Monday, March 31, 2008

The True Love

Sandie and I recently celebrated our twentieth anniversary (the years go by, don't they). She craves wooden boats and sailing, and I'm sure she wishes we had the money, and she the time, to own and enjoy a sailboat. Doesn't seem too likely these days. Instead, sort of compensating, we live on an island and she commutes to her job by ferry (while I cruise the computer).

I'd love to buy her a sailing sloop or yacht or whatever, but all I've managed to give her (with a bow to The Philadelphia Story and later great musical version High Society) is this poor substitute...


Her lines are graceful.
A full stern tapering for'ards
to a shapely bow,
roomy below, with a nicely
fitted galley, and her deck
all of teak, she's comfortable.

Where others pitch and yaw,
with her deep draw she
maintains an even keel;
and when we luff, she responds,
quick to my right rudder.

Any time she's had too much
of port, become sluggish
in her motion, we raise anchor
and take to the ocean ways.
She's in her element then,
breasting the open sea;

and when she sails past,
bold as her polished brass,
tacking into the wind
as is her wont, the other boats
might just as well heave to!

All dressed out in her
full rigging, mainsail rounding,
spinnaker bellying out, oh my
but she is yar... and lady enough
to melt the cold heart
of this old jack tar.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Broadcasting the Blues

I was listening to the radio the other evening, Western Washington's hugely popular Jazz station KPLU (broadcast to the world via the Internet), which has all-Blues programs every Saturday and Sunday, 6 p.m. till midnight, hosted by a genial and very knowledgeable guy named John Kessler. One of John's program features is the "Blues Time Machine," in which he presents some great early Blues number followed by remakes made over the decades since. That time listeners heard Sleepy John Estes' "Someday Baby" from 1935 and then versions by Muddy Waters (1955), The Allman Brothers (1975 or so), and the more recent North Mississippi All Stars, but all four performances with something distinctive to offer.

A terrific idea, I think, well executed that night. (Some attempts aren't quite so perfect, when the remakes are too much of a letdown.) And it brought to mind my own brief career as a nighttime deejay. Back in the Sixties--it may be hard to imagine this now--the airwaves were dominated by AM stations, mostly rock 'n roll and Pop, hosted by loud local jocks doing way too many ads interspersed with repetitive Top 40 music selections. FM stations tended to be for Classical or Easy Listening fans only. But then a few brave FM stations in the Bay Area and elsewhere began programming their own freeform versions of (just a-borning) Rock Music, political commentary, hippie goofing, and whatever else.

Seattle's fledgling was KOL-FM, which had a handful of deejays creating their own radio personae each day and night. One regular was Pat McDonald, these days still a familiar Rock critic on the local and national newspaper scene. Another was a slightly off-center Philosophy professor from the University of Washington named John Chambless, who came across sometimes as a hippie guru a bit like Timothy Leary.

Anyway, Chambless was due his sabbatical year's leave from teaching (this was about 1968-69) and was bound out into the world somewhere, and I believe it was Pat who suggested me as a temporary replacement. Chambless' station slot was Sunday night from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m., an eight-hour on-air shift. I had no idea what that meant really...

The manager approved, and the engineers showed me the mechanical ropes--and then I was launched, much like someone tossed into the water to learn to swim! I was free to play anything that seemed relevant to the burgeoning youth culture (I was still a part-time member then), to talk at will and do whatever it took to fill the eight hours of air time. Oh, it was a heady thing at first, as I got to select fine current music, album music, cut after cut, weaving the sounds into mini-suites, sort of, jarring the listeners with something loud after a quiet number, cleverly connecting disparate cuts that echoed each other textually, and so on.

I was having a great time... except that every time, my on-air energy started to flag after about four hours, and by 1 a.m. I was hopeless. I belatedly realized that eight hours is a hellish long time to be on the air trying to be interesting, even just trying to maintain one's voice. I soon resorted to tricks to get through--playing whole album sides of the Beatles or Steve Miller or whoever, turning those mini-suites into longer and longer stretches when I'd say nothing, letting the music do all the talking whether the tunes fit together or not.

And I played my one ace in the hole. Like John Kessler I was a Blues fan big-time, and I knew a lot from reading everything I could lay my hands on. This was the period when the whole Blues reissue-album phenomenon was just getting rolling, and I could practically buy, and did, every record that appeared. Son House and Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt were in the studios again after decades of no attention, and younger figures were getting their chance to record whole albums too, Junior Wells, Magic Sam, and other Chicago guys (including Buddy, of course), and the Southern cats on Nashville's Excello and elsewhere.

