Wednesday, 19 January 2011


It's one in the morning, and I've given up on the struggle for sleep.
Outside, water thick-knees are making strange sharp little calls and running around on their long little legs, eating insects.

And I'm Here. Here being home in East Africa, after a year's absence.
Being immersed in the world--savoring having bare feet and wearing a sarong again, mesmerized by the thrumming of fans and the din of East African birds.

The power went out when I turned up two days ago, so I spent a hot afternoon lying out on the verandah on a Cambodian grass mat with ants crawling over me, staring foggily at a hibiscus tree with sunbirds and barbets zipping about, feeling... happy.

However, I'm well grateful that Iringa, where I will be in five days time, is higher and cooler, perfect for writing. The coast is a place where one's brain just wants to pack it in altogether, I find, and take to swimming every day and staring in awe at fish...

Thinking deep and meaningful thoughts like Whoa, fish.

That's all I've got this dark night. Over and out, world...

Friday, 7 January 2011

A Reflection Off Job

The dead bee is dry and nearly weightless
one bundle of pollen still
fastened to its knee.
Its legs tucked in,
wings stiffly spread,
it did not mean to die
nor welcome its death.

It smells of decay,
but faintly,
and the ants eat a bit
of its wing, and then leave it be.

The ants live in front
of the altar in this Catholic
prayer hall. They have made
a small hole in the caulking
between the tiles and they
emerge and descend from
this hole in ones and twos.
Church ants, nourished,
no doubt, on holy days,
by communion wafers.
Will they say a prayer
for the bee while its taste
still lingers in their tiny
mouths, their clicking jaws?
Will they say a prayer for me?
The book of Job is
a troublesome book.

The Buddhists have their seima,
their sacred boundary markers,
sunken into the earth around each temple;
The Khmer draw boundaries between the
cultivated world of village and rice paddy
and the dangerous alluring forest, but in
Job, the Hebrew God treats the entire earth
as Her space, His creation—
its bases are sunk,
its cornerstone laid,
and the stars sing and
the heavenly beings shout for joy.

The sea is wrapped and barred and encased,
mighty and proud, but kept from the land.
Under the water, the waters that teemed before
anything rose from the earth—first the sea,
first the sky—and now we mortals kill first
the seas and the skies—we who walk on the
dry-land will go last, already the weakest among
us are going—the Khiansi spray toad is gone now,
thousands of others crowd the gates of deep darkness,
nearly gone, and we, we who have not seen the springs
of the sea, the recesses of the deep, we who do not know
the paths to the dwelling place of light and darkness, we
who cannot find where the east wind is scattered, we who
cannot guide forth the Bear in her proper season—
we have power, nonetheless, terrible power—
the power to destroy, the power to kill.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Retrospective 7: on the trip to Banteay Chma

The authorities are getting ideas--
the woman who plants chilies
and the man who plant mung beans
have been told that they must stop
using the degraded field around
the U-shaped muddy moat that
encircles the jumble of stones and
precarious tower of the ancient
Khmer temple Ta Prohm.
Four giant serene faces gaze out upon
the landscape in the four cardinal directions--
the fourth face is splitting upwards from its chin,
gravity tugging at its supporting lintel.
The authorities are returning on the 5th of September,
to discuss these matters, these sliding stones.
The woman knows the type of wood that has been
used to shore up the four lintels and the bowing arches;
she gives me a handful of green chilies, bundled into a
pouch made from twisting her sarong. I put them into
the front of my shirt for the walk home under the blazing
sun in a humid sky threatening rain. Someone unknown
has been uprooting the shrubs that have taken root around
the dilapidated towers, burning the undergrowth. The smell
of hot ash rises as I slowly circle the tower to gaze upon all
four faces. On my way out I pass a structure
like a chicken shed
and see pieces of carvings, stacked haphazardly--
a lotus flower pillar,
three partial statues of meditating Buddhas--
the bases with the crossed
feet and the cradled hands
resting upon them remain, the heads and torsos
are gone. They were probably victims of the 1998 debacle
that allowed the Thai military to loot Banteay Chma,
the vast broken sister
of this small temple. These fragments
surely have great value,
but no one is guarding this precious rubble,
and I stand in the ashes
and reach out and lift one of the blocks--
a curving shoulder.
I look for its companions, but find nothing.
It is startling heavy, this
piece of ancient stone, and I feel like a looter,
toting around the Buddha's shoulder,
stroking the toes on one standing foot. Hewing off
these stones heads, these shoulders
would have required great strength
and heavy tools. These pieces of the twelfth century,
dismembered, stolen,
lie now in my insignificant hands.
The block scrapes against its fellows
when I lay it back down. It was the fighting that destroyed the temples,
a woman argues. The Khmer Rouge were at one temple, the resistance
was stationed over there. Originally she accused the Vietnamese,
but then the group of interested onlookers agreed that this fighting was fifteen years ago,
long after the Vietnamese had gone.
Time has become elided here, in these places
where years were marked by battle after battle.
We hid in trenches, she said. Airplanes
shelled them. They even cooked rice in the trenches.
Her grandfather was too afraid
to open his eyes.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Retrospective 6: the middle of August

