John Brandi

(from Visits to the City of Light)


under an image of Pachali Bhairab,
Shiva's fierce manifestation, there is a plaque in English,
misspelled. Instead of God of Destruction
it says God of Destraction.

Later, at another shrine
I find life's distractions inscribed in marble,
the spelling perfect:
no fire like lust
     no grip like hatred   no net like delusion
           no river like craving.


"Eyes that see everywhere at once
without discrimination," is how a Tibetan man
explains the huge eyes painted on the gilded tower
of the blinding white stupa on the hill above Kathmandu.
"The stupa is like the shining body of a being
whose spirit is unbreakable."

Body . . . Bodhi . . .
his English and Sanskrit words
merge to become the image of a vessel whose unfaltering
light never fails to brighten the darkest wind.

20 years ago, in the gnarled woods below,
I sat in darkness waiting for moonrise, aware
of other travelers like me silhouetted between the trees,
cross legged, fumbling with bags and cameras.

When the full moon rose
to light the city, the stupa and the wooded hillside,
I looked around, startled. No travelers like me,
only monkeys — whose profiles exactly
matched mine. One monkey even dangled
a camera from his shoulder, perhaps lifted from a tourist
passing through the world's endless turnstile
of folly and enchantment.


a miniature wooden temple
dating from medieval times, where, on approach
you look up between moss-eaten roof supports
to see your face reflected behind a pair of rusty scissors
expoxied to a mirror hanging between carved
erotic love scenes.


Kwang Xi, Lao:
a waterfall pours from the jungle
in smooth, foaming braids, sparkling down
a series of travertine cliffs
into an emerald pool edged with poinsettias.
Tacked to a tree fluttering with more butterflies
than leaves, a small hand-lettered sign
welcomes pilgrims with the words:
                         KEEP CLEANING


Kashi, Banaras, Varanasi:
despite its many names, this city is India
centuries old when Buddha visited,
will always be the City of Light.

Inside the airport
a wiry young guy pushes a portable icebox
roped to a dolly, selling Quality Refrigerated Ice
at an inflated price to sweating passengers in the waiting room
whose only thirst quenchers are warm sodas, priced
higher than the daily earnings of the women in saris
crouched over the airport lawn, "mowing" it
with the bare fingers.
At the customs counter
a young female tourist resembles the buxom
19 year-old Aussie dancer we met in Luang Prabang
who a monk invited into the woods
to see Buddha's footprint and engaged in grabbing her breasts.
When she told the story, she wished, she said
he was younger.


Riding into Banaras from the airport
on a sputtering trishaw, the 2-cycle engine overheats
and we break down. Villagers appear from wattle and daub
huts, potters and farmers, shy and curious.
We are aliens dropped from space.
They are aliens risen from steamy thickets of earth.
They touch and stare. We do the same. Anything—a fountain
pen, a size 11 shoe, a blonde arm hair—causes a smile
or a fascinated surprise of head jerk.

Behind us, chartreuse fields
settle with amber dust in slanting sun floating
with dragonflies. An old whiskered guy in spotless dhoti
reads a book through bottle-thick glasses
hunkered on his haunches before a thatched hut
whose dirt yard has been meticulously wetted
by a little girl who hunkers in the same manner,
sweeping the dirt with bundled twigs
in a 360 degree arc around her.

Between her brown upraised legs
her perfect slit is exposed. It is an almost instant leap
from that image to the carved stone statues
of Lajja Gauri, "goddess without reason for shame."
Dating from Vedic times, she is always shown
with her legs spread and pulled back.

In her elemental birthing posture
Lajja Gauri is the essential female, divine source of life,
creative power of the receptive. Synonymous with
the vivifying element of water, she overlooks village springs.
Carved on clay vessels, she assures that they will be filled.
Nestled in sacred groves, she reminds us that trees
are storage jars of water.

In south-central Java I once found Lajja Gauri
carved of smooth basalt, canopied by rainforest, near
a crumbling temple. She was freshly wetted, sprinkled with
jasmine, deliciously swollen, recently worshiped
by women from a nearby village, who were supposedly
Muslim, but animist really, the old fertility cult
shining nakedly through religion's
superimposed evil.


