In Search of Sanjuro Pray

Having searched high and low for my fine friend, John C. Pray, aka Sanjuro, I’ve just about given up hope of finding him. Repeated scourings of the net turn up no hits, so I’ve decided to provide some of my own in the hopes that _he_ might find _me_ one of these days.

Sanjuro was a real one-of-a-kind. Surrealist, Haiku poet, social critic, Japanophile, former alcoholic and all-around gonzo journalist of the dust-blasted Albuquerque desert. We met as mutual wage slaves of the Dayton-Hudson Corporation, which owned B. Dalton Booksellers, the Albuquerque branch being New Mexico’s largest bookstore back in 1983. Our co-workers were a bunch of practically (if not verifiably) insane people, including Hugh Callens, Rachel “Moonbat” Dixon, Miss Piggy, Charles Vane, Ben Porter, Walt Carpenter & Marty Dusty Rose Snapless Bird.

We all lived on the nervous edge of the 70s, which had not quite been extinguished down in New Mexico, apprehensive about the technology that seemed to be creeping in from the periphery.

B. Dalton installed modems to send all the sales information to HQ up in Minneapolis every night, which seemed pretty futuristic to me back then. Charles Vane was given a primordial beta testing version of the original Macintosh computer, something like a bastard cross between a toaster and mini-tv set. I drew a doodle on it using MacPaint.

MacPaint doodle circa 1983

Sanjuro and I frequented the happy hour at Japanese Kitchen which was barely fifty meters from the bookstore. We swapped tales of motorcycling, writing, psychedelic experiences and journalistic feats of derring-do. Sanjuro’s famous incident was the statewide media scoop of Patty Hearst’s capture in 1975 on KUNM radio.

“Out of my way!” he shouted, thrashing the DJ onto the floor and sweeping the needle across the turntable with a fistful of teletype paper. “Breaking News! Patty Hearst, captive of, or conspirator with, the Symbionese Liberation Army, has been captured in Los Angeles.”

Patty Hearst, SLA days

What a moment! And how many gin fizzes, tequila sunrises, and straight up shots of Wild Turkey followed… as the years rolled by and the realization sank in: nobody gives a damn about politics, about revolution, about savage covert operations taking place in forsaken backwaters of Central America or in the fetid jungle swamps of American corporate boardrooms.

Another round of bourbon whiskey and let it all ride on the twitching pony with the green nostrils and pupils as big as bowling balls! Because, damn it, if this flea-bitten horse can’t win a race at the State Fair in New Mexico, then it will have to be beer at Okie’s and green chile pizza at Jack’s for the rest of our stinking lives!

What a treasure it is to have a political junkie, poet, and Master of Art History as a drinking buddy!

Of course the alcohol nearly did him in and he had to kick it, but not until he had filtered a decade of hard stuff through his kidneys. And no thanks to the Hawaiian bartender at Japanese Kitchen who was always giving him freebies! For reasons of my own I had as much of a drinking problem as the next guy, but then again, I was already a haggard minimum wage-earning father by the age of 22, whereas John C. Pray was a single guy who managed to invent his own kind of drunken bushido.

party down with J. C. Pray

After I moved back to the East Coast in 1985, Sanjuro and I became great correspondents. We kept each other up to date with our various tribulations, which were strewn along our paths like all the burnt out husks of automobiles turned wheels-up in the highway ditches between Amarillo and Des Moines.

There were two great consequences to being on the other side of the country from Sanjuro. First, he sent me his haiku poems. Drafts of haiku, finished haiku, published haiku, spontaneous haiku, unrequited love haiku…and all of these were some pretty good poems. Second, Sanjuro inspired me to write more poetry myself.

Here’s one I wrote on 4 March 1990:

full moon blinding me, I can’t see Daibutsu’s face! shadows black as ink.

Compare my effort with Sanjuro’s haiku from 19 March 1990:

only ripples now, neither a frog nor a splash, fly buzzes madly

This amazing riff needs to taken in the context of Sanjuro’s letter to me, where he wrote:

I’ve been reading a book called One Hundred Frogs, by Hiroaki Sato. He began the book as an attempt to round up a shit load of translations of Basho’s most famous haiku, “furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizo no oto” - the old pond, the frog jumps in, sound of water. Well, Sato has one hundred translations of this old saw at the end of the book, so here’s my reply: only ripples now, neither a frog nor a splash, fly buzzes madly.

Sanjuro has combined the heart of Basho’s poem, playing on the resonance of the frog’s jump into the pond by negating them. Neither frog nor splash - [this is straight out of Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chinese Ch’an (Zen Buddhism). “Your body is a bodhi tree and your mind is like a mirror, you must wipe the mirror diligently and let no dust collect upon it,” said the famous Disciple of the Fifth Patriarch. To which Hui Neng replied: “There is no bodhi tree and there is no mirror! Where would the dust collect?”]

In conclusion, Sanjuro turns the emptiness of the image on its head by introducing the irritating buzzing of the fly! This is Sanjuro’s famous kireji style, like the flashing steel of a Samurai sword that strikes before you even are aware of its existence!

Back in those days, Sanjuro challenged me to compose a set of linked haiku, renga-style, in which we would take turns sparring with our poems. Here is Sanjuro’s magnificent opening:

forsythia blooms

fresh scent on moonlit breezes

where are my damn shoes?

and here are the subsequent rounds:

lex 3-26-90

i came outside to shiver

amid swaying silver blooms

lex 5-15-90

like a waking dream

i’m lost in the splashing sound

soft and cool spring rain

sanjuro 6-7-90

the hour is late, home is near

rice boils madly in the pot

sanjuro 11-5-87

full moon, wind-blown rain

could this night be more perfect?

where is the woman?

lex 6-10-90

her hand, floating above mine…

she knows too much about ghosts!

lex 6-10-90

a whispering wind

frees them all with one clean stroke

white camellias

sanjuro 6-28-90

petals swirl, branches snapping

slapping of thighs on buttocks

sanjuro 6-16-90

at the breaking dawn

chirping of birds and crickets…

which sound is more sweet?

broken window at Crown Books, Seattle, we didn't do it!

The last time I saw Sanjuro would have been in 1994, when I washed up in Seattle after my first sojourn in China. We ended up working as lowly clerks in Crown Bookstore, near the Northgate section of town. Somebody shattered the front door for no apparent reason, and we had our photo taken there, for evidence. In the intervening decade, I spent years in Japan, Amherst, Taiwan and Boston, but never could find Sanjuro again! Alas…

The second great consequence of being far away was to receive Sanjuro’s absurd and fantastic Christmas cards every year. I have a set of these running from 1987 to 1995. The only years I am missing are 1988 (when I was blotto in Boston) and 1993 (when I was living in People’s Republic of China). I’m going to reproduce these here, for the first time anywhere, here are five samples of John C. Sanjuro Pray’s hand-tinted Christmas Cards!

Wherever you are Sanjuro, vaya con dios, bro!

And write back soon!

Sanjuro X-mas Card 1987

1987: YOU’D BETTER WATCH OUT! Scientists battle giant mutant in 1954 science fiction classic… SANTA CLAUS conquers the world!

Sanjuro X-mas Card 1989

1989: Betta watch it ana Rook out! comin’ SANTA-RAI to town! MELLY CLISSMUS!

Sanjuro X-mas Card 1990

1990: morning sunlight hot, slippery silk covers moist, tears and whispering

Sanjuro X-mas Card 1991

1991: The King opens his new gig at the Las Vegas Mall

Sanjuro X-mas Card 1992

1992: jazzyXmas