The toads are going wild tonight,
Heart and Nga have been unfairly labeled gangsters,
the air is blessedly cool and I am back in the village,
joyfully so.
Grandmother Muon is better
and lavishing love upon
the sole remaining ginger kitten,
to my grateful surprise.
A candle burns on my trunk,
Sombath and Pin laugh with their mother,
we will go to that great old temple Banteay Chma together,
and my heart is glad.
Today, my 100th bird in Cambodia--
those lovely lovely rufous treepies,
hopping about in their sleek suits
of colors--grey and peach and white and black--
crying out and flying with the tips of their wing feathers
extended like fingers, soaring over the top of the ploughed field.
And the chestnut bee-eaters stalked me, following me on and on,
and unseen birds raged in a tree.

Retrospective 5: Grumblings on Volume

I am tired of the yelling
whenever anyone wants anyone else.
There is no thought of disturbing others--
my host father shouts at my host sister,
fast asleep in her small room,
to come and catch the pigeons.
It was half past ten.
They awakened me too,
demanding I come and hand over my torch
so we could catch and eat the pigeons.
It is not lost on me that I have been complaining
rather a lot about these broody pigeons,
but shouldn't sleep be somewhat sacred?
Whoever was up at half past five this morning
began noisily stacking wood,
my host brother Jane turns on tractors and leaves them to idle
at all hours--once it's light, it's daytime,
and when there's a task needs doing, it's my host sister they call for,
even in the dead of night.
I'm tired of it.
And I'm tired of loud music blaring from vast speaker systems,
first the flying horse evenings,
the carousel with terrible disco tracks,
then three nights of hideous wedding music, and today,
the day of penance at the temple,
monks chanting and megaphones squealing from four a.m. onwards,
at intervals.
I'm in essence tired of the VOLUME.
Why must everything be so loud?
Why must we all be forced to hear each other's events?
And how can earplugs,
which were Designed for ears,
be so absurdly uncomfortable?

Retrospective 4: in Kampot at the riverhouse with friends

Ah, Lord,
here I am.
Slowly clumsily surfacing--
my head aching
and my limbs heavy
from that drugged afternoon sleep,
here in the still hot sun of four o'clock,
in the soft shurr of a broom sweeping,
listening to the wind in the dry palms,
watching shadows shift,
feeling the world's glory.

My obsession with newness,
my boredom, my desire to hunt,
to know, to number, to accumulate,
these things threaten
the pleasure of my birding--
I don't do well with sameness,
with ordinariness--Katie's book recommendation,
the spectacular ordinary life--
the very title makes me nervous.
But surely it isn't all bad,
wanting to know,
to see as deeply as possible
the world around me--
what is the red winged hawk
that hunts over the Frenchman's spring?
What is the red capped brown ball of feathers
that vanishes into the reeds of our farm's pond
whenever I steal up close?

My thanks for a morning--
for flooded fields of water still as glass,
for tiny fish swimming over the hoof prints of cows,
for small bays cut into the thick stiletto palms
crowding the river's edge, covered with crab tracks,
for the yellow flowers with red hearts
that float along the meniscus of the brackish riverworld,
for grave mounds covered with thin strips of white cloth,
for rollers high and bright and fearless in the trees,
for wind in the papery sighing of the sugar palms,
for small bridges and boats that pass beneath them,
for all the many knit muscles of our arms,
that we can push an oar through the water, and row along--
for the possible treepie, and the innumerable brown bulbuls,
swooping from one bush to the next,
for a mighty fig tree towering above the forest,
for generous friends with quiet hearts--
and for last night's walk in the moonlight
along a river under the moon,
watching mountains against a starry sky--
for all these things,
my thanks, my praise,
my devotion.

Retrospective 3: Silence in Mondulkiri

And all I want are the green hills and the feathered things,
the quiet of this morning's tramp--
not a human soul but myself for three blessed hours.
Just the alarmed birds,
and judging by the packs of small boys with slingshots
glimpsed on my way home,
good reason for that fear.

Solitude from people
and the presence of the creatures,
mute, instinctual, wild--
more resonant--
ringing like bells,
tolling the energy and passion and creativity of God,
bringing us back
to a better understanding
of our place in the order of things--
loved, yes, cherished,
but merely motes in the vast rushing universe
borne aloft by God's undying love.

They praise better than we do--
they praise simply by being.
They return my awareness to being a creature,
a creature of God, that lives and must die.

Henri Nouwen wrote:
Silence is the way to make solitude a reality.

Yet in the heat and the noise
and the unrelenting presence of others
in the Cambodian village--
how can I pray?
I who become alive
when alone and away
from the hum of human activity.
Teach me to pray, Jesu,
in the midst of the world.