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Posts Tagged ‘Thai poetry’

Bulan Sastra

In English, Reading matters on 18/09/2016 at 9:45 pm

bulanThat’s the title of a superbly produced and edited anthology of short stories and poems by Thai and Indonesian writers published in three languages by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC) of the Thai Ministry of Culture. I edited the English section. This 660-page-long trade book is available free of charge upon request to OCAC, whose mission is to distribute it to all manner of public libraries for the promotion of regional literature. Trust me, it’s a great gift.


Heart condition

In English, Reading matters on 01/10/2013 at 2:31 pm

angkarn heartsfifthchamberThat Angkarn Chanthathip [pronounced jan.tha.thip, of course] was awarded this year’s SEA Write Award with his collection of poems The heart’s fifth chamber is old news. Instantly, the book is everywhere: I bought my copy in a Bang Saen supermarket.

Angkarn’s poetry is way beyond my ability to translate, but the temptation remains. So, this morning, taking advantage of a few rare hours of sun, I did the fortnight’s laundry (now finishing drying indoors as it’s started to rain again) and sweated over one of the shortest poems, which happens to bear the same title as the collection. I’m sure the original is much richer, but my heart has only four ventricles.

The heart’s fifth chamber – Angkarn Chanthathip

Deep valley, homestead, flowing river
Skyline a fence climbing up to clouds white
Clad with peaks stretching out in a long chain
A sparkling mass whose arms hug the land

The heart dreams of peace
Amidst sorrow and ceaselessly rampant fire
Life percolates slowly and knows how to hear
Love and hope like rain poured to douse the heat

Deep valley rug, homestead, flowing river
The heart pining for ancient dreams
Earth and sky and caring
Such is the native land, the home of yesteryear
Such is the native land, the home of yesteryear

‘Hua Jai Hong Thee Ha’ | Pai – Mae Hong Son | Lent 2007

Pity poor Siriworn

In English, Reading matters on 03/07/2013 at 8:41 pm


siriworn berlinwallbangkokOut of the 101 Thai collections of poems competing this year for the SEA Write Award, the 18-strong pre-selection just announced ignores Siriworn Kaewkan’s Berlin Wall in Bangkok superb offering. Since the prize was devised in 1979, the man holds the absolute record of far and near misses, be it for poems, short stories or novels.

But then, what was he thinking? A title like this, merely two years after the bamboo-and-tyre danse du feu in downtown Bangkok when ashes blister the carpet, ambers are still glowing and nobody appears to be the wiser, amounts to a provocation. Or does it? You be the judge. Here is the main chant.

The Berlin Wall in downtown Bangkok (1)

Barbed wire fence and concrete wall
Popped up in downtown Berlin
Dividing wind and sunshine in Germany
Dividing sunshine and wind in the twentieth century
Turning an ideal concrete
Penning a people, cleaving them in two
A proud communist government
Put Rousseau’s saying to good use
Man is born free
And everywhere he is in chains

Fog and flowers
Were turned into criminal daydreams
Idealism and class consciousness
Became sacred truths
Citizens became forbidden scriptures
Even God could not mess with

Man is born in chains
So the world over seeks freedom
Some groups thus turned to planting flowers
To sell to those men on watchtowers
To worship all godly proctors
For them not to fall into hardship
For them not to fall from on high
And turn commoners cursed with planting flowers

Fog and flowers
Criminal daydreams of the twentieth century
When the Berlin Wall in Germany
Was smashed to pieces
The world saw the truth on the other side of the wall
Idealism and class consciousness
The dream of sacred truths
Became even more of a daydream

Slowly took shape in downtown Bangkok
The Berlin Wall of the twenty-first century
Dividing sunshine and wind in the Chao Phraya basin
Dividing darkness and light in our hearts

With one brick per man
Piled up on a foundation of hate
With one brick per man
Piled up on insanity
Nobody asked since when a wall was needed to get rid of classes

Known to all and plain to see
Man consents to keep churning power
Man consents to keep making mistakes
To write his own history
Even though he knows that ahead
When the wall is smashed
On the other side the truth stares at us*

* Adapted from a saying by Harold Pinter about a writer’s duty to smash mirrors.