I began featuring a couple of hours of Blues music, maybe 10 p.m. till midnight every week, which the audience seemed to dig; at least, most of the phone calls that came in were positive. So I got creative (or cocky maybe). A white musicologist and writer from England named Paul Oliver had published two or three books on the Blues, the themes and history, that is, and I latched onto one of them, The Story of the Blues, and began reading whole sections and chapters on the air, interspersing his prose with the musical examples he quoted or cited, and related stuff that I could find. (Somehow reading aloud was less of a strain on my voice than doing aimless chatter.) And, also like Kessler, I played modern British Blues groups like the Cream and the Stones and Led Zeppelin who were doing their own versions of older tunes, usually without giving credit to the artists they were stealing from. I made sure those connections were properly acknowledged.

And what of KOL's audience? Well, I got almost no calls at first, aside from the odd whiner saying, "Hey, man, what's all this old shit. Play some Hendrix!" (It was clear some goofs didn't have a clue where Jimi's own deeper roots lay.) But then gradually I developed a small following, with people tuning in every week to hear the latest chapter from Oliver's book, and then phone me to comment on the music I'd added--Frank Stokes, Leroy Carr, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill, Blind Lemon, Blind Willie McTell, et wonderful al, working on towards the post-War Chicago Blues.

I was on a roll. I felt great--"Educator at Work" was the badge I wore mentally--entertaining the listeners and giving them some major Black/White racial history too. But then the real educator, Professor Chambless, decided to come back early from leave and reclaim his radio slot. After only seven or eight months I was out--kept on the KOL roster as a fill-in, but almost never called.

And so ended, ingloriously, my one brief close encounter with the world of radio. There were some who complained to KOL about the loss of the Blues I'd been featuring, but all the bosses did then was start programming more of it themselves, not to mention lots of Hendrix and Mayall and Cream.

About then too I decided I'd read and listened and learned so much about the Blues past that I could attempt a screenplay about Robert Johnson... But that's another story.

(Which can be read at my blog posts for June 12 and June 15 last year.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Portuguese Spring

On this first day of Spring, 2008, a day early or not, I offer a brief note to acknowledge better times and dryer weather ahead...

On our big around-the-world adventure 20-plus years ago, Sandie and I (and various of our kids) spent the winter of 1986-87 holed up in the south of Portugal, in the region known as the Algarve--incredibly scenic pitted rocky cliffs, lovely beaches with working fishing villages nearby, Mediterranean-style white stucco buildings, too many Brit tourists, and so much more.

Last year, on May 28, but deriving from that most excellent Portuguese sojourn, I posted a lengthy, largely historical poem about Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape St.Vincent), thought of as "The End of the World" back in seafaring times. Here's a much shorter lyric about the unheralded, early arrival of Spring, 1987...

Early February in the Algarve

The sea mints coins of silver light;
Blossoms salve each prickly branch;
Skittish clouds shy and collide:
Spring has taken Centianes.

Scent of almonds, fizz of bees.
Green bands stripe each clay-pot hill.
The sky regains its blue-tile glaze,
And every clover bed plumps full.

Donkeys haul bright produce bins.
Small boats trawl for cod and sole.
Tourists flee their white-snow dens,
Searching for some fado soul.

The heart in hiding stirs at last,
Sidles out in shadowed sun,
Darts back inside its leaden chest.
Six more weeks? ...but Winter's gone.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Feng Mac, Anyone?

It's a slow news day as I write this--if you don't count Spitzer resigning and the car bombs in Iraq--so why not talk fast food?

NPR yesterday morning told the odd and silly story of a Los Angeles-area McDonald's which has been laid out and constructed and interior designed according to the precepts of Feng Shui--directional positioning, curved surfaces everywhere, spaces for the wind gods to blow through maybe. (Sounds more like Oi Vey to me.) Okay, it's located in a predominantly Chinese-clientele part of the L.A. sprawl, but still... Big Macs? Cokes? Ronald McDonald?

It's one thing for Mickey D's and the Cola Kingdom to head greedily to Beijing, but quite another for an ancient culture to be shoehorned kicking and screaming into the Home of the Golden Arches. Why not a golden-domed McAchmed mosque? (Because the Moslem population would be insulted?) Or free handouts from the Torah with every burger purchased? (Jewish good-humor goes only so far?) I guess Buddhists and Confucianists, being generally peaceful and inscrutable and such, are considered less likely to object, more willing to... what, adapt? ignore?

