A Quarterly Journal of Contemporary English Language Haibun
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March 2009, vol 5 no 1

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Garry Eaton


A Chalk Mandala

Before she leaves New York, my painterly friend from Paris/Old Lyme gives me a number of names and addresses of people she knows who might put me up for awhile until I can find work and a paycheck. One of them is a woman who lives with a Japanese painter in a walkup somewhere near the Brooklyn Bridge. It's he who answers the door, and when I ask for the woman by name, he says 'no English,' points to his wristwatch and waves me to a chair near the door of his studio, where he can watch me while I wait, I suppose. Then he goes back to eating his lunch, a roast chicken he tears apart and consumes with gusto, devouring everything except the bones, which he throws across the room toward a sink in the corner. He wears a topknot, like a Samurai or a Sumo wrestler, boxer shorts, a large flowing kimono which flaps about him, and paper sandals that rasp loudly when he shuffles across the terra cotta floor. Though big and somewhat overweight, he eats as if famished, all the while staring at a contraption in the centre of the room, and moving around as if to study it from every angle. It appears to be a sizeable, round table, with a pure white surface. A couple of planks supported at their ends by a pair of old fashioned, wooden sawhorses make a makeshift catwalk above it.

Though it's dingy in corners, a skylight lets bright June sunlight in to light the centre of the room. Finished his meal, the artist climbs out of the gloom onto the planks and shuffles cautiously to a position at the centre where he proceeds clumsily to kneel, with his silk kimono trailing down. He very deliberately wipes grease and perspiration from his brow, face, neck, forearms and hands with a towel, which he drapes around his neck. Then he places a long-handled, wooden paint brush between his teeth, and produces from somewhere in the folds of his kimono a small bottle of pigment. Finally, he reaches down and spins the table, which I now see is actually a canvas tightly stretched on a circular frame and set on a turntable, like clay on a potter's wheel. The turntable spins smoothly and steadily, without sound. At last it's clear to me what he's doing.

After dipping his brush, he braces it against the edge of the plank above the spinning white universe, lowers it slowly, and watches intently as it releases from its tip a brilliant curve of color that grows and lengthens. Like a vapor trail escaping from the vents of a high level jet, it moves silently around, staining its world until its inscription, curved across the clouds, ends where it begins, swallowing its tail in symbol of eternity.

I watch over the next two hours, ceremonially included but ignored, as the anonymous creator, pausing occasionally to eat chicken, replenish his paints and mop his brow, lays on layer after layer, bright circle after bright circle, until his end design seems perfect and complete. He doesn't appear to notice when I leave, and I walk away into a luminous, East coast afternoon feeling lightened and refreshed.

stepping across
a chalk mandala
a sidewalk in Brooklyn

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