Small Demon
Apr 262009
 

I hesitate to post this poem, written just this afternoon, fearing that it is insufficiently respectful; but whatever disrespect it exhibits is only an attempt to express a more profound respect. One never gets entirely outside the lecture room, of course; but one chafes. The seat is hard, the oscillating fan insufficient to ventilate the musty smell of old books in a tropical climate.

A Lecture on Vietnamese Culture

The professor tells the visitors
that today they will learn about
the betel leaf and the areca nut,
which is the history of Vietnam

in one small package, he says,
and then recites a song
for his audience, who have
been brought captive by a guide

to listen, though they would
be walking the narrow
streets lost in the heat blinded
by the haze of burning paper

from the temples, the sidewalks
filled with families eating soup
and gossiping, but they will
never be allowed outside —

today it’s the betel leaf
and the areca nut and slaked lime
for them, Vietnam as a quid
pro quo, their being here to hear

the lecture, offered many times
to others and polished smooth
as a Buddha’s toe kissed for
centuries, rubbed for good luck.

They are allowed nothing else.
Not the State’s music spilling
from the loudspeakers nor
the singing from the Cathedral

punctuated by the air horns
of tourist buses and the tinkle
of cyclo bells, the calls of women
hawking fish and fresh bread.

Tomorrow it will be coconuts
and when they are finished with
nuts they will move on to fruit
and flowers. And if they come

every day, before long they will
be allowed to discuss weather
and international relations,
which are very like the betel leaf.

(Hanoi, April 2009)