Ubon

 

Prelude

You would wake near midnight with the smell of darkness

seeping in at the window

and a flutter of unstill earth moving under your mind,

silent shadows and the tang of moonlight on it,

and the night would gather at the edge of your bed and whisper

"This is where it all began —

this is the place where man first raised his head as man. . ."

 

The Bungalow

After the frozen towels in the dark bar and the Danish beer

and a dinner of khao phat and Mekong whiskey

in a flyspecked restaurant with an open front,

we would come back to the bungalow in a crowd,

and sit shoeless and talk until midnight. . .

refugees brought close by leagues

of sky and sea and useless loneliness,

until the night grew thick

and one by one we would slip away.

 

Alone in your room you would strip naked in the silky night

and slide beneath the moong,

that billowed like a cloud above the hard Thai bed,

the darkness smelling of lemon-grass and trees

and food with spices none of us could name.

And later you would lie awake

and listen to the sound the night makes

when the shifting air brings flowers and the river

and the low, incessant hum of restless people

sleeping shallowly in darkened rooms.

 

At dawn a cock always crew

with a broken note on his final cackle,

and the sun rose huge and humid

into the succulent air.

Then a quick dash to a shower

splashed cold out of a cistern with a wooden bowl,

shocking in the early air,

but the jolt of it bracing you upright

out of the night's black bed.

 

At breakfast the latticed porch sliced the sun,

slatting our faces and fruit with jailers stripes.

Astringent pomelos puckered our lips,

also papayas, pungent and sweet,

tasting like jasmine smells;

and as we ate,

morning would stir and grow too quickly,

already heatedly clutching the day,

drowning the dawn's smell in the bleach of sun.

 

And then the housegirls would come

and sit on the floor in taut sarongs

and iron our trousers,

chattering in Lao like magpies,

chaste — folding their legs under them —

flirting with fluttering eyes and meaningful giggles,

making the whole house smell like clean-washed clothes

hung out to dry.

And while we laughed and bantered it would be time

to put away the morning's images and turn toward the door

to start a new day.

 

The Samblao In Daylight

In the smoky season the samblao

glides at the center of a private universe.

 

After the harvested rice is laid away, the stubble burns

and the smoke brings atavistic memories:

famine, drought,

abundance hoarded up against starvation,

peace, the certainty of life,

contentment without knowing why.

In the smoke the countryside sweeps outward plane by plane,

an oriental painting: each plane fainter than the last

till distant trees turn pale against a gauzy sky

and you ride at the center of a cloistered truth —

reality that fades to nothing as it reaches out.

 

And here within this vaulted world

you share reality with other forms:

the driver straining at his chain,

a quick glimpsed girl who caught your eye

turning the corner with arm upraised

to push away her hair — just there

at the smoky edge of all that's real,

her image left behind;

a gaudy bus with riders hanging from the door

that chokes your world as it crowds the cab

and squeals around a corner belching diesel smoke;

a naked child with winsome eyes who pisses down a drain

that runs along the street, its wooden covers missing here and there,

like gaps in an ancient betel-chewing woman's teeth;

the phallic wat that looms above the mist,

old as time's first ooze,

with piles of stones for walls and faded red-rimmed beams

around its openings.

Then market stalls that open into view

with bundled stalks of fruits and flowers and globes like pears,

and stranger shapes of vegetables you cannot name;

women haggling, vendors hawking,

charged confusion as it leaves your world.

 

At the edge of town you turn to watch

a patient ox, yoked to slowly plow the earth

before a farmer with a wooden plow,

and as you watch they fade behind you, disembodied there

with all the rest who worked a plow when soil was new.

 

Monsoon Rain

Gray clouds, frayed at the edges cross over each other near the sun,

dark centers splitting light, thin edges

cracking shadows, splashing

evanescent sunshine onto roadside bushes.

 

You breathe deeply and inhale the air that rolls with the clouds:

a slurry of fresh, wet grain filled with a slake of water

from rain reaching fingers over the town.

A wayward spatter splashes your face.

You turn quickly to the door of a restaurant behind you,

and run, harried by water pounding the pavement at your heels,

into the welcoming dark of the bar,

followed by others deserting the street.

