Adam Aitken
  • Adam Aitken



André Malraux


To be able to claim

an old war wound


is heroic, as is


stripping Angkor bare

in the name of culture, i.e.


chisel in hand


saving culture

from its culture


crating Buddha heads

to the Louvre


where they breathe again.


We might, these days

call that



Better they be

in public hands


pure symbols



without pain.




The Draining of the Pond

for Jan Owen


Perhaps they were the sons and daughters

of the carp I saw before your time, the catfish, the hybrids,

flapping and gasping on the pond’s muddy floor.


Their numbers swollen through concupiscence

they mostly hid away, eating and having it off

under the surface and the murk.


The day they drained the lake, my world


seemed emptied then of all their gilded character,

the haughty and the humble ones

gasping on the muddy edges of the pond.


Nothing made much sense that day or the days before,

the day they drained the lake;

hundreds, parents and juveniles, gone belly up and bursting


in resplendent Selangor, the servants

pushing brooms across the sludge and goo.

What else to do that day but watch


the maids gather up the semi-dead and truly-dying

in wicker baskets, a magnificent haul

of gold, pink and darker browns


certain to flood the night market, nothing undersize,

some as long as baby shark.

Hijjas had ordered the purging,


for the fish had over-swum their welcome.


A guy in wellingtons, the caretaker, patient with the task

was scraping back the shit, with a resident artist

sketching on a terrace someone’s hand.


No one made much art that day.

No one sad, it was ornament turning back to food,

the Orient made quotidian again.


Crowd control. No refraction or reflection

in that sludge—no glint, no bright eyed darling

to be seen, as we leaned over them, from our balustrade.


The smell: an equatorial slaughterhouse.

The fish looked up, bewildered, gasping,

their mouths all Oh and Ahh,

their eyes rolling before they greyed


in their sockets. For me

the end of Asia, no sentiment or beauty in it.

The end, or the beginning, I could not say.









Raden Saleh’s Arrest of Prince Diponegoro


How uproar starts—the Master revokes a Sultan’s rights

to sub-let native slaves on the rented slopes

of his own volcano, and Java starves.


That, or the slack prayer schedule among role-models.

Then the Virtuous One, passed over for succession

on terms favourable to a weak half-brother.


Masterpiece that says it’s time to split. My Mischling-Kind,

made rich with textiles, soldiers and the plotters

caught in the act. Who’ll ever know whose side you’re on?


In the Asian power play draped on a Greek portico

at a feast of smiles and too much food gone wrong

the bird-like dancing girls are crying.


Rumours I’ve heard, your art’s devious, leading to

more seismic activity, even a Tsunami (God-given?),

the Dutch too happy with the concubines.


I’d paint the tyrants strangely too—a little

too hot in the sun, too untanned, like death-warmed-up

as if they’d drunk too much the night before,


a kind of varnished smear of pearl, or bone,

grim as ivory demon masks,

their parade-ground postures drawn with rictus.


They know they’ve fucked it up, their pantaloons too tight

their dusky ladies distracted now

sinking at the feet of a super Prince, extraordinaire.


The choice: go native, or go home demobbed,

for a beer or two on the Gravenstraat,

the debt meter on the palanquin racking up the debt.


As for the victims, you sketched them at their ease,

no flinch or cry. Relaxed, squatting on their very own ground

that’s hardly a study of prostration,


or even protest. No scenes of mass arrest.

Modelled on dead friends, I would have loved to sit like that

when a country I could not despise


starts forming in my mind

and I can turn around and say

I learned so much from you, goodbye!


Like locals at a shadow play, stoned on phan

and kreteks. They look like they were right, and knew it.

Who in Paris would have censured that,


that’s how natives were and that was that

when things got hot, their fattened leaders

passed on, insouciant & adorable as betrayed boys.


Napoleon the 3rd to Rimbaud on the Bou’Mich,

none ever guessed that you were telling them

what fools they were.