< back to The Border Surrounds Us

The Vacation 


The blue churn of the sea
fused her green heart. 
She was born to the tribe
of terrible longings, 
lungs to gills, 
skin to scales. 

When the breakers choked her, 
she swam farther, 
and the fishermen
on the shore stared in horror. 
One remarked to the other: 

     crazy stupid
     fuckin white girl. 

Later, his slender brown hands examining
her coral-torn knees, 
Daniel whispered, 
     They thought you were
     drowning yourself. 

The enormity
of his eyes frightened her. 
He was asking
if it was true. 


Wild-eyed but calm, 
salted, filleted, 
ready to be eaten, 
she watched the men hoisting
crates of shark and lobster, 
the most beautiful
black, glistening
the only gods
she had ever seen, 
their thighs as big
as her waist, tendoned with
the muscle of the sun. 

And the women-- 
to be so alive-- 
the women dazzled. 
She had learned in art class
black is the absence
of colour, but the women
were rainbows and her eyes
could not find the end of them. 

In the cane fields
the people came out to meet her, 
the people walked out
of the cane onto the road
speaking a language like honey
in sea-water, green water, 
cane juice, their voices
held secrets, the fine dust
was alive on their feet. 

(PRIVATE)A woman laid an ivory-palmed
black hand
on her cheek
and the girl kissed that hand. 

Later, walking back
through the white
rich walled neighbourhoods, 
the jagged glass, 
the nail heads embedded
in the concrete edges, 
she knew she had returned
to the killing labyrinth, 
so many white walls. 


The bouganvillea blazed scarlet
and orange over the broken glass
and nails, out of reach. 

But she leaned over
and touched Daniel, 
stroked through him
so lightly, as though
skin were water, as though
it were possible to be
clean always, to kiss
the sweetwater mouth 

without the landlady
barging in, hissing
that stupid bitch
screaming he had to leave. 

Whatever wants in
will get in
She made a vow
to fling open
every door and
every window
in her life. 

An enormous centipede
slithered in from the garden. 
Swallows dove over the fruit
on the kitchen table, catching
the last humming flies of dusk. 
While she slept
naked under a sheet, 
a thief came in, too. 

He stole her gold and silver
and copper bracelet
but left her
to be taken. 


The Flood 

The war on Burma's borders began over fifty years ago. 
It is the longest-running civil war in the world. 

In the gold light
of late afternoon
the child lay dying, 
his eyes rolled white
with dark veins, 
flood of blood-black streams, 
as though the mud
beneath the bamboo slats
had claimed him already, 
risen up the bamboo poles
and entered him, thick, 
blind and ravenous. 

The medic was roused
from hounded sleep
while the chickens
scratched beneath
the floor. The medic
had no words, only rapid
necessary movement, 
his hands signed the language
of survival or extinction. 
He pumped wet rice out
of the shrunken stomach
(the tube rasped against
the child's throat
like a tiny shovel
digging deeper). 

Then, hair falling over
his eyes, the medic leaned into
the small malarial heart. 
He leaned in deep, listening
for the priceless sound, 
song of steady rain
pouring through the body. 

He pumped the birdbox chest. 
He pumped the soft world
between the ribs, curved bones
slick with sweat like the ribs
of a skiff on the reef. 
Then he sat back on
on his bare heels
like a man finished
with praying. 
The mother began
to scream. 

Light poured in
through chinks in the thatch, 
over the half-high walls, 
sunlight with honey and bees
in it, sagawa flowers, yellow
silk on a wedding dawn, 
useless fingers stained
with gold, with ink, the sun
drenched even the sewage mud
with a light no one
ever dies in, 

never a child, 
three years old, 
hair still shorn velvet, 
marking him
a new dead son
of the Karen people. 

                  Maw Ker Refugee Camp, 1997 


What she carried 


You cannot carry this. 
No, not that way, alone. 
It is wrong to believe
you have the strength. 
You do not. 
You, too, are only a child. 
You cannot carry this. 

Yet you can hold it
for a few hours at a time. 
For a day. 
For two or three days
when you have known kindness. 
You wash the crushed face. 
The veil of flies rises. 
With practice, you learn
to say human . 

Now you will carry
part of it


You are able to pronounce
some word you heard once
from your mother, 
from one of the mothers
who cook on these fires, 
these women who taught you
how to carry stones on your head, uphill, 
these women who wash their children
in the dirty stream where you, too, 
will gather the parasites
in the open net of your flesh. 
They come as readily as the fireflies, 
they glow in you secretly. 

Later, when you become ill
and stumble half-blind to the hospital
you will consider, correctly, 
     how lucky I am, this hospital . 
You will think, with an unforgivable
measure of self-pity, I cannot
carry this, I am too weak
for this sickness, perhaps
I will die here. 
But you will be forgiven. 

Even when you throw open
your hands, crying, 
     Take this
     I can't carry it,  
     it's covered in blood
     I'm afraid. 
you will be forgiven. 
You will rest. 
Shh, the nurse will say, shhh. 


Aye Aye arrives. 
Her hair swings with the rhythm
of her long red skirt. 
She lived for years in the jungle. 
Don't worry, she says. 
She laughs. 
She is still very thin, 
her thinness will never leave her. 
She carried a machine gun. 
It was too heavy, half her weight. 
Now, with slender fingers, 
she carries to me
flowers from Naing Aung. 

Aye Aye is humming. 
The song is her own. 
Through the fever
she holds the flowers
and slowly snaps off
every thorn. 


While dancing with the Gypsy boy on Constantina's birthday 

I was
brought up
(poison cannot be kept down) 
to love a god
who hated me. 

Strange, I think of this
for an instant without words, 
while dancing with the Gypsy boy
on Constantina's birthday. 

The boy makes love to his drum
with hot fingers and palms. 
His father smuggles Turkey
back to Greece
inside a clarinet. 

Their music is the music of snakes, 
coil of pagan in the bones, 
snakesong, night-pulsing, 
pounding, rising, so purely
human after all. 
The smoke opens, falls away
in veils, revealing the men's
ravenous faces, the fire
held in their mouths, the bellies
of wine-filled girls 

The close room whirls
in and out of my body
like a scythe
cutting me down, 
then the boy with his drum
sows me again on the bare flagstones
where I spring up full-grown
like sweet corn and sway-- 

Made for it. Nothing else. 
Love is not enough, and even passion
fails the boy's joy, his sure knowledge
at the heart of wildness
that only he has the power
to create a woman
so marvellous, 
so momentary
she will disappear
when he stops playing-- 

She dances
as though her body
will take her all the way
home, finally, 
farther than that, closer, 

to a moment long before God
turned into such a jealous bitch, 

a time when he heard the snakes
singing, dancing without legs, 
and laughed with great, sad 

pleasure in his dark.


 < back to The Border Surrounds Us