Poetry and Democracy in Bangkok

Below are two rough translations from last night and my attempt to quickly think through them. I consider both of these writers as close friends, and so I hope to do justice to their collections with these translations.

“The Boat In Your Eyes” by Zakariya Amataya

I draw a picture of a tree

The tree becomes a girl

I draw a picture of a girl

The girl in my picture

Becomes a tree

I pick up an eraser

To erase the tree and girl

Then begin to draw again

I try to draw the tree with the girl

Drawing continuously until it becomes a forest

A disordered mass of plant life

 

I take the eraser

Erase each tree in the forest

I see the girl crying a flood of tears

The entire forest floods with water

I try to draw a boat

But the water moves like rapids

I still haven’t finished drawing

The paper, pencil and eraser

Carried away by the current

 

“The Berlin Wall In The Middle of Bangkok” by Siriworn Kaewkan

The barbed-wired fence and concrete wall

Rose up in the center of Berlin

Partitioning the breeze from the sunlight of East Germany

Partitioning the sunlight from the breeze of the 20th century

Transforming ideology into concrete

An oppressive division of citizens into competing sides

The pride of the communist government

Transforming the philosophical structure of Rousseau into

The general will of freedom

But all places remain in chains

 

Fog and flowers

Are fashioned to produce criminals of the imagination

Ideology and class consciousness

Become sacred truths

The citizenry is converted into prohibitions and scriptures

That even God dare not transgress

 

Man is born in chains

In all places he desires freedom

A part of humanity become planters of flowers

Sold to those at the top of watch towers

Kept as an offering to a choir of guardian angels

So they might be kept out of harms way

That they might not be thrown from the top of the towers

To become a class of those who plant flowers

 

Clouds and flowers

Criminals of the 20th century imagination

Whereupon the Berlin wall of East Germany

Came crashing down

The world came eye to eye with the truth of the wall’s other side

Ideology and class consciousness

Dreams of sacred truths

Become the excessive drivel of imagination!

 

A gradual surge in the Bangkok metropolis

The Berlin Wall of the 21st century

Partitioning the sunlight from the breeze of the Chaopraya basin

Partitioning the darkness from the light at the center of our hearts

 

With one brick for each person

Laying the construction of hate

With one brick for each person

Laying the construction of insanity

No one asks why the crumbling of class requires the construction of partitions!

 

Don’t tell me what I know, don’t show me what I can already see

Humanity consents to the reproduction of power

Humanity consents to the reproduction of error

To write their own history

Even with this foresight

When the wall comes crumbling down

The truth is there to stare us down!

 

“The long poem of walking manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be: it is neither foreign to them (it can take place only within them) nor in conformity with them (it does not receive its identity from them). It creates shadows and ambiguities within them.” (De Certeau 1988: 101)

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau explains that the act of walking is a poetry of the city, a creative revision of the urban text. The city is not simply a well-planned rational space, but a disordered site of ambiguous interaction. De Certeau likens walking to a participatory speech act in language, as one of many tactics deployed against the larger strategy of urban control. It is freedom entered into the rhythms of global modernity. It is the possibility of getting lost within a temporality of schedules and routine. But what if we were to reimagine the act of writing as movement in the city? The circulation of ideas and the tensions they arouse enunciate, like the walker in the city, the community of positions perpetually reimagined through a differential modes of participation. To imagine democracy is not to recognize the base as it gains entrance to state policy, but to presume the act of writing exists as a plural field of participatory voices.

Zakariya Amataya’s “The Boat in Your Eyes” (2012) expresses the act of drawing as a movement through images. In the poem, an artist draws images, which are ultimately displaced by other images. Walter Benjamin’s treatment of Baudelaire springs to mind since, as a walker, Baudelaire’s flaneur exhibited his “kaleidoscope of consciousness” by recording the fleeting phantasmagoria of the city: a girl, a crowd, and so on. But Zakariya’s narrative is not about walking or observing, but about the direct action of drawing. However futile, since the images he draws are “carried away by the current,” the act itself is significant. This disintegration, or cross-current, foregrounds the act of writing as the tactic waged against the ephemera of the city. These poems express movement. The protagonist of the poem is no simple recorder, but a creator and actor. He does not sketch people, or expose bare representations, but invites the reader to “draw” out parts from images already pregnant with meaning. Since everything is in the process of becoming, all images are temporary. Visions of democracy were premised upon an organization of permanent parts and positions in the polis. A girl, a tree, a flood, a forest, a boat, each examined here as processes of “becoming” central to the transition of objects. They emerge from the pencil, the paper, the eraser as dimensions of writing. The freedom of assembly, a contentious scenario in the struggle for public space in any city, is embedded in the democratic practice of the poet.

The poet also moves through a complex geography of the globalization, itself a hub for a political imaginary that is not only global or local but, as Manuel Castells suggests, a “space of flows.” If walking assumes a less-calculated way in which urban residents insert themselves into the flow of the street, writing intervenes in the flow of in the urban imaginary of the global city through its engagement of contemporary street politics. Siriworn Kaewkan’s “The Berlin Wall in the Middle of Bangkok” (2013) begins by reconstructing “the barbed-wired fence and concrete wall…in the center of Berlin” because city centers are political centers. While the Greek agora was imagined as a collective center where citizens deliberate, the construction of the Berlin Wall—or any temporary security cordon raised in any global city—invokes a “partitioning” of the center into two margins. In fact, the geography of Plato’s Republic tells us that political dialogues begin at the margins, as a coincidental meeting at the cosmopolitan port city of Piraeus evolves into their contentious conversation about justice. For Siriworn, the margins must be returned to the poem through an illustration of the urban. Just as Berlin demonstrated the partitioning of ideology in the era of the Cold War, the city of Bangkok is partitioned through a surge of street politics. The poet identifies the margins of politics as carried in the hearts of the urban resident. “A brick for each person,” means that walls are both cognitive and participatory. “Consent,” a collective democratic virtue, is posited here as central to “the reproduction of power” and “error.” Kanthorn Aksornnam also raised a Berlin Wall in the center of Bangkok in her story “The ‘Banana’ witch interview” (2009).

Our eyes met, the hero making contact and the heroine responding with a smile. Right then the Berlin Wall came crashing down (the real Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989 if you remember. I thought of “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd). (Kanthorn 2009)

In Kanthorn’s story, the Wall is cited to insert a partition into a magazine reporter’s reluctance to interview a girl he mistakenly stereotypes as a typical high society celebrity. The interview takes place two blocks from the site where in May 1992 a security cordon was referred to as the “Berlin Wall” of Bangkok (Alan Klima 2002: 107, 113).

Both of these poems engage attempt to grapple with what Jacques Ranciere calls a “partitioning of the sensible.” For Ranciere, institutional power (what he calls “the police”) is the business-as-usual conventions, rules, and guidelines that easily lead to an anti-democratic impulse of consent and conformity. Film, poetry and other “surfaces of inscription,” (2008: 135) counter “the structures that partition the space of perception and of social relationships into surfaces comprised of above and below, front or back” (2008: 136). The canvas of the contemporary poet in Bangkok is the street, and the act of writing is their primary means of democratic movement through these ambiguously shadowed surfaces of the city.

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