The bigger mystery is: why not go the whole distance and alter your McDonald's menu to match? Evidently the franchise owner has no intention to offer bowls of rice or Chinese provincial delicacies beyond the "meals" and salads already on display. Heck, the guy's clearly missing a bet. We have a fast food local here on Vashon Island that offers Thai specialty dishes right next to burgers named for the high school team and certain island characters!

Us young-oldtimers have already lived through the transformation of McDonald's, Taco Time, and such from grab-a-meal joints to family-friendly sitdown eateries offering a lower-priced alternative to "real" restaurants. (Of course, many of them now purvey Starbuck's or some rival designer coffee brand... oops.) I'm actually old enough to have frequented one of the first McDonald's that Ray Kroc built outside of California, back around 1961 in Evanston, Illinois, where every weekend us college boys would trek the mile or so to that golden-arched stand-up (lean-on counters outdoors, as I recall), where we could get two cheeseburgers, fries, and a milk for just under a dollar. And the sign back then read: "Over 10,000 Sold."

The pretentions of food sellers and food eaters know no bounds. Buy local, eat organic only, consume nothing you have't raised yourself, monitor your carbon footprint during both the growing and the transporting, maybe eat nothing that bears offspring (not much left to chew on then)--I reckon those are all admirable attitudes. It's just the matter of belief vs. money available. And you will certainly find sellers willing to cater (yes) to your demands; it's all about niche marketing these days, right? The "Slow Food" movement, and obscure fruits, and vegetables grown according to Feng Shui maybe, as the answer to mega-farms and dangerous Chinese imports and fast food by any other name.

And now NPR today states that some consortium in Brazil is buying up all of America's slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants and cattle ranches. Should we carnivores be concerned? Just because we import Argentinian beef doesn't mean we welcome "carcassbaggers"! Is Congress going to save the American hamburger from its global-economy fate? (The anti-Latin-immigrants faction is already gearing up, I bet.)

Wealthy "foodies" want bottles of wine costing thousands of dollars to brag about? Well, that means there'll be some crooks willing to sell them leftover dregs or cheaper vintages at sky-high prices--does the concept "new wine in old bottles" sound familiar?

And my wife tells me some bigname local chefs are touting fruit-flavored carbonated drinks (kumquat, rhubarb, pomegranate, and lavender are a few of the flavors) as alternatives to wine. Oh really? A vintage 2008 persimmon punch swirling around in your goblet? I wonder what sort of "legs" it has. Carbonation goes so well with the chef's latest recipes, no doubt.

Certain well-known sayings spring to mind: "There's a sucker born every minute..." "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American populace..." (make that consumer). Or my own favorite, the sign in P.T. Barnum's freakshow tent herding the gawkers onward (and perfectly apropos at this penultimate moment), "This Way to the Egress..."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

So Few Books, So Much Time

I've never written or published a book, though I've been featured briefly or mentioned casually in several--which relates slightly to the "witness" title this blog bears.

I think basically I'm too stubborn or willful to submit to the necessary work regimen, or just unable to stay focussed long enough, to write a novel or memoir or even a book of related essays; lengths ranging from brief lyric poem on up to feature screenplay seem to be my attention-span limits. Still, other people have deemed bits of my work worthy of preserving--poems appearing first in so-called little magazines, for example, and then a couple of them picked up for obscure anthologies later.

A different example: back in the late Sixties-early Seventies I wrote maybe two dozen short pieces for Rolling Stone; and three of my record reviews were then reprinted in the first book collection devoted to such--brief but deathless paragraphs praising releases by Clifton Chenier (I was proud to introduce his Zydeco accordion music to the world of rock), the Everly Brothers, and... who? Can't remember the subject of the third. (All of the pieces I wrote do also appear in the early bound volumes of Rolling Stone, but that doesn't count since there was no selection process involved.)

Another article I wrote back then, this time for Ramparts Magazine, critiqued what I saw as the phoney revolutionary attitude of Jefferson Airplane, examining the band's Volunteers album in particular, issued while the group was also doing jeans commercials! Many years later this piece was picked up for offprint use in the syllabus of a counter-culture course taught at a college in Germany, and then quoted too in a recent biography of the band, Jeff Tamarkin's Got a Revolution. I guess Internet access served as the key.

On the other hand, my long interview with Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman (offered complete, for the first time, in five early chapters of I Witness) has been quoted in a couple of Parsons biographies (one book also used a photo I own of Gram and me, seen below-right on this home page), but because both The Helix and L.A. Free Press underground newspapers long ago neglected to credit me as author, any quotations appeared anonymously (as it were).

