I FIRST MET RENE ON THE BEACH AT PURI, in Orissa India in 1983. It was late afternoon, and he was standing on the shore wearing Bermuda shorts and a colourful shirt while casually talking to a German traveller. I was out in the water body surfing jerky, two-meter-high curlers left and right across the cooling faces of blue-green wave. But they were coming so fast that much of time was spent diving under the oncoming foam. The tide was high. He was waving his hand while standing on the shore. The sunlight shone with filmic brilliance on his well-tanned face. He kept on waving. He waved as if he knew me. There was no one else near me. He was waving at me. I was rather exhausted leaving the water. I stood there dripping on the soft brown sand. He stepped right up. "I like the way you dive through the waves," he said. "You glide very well."
We met the next morning in front of my lodge along Chakratirtha Road. René was staying a few minutes away at Hotel Bay View. Local tourist officials were looking for volunteers among the foreign tourist to take us for a two-day/one-night tour of the region of Bhubaneswar and Cuttack to practice hosting foreign tourists and get their impressions on the places we would visit. There were about eight of us chosen for this trip. René had also volunteered. We were to travel in two Ambassador Sedans. Each of the two guides would drive. It was seven o'clock. René took me aside and we chatted a bit. He told me he was an abstract painter and asked me what my interests were. "Poetry," I said. Then he asked me if I knew the American poet Robert Creeley. "He is one of my favourites," I assured him. "Oh I'm glad that you are coming on this expedition," he said. "It would be so boring with only the others." The others were mostly English. We piled into the automobiles. At first I sat in front. We drove ahead a couple of meters and stopped. The other car was not yet loaded. I asked a girl that was sitting in the back if she would like to sit up front instead. She agreed. I opened the door and immediately put my foot in a fresh green patch of cow dung. "Oh," I said. I was a little embarrassed. Some one quickly fetched a pail of water and rinsed my foot and rubber sandal clean. The tour guide told me not to worry. "It's considered auspicious to step in cow dung, especially at the outset of any venture." "That's right," said René as I climbed in the back and sat beside him, "Indians believe that. I do too." We had a lot of time to talk in the car. He told me all about his connections with the American poet Robert Creeley with whom he lived on the Spanish island of Majorca, and especially of his meeting with Ezra Pound in the 1950s at St. Elizabeth Hospital in America. Our first stop was the little town of Pipli, famous for its artistic appliqué. We were then on our way to the town of Cuttack. René told me more of his abstract art. I mentioned to him an Indian artist from Orissa whose colourful abstract paintings I saw in a Gallery in Jimbocho, Tokyo near to the school where I used to teach. "But I never actually met the artist," I told him, "I only read the bio data at the gallery … But then one night when looking out the third-floor window of my classroom waiting for a tardy student to arrive, I noticed a solitary man walking briskly down the street with a woollen shawl draped over his shoulders. 'That must be the artist,' I though to myself, and watched him disappear in the wet and misty night." Just at that point in relating my story as we continued in the car along the winding road, another car suddenly began to overtake us. And in that car was the Indian artist I had just been talking about, sitting in the back along with a tall European man. "That's him!" I shouted, and immediately told the driver "Catch that car!" He sped up quickly and honked his horn. The car pulled over. We all got out. I asked the man directly, "Are you the artist who exhibited paintings in Jimbocho Tokyo about one year ago?" "That's correct," he confirmed. Then I turned to René. "Please introduce yourselves." They spoke for some minutes and exchanged brief professional data and contact information. The Artist's name was Prafulla Mohanti.
We continued our drive to the town of Cattack and spent the night in a nice small hotel with restaurant attached. I shared a room with René. I needed a shave but forgot to bring my razor. René said to use his, "The blade is new. I haven't used it." At dinner, my eyes were bigger than my stomach. I had not eaten descent food in a while. They menu boasted an array of North India dishes. I puked 'in the bathroom sink of our room. I was fine after that. The next morning we visited the temples of Bhubaneswar and then took the longer drive to the famous ancient Buddhist archaeological sites. We passed through an incredibly impoverished area where half-naked tribal people lived hovelled in thatch. We returned to Puri by early evening.