The Berlin Wall in downtown Bangkok (2)

A good thing it is
We have yet another year to live
Too bad many people don’t have this minute to savour
Life is something marvellous
But love is even more so

A good thing it is
We have yet another year to live
Too bad many people don’t have this minute to savour
Dreaming is something marvellous
But reality is even more so

A good thing it is
We have yet another year to live
Too bad we are zanily snatching at light and shadow
Just in hopes of reaching a truer truth

A good thing it is
We have yet another year to live
What a shame we died off the Berlin Wall
That cropped up over smoke and flames
In downtown Bangkok

Skyline vs. horizon

In English, Reading matters on 28/06/2013 at 12:07 am


Sorry, Jadet, it’s only now I understand why your latest collection of poems carries an erroneous title in English. Phoo Ork Baep Sen Korp Fa doesn’t mean Skyline Creator but Horizon Designer if you want to gobble articles the way Yankees do. The explanation is at the very end of the book, which carries the otherwise sensitive translation of the main poem by one of the Peter Rosses LinkedIn lists by the dozen with that faulty title. A Google question: difference between skyline and horizon?

I had actually begun to translate that same poem, but heck, it doesn’t deserve that much fuss. Here instead is the one that gives its title to the second half of the collection. It has a subtle bite: Buddhist Jadet is a native of the Muslim South; it isn’t the North-eastern dialect he alludes to, but Jawi or plain Malay.

In a country where another tongue is spoken

A young woman from far away Skypes me
A country where she must speak in another tongue
A country whose natives are posters on the walls
A handful of whom only remain
Parked like animals in special enclosures

She’s just back from work
Her bus almost one hour behind schedule
She walked on a road in the heart of the capital before she cut into a street
On the way there were frizzy-haired swarthy full-lipped locals
Who sat skewering over a fire leaping off an iron drum
Their prancing shadows even less trustworthy
The young woman hurried
To get out of ogling reach

The young woman sends data across the sky across the ocean
Back to the country of her birth
Says it’s too scary there
The government shouldn’t let the locals cluster
At night
They might steal away from the reservations
And intrude on citizens’ grounds

I cheer her up, even tell her
Their ancestors snuggled their chilled bodies
Underground in that ancient land
And campfires erupted
Ages before Edison came up with the first electric bulb
Don’t worry don’t worry
It’s the bus that delivered you late
Don’t worry don’t worry
Even I must speak in another tongue
With people in our own country

Gems by the wayside – 1

In English, Reading matters on 27/06/2013 at 1:59 am


In the dead of night, sometimes nothing’s more urgent than grasping at word clouds as they cross your desk. Here is one, from the latest slim offerings of a young Thai bard named Jadet Kamjorndet, of which and of whom more anon.

Don’t be afraid

In the operation room
Lots of toys have been ordered out
Only this plastic gun allowed
To be returned to dad before the anaesthetic shot

The boy of four years, five months and seventeen days
Smiles content on the operation bed
As he hands over the plastic gun to dad

Dad prepares to say
‘Don’t be afraid, I’m here’
Meaning to whisper to him before he falls asleep
But asleep the child falls unawares
His eyes still on the anaesthesiologist’s finger
A make-believe ant that climbs up the saline solution tube
As he gives him the injection

Dad walks out of the room
Leaving it up to the doctors
Takes off the green gown
The plastic gun falls off the pocket
He picks it up
Stares at it transfixed
Feeling it’s the real thing
He’ll use to protect one and all

‘Don’t worry, dad, I’m here,’
His son’s voice comes out of the operation room…

C U Tuesday

In English, French, Reading matters on 26/08/2012 at 12:23 pm

Angkarn Kalayanapong (1926–2012)

Thai poetry is in deep mourning for one who wrapped the sky around himself to keep away the cold and ate starlight late at night to take the place of rice. Dewdrops scattered below the sky for him to find and drink, and out his poems flew to greet the morn, to last the age.

By the way, อังคาร (ang.kharn) doesn’t simply mean Tuesday, it also means Mars (the planet, not the god of War) as well as charcoal, embers or ashes. How fitting on all counts!

Un grand poète thaïlandais n’est plus, lui qui enfilait le manteau du ciel pour s’abriter du froid et tard la nuit se repaissait de clarté stellaire en lieu de riz. Les gouttes de rosée éparses dans les nues l’abreuvaient pour qu’à l’aube, éternelle, fuse sa poésie.

