Lhasa, 1950

Mark Abley


You had a month to play with kites,
a season to play with water
and a night when statues of butter
stood frozen on a passing street.

You had a government that banned
football and mah jongh
and a people who’d obey.

You had a market where the rich
and their retinue could buy
the fresh forbidden meat,
Bing Crosby’s latest disc,
silk scarves to give away.


Only 12,000 feet in the air,
nomads found the summer heat
too intense to bear.

If they turned from their slow advance
out of the forbidden city,
the golden roofs of a palace
disturbed the passing sky.

They would rescue
a fly who sank into their tea
in case he was your grandmother, reborn.

She was lately fed to the crows.
The butter lit her soul.


You had a shrine where mice of honour
could pass along a silken curtain
and flounce across the floor
to gorge on flour and butter.

You had a god who longed to know
politics, arithmetic, theology
and the function of machines.

You had a land in the age of darkness
unused to suicide or traffic
and its prayer-wheels turned like the sun,
faithful revolutions
yet the mountains were unmoved.