The Pied Fantail, The Magnolia
Anyone who submits to his own impulses is bound for trouble
(inscription at Loha Prasat temple, Bangkok)
Accustomed to live under
corrugated zinc, in transparent houses,
the afternoon is a gated community
of silence and butterflies, finches in
pairs, moving among the leaves, until
the wind and rain return, moving
the world into darkened white noise.
When night falls, the house opposite
is porous with children’s screams, the swoop
and fall of intonation, and birds call like
single, ricocheting stones across the gravel.
As it thunders, somewhere among
the bushes, a bird whistles its answer.
Then the rain cascades
and the temperature does not fall,
only rain and the wind falling.
A small crocodile circumspectly swims
in the pale green drainage ditch
beside the verandah. The thunder
runs; lightning holds the sky.
The birds are silent, the butterflies,
huge and solitary, have stopped.
Until a moorhen with curved beak
works and reworks the brief storm pool
beneath the trees. The small crocodile
slides from the bank back into the stream.
The bloom of the storm over,
among the foliage, a frog begins
to pink, pink. For a while, we all sit out
experiencing it, the couple in the end room,
the driver in the middle room, and us.
Perhaps, to the driver, I am the silent farang
she sleeps with, and what he does not know,
how she kisses me hard on the mouth,
cups the back of my head in her hand,
pulls my face into hers.
So I am glad that she speaks
easily to the others, and I sit outside
knowing our intimacy and how fond
of her I am. In the night, we wake,
entangled and sexless; outside,
cicadas ceaselessly rake gravel.
On the Khao San Road,
the Guns and Roses t-shirts
hum along to Coldplay,
and the girl with the perfect
line from hips to buttocks
walks with a slight limp, a white top
and soft clinging trousers.
The tourist’s silent conversation
is with those at home; but
the neighbour asks,
‘What does your farang eat?’
Breakfast is deep in the hotel area;
Eggs fried in a shallow dish and
heated bread with sugar and ‘margarine’.
She draws a map then drives to park.
I cross the street to the fish market.
Many of the fish are still alive;
a catfish moves, its body slashed,
its innards open to the air. Toads
and crayfish move in their nets.
In some cans, there is water.
The monastery complex, garish
and crude. The lake fetid and torpid;
in the shallows, snake fish hang
unmoving, terrapins paddle
slowly on the surface. All the fish,
it seems, turn at the surface to gasp
for air. On tiled terrace, in bare feet,
I tread on the headless moth
red ants are scavenging and
moving noiselessly across the tiles.
It’s raining quietly on the temple, on all nine
storeys: the first floor praises rural life,
a mouldering, broken loom, a fish trap,
cabinets with farming implements.
The murals, largely blue and white
with rural scenes; in one, a couple
share a bed, the woman asleep
and the man wielding a large sword.
The floors above have statues
of gold abbots. On the ground floor,
in front of the relic of the Buddha, people
come with ‘monk offerings’, the women
next to me have toilet rolls for theirs
– ‘why not?’ she would say.
In sunshine over forested hills,
a stain of clouds rises and falls.
At the temple, on the plate
that describes the lintel,
a spider makes a web.
The mynahs in their cage clean
their mute from their feet;
the dog becomes dry, atavistic,
scruffy, testicular. It seems only
finches squabble in the bush and only
little egrets fish in the salt pan.
The butterflies, black and gold,
come dipping down the far side
of the hedge, round the gate post
to probe the cautious florets
of deep orange on the garden side.
A pair of pied fantails (Rhipidura javanica)
– ‘The pied fantail ends with three white half dots
on the edge of its tail; most charming and sweet little birds.’
– skitter and play round trees in the garden.
If one is feeding the other, oh, it is difficult
to know which is which as food seems
passed from one to the other before it is swallowed.
The Mekong’s rushing wide kilometre;
Laos on the far bank,
a thousand miles from the sea.
In the soap operas, everything is
expensive: houses, interiors, clothes,
the strikingly separate heroes and villains;
in early sunshine, father interviews
son beside the wide river
with vegetation flowing;
girl-next-door’s with boy-next-door
whose mother’s died expansively,
her funeral broadcast over two whole episodes.
The actor who plays the girl is only fifteen.
The actors all shed tears with real facility.
Melodrama, expensive interiors
and lashings of winsome, that
and a good shoot-out.
How early the men rise
on a Sunday morning, to sit
on the back of a Hilux with the others,
with their heads swathed in towels.
They stand with garlands
of jasmine at traffic lights, or wave
traffic towards them to sell yam,
rice and coconut packed in bamboo,
that’s made since five, in the hut
five hundred metres from the highway;
how they run to get the prime spot
in front of the other four.
When all I need is to walk
among the trees, look at the leaves,
feel their sharp edges against
my finger tips, tongue, eyelids;
… like the flower of magnolia
opened upon the tree,
…like magnolia placed
in the pocket of language
to rot, die, lose its scent.
… like magnolia,
listen for the wind
moving the branches, feel the divots
full of water, my footing fail,
my trouser legs soaked, muddied, thin.