Cette première strophe du « Testament du poète » m’émeut moins que la sonorité sublime de la première strophe de « Je t’ai perdue », que nulle autre langue ne saurait égaler :


Ce poème et « Serment du poète », je les ai découverts voici bientôt un quart de siècle dans le bilingue Florilège de la littérature thaïlandaise – et cette strophe, la voici dans la traduction de Nopporn Prachakul et Christian Pellaumail, que je salue ici :

Je t’ai perdue, et le diamant suprême s’est fêlé
Que m’importent désormais les désirs de la terre
À la quête du Ciel même j’ai renoncé
Face contre le sol, le sable seul me nourrit

[I lost you, now cracked iridescent gem
Earthly wishes matter none
Nor does the quest for Heaven
Face to the ground I eat sand]

Un autre son de cloche

In Uncategorized on 03/12/2010 at 6:46 pm


In the mail this morning, a booklet entitled ‘Toward a Harmonious Globe’ (2010 Poetry Reading by S.E.A. Write Award Winners, Suan Pakkad Palace, Bangkok, Thailand, November 4, 2010). In it, nine poems, one of which, by Zakariya Amataya, I had translated earlier (see ‘Young Thai poets (2): ‘Something or other’’ on 02/09/2010). It’s always interesting to hear different versions, so here is that of Associate Professor Surapeepan Chatraporn, who by the way organised the reading:

There must be something

There must be something in this universe
that has been lost in the dimension of time
something that Columbus and Ulysses failed to explore
something that the Greek and Arabian astronomers did not discover
something that the founders of the world’s religions forgot to preach
something that has been lost in between the black hole

There must have been some errors
between the cleavages of the human race
that was lost in the Flood
something that was not stowed on Noah’s ark
something that the Old Testament did not record
something that Nostradamus did not foresee

There must be some misunderstanding on this earth
that has been lost from the database of the global population
something that Plato did not anticipate
something that Nietzsche did not mention
something that Einstein did not calculate
something that has been lost…

Taking a poetry break

In Uncategorized on 08/11/2010 at 9:18 pm


Correcting over the weekend the first seventy thousand words of the proofs of Chiens fous (พันธุ์หมาบ้า) and then risking death by drowning in a sea of xhtml codes while the house is being repaired by worm-eating early birds with no respect for us owls called for a bit of a break to retain my sanity.
So what better than making good on my promise to dash out an alternative translation of the Thai poems featured in Truth Globalize(d) [see previous posting], starting with Ungkarn Chantatip’s, in whose debt I believe I still am.

A displaced person’s conversation – Ungkarn Chantatip

The orange fish, he’s been told, is called Nemo
The weird, big-eyed cat, Doraemon
The crocodile, floating-log-like, waiting to be shouldered around
The little monkey, the tea-leaf-eating worms
All there – chicks, birds, mice, crabs, fish
Clear-eyed Kero frogs – all for sale
Funny some of them creatures
Once sought for food in the fields
The peddler who shouldered paddy sheaves
On a sharp pole along dykes became displaced
A rice farmer turned uneasy seller
Concrete and ground unfamiliar
Hot or cold, seasons feel the same
Exchanging penury for bashfulness
In the fields food there was, but no money
Roaming, confronting, feelings frozen
Same true hardship but different place
What is there that money can’t buy
Lack of it was what prompted leaving
Home at a cost just about worth it
At least the children go to school
Cell phones, school fees ganging up in short order
Wife, children spending left and right
When their voices will break they’ll be asking for ’bikes

The orange fish called Nemo sells well
The weird big-eyed cat – which will you choose
For the car, for the kids, for the house
To give a sweetheart or whoever you wish
Kero the clear-eyed frog doesn’t cost much
But is cute, nice colour too, please support
Whatever little profit will become capital
To renew the stock

On days of cold sky pavements become field dykes
What’s pole-shouldered are sheaves of garish yellow
A gust of cold wind – the farmer’s son
Estranged from home comes to a halt looking at
The orange fish in his hand called Nemo
The weird big-eyed cat with sad glints in his eyes
Glum thoughts while waiting for the haggling
Sadness spreading over both eyes
In that gust – the spread of city buildings in splendorous sunlight
Turns into golden fields all over those very eyes

Ungkarn Chantatip in the noughties

In English, Reading matters on 12/10/2010 at 9:13 pm


I’ve got to hand it to him: after those few lines in this blog stating my inability to translate his classical poems, Ungkarn Chantatip (pronounced ang.kharn jan.tha.thip) called my bluff when he came here with the posse of free verse practitioners I had managed to translate: he handed me two of his collections of free verse – Khon Rak Khong Khwamsao (Sadness’s lover) 1999/2007 and Thee Thee Rao Yuen Yoo (Where we stand) 2007 – plus a photocopied batch of his thirty-three latest poems.
The least I could do, then, was to go through that lot. For the most part, I found even his free verse damn hard to understand, thus do not feel qualified to sit in judgment of his poetry, which trusted Thai friends have praised. Put it down to my weakness as a Johnny-come-lately to the Thai language.
The few pieces below are not necessarily representative of Ungkarn’s production: they just happen to be the shortest and easiest I could (just about) handle.

