Buddha vs. Bonobo, by Brendan Walsh

review by Kristen Leigh



(Sutra Press, 2017)

“…how far from where stories shaped/ their mouths and not/ the other way around.”

It is in the above line from Brendan Walsh’s latest collection, Buddha vs. Bonobo (Sutra Press), that I read an inquiry of human communication quintessential to the author’s body of work. Walsh’s commitment to fusing feeling with intellect and presenting the idea within the container of a poem is more than just pleasure reading—although there is much pleasure in the lyricism of his language and imagery. Walsh’s previous work asserts him as a minimalist of material goods, yet nearly hedonistic in his consumption of experiences, culture, language, travel, love, friendship. He communicates a drive, ravenous, for a common shared experience. We are talking about the work of a man who feels it all—who chooses to feel it all—and hopes you might join him in this lettered search for the origin of human compassion. It might be surprising to find it resting in hearts and on haunches in, at least on these recent pages, bonobo communities.

Walsh moves from muddy terrestrial rice paddy spaces to the sky, into the bones of his legs that carry him from continent to continent, village to city, beach to mountain. He tells us crab. He tells us child-starving. He tells us apple-harvest-food-truck stories that end in the backyard of a woman in Laos. He asks impossible questions: ”how many have we loved? How many mouths,/ how many bodies, how many partners?”; and tells us that the answers are not unreachable, but complex. The answers, in fact, lie within the natural systems we remain a part of, despite crushing modernity: “We answer: we descend from forty fathers, / one mother, from them we loved each other, so/ too our babies tied one string from dirt/ to crotch to one relentless sky. Only one.”

Throughout Buddha vs. Bonobo, Walsh leverages his travels to express wonder and confusion with the human in both harmony and discord with the natural world. We walk with him in monk’s shoes along the Mekong and consider how begging for alms to afford a meal is worth the vow of poverty. We are repeatedly shown incidents of loss, sorrow, longing through the perspectives of early migratory populations of animals-soon-to-be-people that stayed put, witnessing the push of restlessness humans can’t resist and therefore wander away from resources, safety, community.

Walsh tackles these philosophical conundrums with humility, establishing a tone of reverence for all living things and the ways of those things. He allows the reader to see the differences between species, terrain, and cultures with an accessibility that encourages the reader to feel included in the experience. There are no didactics in these pages, although Walsh has much to teach us. He simply invites the reader to join him in considering our place in the systems of order we’ve created, and whether or not we should sit with such confidence at the apex of the animal kingdom.

These poems, as with Walsh’s earlier work, provide readers with an ultimate meditation on relationships. Walsh uses his insight to draw parallels between the human search for enlightenment and the tranquil passivity of bonobo communities. It is in these pages that he gives us a map to find a more adaptive, peaceful way to live through the unquestionable lack of peace in our world.


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