Dream in a Language
I sing my songs for people who
Do not understand the words.
What I forget, they cannot know.
I receive gifts of fresh mangos.
I write short poems in Khmer,
Architecture scribbled outside the lines
That someday I might share.
I see the clouds gather but
I know it will not rain.
I am in a dark room with
A thousand Buddhas and all I believe
Is that my knees hurt.
I am eating a fried spider.
I am drinking the evening wind.
I dream in a language I have
Just begun to learn.
I see no clouds at all and
I know there will be rain.
The climb is hot, steep and rugged but
Not too far through birdsong forest to
The headwaters of the Ruisey River
Now at the end of dry season
Little more than a trickle across the
Images sculpted a thousand years ago
In the boulders and bedrock of
This ancestral hill.
In the rainy season these stone stories
Will vanish in murky torrents
But for now I can more than glimpse
The old deities in the noonday sun
In the sweltering jungle mist.
There is four-faced Brahma
Creator of the universe
Seated above a silent pool that shimmers
Cerulean with splotches of white
Puzzle piece of Cambodian sky.
There is Vishnu reclining on the cosmic sea
Lotus springing from his navel
Consort Lakshmi kneeling at his feet
Amid a host of provocative dragonflies.
There is Shiva, protector and destroyer
With his consort Uma atop their noble mount
Nandi the white bull
He who grants joy.
And there are the moist mandalas
Geometries of linga
Shiva’s generative force
Charging the water as it descends
From this stony promontory to
Irrigate the soil of the Angkorean plain.
In a waterfall grotto downstream
I kneel to soak my kroma
To cool my reddened face and neck
To touch a vein of the earth
Touched by gods.
The apsara hovers in opaline mist
As distant thunder rattles dim stars
She raises her hand to pursed lips
Blowing frangipani petals into the viscid air
Where they hover momentarily
Where they decide to stay forever
For the milky ocean of sky.
I am just a sweaty madman in a palm-leaf hat
Kroma drooped around my neck
A lone foreigner crawling up Buddha’s blue stairs
Under the pitiless sun.
Oh land of Khambu and Meru
I love you but
Why are you so hot?
A group of young Khmer men
Sitting in the shade calls out
“Dteu naa? Where you going?”
“Right to the top!” I reply
With confidence and a broad smile
They laugh and go back to drinking their beer.
My country, my beer.
Garuda in my bike basket
Guides me along
A river of green fire
Pedals are my wings
Scorpions clamber up my torso
Into my mouth proclaiming
I am a mythic monster
I am Kala, I devour
Garlands of stone flowers.
Night Market, Siem Reap
A dog with three legs
A man with none
The band is packed and gone.
A sad night on a dark river
Beneath the Strawberry Moon.
Captured (The Moment)
I do not need to explain the moment
Only live it
Like the radiant purple butterfly that
Captured me in the ruins of North Kleang
I will always see it
And never see it again.
The Silence Descends
The dark evening sky thunders, darkens as I pass
Between the blue nagas that guard
The killing caves of Phnom Sampau.
The time-bleached remains, white femurs, ribs and skulls
Are stacked in metal cages, imprisoned and restless
Ten-thousand souls and counting.
Lon Nol soldiers and Chinese merchants
Were the first to be “solved”
Then the teachers, doctors, and artists of Battambang.
Bound by rope passed through punctured palms
So they could not escape, they were led in lines
To the brink of the chasm, clubbed or knifed one by one and
Cast unceremoniously into the wretched holes.
There was a cave for the men, a cave for the women.
There was a cave for the innocent children who
Saw their parents murdered before
They themselves were killed
Or who were slaughtered first
As their parents watched in horror.
The Khmer Rouge had a grim saying:
“To keep you is no gain, to kill you is no loss.”
A chill sweeps through my grieving body
As I bow three times, trembling
To the Buddha reclining in the gloom
The Buddha awaiting death.
Suddenly the thunder roars.
Suddenly the silence descends.
The enemy king is a spider, opportunist of the wind
Cloaked in a web of fluid treachery and darkness,
His myth imperceptibly spun
By priests and scribes
Soldiers and spies.
