“I look back with no regrets at our world of fires and love”

The final part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry

Nathan A. Thompson
April 24, 2015

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.

Illustration by Victor Blanco
Illustration by Victor Blanco

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

In April

Nestled in a dress

The hue of sleepy That Dam

On Chantha Khoumane

Her lissome stride

Awakes dreamers

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,

A gaze

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.



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