The final part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry
Compiled by Nathan A. Thompson Illustration by Victor Blanco
Bryan Thao Worra is an award-winning Laotian-American writer. He was born in Vientiane in 1973, a time when his country was riven with civil war and had suffered heavy bombing by the US. Adopted by an American fighter pilot, he was taken to the US while still a baby. Nearly 30 years later he returned to his homeland to track down his family, eventually reuniting with his biological mother.
A key theme of Worra’s work is mythology and how it relates to identity. “Her Body, My Monuments” is taken from his first collection, On the Other Side of the Eye. The subject of the poem, the elusive “her” never appears but moves between locations in Vientiane such as the “Chantha Khoumane [road]”. She seems to encompass the whole city and much more. By constantly pointing to this evasive entity, Worra evokes the mythological world of “thirsty Nak” (dragons) and “Phi” (protecting spirits) and ties it to the earthly location with dreamlike logic: the Nak is thirsty because it’s April (the dry season) and the Phi dance in “our sandalwood city”.
The mythological theme returns in “In the Beginning”, a poem with a fantastic use of space. Sentences are tenderly broken to create pauses in the narrative that evoke the silence of a time when there was “not a ray of light, a whisper”. Given that the poem deals with “the beginning”, readers might imagine that it contains the future within it – an effect the poem creates by choosing very specific things to negate: “No scent of papaya or rivers”, for example. By constantly referring to what is not there the poem reminds the reader of what will eventually become. However, this place before the universe is a remarkably sensual environment, an effect that culminates in a brief meander through loosely associated images that represent memory: “A tiny garden in the window / Of a dreaming woman.” In the final lines the poet affirms life in the face of existential blankness, he remains “growing against silence”.
“Her Body, My Monuments”
Fierce as a thirsty Nak
Nestled in a dress
The hue of sleepy That Dam
On Chantha Khoumane
Her lissome stride
The colors of the world,
The children of rivers,
Our sandalwood city
Where talaats greet the moon,
Phi dance with dreams
And the future begins to stir
Not with a yawn, but her laugh,
That has known stars the way
Others know flowers.
“In the Beginning”
Depending on the tradition, you hear:
There was nothing, or there was chaos.
No time, no space, not even a single atom
Not a ray of light, a whisper,
No scent of papaya or rivers.
Not a body, not a soul.
Not a ghost of a dok champa
Or even a memory
Of a touch in the darkness,
Or a taste of a home-cooked meal from
A tiny garden in the window
Of a dreaming woman
Asleep amid her books and clothes,
Her brushes and tools.
In the beginning, though, there
Was no hate, no war, no anger,
No constant return to life after life
Because of our ignorance and lusts.
Still, I look back with no regrets
At our world of fires and love, of ice and hope.
My mouth opens in song
In the brief time upon Earth I have,
Creating amid destruction.
Growing against silence.