The assassin comes as a crocodile
Silent across the green glass of the great lake
Soon to be foaming with usurper blood.
Down below, the catfish care nothing
For one kingdom’s triumph or
Another’s sanguinary defeat
And are simply glad for the corpses.
Crashing through the gates of the golden palace
The conquering elephants trumpet the news
From Phnom Krom to Phnom Kulen--
Soon the fly-whisk bearers
Will have a job again!
In This Time
I walk where kings once walked
I feel the heat of the same sun
That shone on their temples of gold
I have no gold but I have a sundial
Which tells me it is not yet time
To leave this time.
In this time
The walls are ivory with flowers of jade.
In this time
The only lions are made of stone.
In this time
Thunder just walks through the door.
In this time
Flowers fall on the rain.
In this time
What is ice?
In this time
Mountains give birth to empires.
In this time
There are no coffins.
In this time
There are fly-whisk bearers.
In this time
Poems are written on skin and stone.
In this time
The breeze always feels good.
In this time
The gods come and go.
Lotus buds beginning to bloom
As it rains on Angkor Wat
The same rain that fell 1,000 years ago
Warm on my red muddy feet.
The monks’ robes are bright
Against the swirling fog, the green moat
I hear their chants in the bright-colored bracelets
Tied around my wrist.
Thunder leads the way up the crumbling stairs
To the dripping center of the universe.
One night as the monsoon raged
I walked out into the downpour and
Stepped square on a frog with my bare foot
But managed to do it no harm.
I took this to be a sign
I was not sure.
But the following morning as
The bright sun of Angkor shone
On the temple of Banteay Kdei
I bought a figurine of
The Buddha protected by a naga
From an affable merchant named Meng.
He sold me the statue for half-price he said
Because I had a joyful smile, and in it
He could see my Buddha heart.
On Phnom Kulen
The lotus flowers have been offered
We have received the monk’s blessing
Been washed by the sacred water
By the wind of the holy mountain.
Orange robes swirl at the edges
In the sky a slow dance of bright clouds
Here on earth, Buddha in the rocks.
Sunrise on Pre Rup
Alone I watch the sunrise
From atop the temple Pre Rup
Sky over Kulen ablaze
Shadows of stone lions receding as
Rose light warms the ghostly towers
I hear only crickets
A few frogs and distant motorbikes.
Hypnotized by dawn I wander
Up and down the ancient stairs
Over and through the crumbling chambers
In and out of the surrounding jungle
Teeming with its biomass unseen.
Back at the tuk-tuk two hours later
My friend Rawi
Having had his mid-morning smoke
Is slapping fire ants off my back.
Written by the Rain
In this dream I am writing poems in Khmer
On palm-leaf paper in a country house
I am eating a barbecued rat.
Beyond the thatched walls are restless ghosts
Deep in the prei singing wild invisible songs
Written by the rain.
There are clouds drinking rice liquor
Laced with cobra venom and scorpion tail
Clouds sitting sullen over rice fields
Waiting impatiently for their time to play.
There are stories in the thunder and
I hurry out to meet them.
I introduce myself to the wind
To the darkening afternoon
The blood-warm downpour.
Well of Shadows
The bas-reliefs that ring the stupa and
Its macabre collection of bones
Are graphic in their depiction of the atrocities
Committed here by the Khmer Rouge soldiers
Who smoked and laughed while
They raped and cannibalized
Suffocating their victims with plastic bags
Slitting throats with palm leaves
Crushing skulls with rifle butts
So as to not waste valuable bullets.
Demented by the poison fed to them by
Ideological fantasists and moral defectives
These cadres of kill or be killed
Bathed the soil of Kampuchea in
The blood of their own
Turning ancient temples into slaughterhouses
Disposing of the corpses in country ponds
Like this one by which I now stand
Listening to birdsong and the mirthful play of
Children in a nearby schoolyard.
It is hard to imagine that horror and carnage now
Under the bright morning sky with
Innocent laughter and music all around
But I cannot contain my sadness
Or my useless tears which
Into this ghastly well of shadows.
The Music A Serpent
Bamboo flute and
The music a serpent
Winding its way
Over and under
Under and around
The roots of kapok and
Giant fig trees
Swimming the length of
The great baray
Slithering up the stairs of
The last hidden temple
Hunting for listeners
The shrouded ears that
In their grief have
Forgotten how to hear.
