Travel is one of those undertakings that just seems to naturally lend itself to poetry. In lyrical potential, I figure itís right up there with war and waiting under your belovedís window at dusk. Daniel Sendecki must have thought so too, because he turned his 2002 travels the Far East into Strange Currencies, an entire volume of poems. By "volume", mind you, I donít mean something like the collected works of Byron sitting on your desk there; itís a pretty slim book, actuallyó63 pages to be exact. And half of those pages (the even-numbered ones) are taken up by beautiful black and white photos of the countries visited, along with a handful of foreign coins and passport stamps. If this book is a frigate, itís only making a short trip. Itís a journey well worth taking, though, winding from Tianíanmen square, into the cities of Vietnam, across the sad countries of Laos and Cambodia, through the glitter of Bangkok and the profundity of India, and ending in Tokyo (presumably, the first leg of the poetís return trip to his native Vancouver).
The poems are a smattering of free verse and prose. The free verse is edgy and filled with sights and sounds and personal experiences, like these lines from the title poem:
Women make nets to thread
weíll walk through
until itís too late &
we wake in hotel
fumbling with our
I actually liked the prose poems better, which is saying a lot, as poetry without line breaks is rather like a house without walls. But Sendecki doesnít twist the sentences around or load them down with sonicsóin fact the prose is quite clear-cut, and reads more like a vignettes from a travelerís diary. Take "Sometimes Classrooms Become", for example, which the author has kindly let us reprint in itís entirety:
SOMETIMES CLASSROOMS BECOME In 1975, Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Potís security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21; over 17,000 people were interned here and eventually put to death. Sometimes classrooms become especially beautiful when all the students have been dismissed, and chalk dust turns slowly in shafts of dusklight. So in a poem about darkness one sees a little freedom, a little light. Standing inside, around us, the numbered photos of prisoners hang from all four walls. Their eyes, behind a grime of dots, form star-maps of fear, confusion, and despair. And in each photo the prisoners carry with them their deaths, like tents, to be pitched in the killing fields.
Whether you consider it poetry or not, this is powerful stuff, and the photo of stacked human skulls on the opposite page only heightens the effect. In contrast to most contemporary poetry collections, which seem written out of whimsy or the desire of the poets to exhibit their craft (and, incidentally, maintain a reputation at whatever institutionís creative writing department they happen to be employed at), Strange Currencies grips you with itís urgency, itís necessity, itís insistent desire not just to be read and enjoyed, but understood. Itís as if poetry is a tool Sendecki is using, because he has no other way to convey the import of the things he has witnessed. A number of times he calls on Walt Whitman, that great experiencer of life, to help describe the massive parade of humanity he finds himself among, the poor and the rich, the old and the young, the earthly and the divine.
In Joseph Conradís "Youth", the narrator Marlow speaks of "the East of ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and somber, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise." Strange Currencies shows us that, with the addition of a few cigarette buts and empty bombshells, the East is still unchanged, and the West is still fascinated with it.
- Joel Van Valin