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I Smell Buffalo in Cambodia

April 24, 2012 2 comments

by Adam Aitken

after Tomaz Salamun: “I Smell Horses in Poland”

I smell buffalo in Cambodia, ruins in Angkor.
I had come from a rich disinfected nation
to one overflowing with frozen steaks
and a disarming happiness.
No difference here between a frog and its dreams.
The delicacy of their verbs offsets
the barbarity of their past actions.
Neighbours covet the smoked, dried, and the barbequed.
I smell drains, cats, and charcoal in the slums.
Monks disappear into the night; by the time
the tracker elephant finds them they aren’t chanting.
Will I ever see the frescoes in Wat Bo again?

I smell American aftershave
stalking the tunnels of Danang.
Pourissement in the Orient.
I smell flattery and artifice
among the smiling machines of Pub Street.
When you drive on the right, it smells odd.
I perch my glass of mint and lime
on a humidor for Cuban cigars.
I smell a gingko spa for Wall Street divorcees.
I smell coffee harvested from civet shit
priced in Dong, a notorious
perfumed currency.

When they boil the silkworms, I smell it.
Mould in the post office is worse
than mildew in the police kiosk
but nicer than French butter going off in the palace fridge.
Mothballs roll about the bottom drawer.
When you jet in from Mumbai
in your cowboy boots
you notice the lack of crows.
Why? The smell, the jasmine, the priests.
Smell it, bottle it. Call it Shalimar, then sell it.
Here there are vultures kept alive on UN grants.
I stick my beak in a Citroen and inhale the leather.
I smell a delinquent reading,
the aromatics of customer satisfaction.
It is spring again, spring and all.
I take my own sweet time to smell it.


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Adam Aitken is the author of seven collections of poetry and has been published in Poetry (Chicago), Drunken Boat, Jacket, and previously in qarrtsiluni. He currently resides in Paris thanks to an Australia Council Literature Fund residency.

Categories: Imitation Tags:

Silk: A Wearer’s Guide

December 24, 2007 Comments off

A scruffy boy, I kept them in a box, and learned to watch
how they fattened on beds of green mulberry
and spun themselves to a timetable.
Now I’d wear silk in war and watch bullets bounce off my chest.
Or, as head of state at an APEC conference,
line up for a photo-shoot in garish pyjamas.
I’d burn silk to alleviate a bleeding nose.
or, constipated, eat it and add syrup.
I imagine my mother married
in a discarded D-Day parachute, though the truth is
three months pregnant she wore raw Chanel silk.
Nothing could be cooler in May.
If anything, silkworms made China.
No silk, no Madame Butterfly or boudoirs of ivory, peach and pink,
no po-co allegory, no going-away gift of ties.
Pol Pot had looms burnt, the weavers thrown to dogs,
demoted to spinning crappy peasant cotton.
Because Gandhi (the people’s choice?) chose muslin.
I too would have perished, like all worms,
had I spoken this secret lingo of weavers.
Two threads of fibroin or brins glued together in sericin
make a bave. Unable or unwilling to confess
a plain English equivalent, did they deserve execution
in black Dacron pyjamas?
Four hundred metre lengths of spun figure-of-eights,
and no worm can turn. Boiled in grege, raw or reeled,
the thicker thread for weft, the finer thread for warp.
The unspooling well-wrought worm makes a tasty deep fried snack;
the deformed make chicken feed.
Children crave a dish of wok-fried worms.
Who wants to be an ugly moth, now that you know
how silkworms die, their lives recycling
for profit and a beauty nature never intended?
I too was a weaver addicted to that code,
reincarnated, endlessly returning to that guild,
then rehabilitated, as the Maoists used to say.
Prior to the dyeing process, if the ashes of a kapok tree
can’t be found, soap will bleach the skeins.
For dyes the best are barks, roots,
rhizome, seeds and leaves of an old Khmer forest
de-mined to a 99 percent ISO rating.
Tinctorial plants shimmer in the eye.
Nature’s madder red refracts blue, then green
(as if spot-lit in a TV studio or circus) then yellow.
The dealers know what yields indigo, what
doubles as a pesticide, disinfects a cut
or stuns a fish more cheaply than grenades.
From indigo leaf derives indican, hence conversion by alkaloid
to indoxyl. Alum and green vitriol are mordants;
with green sappan wood the mix turns red and purple.
The cow hoof tree I’ve never seen, while iron,
especially military ordnance (like a tank rusting in a mangrove)
is abundant as rain.
Jackfruit, domestic and wild
gives saffron; for a deeper brown, add
ebony berries or turmeric; cassia gives you beige.
For red, the excreta of the sap sucking lac bug
never fails, and our old distinction Science and Art
breaks down, fermenting in a vat of silk.
Natural green now rare makes way
for what’s in vogue today; an overdye of mango bark yellow
spliced with indigo, which is fugitive, as they say in the trade:
Wednesday’s colour will become with time and washing
the colour of another day, Monday.
This has consequences:
the confused mnemonics of school children,
the disconnect of colours with calendars;
the rhyme I used to chant, fading in an empty room of worms.

by Adam Aitken

Author’s note: Info from Gillian Green, Traditional Textiles of Cambodia: Cultural Threads and Material Heritage (River Books, 2003).

Categories: Insecta Tags: