Records of Rage

Over the winter of 2014, as Arctic air plunged the American Midwest into its cruelest winter in decades, my mother and I—both Thai immigrants—watched as our homeland’s political troubles reached a new low. In November of the previous year, thousands of civilians started occupying Bangkok’s streets in order to protest the government of then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, which attempted to pass an amnesty bill that would acquit a former prime minister—Yingluck’s older brother—of the corruption charges for which he was ousted from office in 2006. The demonstrators were met by zealous counter-protests from Yingluck’s supporters, gun violence that went frequently uninvestigated by authorities, intermittent bomb threats, and mostly condemnation from Western news media, who labeled them political elitists bent on toppling a government that, for all its flaws, was popular among the lower classes and, barring rumors of rampant vote-buying, had been democratically elected. Closer to home, state media portrayed the protestors as rabble-rousers and accused them of harboring weapons. Yet, among the thousands of people who were taking the streets, I had friends and colleagues, and these, I knew, were armed only with the conviction that they marched, despite the dangers, for a better Thailand.

As the winter dragged on and every morning became a struggle to leave the house, I watched as Yingluck resigned and a placeholder government was established; as new elections were scheduled and then boycotted when the opposition called for nothing less than the complete absolution of the interim government and a constitutional reform. The country was frozen in stalemate, and neither side was backing down. Finally, there came a thaw: on May 22, 2014, the military staged a coup—Thailand’s twelfth since 1936—absolving both the protests and the government in a final bid to wipe the slate clean and spare further violence.

Wipe the slate clean. Throughout its modern history, Thailand has run through a seemingly endless and self-engendering cycle of botched elections, controversial governments, violent street demonstrations, and military coups. And contemporary Thai poets have born witness to these chains of events, “recording,” in the words of Phaiboon Wongdesh, “times of rage/throughout the three worlds.” My interests in Thai poetry have always tended towards the classical and courtly, but over that prolonged winter of 2014 and into the flowering months, I couldn’t ignore the poems that Thai poets over the last forty years have “arranged in bright patterns” over our shared political woes.

Of the following poems, the first two were written in response to the events of October 14th, 1976, when demonstrators—many of them university students demanding open elections and a constitutional reform from the dictatorship of the day—clashed with police and military forces. Although they respond to events nearly forty years past, these poems could have been written about the struggles of the present—indeed, they seem almost prophetic. Naowarat Phongphaiboon foresees gunshots “ringing in the city’s midst,” while Phaiboon Wongdesh’s catalogue of natural elements in the traditional style evokes a sense of universal mourning for fallen demonstrators. The third poem, written by Chindana Pinchleo, who is known primarily for her horror novels, uses humor to make a statement about corruption and sexual hypocrisies in Thai society, and takes place in one of Bangkok’s infamous strip clubs.

The text for these poems was taken from an anthology of Thai poetry called Kred Kawee (“Pieces of Poetry”) edited by Eakarat Udomporn (Pathana Suksa Press, 2008).

Noh Anothai
St. Louis, Missouri
June 2014

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Merely a Movement
by Naowarat Phongphaiboon (1940-present)1

Merely the movement of a vulture’s wings
beneath a blaze of sun can disperse its heat.
Merely the shiver that runs from leaf to leaf
proclaims the presence of the wind.

Merely a ripple running over its surface
shows the pool water, not a pane of glass.
In eyes glossed-over, a mere glimmer
shows a heart still beating in the chest.

When the chains that hold gates shut are thrashed,
mighty is the clamor of suffering.
Merely a shimmer at the end of a pass
reveals an escape is still possible.

My fists have been clenched until drenched with sweat,
my flesh seared, my blood boiled within.
I have panted and fallen time and again—yet
good it is to have known that taste.

When a hand can still wriggle its fingers,
the strength hidden within is made known;
and when its blade-tips pierce through stone,
then is shown the might of a weed.

For forty years a torpor has held these reaches
and forty million have never stirred.
While soil became sand, wood stone, and all crumbled,
eyes and hearts remained fast asleep.

Birds inhabit the sky, but do not see sky;
in water the fish see water not.
Centipedes have no sense of the dirt they live in
and, to perceive filth, worms have no eyes.

For me disintegration and rot are certain:
birth, death, and utter inertia in due order.
Yet there bursts out of muck and detritus
a thing to be cherished: a lotus flower.

And at last a movement has begun
of grace and beauty, and not of ill.
It may be nebulous now, its form murky,
but at least a movement is taking shape.

When the daring-voiced drums boom forth from temple,
we know another holy day has arrived.
When gunshots ring in the midst of the city—
we know that for victory the people are reaching.

 

Homage to Heroes
by Phaiboon Wongdesh (?-?)2

The moon droops, stars drop, and birds weep.
Both trees in leaf and trees in flower wilt.
The whole face of heaven is hooded in cloud
and swirls of mist rising muddle the sun.

A towering gloom closes the curtain of air
and, sullied, the water in creeks and canals
and on valley-floors rear over their banks.
The mountains themselves look like they might break.

Grains of rice lie scattered, stripped from stalks
the wind has bent over and lashed about.
—Silence. Not a sound anywhere.
I light my candle, bowing in the dark

before the bones of my heroes.
The candle casts its golden light
as we cast your ash with the moon and stars.
As moist as this water, may your souls be

and float away for the sky’s furthest reach.
Close now, eyes; know trouble no more.
The river of night will not find any peace;
the stream is disturbed by droplets in downpour.

The current oozes away, bearing your remnants
far from the bank for earth’s utmost bourn.
The wind blows; the leaves in mortal hearts quake;
and in that same moment, my candle goes out.

Although it can snuff the golden-bright candle,
the wind cannot blur these stains out of being.
Tonight no sounds are heard whatsoever,
but tomorrow a cry will rise clear to the stars;

the stars light the land while the skies are obscured;
the moon blaze forth when the dark is audacious;
arranging the words poets compose in bright patterns,
recording times of rage throughout the three worlds.

Tonight, although there be no justice,
on the horizon shines a new dawn.
Whoever does ill—commits evils actions—
soon must requite it—must pay it in full.

 

To Shame
by Chindana Pinchleo (1942-1988)3

I was watching the floorshow when—Oh my…y…y…
that woman turning up the heat over there,
bouncing her breasts, her butt, flashing her thighs,
her eyes taunting me like a girl without care—

she dropkicked shame into the wastebasket,
then lay down and started her body to bare,
hailed as a star by the room’s sudden racket—
but virtue’s standpoint was one of despair.

“My living is honest—have I done something wrong?”
with a straight face, when I asked her, she said.
“But aren’t you ashamed dancing here in a thong?”
The woman shrugged. “If I were, I’d be dead.

I have an old mother; younger siblings, five.
If I didn’t strip to support them, they’d be long gone.
I finished grade 4. Who’d stick by my side?
It’s good enough that I’m not also a whore.

But, even so, though you say I’ve got nerve
to flaunt myself and give everybody a look,
it’s because I either do it or starve
and at least none of us here is a crook.

No, I’m not ashamed—in this day and age,
when corruption’s committed open air.
Even good folk are flaunting it center stage
and when they’re found out, they don’t seem to be scared.

If people like me knew shame, then men would be lonely,
and if men knew shame, they’d probably change their ways.
If even our leaders go on being phoneys,
of whom should a stripper be ashamed?”


1One of Thailand’s most respected living poets, Naowarat Phongphaiboon received a SEA Write award for his collection Merely a Movement in 1980, and was named a “National Artist” in 1992 by Thailand’s Department of Culture.
2Has Wongdesh fallen afoul of some Thai censorship bureau? I cannot find any biographical notes for this man on the internet, and none was given in the anthology used for the translation. This poem appears online in a collection of other October 14th-related poems by Chulalongkorn University, and Wongdesh’s books can be found for sale on Thai used book websites, but the details of his life are a mystery to me. I encourage anyone with more information to contact me.
3Known mostly for her horror stories, Chindana Pinchleo wrote under several pen names in various serials, for which she occasionally also composed poetry.

