So what did you think with Katie on your knee
as the plane turned in over the Harbour?
That tame dolphins are not the same as piccolos;

that as it was in the beginning, is now,
and ever shall be; that the prickling at the roots
of your hair is the light dancing from the waves

in Hong Kong Harbour, like buttons on a radio,
and not the jackhammer of the heart above the baby
sleeping on your knee or the song you never heard;

‘The Danger Zone’ that Ray Charles sang throughout
the Cuban missile crisis? And does she think the knee
she lies on is the bell of a sack but or a crumhorn

and the air is turning in a harmony? Another body
is hoisted under the sun onto the catafalque
of a cargo container amongst other rusting metal.

The men beat their heads and chests and tread
the ground into hysteria. The women ululate.
A military helicopter waits overhead. A fire-engine

sprays the black crowd tautening among the hills
of the north-west of the city. Strung with lights
and tannoys, the integuments of the half-built blocks

and electricity substations whisper the dry earth
spooned out, passed among the crowd and eaten.
Smoke and fog copulate around the arms of the Buddha,

and Pam’s plane lowers over the warm, cut stone.
Crew-cut DJs play the clean-cut music;
Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan played a negro music

in the West Coast Cool School fashion till Chet
was grabbed and stomped on so his lips
fed back inside his teeth and all the notes

that blew were blown inside his head.
Heat and the exhaust smooth down the runway
and bear the planes and birds back into the sky.


Here, there is no memory palace;
no warriors locked in combat
in the south-east corner
of the reception hall;

in the north-east corner
there is no Xixia woman
who is huihui. Only this
that after the plane had rolled

to a stop, the faces in the aisles
with bags, brushes and hoovers,
busy in the toilets, recapping
hand lotion, washing toilet bowls.

And in their memory palace?
A crown prince at the gaming tables.
That all that is farang and this
is what we keep even to ourselves,

unless we trust the farang
with the most precious things
that are not theirs and can
only be trusted with them.

‘Let us take a tuk-tuk into the foul air.’
So Jenny leaping from the chair
she sat in. The children in the hotel care.

Their sleep is smuggling down the intercom.
The hotel nurse who looks just twelve
with ten years in the Gulf and lucky

still to be alive. Like us as we pitch
on three wheels from Soi Carboy to Patpong
and clutch each other even tighter.

English – off to where the girls smoke
cigarettes with their vaginas and then blow
paper darts through cardboard tubes.

‘It was like being hypnotised. He showed me
a piece of silk I didn’t really want
and couldn’t afford. Then he did

that draping bit and started telling me
what it did for my eyes and my hair
and the next thing I knew, I was out

on the street with three and a half yards
of the damned stuff.’ A house
with walls turned inside out

so the carvings face the diners.
And where is the ivory mouse palace?
Somewhere up the stairs and on the left.

And if something terrible happens,
something not unlike a sudden,
mighty wind, Simonedes, among
the passengers, will remember

the exact positions of the relatives
and friends, aisle or window,
as his eye blinks the cursor;
business class, smoking.

For here, in the toilet of the memory
palace, the hand lotion is finally
uncapped and its pink lines run along
the toilet walls and across the ceiling.


Leaping over the Pearl River
cost him a broken ankle
and a limp for the rest
of his days; catching the metro
took a minute, two dollars
and enough left for another pair

of cloisonné vases.
The world’s longest escalator
takes you well away
from screaming Boat People
and wet ropes slopping wood.
Children of six and seven

play inside the Walled City;
no more walled than you or I.
‘I mean, it was a million
to one chance we’d walk past
that shop again and then
she dashed out to tell me

she’d been through the whole shop
and found the matching one.
And so, after that, I had to buy it.’
Wet hawsers slap the Wallet City.
It pitches in its own mind,
yawing through the forty-five degrees

of the spirits of its ancestors.
Lines of washing slide from balconies
toward the loosening horizon.
Sixty-six stitches cross his back
and hold together the zany ideogram
of his knife wounds. Girls

and their numbers are chosen
by the customers through the grill.
All of them slip a little further
into kilter and the permanent rain;
a splinter of bone that pierced
the right kneecap. As they attached

a metal brace to stop his right leg
shrivelling shorter than his left,
a vision of Mary and her child
left his heart serene and his flesh
finally untroubled by lust.
Ropes tighten into the sea;

and all of Aberdeen twinkles at night
from the top of the world’s longest
escalator until it takes the rapids
at full sail and in a moment
is turned over and spun round
along with two other ships

in which are travelling
the mandarin’s possessions.
Thus did I and Joao Barradas
get sent to the Bottom. But God
aided me because I caught hold
of some Rope which by Divine

Providence I found between my Hands
and was able to pull myself
onto a Support of the same Ship.
But Joao Barradas went to the Bottom
and the Current carried him away
and he never reappeared.


It was the pecking of a single bird that made
the hardened ground throw up all of this;

the car tracks and the stiffened marks of rain,
From reed beds threaded with empty cans
and plastic cups, the koala yawns up
into old light and shakes off the dust.

He remembers pissing on the Minister of Tourism
just a week before they handed hint to Tom

and lurches off into the untravelled, unnamed
nothing. Both he and Cook create the space

that runs between the verses. There is no name
without a place. We’ll leave most of that

to Mr Hawkes worth and the Endeavour journals;
their genius for the matter of fact and to those

who followed Cook; always filling in,
always disappointed, consecrating

a system of differences in the idea of land.
And that was only the third car between

here and Dubbo and I thought, Poor sister,
poor sister, The tennis court run to earth.

The fly screen round the verandah all
shot through; the team house left

to the visiting team. But the two rooms
where they lived she kept them very clean.

Flowers more architectural than pretty.
The continent had shut its shell before

the songlines crossed the Torres strait.
The rivers run to nothing. Casuarinas

mesh the sun. Sea wasps love us all.
The world’s largest stone. Two-thirds

below the ground though how would you know?
Thousands camped there – you wouldn’t notice.

All the rangers have gone walkabout.
Rod Padgett – paid for the gallery himself

and never got that back. The art shops
gave them materials and never got that back.

The couple split up. The woman went
to Perth was the better artist. Remember,

they’re less than one per cent of the population.
In front of the marble mausoleum the men

shiver and weep on the first anniversary.
And in a souk she has known for thirty years

a perfect stranger comes to tell her,
‘Mrs Mann. I’m very sorry. Your husband

is dead.’ So with the eucalyptus mist
of the Blue Mountains scented with urine,

and with a stock of dialects from Narragin
to Wearside, Tom and the koala clutch

a boomerang and a cabbage tree hat, turn
to slam the kitchen door and go back in.

Send Letters To:

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London Review of Books,
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London, WC1A 2HN


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Vol. 13 No. 6 · 21 March 1991

Ian Pople’s poem ‘For Jon, Pam, Tom and Katie up in the air’ (LRB, 24 January) raised questions of perception and memory. In particular, we noticed an apparent inaccuracy in the name of a well-known street here in Bangkok, Soi Cowboy, which the poem called ‘Soi Carboy’. An accidental slip of the poet’s memory? A conscious transformation of the caballero appellation? Or perhaps it is a cleverly mimicked dysfunction of memory designed to capture the elusiveness of places visited for only a few days – a verisimilitude of forgetting.

E.L. Smith

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

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