urban renewal 

 

double it or nothing, you and your hybridism 

your face needs to be lifted, the sprawl beyond 

your subconscious needs to be gentrified, wasteyard 

shall be renamed goldengarbageland, dig tunnels for

an extensive sub way network for your pigeon 

commuters, the public transport in your brain should

be integrated, a fence for hate padlocks right in front 

of the white wedding chapel, graffiti shall be encouraged 

on the inner walls of your empty chest, dog parks for dogs

amusement parks for amusements, child-friendly facilities 

for the parents of the children who may never grow up

bingo halls for all ages and sexual preferences, clear the 

woods on the city’s fringes for nine-hole golf courses

logging shall be licensed to make way for  streamlined 

taxiways for international arrivals, plant garden plants 

in every department stores, to age is to get less serious 

about life, to die is to be incinerated to be reincarnated 

a multi-purpose stadium for metal concerts and the 

virpassana for the masses, two ivory chopsticks shall 

be contracted to conduct the people’s symphony orchestra

a brand new opera house to be modelled after a durian

it shall be named after our own houseman, a nine-lane 

boulevard of broken bones shall be the city’s artery

hot-beds will be moved to the out-skirts, council houses 

will be patched up with thatches, aquatic centres for those 

who will learn to splash, splash and splash, waves of all sizes 

shall be regenerated and recycled, the monument of doubt 

in the plaza shall be torn down, in its place the leaning tower 

of certainty will be erected, crocodiles shall be released in 

the moat of the pentagonean presidential palace

all administrative quarters of your soul shall be made 

sound-proof to prevent the intrusion of street noises

malling, walling, enthralling and everything else

that will make your cosmopolis

your oober-capital

 

The poem is set in the context of the 2005 opening of the new administrative capital of Myanmar, Naypyidaw, 200 miles north of Rangoon, the previous capital.  

 

the boomtown

 

a bottle spins 

a rat for protein

a snake rattles

pots and pans for pawnshop

lunar face for the thoroughfare 

rickshaw for the landing vehicle

   

a tadpole morphs into a mermaid

isn’t she just another entry into the census  

you don’t want to be weighed down 

by the food chain, lectures the dean, 

hanging loose between two branches

  

no soup in a crystal of salt     

no lamp oil in a grain of sand

no sum makes her night   

no catch cools her day

no rain fills her ocean stomach

no holds barred for her banquet

no one no longer knows what side they are on

in her flesh and faith and toes

no exasperation unbearable

no exile is banishment 

 

a nip at the wrong ear, game over

a turn into the wrong lane, you are dead

mahogany doesn’t live in tundra

ghost orchid doesn’t grow in desert 

between winter and summer

spring is the suspender belt

 

neon trenches for canonical gospels, trains 

loaded with last holdouts leave every second 

transmigration passes available for non-nationals

how would you like to be wrapped  

 

vicuña wool for your majesty 

foliage for the naked

 

 

chaos clock

 

the city’s streets are ideal 

for both trishaws and sport utility vehicles

motorcycles have been banned

but you can still boss around the town in a helmet

 

art is cheap, but not available to everyone

the old leafy tree on the campus, who has 

endured more than a powerful cyclone

has lived up to her name —

she’s really rotten

 

no one escapes from the panopticon, no one really cares

don’t you worry about yourself

our clinics supply the intolerably rich with 

aphrodisiacs and antihypertensives

our pharmacies provide betel and beedies to the filthy poor

you can buy everything, including your health

 

generators in the alleys are busiest

street vendors who used to sell falafels or rice noodles find 

bootlegging tasty dvd films more profitable

teenage couples who used to date on the breezy banks 

of the city’s lakes have checked into the new hotels

 

the lion sejant in the shades of white and green

will remind you of a sub-saharan political sunset

erstwhile colonial buildings have been colonized 

by neo-colonial cash cows

thatched tents have been upgraded to residential flats

the monsoon has flushed away the stray cats

 

the muddy serpentine river that once swallowed 

‘the progressive peace’ whole, overloaded with 

two thousand crabby commuters sludges on

as if nothing had happened

 

in times like these

the associational life is quite beneficial 

for a flock of seagulls, the flying rats

 

just beyond the nightfall

beside the golden sheldrake on the royal lake

the most exotic mammals come under the hammer of animalism

at the starting price of u.s. dollar twenty-five hundred

as the power light is cast on the display cabinet

the sale items, who have dressed their poverty in their virgin virtue

vie for the highest bidder to make the best of their three-month contract

 

massage parlours are new age churches where 

you go to confess your venial sins, and commit them all over again

soon you will be forgiven and, forgotten

 

