Saturday, July 24, 2004

Touched and Torched

I've never been much of a poetry reader. While the very best of poets possess an incredible ability to put words together in evocative and original ways, the vast majority it seems to me are the self-anointed type who are drawn to the medium because they haven't got what it takes to write prose. They see the horseshit that is published in the fraudulent poetry magazines that keep the marginal industry alive and think "Why the hell not give it a go?"

If they've got a good back-story and especially if they come from one of the downtrodden celebrity ethnic groups of the day, they may just dupe enough fools into shilling for their work and manage to make a living at it.

Still, there are a few poems that I have come across over the years that have stayed with me. I realized recently that two of them maybe hold some clue as to my decision to move to Thailand. Perhaps there are certain tendencies and beliefs that have always been with me and which make my choice to come here easier to understand. Each poem contains a sentiment that helps sum up my love of the country that I have chosen as a second home.

One is from Pablo Neruda. I first learned about him a few years ago after watching the Italian movie IL Postino (The Postman), which fictionalizes a period of the poet's life that he spent in Italy. While his poetry was written originally in Spanish it translates well. Unlike the experimental type of garbage that pretentious wackos claim to like just so they can be seen to "get" something which others don't, Neruda's poems just sound pleasing, evoke sensations that make a person feel good and are full of great imagery and crisp, rhythmic language. Here is one I particularly like:

Love Sonnet XI

I crave your mouth, your voice, your hair.
Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets.
Bread does not nourish me, dawn disrupts me, all day
I hunt for the liquid measure of your steps.

I hunger for your sleek laugh,
your hands the color of a savage harvest,
hunger for the pale stones of your fingernails,
I want to eat your skin like a whole almond.

I want to eat the sunbeam flaring in your lovely body,
the sovereign nose of your arrogant face,
I want to eat the fleeting shade of your lashes,

and I pace around hungry, sniffing the twilight,
hunting for you, for your hot heart,
like a puma in the barrens of Quitratue.

This poem makes me think of the dark sultry women that I have always been drawn to. I can look at an attractive woman with blonde hair and fair skin and acknowledge her beauty but I have never found myself in a relationship with one. On reading this poem again there isn't really a lot to suggest the woman being yearned for is one with dark hair and olive skin but that's always the impression I’ve had. Probably just my bias or the fact that Neruda was from South America and I assumed he was lamenting a woman from that region. Regardless, for me it is another reminder of the beauty of Thai women, one of the best parts about living here.

Secondly is this somewhat hokey piece from a long-dead Canadian poet named Robert Service. I found it on my father's bookshelf when I was a child and had an instant affinity with the character whose last wish was to be cremated. Even at that young age the concept of being planted in the cold hard ground as food for maggots did not appeal to me. Some day in the future when the stone marker that covers your final resting place will have absolutely no meaning for anyone on earth was an idea that filled me with dread.

The poem is too long to print in its entirety, but here is an excerpt (Note that these stanzas do not appear consecutively in the complete poem.):

The Cremation of Sam McGee

There wasn't a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: "You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you to cremate those last remains."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

As I said, hokey, but like almost any style, when schmaltz is done well it can become enjoyable. The link here is obvious. Thailand is a Buddhist country where people are cremated when they die as opposed to the vast majority in countries dominated by Christianity, who are stuffed into the ground when they buy it.

Torched and touched. Liars and pyres. Flesh; tender, living, breathing and lifeless and rotting. Blissful release and the final release.

Women and death.