Here, for a change, is a poet I actually know. I first became aware of Adam Aitken when I was editing Neos back in the early 1980s; I subsequently met him on a number of occasions. The poem which follows is from Adam’s excellent blog ADAM IN CAMBODIA. Adam is of Thai/Anglo-Australian parentage. He was born in 1960.
The fig tree is neither in Cambodia nor Thailand, but in the front courtyard here in Surry Hills.
The Diary of Louis De Carné. Louis de Carné’s Travels in Indo-China and the Chinese Empire describes the work of the Colonial French Mekong Exploration Commission (1886 -1888). It is a mix of travel diary and a trade report, and a guide French colonial policy in Indochina. De Carné predicted that India would one day fall into the hands of the Australians. He considered Indochina’s climate too enervating for whites, and describe Annam (Vietnam) as a “counting house”. In his introduction, De Carné wrote: “by a kind of natural law, which one can hardly admit without sadness, there is scarcely an alternative, for races outside European civilisation, between a melancholy transformation, or a remorseless extinction.” For the English translation, see Travels on the Mekong, Cambodia, Laos and Yunnan, White Lotus, Bangkok 2000. — Adam Aitken
Louis De Carne’s Diary
Stunned by the noise of the waters we reached Khemarat
where M. Delaporte awaited us.
Nothing could express the horror
of the petty mandarins, the imbecile governor,
and the yellow waters twisting through a narrow pass,
a child of seven smoking a cheroot,
or the site of a prisoner impaled by the tusks
of an elephant.
The light a deadly shade, the forest a blacker hue of green,
the boat shaped serpent-like, whirlpools we could not see.
The river all tributary – no one knew or cared
for the source or predominant
direction of its flow, a river unfit
for commercial intercourse.
Man had fled its banks, an abyss on both sides.
I was hot, too hot after my ramble
through an expanse of fetid mud.
I wondered what economic utility
Parisians might find in a lake full of fish
(how to get them to Paris?)
But I could write all night in my tent
cobwebbed in ennui and
sucking on the leg bone of an iguana,
or recline under the implacable serenity of the heavens,
the all powerful constraints
of influences so fatal to human personality,
that thought dies away by degrees
like a flame in a vacuum.
At least I knew there were guards
(of vagabond stock, with the timid air of the aborigine)
whom I barely trusted
posted around the perimeter.