Adam Aitken, Revenants (Giramondo 2022)
The poems in Revenants trace the geographic shifts in the poet’s life – there’s a narrative thread, not so much autobiographical as autobio-geographical. As Aitken says in a note on the Giramondo website, the book begins:
with my father’s description of his flat in Hong Kong in the 1950s. I then explore my own experiences in Hawai’i and Malaysia, where I worked in 2010. A few poems recall inner city Sydney in the eighties. By the end of the book the reader enters the world of a village in France where I have lived recently.
The places are encountered through a number of lenses: family history (drawing on some of the same letters as Aitken’s 2016 book about his parents’ youth, One Hundred Letters Home), military and political history (as in a brace of found poems based on a Malay phrasebook for British colonial administrators), art (ranging from Javanese artist Raden Saleh (1811–1880) and Claude Monet to Hawai’i Five-O), literature (Somerset Maugham, Stendhal, William Carlos Williams, John Berryman), and of course direct personal experience – childhood memories (including ‘Class Portrait’, on a school photo taken when Aitken was eight or nine), scenes from inner city life in the 1980s, traveller’s tales with some overlap to the 2011 chapbook Tonto’s Revenge, scenes from rural France in a similar vein to the poems in Archipelago, place-influenced dreams, and more. [The links in this paragraph are to my relevant blog posts.]
When I blog about a book of poetry, I try to talk about one poem in some detail. I’d love to walk you through the wonderful ‘Notes on the River’, a poem in 14 parts about the Tonlé Sap River in Cambodia that is rich with vivid snapshots of river life. But that is far too long for a blog post.
‘Martial Sarit Cleans Up Bangkok, 1959’ suits my purposes. It’s short, just 22 lines:
The poem can be enjoyed even if, like me, you know virtually nothing about Thai history. It’s in three parts. The first two stanzas offer images of westerners living comfortably and possibly corruptly in an Asian environment. The next four stanzas convey the event named in the poem’s title. The final two stanzas resolve the relationship between the first two parts: newspaper censorship means the people in the first two stanzas can remain unaware of what is happening around them. It’s a deft and unsettling evocation of the relationship between West and East, and more specifically between expats/tourists/farangs and locals. The poem is remarkable for its calm restraint: no adverbs, no emotive adjectives, no editorialising. It makes me think of Matthew Arnold’s notion that the aim of the writer is to see life steadily and see it whole.
Having responded to the poem from a position of ignorance, I read around it – as many of Aitken’s poems gently invite one to do.
Martial Sarit Cleans Up Bangkok, 1959
The title, as expected, refers to an actual episode in Thai history. Field Marshall Sarit Thanarat staged a coup in 1957 supported by the US military, became Prime Minister in 1959, and held that position until his death in 1963. Ironically, my main source of information about the ‘clean-up’ is the English-language newspaper named later in the poem, the Bangkok Post. Its website has a timeline, which features Sarit’s banning of opium in July 1959 as a key historical event, and quotes him: ‘The day marks a new era in Thailand’s social history. From this day, we can proudly claim that we are a civilised people.’ The timeline links to a photo of a huge pile of opium pipes being smashed by men in uniform, in preparation for being bonfired. (Incidentally, the title includes a quiet, almost invisible pun on Marshall/martial.)
At a corner table at the Hoi Tien Lao my father dines with a better class of ladies who use spoon and fork
The opening stanza situates the poet in relation to the historical event. This isn’t a moment chosen at random, but part of Aitken’s ongoing poetic exploration of his family history. His father was a farang, we know from elsewhere that his mother is Thai, and that he was born in 1960, a year after the action of this poem. This scene may not be from his parents’ courtship, but it could be. The present tense (‘dines’ and ‘use’) signals that the poem’s point of view is right there in the midst of things, not in some remote future.
I found an article describing the life of the farangs in Bangkok in the mid 1950s that spells out the elements so deftly evoked in the poem’s opening lines. (The article’s nostalgic history makes an interesting contrast to the poem’s cool immediacy.) The Hoi Tien Lao was one of the restaurants they frequented in Chinatown, with a nightclub above it, and not all the Thai ladies they associated with were ‘a better class’, if you understand that as referring to morality. Anyhow, the fourth line of the stanza undermines that reading of ‘better’: the ladies are a better class because they have adopted western table manners – a white supremacist viewpoint is invoked with sly irony.
Club members hold court and a French count is flogging US Army surplus penicillin.
These lines sketch the privileged, opportunistic world of European and US (and Australian) expats, echoing any number of stories of black markets in antibiotics in postwar Europe and Asia – The Third Man comes to my mind.
From now to the end of the poem, there are no full sentences. The effect is of a series of stills or film clips, rather than a sustained narrative.
In Chinatown the addicts rounded up, led away enchained, their pipes bonfired.
The scene shifts to the events referred to in the title. This crackdown on addicts was what gained the headlines. Not as extreme as Rodrigo Duterte’s more recent encouragement of Filipinos to kill addicts, this round-up could be seen as a benign act. The poem quietly begs to differ with its brutal verbs, ’rounded up’ and ‘enchained’.
Children running through the streets naked no more. Squatting to eat banned. Calligraphy in Chinese banned. Bare breasts banned.
From what I can tell from my limited research, Sarit’s ‘cleaning-up’ project was intended to make Bangkok a more modern, ‘clean’ city. No one could object to children being clothed, and for a country that has been dubbed ‘the brothel of Asia’, surely the banning of bare breasts is a good thing? But the repetition of the word ‘banned’, and its standing on a line to itself, draw attention to the means of making these changes. Why ban squatting to eat, or calligraphy in Chinese? More in sorrow than in anger, the poem laments the imposition of order, perhaps by force as in the chaining of addicts, and with it the partial elimination of a local culture, an enforced turn towards the West, as the ‘better class of ladies’ have already done.
For weeks on end more white space in the Bangkok Post
The Bangkok Post was, and may still be, the main English-language newspaper in Thailand. One imagines westerners in their hotel rooms, flipping through the newspaper, noticing blank spots, and wondering more or less idly what has been censored. Perhaps Aitken’s father mentioned doing just that in his letters home.
as if none of this had ever happened.
The final couplet can be read simply as tying a neat bow to finish off the poem. Rather than one more image, it presents a kind of summarising abstraction. And its syntax moves away from present tense to place the events, and their erasure, firmly in the past, implying that now, at least in principle, the full story can be told.
What makes the poem hit home for me is the personal resonance in the last lines. It’s not just that the ‘clean-up’ events were invisible the English-speakers in Bangkok back then. They have been invisible in the received version of the poet’s family story. The poem results from a probing of that story. The apparent neatness of the conclusion actually poses a question: what to do with the knowledge that one’s parent/forebear was on the wrong side of history, or at best an oblivious bystander?
My own paternal great-grandfather came to Australia from Yorkshire in the 1870s and set about farming sugar in south-east Queensland. I’ve found quite a lot about him on Trove. It’s very likely that indentured South Sea Islanders worked on his farm, but so far I’ve seen nothing but white space about that in the newspapers of the time. In ways I can’t articulate, this poem helps me to face what that says about my own place the world.
I am grateful to the Giramondo Publishing Company for my copy of this excellent book.