The following morning, René and I took a walk south along the beach to the town and returned by the road. In this way, René was able to show me the general orientation of the ancient locale. René had visited Puri many times: for me it was my first.
Nearly every morning soon after breakfast, René took a long walk north along the shore past the Andhra fisher people's makeshift encampment to an isolated stretch of sand. There he could relaxingly strip to a g-string and bathe in peace and sublime seclusion. I never went with him. I preferred the waves just south of the encampment. As he briskly walked along the shore near the boats, the fisher children ran from their ramshackle hutments to greet him with jubilant hand waves and squeals. He smiled at them sweetly and waved in return. "These are my children," he nobly declared.
With the cooling light of early evening, we sometimes walked in the direction of the town. The boats there were different from the Andhra people. There were always several elderly lifeguards, too, with cone-shaped straw hats helping plump women in saris take their holy baths in the dangerous tides. But René was careful to watch the time and not be late for dinner at Hotel Bay View. He liked to have room and board together and to pay in advance on a monthly basis. "It's better for me to avoid the tourist restaurants," he explained. In Sri Lanka they have a good home stay system. I like it very much. It suits me well."
At Hotel Bay View, René always stayed on the terrace roof, in the "puja room," he called it, as it satisfied his fundamental need for seclusion and gave him plenty of space to paint.
He asked to read my poetry. I gave him the entire typewritten sheaf. He returned it two days later. "I like your poetry." (The seascapes took him.) "We should make a book," he pertly remarked. I'll do the cover art like I did with Robert Creeley. After that, his work became very popular. There is a printer in the town. I can take you there tomorrow."
I had still not asked to see his paintings. "Come to my place about five pm," he said.
I climbed the stairs to the terrace roof. The sand and sea were all in view. He had arranged about eight or nine works for me. They were lying on the ground outside his room. Only one he propped on an easel. "I don't use the easel to paint," he said. "It belongs to the hotel. I just brought it up to display one work." I scanned the lot for about 30 seconds and then broke into a steady solo applause. I kept on clapping for a minute or so as I continued to look at the paintings. Then I stopped. They were all of an approximate orange hue, chromatically analogous to the immediate backdrop. I paused a moment to collect my thoughts. "Through calm reflection you absorb the essence of the local colour. You don't try to copy but extract its essence from the breathing space, and then it's naturally abstracted."
I told him I was interested to find a yoga ashram. René only knew of the Ramakrishna Mission. He took me to meet the Swami in charge. "Do you teach yoga here?" I asked the swami. "No, this is not that kind of place," he said." "Do you know any other ashrams in Puri?" I asked him. "Puri is one big ashram," he said. That was a very good lesson.
Walking to the town one day, René showed me a room that was available for rent. I found it very dismal and too close to the town. Walking back, I disclosed to him my desire to find a guru. "I'll be you guru," he said light-heartedly.
He returned to Paris. I wound up in Bangkok. We wrote each other often. In attempt to help me publish my poetry, he introduced me to his old friend Cid Corman who was living in Kyoto at the time. After his death in 2004, our combined correspondences were archived with the large collection of Corman's papers at Indiana University (see Corman mss. III, Papers, 1943-2004. See "I. Correspondents/authors," http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/lilly/mss/subfile/corman3ser1.html).
Two years later, I returned to Puri. It was April or May, quite late in the season and Rene had already returned to Paris. I stayed in the puja room at Hotel Bay View and began a suite of poems titled 5 pm sun.
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Varkala two seasons
In 1989 we met in Paris. I stayed in his sixth-floor walk up on Rue des Beaux-Arts. He was busy in Nice but came up to see me twice. Before he departed again for Nice, we arranged to meet in Venice.
He met me at Venezia Santa Lucia Station. He had already found a room somewhere. It dawned on us that Ezra Pound's grave was on an outer islands, the cemetery island of San Michele. We went there in search of his tomb. We had to ask the groundskeeper. I left a plum on the gravestone. "All the way from China," I remarked to Rene. "It will only rot," he contended. I considered the argument and reclaimed the plum, only to eat it. I ate several more and left the seeds on the tomb. "Seeds of young American poets," he would later pen (Laubies, 2001).