‘smile, i’ll smile back’ 

a broken mirror in a karaoke saloon

in the shadow of a pagoda says

 

as the three wit-crackers find themselves at their wit’s end

and begin groping for fresh gags below their waistline

‘don’t you get lost in the labyrinth of lust’ 

warns the petite dancer from the lime light, to no effect

 

‘cockfights used to be quite popular here

the blood sport is very barbaric

people now have many other options

score casting is not a zero-sum game

investment is pouring in

business is good these days,’ a scavenger says

 

‘there is no ‘municipal’ to collect your moral trash

every cup of tea in town is getting bitterer each day

of course you can sweeten your life with ajinomoto.’ he hastens to add

 

you can get your visa on arrival

people are welcome, problems are not

living is expensive but dying doesn’t cost a dime

where else in the world can you enjoy a free funeral

next thursday isn’t auspicious

the dragon’s tail is pointing towards your head

would you like to reschedule your appointment

 

take a look, sir

it’s amazing how this victorian clock keeps her movement.

her minute hand and her hour hand are stuck neck and neck

the roman numbers on her face have long faded

did you say it’s not working

how much would you pay

 

wait a moment, can you hear it……..

tick------tack, tick-----tack, tick---tack 

 

at a cantonese restaurant

a toothpick who knows 

the ingress and egress of the city very well muses

‘billionaires in other places are full of debt

here we only save gold bullions and hard cash’

 

business as usual

everyone is smiling

everything looks just fine 

since when the strife has ended

 

End of Strife’ is an English rendering of Yangon (Rangoon), the former capital of Myanmar (Burma). ‘Power Light’ is the name of an upmarket Rangoon restaurant on the bank of Kandawgyi (the royal lake), where young ladies, on a three-month job contract, are literally auctioned off to powerful local customers, expatriates and tourists.

 

phantasmagoria 

 

beyond 

the thickest mist of the southern shan mountain ranges

flashbacks are always there

 

‘welcome to the fort town of ba htoo.’

greets the heavily armed checkpoint

colonel ba htoo died fighting the japanese in the last world war

the town that honours the anti-fascist hero is a purpose-

built breeding ground for the ultra-nationalist myanmar army

where can you find a better irony

 

the ‘basic training’ is where boys my age get dehumanized 

‘you’re in the myanmar tatmadaw now.  leave all your sense of self, pride and shame outside.  run faster, you, mother doers.  don’t you know which leg of yours is right?  

are you a girl? go wear a htamein.’

 

‘attention! why are you here?’   ‘for the people, sir, for the people, sir.’

‘what kind of spirit do you have?’  ‘steel spirit, sir, steel spirit, sir.’

even steel spirits melt under pressure

 

my martyr of the day still harrows me

private san aung had made a suicide pact with his girlfriend

too bad he shot himself first 

his chest was sewn up like a gunny sack after the autopsy

went along with him down ‘the pagan road’ to the cemetery,

flowers, tears , empathy and hypocrisy

for he had fallen in love, not in war, 

the poor private didn’t get military rites

 

near ba htoo, ‘the river wizard’ is being dammed

it’s amusing to see the ungainly caucasian engineers

climbing up the pylons, inspecting their cables and wires

 

near ba htoo, children play their war games, their hide-and-seeks and fly their kites on a vast plain amongst thousands of felled trees awaiting departures

 

in ba htoo, the pop-pops of daily shooting practices compete with the death calls of cicadas, spent mortar shells are reborn as vases for buddhist shrines and pagodas, in ba htoo, the deafening ‘charge!’ of mock battles are taken for granted; they no longer induce hysteria, in ba htoo, rationed ‘army rum’ is always scarce, as it’s deemed good 

for malaria, in ba htoo, women and cattle are often sacrificed in the fierce waves of ‘the pain creek’ in the monsoons, the steep, lengthy and narrow pain dries up in the scorching summers    

