Posts Tagged 'poetry'

Goodbye Southeast Asia

Goodbye motorbikes droning and motorbikes honking.
Goodbye face masks and flesh-colored socks,
Goodbye pajama suits.

Goodbye dragon fruit, goodbye jack fruit,
green mango with chili salt from a push-cart.
Goodbye cane juice in a plastic bag.

Goodbye cows in road and chickens on the bus,
Goodbye water buffalo rising
from puddles in the rice paddies.

Goodbye orange robes and incense,
clusters of bananas
fanning open at the altar.

Goodbye karaoke
and pop music videos on the bus.
Goodbye wedding tents.

Goodbye mosquito nets.
Goodbye heat rash and swamp bra.
Goodbye hand-washed underpants hung to dry.
Goodbye cheap cigarettes and expensive muesli.

Goodbye “cheap cheap,” goodbye “same same,”
Goodbye mile-long mole hair,
Goodbye aerobic dancing at dusk,
Goodbye tissues under the table,
plastic stools and street stalls.
Goodbye haggling with fingers and haggling with calculators,
Goodbye maze of the market,
sleeping on top a pile of clothes—
Goodbye tubs of flopping fish and plucked limp birds
hanging from hooks.

Goodbye currency conversions and foreign transaction fees.
Goodbye photocopied US money
half-burnt on the sidewalk.
Goodbye no sidewalk,
walking in the street.
Goodbye bootleg guidebooks with cheap spines,
bootleg DVDs with blurry casings.

Goodbye thunderstorms,
Goodbye heat.

Goodbye widows with shaved heads,
Goodbye schoolgirls in sarongs.
Goodbye children begging and children waving,
children perched
between their parents on a motorbike
sleeping amid the fury.

Born Into This: Inheriting War in SE Asia

It was really not the time to be thinking of Charles Bukowski.

I stood staring at a display of UXO casings at a Phonsavan tour company. I was thinking of the documentary I’d seen the night before (see previous post), which followed a group of impoverished Lao children as they harvested UXOs for scrap metal.

Something panged in me, and I thought of the poem.

It was the same something I’d felt at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. I stood before pictures of children born with mutations from Agent Orange—small and crippled and bubble-skinned—children who’d been born after the war, hadn’t lived through the war, but who had it in them, possessed it in their DNA. If the images hadn’t been so brutal, I’d thought, they’d have been a metaphor for the intergenerational transmission of trauma.

I’d been surprised in Vietnam, to discover how much of the war I’d carried in me, without knowing it. I hadn’t realized how much a part of American culture the Vietnam War is—in our books, our films, our movies and our freeway exits, cardboard signs and thousand-yard stares. I’d remembered, suddenly, visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC as a teenager—muggy-skied and sweating, watching the grown-ups trace hands along the reflective stone, place flowers and cry—not understanding it. I’d turned; my mom had been one of them, the name of her cousin under her fingers.

And I’d suddenly remembered the poem.

It’s more muddled in Cambodia and Laos, places were the American activity was “secret”—it’s less a part of your consciousness, more a part of something else that you can’t quite name.

“People from my province,” the Cambodian boy looked sheepish as he told me, “they still hate Americans. For the bombings.”

I nodded one, two, three times. “And you know what? America bombed Cambodia in secret. And most Americans still don’t know about those bombings.”

We sat beside each other waiting for our numbers to be called at the cell phone shop. Neither of us had been alive during the 70s.

I’d wondered, as I looked at bomb ponds beside pre-Angkorian temples in Cambodia, how one goes about being American in all this. “‘I wasn’t born yet,'” I wrote, “doesn’t seem good enough.”

And looking at the pile of UXOs in Phonsavan, I had the same thought rise. Because the kids out there harvesting these bombs, they weren’t born yet either. Neither of us asked for this, did this, witnessed this, lived through this. We were born into this, are left to figure out what to do with this, dig through the dirt of this.

And that’s when I thought of the poem again.

I’ve been composing some kind of essay in the back of my head about all this. I don’t know exactly what I have to say about it yet, or if there is anything to say about it. But in the meantime, I’m thinking of a poem that seems fitting. And, in the light of the recent string of natural and political disasters, doesn’t seem so dramatic or fanciful as it once did. It doesn’t feel so hopeless either—it just feels accurate.

Fragmentary Thoughts at the Killing Fields

Late afternoon sun through the trees, dusty lot and birds singing, the stillness of a temple. I slide off my shoes and the tiles are hot on my feet as I walk slowly around the pagoda, a tower of skulls.