Also basically anonymous were my writing and editing efforts for three other books: the notorious mid-Sixties Course Critique of professors and classes at the University of Washington (loads of fun to compile and write, laced with ridiculous puns throughout); the 30th anniversary history of Seattle Center and the renowned 1962 Seattle World's Fair that launched it (Meet Me at the Center by Don Duncan); and a thick Seattle Art Museum catalog for a major exhibition of (pre-Green Movement) giant "Earth Works." The author, some hopeless academic, hated my attempt to enable reader comprehension!

No thanks there, of course, but I did receive brief mentions, merited or otherwise, in two books focussed on Elvis Presley: Greil Marcus's Mystery Train (a later reprint offers after-the-fact acknowledgment for a story he used that I'd told him years earlier) and Peter Guralnick's great two-volume definitive biography of Elvis, for which I had helped line up a couple of interviews with Northwest promoters or reporters. (But you'd have to look deep in the lengthy Who's Who of people thanked to find my name.)

The experiences I had at the Stones' Altamont Festival turned up later in another guy's book too. Record producer and folksinger Sandy Paton, best known for his excellent Folk-Legacy label, published a collection of short prose pieces back in the mid-Seventies (I've forgotten the title and don't find it referenced anywhere) and in the one on Altamont he namechecks me and the battles, Hell's Angels vs. stoned fans, I witnessed with horror that day; Marty Balin of the Airplane, for one, was knocked out by them.

More personal: over the years I've fantasized that someone somewhere would discover my circulating screenplay on Mississippi Bluesman Robert Johnson, titled Hellhound on My Trail (written back around 1968-70; see blog chapters of June 12 and June 15, 2007), and offer to publish it, but only the last 20 or 30 pages have ever seen print. I've come to accept the unlikeliness of that ever happening now and have learned instead to look with special fondness on the final two books I want to mention.

Among the best English Lit courses I took in grad school, at the University of Washington in 1965, was one titled something like "The English Popular Ballad" (meaning the post-medieval Child Ballads, more or less), taught by Dr. David C. Fowler. The major assignment in his course was to select a folk song well-known in England or America that the ballad hunters had missed--to research it through history, try to find the ultimate source for it, analyze its structure and content, and finally make the case for its inclusion in the somewhat ex-clusive ballad books. I chose the Scots folk song usually titled something like "Lang a-Growin'," or "The Trees They Do Grow High," made famous by Ewan MacColl, Joan Baez and others; did all the research, sending for manuscript copies from overseas libraries, reading microfiche and old songbooks, listening to all the recordings available, etc., with no Internet back then to make things easier; then wrote my paper--which convinced Fowler so completely that his own subsequent book, A Literary History of the Popular Ballad, cited my research and thanked me for establishing the song as worthy of serious academic study.

That remains the highwater mark of grad school for me (even though I only learned of my inclusion in Fowler's book several years later). I may only be a footnote, but by God, I'm proud of it!

From a Scots ballad to the Nottingham cityscape... as we finally head south to England and the novel titled Living Proof, from the great "Charlie Resnick" series of police procedurals by prizewinning mystery writer John Harvey. Back when I still had a real-location bookstore, the annual BoucherCon gathering of mystery writers and fans came to Seattle, in 1994 or so; as a mystery bookseller I naturally had to "buy" a dealer-room table at the convention.

One evening there was an auction staged to raise funds for the widow of author Robert Bloch (best known for Psycho), whose medical bills and recent death had left his family in financial straits. Towards the end of this worthy event, Harvey as one of the guest authors offered to auction the rights for some fan to appear as a character in his next book. This novel idea (excuse the pun) seemed to leave the room confused, convention-goers looking around at each other wondering whether it would be "cool" to spend one's money so (let's call it) egotistically.

Let me just say that Harvey's generous offer soon became a regular fundraising occurrence at such conventions, and other authors immediately afterwards that same night made similar offers successfully. But this first time out was met with silence. Finally, just to get the bidding started, I raised my hand for the seventy-five dollars or whatever it was... and no one else bid! So suddenly there I was, about to assume some unlikely role in an upcoming mystery. Harvey and I talked a bit; I assured him I didn't care what he wrote, and that he really didn't have to use my name at all. But we corresponded more over the next few months, and finally he sent me a proof of the page and role I'd come to fill...