Dasaswamedh Lane:
a postcard of the Ganges bought from
a well-groomed boy amid strollcart lepers reads:
    enchanting view of river where color full sun
            brings pilgrims to dips sending powerful prayers


Kashi, dawn:
the tea master's smile rids the clock of time.
I drink his cardamom-spiced tea flavored with buffalo milk
from a thin-walled clay cup. As the drink disappears,
an embossed svastika shows at the cup's bottom.
It's everywhere, this whirling, auspicious sun symbol:
on walls, hubcaps, umbrella handles; on bank checks,
on the lids of prophylactic ointment, at the center of
Ganesha's belly—the svastika, popular
of the subcontinent for over 4000 years.

On the tea master's table
is a stack of leaflets, 2 rupees each, titled:
                       Do's & Don'ts of the Kali Yuga

He says the Kali Yuga is the age we've just entered,
a kalpa of darkness, destruction, and psychic emptiness
where everything is turned around—and lies and phoniness
bring success. "Each kalpa lasts 3000 divine years,"
he explains. "One divine year equals
360 human ones." He gives a curious twist
to his mustache, reaches under the table
and hands us an abacus
to figure it out.


Lalita Ghat:
the sun bursts white hot over misty Ma Ganga,
flares pomegranate on the tilted sandstone temples whose bells
all at once ring by themselves. Here, the very popular
ear cleaners sharpen their pointed instruments on the curb.
Here, a man sells what is left of his hair before he dies.
Here, a diviner reads a woman's fortune
by connecting invisible lines between
the moles on her back.


Birla Vishwanath Temple:
a scraggled guy stops me under: PLEASE LET SHOE MAN
LOOK AFTER YOUR SHOES and demands my sandals.
I also leave my pens, pencils, loose change,
third eye, false teeth, and tincture
of opium: 50 paisa ea.


site of Buddha's first sermon.
At the book store, on Empty Logic
a grasshopper shits.


Manikarnika Ghat:
in a blackened nook above flaming pyres
naked sadhus fill their chillums, drink from skulls
and wail on conch shells. The famous "cock babas"
gather here during auspicious solar configurations
to perform merit-gaining austerities. Tying enormous rocks
to their penises and lifting them into the air,
they nearly tear their cocks off their torsos.
The foundations of such practice
may not originate so much in the tantric occult
as in the act of playing with oneself, though it's been said
rock lifting and cock breaking were employed
by wandering rishis of old who renounced
the world in quest for unlimited divine intoxication.
By lifting weights to snap the penal nerve,
the cock was rendered incapable of erections—
thus, no loss of valuable energy and focus
through ejaculation.


Old Kathmandu:
After hauling the last few copies
of my now out-of-print book halfway around
the world to the country that originally inspired it,
I walk into Pilgrims Book House to peddle it
at the usual 40% off. But they don't want to buy
the book, they want to republish it—

Ushered to a rear office, I find the publisher
wise, jovial and immediately heart spoken.
I call in Renée. She says she knows Mr. Tiwari is okay
because when he laughs his contagious laugh
she can see the whole inside of his mouth.
"His tongue is pink, his breath
like a newborn: sweet and clean."

So we cut the deal.


Leaving the Himalayas, banking
out of the clouds, we hang in pure motionless blue
before Kanchenjunga, Makalu, Sagarmatha, Lhotse
and the far-left Annapurnas. I feel my umbilical cord
unthread, see an eagle painted on the shaking jet engine,
and recall the lines of a poet gone beyond
this world into the next:

nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.

The quote at the end of "Postcript" is from The Way It Is, from William Stafford's book of the same title.

Visits to the City of Light is published by mother's milk press, 2000. To order the book, write to:
PO Box 2553
Corrales, NM  87048
The cost is $12 prepaid (includes postage).

"Postscript" © by John Brandi

 Crowned At Last
photo by Ira Cohen

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