Moments of Pure Awe
On a steep rocky path far from tourist routes
We wait in the frangipani rain at dusk and
Gaze across verdant undulations of earth
Listen to cries of birds nearby and
Faraway in holy mountains called Alligator, Tortoise
Rom Say Sok (she of the bibulous mane)
With golden temples shining atop and
Beyond them the mountains of Thailand.
Incongruous human voices rise from
A house prominent in the misty forest below
The only one with full electricity you tell me
It belongs to a family that made its fortune
Selling the rich guano mined in Phnom Sampau
For the last hundred years.
In our waiting we speak of our own
Families and fortunes, travels and travails
Animals, landscapes and dreams
We converse in two languages
Working to learn from one another
Knowing the earth makes us brothers.
You tell me that later tonight you and
Others will go hunting with flashlights
For frogs in the rice paddies and
I am about to ask if I can come along when
Suddenly an acrid smell invades the nostrils and
You announce with assurance “They are coming.”
First it is a trickle of tiny black splotches
Fluttering from the cave entrance
Then a steady stream like a ribbon of coal
Then an inky gusher bursting
From the hillside an exodus of
Hundreds of millions of bats
Fanning out into the warm rain
The dimming Battambang sky.
We soak in the spectacle
Untold moments of pure awe as
Nighttime discreetly falls and
Then we can no longer see.
Winding our way in the dark
Down the treacherous hillside
To the tuk-tuk parked by the
You stop to ask me if
I have ever eaten frog.
One night as the monsoon roared
I stepped out into the deluge and
A gecko jumped from a sagging frond
Two feet through the soggy air
Landing right on my leg
(Surprising neither of us)
Before leaping away again
Only to find itself suddenly adrift
In a rivulet that had formed
Along the stone path that
Vanished into darkness and rain.
I had been in the kingdom long enough
To know that this was an omen
Of what I was not sure.
But the following evening
Beneath the ghost moon of Angkor
I dream-climbed the stairs of
The temple-mountain called Bayon
Just to hang with the king
Chirp a few of his favorite songs
And scare away the flies.
The mesmeric music of roneat and tro
Cannot assuage the torment of
Fire ant bites sustained
In my pursuit of jungle ruins.
Best to suffer philosophically alone
With rice liquor
Green mango and chili sauce.
The slithering serpent inscribes
Twisted poems in the red earth
That are clarified and aligned only
When the poison takes effect.
It is well known that deep songs
Spring from delirium
And the promise of death.
The Old Ways
In the still and smoky air
In the countryside of Sangkat Chreav
I sit in the shade under a old wooden house
Hear the snuffling of nearby pigs and
The occasional whine of a distant motorbike.
I listen to my friend’s grandfather
A survivor of the genocide who
At eighty-seven still works his land.
Clad only in sampot he speaks
Through discolored gums and crooked teeth
Proudly shows me his collection of
Traditional Khmer farming tools
A museum’s worth gathered
In the years since the horror
Connecting him to the old ways, the old days.
Face and heart of Kampuchea
He has bled for his land, on his land.
His voice is strong and
A thousand years old.
Bound for the Empty Jungle
A young man, barefoot and smiling
Pours gas from a whiskey bottle
Into the tank of
My friend’s girlfriend’s motorbike.
I pay him with currency that is more beautiful
Than a thousand paintings and
Worth less than a quarter.
Across the red dirt road a monkey ignores it all,
Bound for the empty jungle.
At an old house in the country
I cool my face with rainwater
Scooped by hand from
A great stone jar, centuries young
Survivor of wars.
My daydreams here are painted
From a palette of strange butterflies.
My new friend Nani surprises me
Treating me to bamboo sticky rice
After I wept openly at the killing fields
Of Samrong Knong.
In the context of ruins, my favorite stairs
Are the steepest.
On a scorching afternoon in old town Siem Reap
Two-hundred small fish are nibbling
The dead skin from my sunburnt feet.
The journey is growing the onion
The story is peeling away the layers.
(c) Eric Walter 2017
All rights reserved.