I'm quite happy to state that on page 137 of the hardback of Living Proof, any curious reader can find one "Ed Leimbacher" and his Seattle store MisterE Books given a comical, slightly venal, but recognizably booksellerish walk-on part (several paragraphs actually) at a fictional book fair in Nottingham. And further deponent sayeth not.

Gee, ain't it grand to be famous for, maybe, 15 seconds?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Chiang Mai (2)

((More journal entries from Thailand 1986.))

June 9

Yesterday I walked to a wat open to visitors on Sunday only, to view its 4th Century crystal Buddha and 6th Century B.C. golden Buddha from India (closer in its appearance to Hindu statuary than to Thai Buddhism). I also said goodbye to acquaintance Patrick, heading home to Seattle and kindly transporting my package of gifts and goods accumulated over the months.

Meanwhile, today's bus to the ancient ruined city of Sukhothai took too many dusty, sweaty hours over partially paved roads. New Sukhothai, several kilometers farther on, is like Nothingsville: a dozen grubby streets, a few hotels and restaurants. I'm hoveled in with the usual array of paperless toilet, cold shower, and swarming insects of some unknown sort. Just overnight, however--tomorrow I explore the ruins of old Sukhothai, which are magnificent and haunting, giant monuments in stone. Then a night bus back to Bangkok.

Speaking of BKK (as it's known in airport-acronym lingo) reminds me of some observations regarding Thai place names. The Thai alphabet has no connection with Latin/Western lettering, and looks something like this: SZSZSFSXSZ ((originally I hand-drew a row of varied squiggles mimicking the Thai letters; imagine individual strands of spaghetti dropped in twists and curls)), which is "Sukhothai." Unless a white farang learns to read Thai, or is lucky enough the find the approximate one-in-every-seven, street- or restaurant-sign that transcribes its information to Latin script too, s/he will wander around in a daze. But even then the Western version may be confusing; for example, the word for "welcome" or "hello" is variously spelled Sawasdee, Sawatdi, Sawadee, and so on, and I have seen "district" on signs as amphoe, amphur, and umper!

Also, seeing the Western form won't necessarily prepare one for the Thai sounds. Kamphaeng Phaet and Chao Phra are pronounced something like "Camping Pet" and "Ciao, Bra." Picture the Thai spelling for some sounds I swear I've heard spoken: "Bankrupt," "Podunk," "Punch 'n' Judy," even "What's up, Doc"! And the words Bangkok and Phuket have nothing to do with what an oversexed tourist might fantasize; the latter is a beach resort pronounced "Poo-ket" and the former merely a one-word summary of the city's 40-word, royal-language official name--something on the order of "Eternal Heavenly Abode of Bliss Where the Royal Personage Dwells in Halls of...," etc. (Actually, come to think of it, Bangkok is a place where soldiers and travelers in search of earthly bliss and cheap thrills do still congregate, in the infamous rowdy sex-trade area called "Soy Cowboy.")

I have also neglected the hilltribes of Northern Thailand--Meo, Liso, Karen, Akha, Yao, and others who live in the rugged, mountainous strip stretching from Burma into Laos, the dangerous "Golden Triangle" of drug-trafficking renown. Sanguine, some would say foolish, travelers to the north often head out on three- and four-day treks, riding elephants, fording rivers, smoking opium with village headmen, battling vermin. These isolated, not-always-friendly areas offer other thrills too; just last week, two Aussies were set upon by bandits shooting guns, with one tourist wounded slightly. (I chose to save the $150-$300 cost, and my own skin.) The government attempts to control the bandits, stop the flow of drugs, relocate certain tribes, boost tourism in the region, and encourage the sale of tribal crafts and clothing.

So Chiang Mai is full of these fascinating people and their colorful goods, as well as large string-puppets, opium weights ((see photo above)), and bright lacquerware smuggled in from Burma. I browsed the night market a few evenings, finally bought an old Meo shirt and a new bag from another tribe (I forget to ask which). The village folk come wearing their hand-embroidered, multi-layered, many-trinketed costumes, and last night I saw the most striking yet: a very tall young Karen woman, quite attractive in looks and tribal garb, but also wearing a floral headband/tiara thing, silk stockings, and high heels! She caused heads to turn everywhere she went.

Prices, by the way, can be ridiculously cheap. Some tourists go to Chiang Mai just to ship home hundreds of dollars worth of quilts, coats, leggings, hats, silver jewelry, and so on. And then turn a handsome profit back home...

