety, you are probably not going to enjoy Chai. If you do not fall into the package-tour category, and you genuinely enjoy travel (not be confused with tours), then you are probably going to fall quite helplessly in love with this impressive degustation of Marc Daniel Nair’s travel poetry (as I did).
Under Marc’s deft touch, a vivid tapestry of the best and worst of Bali, Vietnam, North Luzon, and India comes to life in the reader’s mind. When reading Chai, I was reminded of the beauty in simplicity that I adore in Pablo Neruda’s poetry. If you’ve read Neruda, this is obviously no small compliment. Marc’s style in Chaiis tighter and more powerfully evocative than in his previous collection of poetry, ‘Along The Yellow Line’.
With astute observations of human nature, Marc presents a wanderer’s kaleidoscope of the weird, the wonderful, and the heartache of the places he has been to. Without resorting to excessive emotionalism or empty nostalgia at any point, Marc lifts the veil of the mundane to reveal terrible and beautiful truths; the ‘broken beauty’ of Vietnam, the deep longing of an Indian diaspora, and the transformative power of a simple cup of well-made chai (tea). He wields his words with uncanny accuracy; cleverly wrought double meanings lurk in every other stanza, allowing his particular brand of wry humour to temper the sometimes somber truths in his poetry.
Chai begins with a whimsical, clever take on the Merlion, tellingly titled‘Confessions of an Ambivalion’. After that, Chai moves on to Bali, exploring subjects as diverse as the double-edged sword of tourism and Balinese dance with evocative imagery throughout. In ‘The Escort’, he describes the coupling of a male escort and his female client thus:
with the violence of
bodies falling before abandoned palaces
in another age, where stone gods held their blessing and tears.
The second section explores Vietnam, and is my favourite section of the entire collection, if the most melancholy in terms of subject matter. Without veering into excessively politicized territory, Marc sums up Vietnam’s sex trade, and even parts of its modern history involving the West in a few heartbreaking lines such as these, from ‘Sapa’:
Tradition opens like a purple orchid,
keeps her tribal costume on and smiles,
even when it hurts down there.
In the next section, Chai moves on to North Luzon in the Philippines, where Marc’s observations are peppered with humour at times, as in ‘Roads’:
Happy birthday dear baby Jesus, thank you
for bargain sales on cooking utensils.
The brutal realities of life for the less privileged in North Luzon take on a bittersweet tone in other poems in this section, such as in
‘Jenny at the KTV Lounge’:
Two months. Manila is her stifling dress
worn too tight, cut too close to the skin.
She hungers for the hallelujahs
of wide fields and her grandmother’s smile.
Chai‘s final destination is India, where Marc revisits his identity through a myriad of voices, perspectives, and observations. ‘Remains of a Kingdom’ is my favourite poem in this section, mostly because of this line:
Time is a broken bangle on a girl’s hand.
What is remarkable about Marc’s debut collection of travel poetry is not a matter of mere technical skill, but rather, an ability to appreciate and illustrate, with admirable economy, the inherent beauty in the fleeting moments of a traveler’s journey – pleasant and brutal alike.
Another quality that lends itself particularly well to travel poetry is Marc’s ability to distill the emotional truth of each ephemeral moment, be it in Hanoi or Hampi, repainting the scene without imposing the unwelcome weight of an outsider’s opinion on how things should be.
It seems that Marc has found his niche. I eagerly await his next collection of travel poetry; if Chai is anything to go by, I’m going to enjoy the next collection immensely.
Review by Samantha De Silva
Chai – Travel Poems will be available at major bookstores at the end of August. You can order a discounted copy directly from Marc if you pop by his website athttp://marcnair.com/. You can also email him here.