 

They crowd in after you — the last ones dripping —

and pass on to an inner cavern where tables abound.

The manager smiles and bows to everyone,

rubbing his hands at the cornucopia Buddha has bestowed.

You slide into a booth near the open door

as a roar begins all over the roof and the sky

sets down a lake in the middle of town.

 

And as you watch, over the roar you hear a tinkle of laughter and turn

to see two girls slipping into the booth's empty seat,

watching you with deep-lashed eyes and speaking softly in a foreign tongue;

and under the bronze bowl at the edge of the table, suddenly you feel the

thick loam of six-thousand years and the sense

of young girls running on the sponge of the forest floor,

flowers in their hair, carrying

bronze bowls in hands sleek and intelligent,

knees dimpled with reflections of roses

the thongs of their sandals red on slender feet,

laughing to each other in a language that you cannot understand

while rain courses out of the trees, soaking the dust

of a hundred-thousand generations.

 

Warin — The Night Train

You drive your friend to Warin in late afternoon

to see him off for Bangkok on the night train.

He will go to Bangkok with a girl, and the girl will return,

but your friend will not.

 

To the people who wait for him,

eleven thousand miles across the sea,

your friend is the one who is returning,

and they will never know about the girl.

 

The train sits on a siding, puffing a little

and hissing.

The sleeping car is waiting

to take your friend and the girl away forever.

 

Everyone says goodbye and everyone smiles.

The girl laughs,

though she understands little of what everyone is saying.

They swing aboard the sleeping car, and the train puffs and hisses.

They come to the window and wave, gaily.

It is all very festive.

 

The wheels begin to move and they wave again.

The train gathers speed.

They wave once more and then they are gone.

They are gone forever.

 

But the girl will come back from Bangkok and cry in your arms

because your friend is gone,

and while you hold her, you will remember all of it —

your friend and the girl and the train —

and the girl's tears will break your heart.

 

The Samblao At Night

Night sounds are thin at the edge of town:

the hiss of samblao tires on tarmac

recently warmed by the downed sun,

and the chain's rattle smothered in darkness.

A bird darts by like a twisted arrow, trailing a reedy cry,

swallowed up again in shadowy trees.

A burst of blooms caught up in the samblao's dancing headlight,

is lost again as the light moves on.

Provocative air charged with jasmine

and a green bouquet from gardens and drains;

also, somewhere, a strange spice

smelling like blue metal in a welder's flame.

 

Nearer the city now the streets still run with people

and in the front of an open shop, shopkeeper and wife

eat rice from bowls with practiced chopsticks,

lifting their eyes to passers by.

 

Near the square the sidewalks are filled with night people.

The streets are theirs now:

girls who smile with expert smiles

and wave with soft and certain hands,

and boys who sell them,

telling their virtues with intimate snickers;

and from a samblao passing by the other way,

the soft-toned, bell-edged sounds of women

trailing words like crystal spheres.

 

At the center of town the vendors' cooking fires

send out fragrant smoke above their woks,

from wagons garlanded with monkey-balls

and lines of splayed squids strung on wires,

while high above the street, the bright-lit billboard walls

hawk films with scenes of murder and incipient rape.

 

And finally you are there.

The samblao stops with shuddering wheels;

a tavern door ejects a pair:

a young G.I. and girl who argue down the street

with waving arms until they fade away,

while the open door emits a crash of noise

and flashing lights

that steal the night from shameless fireflies

coupling in the sensuous air.

 

Indian Joe's

The bistro is down an alley in the rainy darkness.

You drive through black, damp streets to find the alley,

and slink like a burglar the length of a dirty passage,

past sinister lights too dim to kill the darkness.

 

Two dozen tables are there in a closed-in courtyard.

Tin roofs along the sides to shelter the tables.

Bare bulbs are strung from wires along the gutters.

They barely pierce the night or touch the faces.

 

Joe is a weasel — a dark man, small and sinister,

obsequious if he's sure that you have power,

scornful if he thinks you have no money.

They say that Joe is selling a Chinese virgin.

You can buy the Chinese girl for baht eight thousand.

Joe is a frightened man and his son is like him;

both are like rats surviving a life of terror.

 

The faces you see at the tables tonight are fuzzy.