 

in ba htoo, everyone is suffering from adjustment disorder

no resident is permanent, early retirement is not possible

quitters are to be shot, life, for most, is simply horrible

 

next to ba htoo lies lawksawk, 

the quaint quiet little town, that has been there too long,

far too long to remember how she got her name

 

lawkswak had seen better days, she used to have her own chieftains, the sawbwas

now she is ruled by the strangers, this is the town of the enchantresses,

who are known for their witchcrafts, the novelist-poet thein than htun lives here

shan, bama, danu, innthar, the tribal populaces mix and live here

chaw su htway lives here

 

lawksawk is the yin if ba htoo is the yang

lawksawk is the society of much less agony and muddy red lanes

you never get lost in lawksawk

this is the town of bicycle and watch repairers

this is the town of lesser-known pensioners

this is the town of cheap and cheerful restaurants and affordable tailors

 

at weekends, the tatmadaw cadets, the freshly powdered souls  

in exorbitantly pressed uniforms and excessively polished shoes, in posse of three to five, haunt lawksawk

 

they walk in formation, they talk in formation, 

they even woo lawksawk girls in formation, 

call it ‘command recreation,’ if you like

 

the teashops along the thoroughfare are better

you go there for a piece of yangon, a taste of mandalay, 

an imitation taung gyi, or even a mini mawlamine

yet nothing beats lawksawk’s own character

 

steaming hot tofu at the ‘three shan sisters’ is super

every single significant building sits on a hillock in lawksawk 

the ‘spiral ladder’ temple, the monastery, the mosque, the state high school, 

the court and the houses of the belles, etcetera…etcetera…

   

at dawn on market days 

pa laung, danu and pa-o peasants from the mountain villages, 

their shoulders yoked with loads of produce, come together in lawksawk to 

turn themselves into the day’s traders, a common sight is uppity army officers’ wives,

dressed in indonesian batik, draped in gold, rubies or jades, arriving at 

the market in chauffeur-driven willys, bargaining with the ethnic farmers

 

forest fires fascinate me

when the shan mountains burn in a distance, i see a fire dragon dance

the lengthy monster of many a mile moves for days and nights

until it wears itself out or is subdued by a shower

 

the annual phayagyi festival is fun

it happens when the stupa gets floodlit by a diesel tarbota

as soon as the loudspeakers begin blaring in the evenings

the whole town comes out like a swarm of bees poked from a hive

kids want to ride ferris wheels, motored by the monkey men

and cry for candy floss, conjured up by the magicians

 

adults want to shop, compare notes and check out on one another

‘don’t you tease that girl, she’s my sister!’

‘novices! don’t hold back, hedge your bets on the casino mat.  

be warned, the abbot will flog you if he knows you are here.’

‘have you reserved your place in front of the stage for the outdoor burmese theatre?’

‘take with you a thick blanket, or you wouldn’t last all night there.’

 

ounch!

my left wrist is broken?  did you say both radius and ulna?

how did it happen? it hurts like hell!  

can you straighten it again, more morphine please, doctor…

 

wildlife is treasure

a tiger skin equals a pickup toyota, a scooter for a bear, 

would you like a quartz for a tortoise shell 

even porcupine spikes adorn your hair

 

every three years or so

the bitter fog comes down from the high heavens to kill our agriculture

water is frozen on the surface in the bone-chilling winter 

 

help…ma…help! 

i’ve burned my socks! it’s not my fault

i was just warming my feet at the wood fire

 

is it that cold outside?

why am i sweating all over? 

i can’t breath…

let me rest, let me be, leave me alone,

phantasmagoria!

 

This semi-autobiographical cerebral-malarial delirium is about the twin towns, Lawksawk and Ba Htoo, in Southern Shan State of Burma, where the author grew up as a teenager in the 1980s. 

 

ko ko thett grew up in Burma, performing poems at school competitions and in town halls. By the early 1990s, he was thoroughly poeticized and politicized at Rangoon Institute of Technology. In 1996 he published and clandestinely distributed two uncensored chapbooks on the campus, The Rugged Gold and The Funeral of the Rugged Gold. He left the country in 1997 following a four-month detention for his role in the December 1996 student uprising in Rangoon. His poems and translations have appeared in major literary journals, from Modern Poetry in Translation to World Literature Today. With James Byrne he is the co-editor and translator of Bones will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets (ARC, UK 2012, English PEN Translation Award 2012). His first collection in English, 'the burden of being burmese', is in the making. ko ko thett studies and works at the Department of Development Studies, University of Vienna. The four poems above offer a picture of urban life, the paradox of the chaos of the street and the regimentation of the consciousness.