June 10

The bugs and I had a restless night. Up before dawn as usual, I set out on the community bus at 7:30 for the bumpy, 20-minute ride back to old Sukhothai; and there I rented a bicycle to tour its three-kilometer-square grid, filled with broken wats and ruined royal or religious buildings, many of them not yet excavated--a sort of low-lying Machu Picchu. Some random impressions, then, jotted down under a raging sun:

From this capital city, early kings ruled until the 15th Century when Northern Thailand was partially sacked by Burmese invaders. Since then, earthquakes and weather and age have destroyed much of the rest. Yet here today a Buddhist monk, orange robe lowered to his waist, wrestles a power mower around in foot-high grass...

One large complex, Wat Phra Phai Luang, is almost totally razed: shattered Buddhas, tumbled stupas and chedis, broken columns, crumbling walls of brick and sandstone. And in the midst of this destruction, ponds and moats full of floating lotus plants, white or purple blossoms stretching up from their green pads toward the sun; and one perfectly preserved dark Buddha, tranquil and unflappable--like the lizard poised atop a nearby chedi...

In contrast, the beautiful, well-restored Wat Mahathat, with nearly 200 chedis of varied shapes and sizes, two magnificent Standing Buddhas several meters tall, a half-dozen others seated in the lotus position, and all of them lovingly sculpted. Peace in the midst of strife, in a splendid moat setting with the everpresent lotus blossoms...

Smells of stagnant water, fresh-mown grass, new-dropped cowdung. And nearby, the "Palace of the Gods in the Field," completely obliterated, covered by grass and bushes, inhabited only by the cows...

Finally, Sukhothai's heart, Wat Sri Chum--four high walls, open above, enclosing a single giant, lotus-position Buddha, 11.5 meters across the lap, maybe 18 meters high. Once carved from some light-colored stone, portions of it have now gone green from moss, or gold from the thin sheets of gilt leaf attached by worshippers. Oddly, this particular blessed image, a favorite of photographers, has his eyes open and a quite mischievous grin on his face...

After a visit to Sukhothai, it's impossible not to think of Ozymandias: "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

((And now here's the poem that tried to capture my stay in Chiang Mai and the North.))

Freeing the Birds

After the dizzying bus-ride
15 kilometers up and up
both sides of the corkscrew road
to the top of Mt. Doi Suthep,
we emerge through swirling clouds
as giddy as spring birds:

the view falls away for miles,
down tipsy forests and rows
of fields, to Chiang Mai’s walls
and the fleet cloud shadows
scudding toward us. Even the trees
give back glory! So we seize

the day, this day of praise
for the faithful here gathered
in scores, climbing the stairs—
all of us—herded skyward
by tile-encrusted dragons
300 steps to the heavens…

or at least another station
on the Middle Way, this one
most holy, attended with passion,
because it houses a tiny bone,
sacred relic of Gautama.
Ascending takes more stamina

than I have; heart thudding,
I’m out of breath and belief,
grabbing at straws: a sweating
fence-straddler quick to quaff
one Coke in earthly recompense.
The loudspeaker amplifies chants.

Busy monks pour concrete.
Worshippers place lit candles
at the myriad Buddhas’ feet.
Women with flower bundles
kneel by men burning incense;
bowing, both groups advance

to an elderly monk, face scarred,
who sprinkles them with water,
then re-lights his stub cigar.
This benevolent holy father
puffs contentedly, eyeing us,
his jostling ranks of the pious.

Temple bells marked “Don’t Shake”
persuade some Thai believers
to strike with fist and stick
till the wat echoes their labors,
a great clangor of rejoicing.
I slip my shoes off, placing

them in amongst the multitudes
already converted, to step inside
where a hundred glittering Buddhas
smile... so many they hide
the alter, draped with gold-leaf,
rippling in a scented breeze.

One sheet fallen to the ground
I try to place back whole;
it crumbles, sticking to my hand,
gilt clinging to me piecemeal...
A father and son at cliff’s edge
hold a cage full of finches,

sold below on the mountainside.
Coaxed, the boy shakes them free
with his arms spread out wide,
a tiny Francis of Assisi
crowing with delight as each bird
leaps into the diamond void,

the clouded ladder to heaven,
vanishing into that blue eye,
all pecking and filching forgiven.
I pay five baht to buy
a new tile for the temple roof,
touch the hand-worn bas-relief

of Erawan, the three-headed
sacred elephant, for luck,
then reclaim my shoes for good.
I pocket a soapstone relic
for no clear reason, and depart,
unenlightened but lighter of heart.