Hanoi, Vietnam. 2006. This is my first backpacking trip, and I am standing on the edge of a sidewalk, weighed down by my pack, afraid to cross the teeming river of traffic that is Hanoi’s roads. Trishaws, taxis and bicycles swarm around a massive roundabout. There are no traffic lights or cops, and the only signs around are giant billboards advertising National television sets.
Pausing, I look around to see how other people manage to cross without being decimated. I realize they just walk, and the traffic weaves around them organically, even magically. You see, I come from Singapore, where oncoming cars never slow down for pedestrians, and in some cases even speed up a fraction just to enjoy the look of panic on the poor man trying to reach the safety of the opposite sidewalk.
Hanoi (Old Quarter)
A constant sheen of sweat lines my thoughts.
The traffic is another skin I learn to weave
into. Dogs eye themselves in the beef
noodles served on every corner, the same
intersections of colliding lonely planets.
A poem, with its incipiently shorter form, seemed to be the most natural means to capture this snapshot of Hanoi. It is a much more accessible medium than prose, which necessitates a more sustained engagement with your subject matter. And truth be told, poems are all around us, though sometimes we can’t slow down to observe and savor the stories beneath the surface because of the sheer pace of living wherever we are.
(Krishna’s temple, Hampi)
The inner sanctum of Krishna’s temple,
of his doe-eyed presence,
has become a darkroom of belief;
a place to change rolls of film
and wait for faith to develop
against the briefest
I often draw parallels between travel poetry and photography. A photograph captures a moment that cannot be replicated. It exists, immortalized, written by light and pixel. So too a poem may start from the frame of a moment, although it often transcends that two-dimensioned perspective and goes into the lives, real or imagined, of the characters in the photograph. I sometimes even create a different interpretation for the subject of the photograph, as was the case for Punctum, which incidentally is a term coined by Roland Barthes, a French linguist, to describe the particular element in a photograph that pricks or wounds the viewer. The punctum forges a particular individuality in a photograph, occurring often as a small, overlooked detail. According to Barthes in Camera Lucida, “The punctum, then, is a kind of subtle beyond – as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see,” which can have parallels in the use of metaphor or simile in a poem.
The correlative term to this is the studium, which is the obvious symbolic meaning for a photograph and correlates well to what we can also term as the ‘setting’ of a poem. Beyond this rather theoretical approach though, I find that the best way to write is to find a place that allows you to observe what’s going on. Don’t be shy, strike up a conversation with the people around you. Travelling alone helps, because you’re forced to interact, otherwise, you might just end up talking to yourself. I sometimes write weeks after the moment, when I am able to better reflect on what was or might have been. A visual record always helps, but it is not essential, though what I do write down are observations, quick-fire lines that will become the raw thread of future poems.
Her eyes are still unlined, her lips unkissed.
Her heart loves only the praise of her gods.
She moves in their shadow; through slivers of light,
their story curving into a pliant body.
Hands clasp in prayer, then curl into pictures of
old kingdoms, inviting gods to drink in her offering
as she steps through a thousand fragile details, until even
her name is lost, in the swoon of the gamelan.
Eyelids, painted like a peacock’s, flutter and close.
She sinks to the ground in surrender, a temple stone.
While watching the girl dance with her troupe on stage, I was struck by the art in her fingers, by the fluidity of her movement. I wanted to write about her not just in the context of this dance, but also to see her as a representative, an icon of all the other girls who have danced in the palaces of Bali for centuries. The poem therefore not only told of her dancing, a ‘story curving into her pliant body,’ but appealed to history, drawing the reader into ‘pictures of old kingdoms.’
Travel poetry is no different from any other kind of poetry; words are always the fundamental building block to express any story, sentiment or situation. But the ‘I’ in the poems does become much more personal through the poet ‘being there,’ and that is one way the reader is invited to journey along, and in so doing, experience the art of a moment.