And it isn’t the skulls that get me—sorted by age and gender, piles that are missing jaws and teeth, holes where the smashing happened, the jagged line were the cranium stitched itself together—lines that were hidden, kept under hair and skin, kept a secret from them, themselves for as long as they lived—and laid bare here now, with nothing to disguise it anymore: This is how you were sewn together, and this is where the wound occurred, and this is what is left.

But the skulls aren’t what gets me, because the skulls don’t seem real. It’s the piles of clothes on the bottom shelf. Shirts and shorts, dusty and tattered and vacant now, a limp pile—this is what is left.

We walk through the field, where the earth dips down into ditches (it’s not rain or erosion that made these), trees that stand stoicly, silently by. We come to stand beside an exhumed grave (but “grave” is too good a word—there’s no word for what this was). A sign says that teeth and bits of bones and scraps of clothes continue to come up, out of the earth, after it rains or floods.

Sometimes the earth write the metaphors for you, I think. Sometimes the ground itself is a poem—this place a poem you couldn’t possibly ever write, no one could write, just walk through—the stillness; the birds; the smell of incense and smoke; someone burning off wild grasses somewhere, behind the fence; schoolkids singing somewhere in the wind. Two monks walking, orange robes, reading the signs with impassive faces, round faces, young young faces.

There’s scraps of clothes everywhere. “Are these…?” we begin to ask each other, but don’t finish the question. (There is no question for what this was.) Surely someone would have gathered these scraps, dusted them off, “deordorized” them as the sign said, added them to the pile of All That Is Left.

But we keep walking and I realize there’s too many, too much—scraps of clothes existing like ghosts, or souls that haven’t quite made it up out of the earth, out of what there aren’t words for, poems for—this.

The trees all saw this, I think. These same trees, noble and twisted and standing here still. Some were forced to take part, and I imagine something in them weeping, their trunks dulled and bloodied. These same trees, bearing witness, the same way they bear witness now—silent, petrified in their places, the way parts of our brains are, the way parts of our brains bear witness (secret stitching, secret from ourselves)—roots tangling and rising out of the earth, with the teeth and bones and scraps of clothing and all the things there aren’t metaphors for: a dusty field in the afternoon sun.


I dreamed your apartment was suicide-proof:
those little half-windows
that only open in slits,
like doped-up eyes,
how we blew the smoke
sideways and down
and it couldn’t really make it out,
just blew right back to us.

I asked if there were earthquakes here
and you said there weren’t,
but I didn’t believe it—
not that I didn’t believe you,
but I didn’t believe the earth—
that somewhere down
under all this something
was shaking,
ready to shake:
the smell of a seizure
before it erupts.

I got up and paddled
my bare feet across the floor,
my bad ankle snapping.
I realized I’d forgotten the kitchen window,
that slides open wide—
a ledge and a little metal railing
that wouldn’t be enough
to keep a body from crouching,
crawling out
to the 16 stories
of honking beneath.


The end of a Sunday,
pink on the edges,
the moon a white wound.
Birds laughing
in some other language
as they fly off someplace
behind the roofs,
the wires and branches
that tangle like lives.

A crippled incest
crawls off to die
somewhere amid the vines
that wrap around the stairs
like green fingers
around the throat of this—

cars hissing
against a light
that is already gone.

The Blues

Sometimes a harmonica sounds like a train,
a far-off train
as it passes
some lonesome landscape—
the sound of something leaving, an echo
through the window at night.

Which sounds like a heart breaking,
or the quiet wail
that escapes
when a heart breaks—
like steam through a valve
or a cry between lips
(“stay, stay”)—

when something leaves
and all you’ve got
to hold onto
is the sound of its going

and even that isn’t yours.
Even that leaves too.

Transit Fragments: Views from the Window

I. Bar to Ulcinj

Gypsy children at the intersection
bang on the windows
of stopped cars, pleading
until the windows roll up
and they see their reflections,
and pleading back.

II. Ulcinj to Shkoder

Carry that girl
through the rubbish
and field of dead,
the rusted carcasses
of cars,
and humming wind.
Take her,
hold her
under your arm
(bare feet and unbroken skin)
Carry her
down that road,
carry her,
take her home.

III. Shkoder to Tirana

Mosques and minarets,
half-constructed buildings
and skeletons
stripped-down cars
left to rust
in lots of dying
A boy with the cheekbones
of an ex-boyfriend
huddles, mutters
into the mouthpiece
of his cellphone
and you can only see
half is face
(turn around
and show me the whole thing, honey)
Corrugated tin and tires,
teepee piles of hay
that look like the insides of scarecrows
with nothing left to scare
Yell your stop
to the driver, and rumble
that big door open
(wrench the metal
from the metal)—
pay him your fare
and be left there
on the roadside
of somewhere
a gas station
and a cheap umbrella

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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