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
from its culture
crating Buddha heads
to the Louvre
where they breathe again.
We might, these days
Better they be
in public hands
The Draining of the Pond
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.