Little fates [2002]

Little fates
A girl – a boy
Second Saturday of January – late morning
Sunshine – banana plantation – gentle wind

I think … I too am sad
That you have no cake
Ice cream toffee candy to eat
No toy to treasure – never mind

Friends around here far and near
Are having roaring fun
Gone out since morning
Without us two brother and sister

Mum in a bad mood
Dad drunk – dad only complains
This bastard – that bitch – and at the receiving end always
You and I – us two

Hush! Hold your tears
Still blameless – don’t be sad
My arms lightly hug your shoulders
To comfort you – do understand

The banana bole into a horse will turn
A present I’ll find for you
Yours to ride and command and show off
Your friends will want when they return

Two arms enfold – two feet climb up
The big horse is so high one must look up
Feet slipping – both arms exhausted
Arms and legs instant failures!

A pointed stump below
Receives the falling body perfectly
In that blurry dream the banana bole horse twirls
Teardrops – thick blood
Cramp – pain – hurt until…

Between the clouds [2003]

Hammock hung in tree shade
Gaps between the sheaves of leaves…
Stretched out counting hot season clouds
At such a time even good books won’t appeal
As you mark time past, present and future
And visit those that come by then leave
Along the paths between the clouds
Eyes sparkle – hearts shine
Happiness? Sorrow?
Only the span of a sigh
Life? Dreams?
Oh … just gone off with those clouds

February [2006]

Rice fields – mountain jungle – river – overseas
People – distant countryside
Each and every town
Always strange in the telling
Adrift – wandering
Like your soul
O gypsy…
How to tell the hot wind on its way here
That dreams are fast asleep
In the safe houses of fairy tales

The heart’s fifth chamber [2007]

Deep vale – houses – flowing river
The edge of the sky fenced up to white clouds
Over big mountains stretching into a long range of peaks [?]
Peak after glittering peak like arms enfolding the land [?]

The heart dreams of peace
Amidst sorrow fanning fires without end
Whose roar weakens into flying vapours [?]
And becomes rainfall to put out the heat

With a deep vale – houses – flowing river
The heart returns to dreams of old
When caring land and sky
Were home from crib to pyre for so long
Were home from crib to pyre for so long

Zakariya encore

In English, Reading matters on 02/10/2010 at 1:27 pm


This coming Monday the Outlook section of the Bangkok Post will carry five poems by this year’s winner of the SEA Write Award, Zakariya Amataya. A sixth poem fell off the page, a victim to rampant advertising. Here it is.

A dot on the Malay Peninsula


A river
A mountain
At night
I’m looking at
A river
A mountain
That slowly vanish in the dark
I can’t see
Even my own hand
And then everything is darkness
And then everything is darkness


A dot on the Malay Peninsula
A river
A mountain
I feel blood flowing nonstop
One arm beginning to feel numb
Pain spreading through the whole body
Pulse now slowing down
Breath a murmur
As if in a tussle with the fist of fate
Between mountain and river
Between death and life
With laments and laughs all along


A dot on the Malay Peninsula
A river
A mountain
In total silence
I hear peace sobbing
And uttering yells that resound
Along sundry roads
Around the city clock tower
On dinner tables, in teashops
In mosques and Buddhist temples
And yet … no one hears
It’s true, no one hears
No one hears
I see the weary face
And battered eyes of peace
Brimming with tears of sadness
Which flow and join a river


A dot on the Malay Peninsula
A river
A mountain
I try
But blood won’t stop flowing
The other arm beginning to feel numb
Pain storming the heart
While little cuts look like red fountain jets

As if slit by a million krisses


A dot on the Malay Peninsula
A river
A mountain
I feel the blood has stopped flowing
Heartbeats gone with the last breath
While the eyes begin to blur
Visions in the head shine bright
I see myself in youth
Running up and down ridges
To look at that river
And those sparkling stars


A dot on the Malay Peninsula
A river
A mountain
I hear birdsong
And the helicopter’s roar over the trees
The rattle of the bullets
And the blasts of the bombs


A dot on the Malay Peninsula
A river
A mountain
Stars – fading off
And then suddenly gone from my memory