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เพียงความเคลื่อนไหว (Merely a Movement)
โดย เนาวรัตน์ พงษ์ไพบูลย์ (by Naowarat Phongphaiboon)

ชั่วเหยี่ยวกระหยับปีกกลางเปลวแดด
ร้อนที่แผดก็ผ่อนเพลาพระเวหา
พอใบไม้ไหวหลิกริกริกมา
ก็รู้ว่าวันนี้มีลมวก

เพียงกระเพื่อมเลื่อมรับวับวับไหว
ก็รู้ว่าน้ำใสใช่กระจก
เพียงแววตาคู่นั้นหวั่นสะทก
ก็รู้ว่าในหัวอกมีหัวใจ

โซ่ประตูตรึงผูกถูกกระชาก
เสียงแห่งความทุกข์ยากก็ยิ่งใหญ่
สว่างแวบแปลบพร่ามาไรไร
ก็รู้ได้ว่าทางยังพอมี

มือที่กำหมัดชื้นจนชุ่มเหงื่อ
ก็ร้อนเลือดเดือดเนื้อถนัดถนี่
กระหืดหอบฮวบล้มแต่ละที
ก็ยังดีที่ได้สู้ได้รู้รส

นิ้วกระดิกกระเดี้ยได้พอให้เห็น
เรี่ยวแรงที่แฝงเร้นก็ปรากฏ
ยอดหญ้า
แยงหินแยกหยัดระชด
เกียรติยศแห่งหญ้าก็ระยับ

สี่สิบปีเปล่าโล่งตลอดย่าน
สี่สิบล้านไม่เคยเขยื้อนขยับ
ดินเป็นทรายไม้เป็นหินจนหักพับ
ดับและหลับตลอดถ้วนทั้งตาใจ

นกอยู่ฟ้านกหากไม่เห็นฟ้า
ปลาอยู่น้ำย่อมปลาเห็นน้ำไม่
ไส้เดือนไม่เห็นดินว่าฉันใด
หนอนย่อมไร้ดวงตารู้อาจม

ฉันนั้นความเปื่อยเน่าเป็นของแน่
ย่อมเกิดแก่ความนิ่งทุกสิ่งสม
แต่วันหนึ่งความเน่าในเปือกตม
ก็ผุดพรายให้ชมซึ่งดอกบัว

และแล้วความเคลื่อนไหวก็ปรากฏ
เป็นความงดความงามใช่ความชั่ว
มันอาจขุ่นอาจข้นอาจหม่นมัว
แต่ก็เริ่มจะเป็นตัวจะเป็นตน

พอเสียงร่ำรัวกลองประกาศกล้า
ก็รู้ว่าวันพระมาอีกหน
พอปืนเปรี้ยงแปลบไปในมณฑล
ก็รู้ว่าประชาชนจะชิงชัย

 

บวงสรวงวีรชน (Homage to Heroes)
ไพบูลย์ วงษ์เทศ (by Phaiboon Wongdesh)

เดือนต่ำดาวตก นกร้องไห้
ไม้ดอกไม้ใบร่วงหล่น
โพยมพยับดับแสงสุริยน
หมอกเมฆมืดมนมัฆวาฬ
ทะมึนมัวม่านฟ้าฝ้าหมอง
ขุ่นน้ำลำคลองห้วยละหาน
หุบห้วยตรวยโตรกชะโงกธาร
เพิงผาปิ้มปานจะขาดใจ
รวงข้าวลู่ลมล้มคว่ำ
กิ่งท้อกอระกำสะเทือนไหว
สิ้นซึ่งส่ำเสียงสำเนียงใด
ประจงจุดเทียนไขชัชวาล
กราบกระดูกวีรชนหม่นหมอง
แสงเทียนสีทองทอสาน
ดาวเคลื่อนเดือนคล้อยลอยอังคาร
ขอวิญญาณเจ้าจงฉ่ำดังน้ำเย็น
เรื่อยไหลไปเถิดสุดขอบฟ้า
ดับเถิดดวงตาอย่ารู้เข็ญ
คงคาคืนค่ำคงลำเค็ญ
หยาดน้ำหยดกระเซ็นกระแสชล
ชลาลัยไหลเรื่อยเอื่อยอาด
อังคารเจ้าห่างหาดไปสุดหน
ลมพัดใบไม้ไหวในใจคน
เทียนก็ดับดาลดลในทันใด
แม้ดับเทียนสีทองส่องสว่าง
มิอาจดับรอยด่างให้เลือนได้
วันนี้ไม่มีเสียงสำเนียงใด
พรุ่งนี้เสียงจะใสถึงดวงดาว
ดาวจักเรืองแจ่มหล้าเมื่อฟ้าหม่น
เดือนจะโรจน์อำพนเมื่อมืดหาว
เรียงถ้อยร้อยกวีวะวับวาว
บันทึกคราวคับแค้นในแดนไตร
แม้ไม่มียุติธรรม์ในวันนี้
แต่ขอบฟ้ายังมีอรุณใหม่
ใครก่อเวรสร้างกรรมกระทำไว้
จักต้องรับชดใช้ชำระคืน

