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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.