It is very late and many are rapidly fading.

Most eyes are dazed: the eyes are of people escaping.

This is where they hide from the world around them,

lest the hands of the soft Thai night outside caress them,

lest the flowers that scent the night outside seduce them.

 

A man gets up from his chair. A woman has slapped him.

He tries to chase her down between the tables,

slapping her face and head when he can reach her.

Another man jumps up and grabs his shoulder.

The first turns back and swings at the intruder.

He misses and stumbles and falls against a pillar.

The woman escapes beyond the bistro's entrance.

The man retreats and sits again at his table,

and lifts his beer and drinks as if nothing has happened.

 

You can hear the woman outside. You can hear her sobbing.

Indian Joe brings beer to a fuzzy couple.

 

The rain starts up again and the night grows darker.

 

The Compound

The compound is in the suburbs, snug beneath ancient trees,

surrounded by cracked walls the color of antediluvian sand.

The bungalows rise high on piles above a central courtyard,

old tin roofs overgrown with lichens green like tarnished copper,

rusting slowly in the trees' wet shade.

Verandas and steps of once-rough teak have been

smoothed to a luster by generations of sweepers,

rooms, sparse and plain, are made beautiful by open windows

gathering air and the scent of flowers

that brim with prolific blooms on nearby bushes.

 

In the morning the women cook while the men are away,

and at night radios in the bungalows sing soft Thai lovesongs.

Evening is a special time, when friends gather

and drink Mekong whiskey while the light dims,

and tell tales that grow taller as the whiskey shrinks

and the yellow lights inside the bungalows

grow brighter with their private glow.

 

Once in the evening a monkey swung down from the trees and everyone

rushed to the railings, pointing and laughing.

"Ling. . . Ling!" they shouted to each other,

and the monkey dropped out of the trees onto a tin roof

and ran over the sheets of tin, making a sound like a small boy thumping

                          washtubs with a wooden spoon.

and dropped onto a veranda and grabbed a hand of bananas;

then jinked back into the trees, swinging up with one arm and his tail,

and vanished.

 

The people smiled at each other across the courtyard

before they turned back to the warm lights of their bungalows.

And then night came on,

even as night came on when earth was a bare, spinning ball.

 

Postlude

Now it is finished.

We falang have fled to our own cold lands.

And though we grow thin with age

and the children forget us and the passions are out

and what we remember is only a whisper,

told on the wind in the late night after the fire has burned to coals;

still, that crib that holds man's childhood days:

that pastel painting with the sprung planes:

those lacelike traceries of trees that fade away to vanish,

just there. . . beyond that final shrub,

remains.

 

November - December, 1992

Revised August, 1994

Revised December, 1994

Revised July, 2014

Revised August, 2014

Revised June, 2015

 


 

Notes

 

Northwest of Ubon Rachthani, not far from Udon Thani, lies the village of Ban Chiang where have been unearthed bronze artifacts of a peaceful people who lived in a comfortably advanced state of civilization more than a millennium before Achilles stood on the plain before Troy. But this is really only an interesting confirmation of what you already know, because your soul tells you immediately that this part of Southeast Asia is where man first became man.

 

Khao phat: fried rice, usually with something substantial mixed in: often mushrooms (khao phat het) and chicken (khao phat gai).

 

Mekong whiskey: a good, cheap rice whiskey consumed all over Thailand.

 

Moong: mosquito net. Always, in my memory, exceedingly white and diaphanous.

 

Thai bed: the standard Thai bed, at least in up-country Thailand, is made of plain felt pads with no springs underneath.

 

Samblao: a bicycle taxicab. Most writers on Thailand render this as "samlor," but "samblao" is closer to the way my ear always heard it.

 

Wat: Buddhist temple.

 

Warin Chamrap: a small town over the Mae Nam river, just south of Ubon. Warin is where the railroad from Bangkok terminates.

 

Monkey balls: small, spicy meatballs deep-fried on the ends of sticks. We called them monkey balls.

 

Eight thousand baht: in 1964, eight thousand baht was about four hundred dollars.

 

Ling: monkey.

 

Falang: foreigners. "Falang" is a northeast pronunciation. In Bangkok the word comes out, "farang."