 

แด่ความอาย (To Shame)
จินตนา  ปิ่นเฉลียว (by Chindana Pinchleo)

ดูฟลอร์โชว์โก้แท้ อุแม่เจ้า!
หญิงร้อนเร่าคนนั้น อึ๋ยย์…ขวัญหนี
ย้ายสะโพกโยกทรวงดูพ่วงพี
ท้าตาที่จ้องวาวสาวไม่แคร์

เตะความอายใส่บี๊บแล้วถีบส่ง
เอนเอ้องค์เอาผ้าออกมาแก้
คนชมกราวดาวฟลอร์โชว์โก้แท้แท้
ดูในแง่ศีลธรรมแล้วช้ำใจ

“มันอาชีพสุจริตหนูผิดหรือ?”
หล่อนพูดซื่อเมื่อเราเข้าถามไถ่
“ไม่คิดอายชายมั่งหรือยังไง?”
หล่อนยักไหล่ “ขืนอายอดตายล่ะ

หนูมีแม่แก่หงำซำน้องห้า
ไม่แก้ผ้าเลี้ยงเขาก็เน่าน่ะ
จบปอสี่มีใครสนใจนะ
ที่ไม่พะโสเภณีก็ดีแล้ว

แต่นั่นแหละแม้ว่าหนูหน้าด้าน
กล้าทำร่านอวดใครได้ชัดแจ๋ว
ก็เพราะความจำเป็นมันเน้นแนว
แต่เชื้อแถวหนูไม่มีใครโกง

หนูไม่อายหรอกค่ะสมัยนี้
คนดีดีคอร์รัปชันกันออกโผง
ไม่อายใครใจชั่วตัวชูโรง
ถูกเปิดโปงเข้ามั่งยังไม่กลัว

คนอย่างหนูถ้ารู้อายชายคงเหงา
คนอย่างเขาถ้ารู้อายคงหายชั่ว
ตราบคนใหญ่ไม่ยั่นกินกันนัว
หนูเผยตัวอวดชายจะอายใคร?”

Translator’s Note

Why do I translate? When asked, I often say—it’s because I can’t come up with my own material, which is only half a lie. It’s the same reason I don’t write fiction: I’m terrible at coming up with plots and characters out of thin air or sieving and refashioning them from those in my own life. Likewise, with translation, the material is already in front of me; my task is “merely” to convey it in English. The real answer, though, is far more selfish: I translate because I come across a poem and wish I’d written it; I come across something moving, or funny, or entertaining, and I want to transmit those sensations to other people, other readers, to share something of my own experience with another.

Strangely enough, I did not want to learn Thai growing up; I routinely balked at my mother’s attempts at teaching me to read and write, throwing my spellers to the floor and stomping on them, before eventually growing to appreciate our native language. I also didn’t arrive at the desire to translate Thai literature in any serious manner on my own; instead, it took Robert Fitzgerald’s Odyssey in a high school English class to get me thinking about translation as an art. I began to wonder how I might produce a similar work. Both my ability and desire to translate has thus been the product of nurturing, though frequently vexing, external forces; and translation itself is an art in which you need another person (or, as in my case, many people) to inspire you to produce—not least of all the original authors you translate. It’s a collaborative act.

Publications like Lunch Ticket are an essential part in furthering such collaboration; by reading and publishing works in translation as well as multi-language texts, they create a nurturing atmosphere for art forms so frequently overlooked and make it possible for them to be transmitted to new minds and new readers as well. Thus, when I think of translation, I think of legacy: of handing things of value down (or over) from one language to another, from one person to another. As a translator, I thank Lunch Ticket for supporting that legacy.

Noh Anothai

Photo: Christopher Fleck

Noh Anothai was a Fulbright scholar in Bangkok between 2011-12. In that time, he hosted cultural events and translated programs for Thailand’s Ministry of Culture and College of Dramatic Arts. He has also written poems for the First Book Project, which benefits underprivileged Thai students. He has work forthcoming in The Raintown Review.