Reading the World

Archives for Poetry

Angkarn Kalayanapong (1926-2012)

Renowned Thai poet Angkarn Kalayanapong passed away today in Bangkok at the age of 86.

Born in Nakhon Si Thammarat in 1926, Angkarn challenged traditional Thai poetic conventions in his groundbreaking poems. While initially criticized by the cultural and literary establishment, he was finally recognized as a leading voice in contemporary Thai poetics, and was honored as a National Artist (Literature Category) and won the S.E.A. Write Award for his collection “The Poet’s Pledge.” Thailand has lost an important and challenging voice today.

If you’d like to read more about his unique poetry, spend some time reading this article, “The Mythopoetics of Angkarn Kalyanapong” published in the journal Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies in 2004. 

Undesirable Reflections


Sylvia Plath

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful-
The eye of the little god, four cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

After seeing the “The Bell Jar” (which I have read before) on the A-Level recommended reading list, I decided to explore the author’s other works. “Mirror” is one of Sylvia Plath’s most famous poems, and every time I read it I die a bit because my heart leaps out to the words, and to their creator, who spent most of her life trying to attain an unattainable perfection. Eventually, she fell into deep depression and finally committed suicide at the age of 30. It seems to me this poem, or more specifically, the mirror of this poem, is a reflection of Plath’s endless inner turmoil.

Perhaps when you first saw the title, you thought of Snow White’s “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall”. But this is no fairytale. Instead, it is like a yearning for a fairytale that ultimately gets shattered by harsh reality. And the one causing this disillusion seems to be the mirror, who does it by being utterly “truthful” and by having “no preconceptions”. I found it interesting that because this poem is written from a mirror’s point of view, it seems to create a sense of coldness that makes the woman in the poem appear even more lonely and vulnerable. If you try reading this out loud, you’ll find that the short phrases and end-stopped lines force you to slow down and feel the full weight of the words.

In the second stanza, the mirror takes the form of a lake. On my first reading, the “woman” who “bends over” the lake reminded me of the mythological figure, Narcissus, who drowned in the lake after falling in love with his own reflection. Hence, for me, the lake becomes tinted with danger. However, unlike Narcissus, the woman despairs instead of falling in love when she sees her own reflection. She tries to find consolation in “the candles” or “the moon”, which seem to represent romantic things, such as err…love. But as we all know, like the candles, love “flickers”, is ephemeral and unreliable. In short, they are what mirror-lake calls “liars”.

On the contrary, the lake treats the woman “faithfully” and shows her the truth. But as the woman doesn’t like what she sees, she only “rewards” the lake with “tears” of anguish and “agitation”. Yet, the woman returns to the lake “each morning”, as if hoping that her reflection would miraculously be perfect one day. Unfortunately, as the days pass by, not only does she not find her desired reflection, but also sees that she is constantly deteriorating, perhaps both physically and mentally. As water often represents the constant flow of time, it is likely that the lake here also embodies time, which has “drowned” the youth of the woman and replaced it with “an old woman”, someone grotesque-looking, “like a terrible fish”.

The “terrible fish” is such a startling image, and when you imagine those huge, unblinking eyes, thick lips and scaly texture…it’s really not a face that you want to have, I think. But then this assumption raises other questions. Is the poet agitated just because she cannot be beautiful? Is she making a social reflection on women’s vain values? Or the effect that media has on our sense of beauty? In the early 1960’s, when Plath was living her last years, the television became widespread, and eating disorders such as anorexia (bulimia) started to affect the lives of many women who resolved to look like the stick figures on screen that some call models and celebrities. Skinniness is beauty, they believed, a vision that countless people, women and men alike, still seek for today. Anyhow, the point is that the media brainwashes us into identifying a certain type of beauty, which in this poem the old woman cannot meet, and can never meet. Old age kills beauty, a thought that sadly, I recently read in my own grandmother who called herself skin and bones when she compared her appearance to mine.

Perhaps Plath is not only referring to superficial values, but also to her social status as a woman. Although women gained quite a lot of independence in the United States (where Plath grew up in) after WWII, society was still dominantly patriarchal and maybe Plath resented relying on men, like her husband, who broke her heart by having several secret love affairs. That is possibly how “the candle” and “the moon” became “liars”.

So…I see the woman in the poem, who I believe represents Plath, as someone who does not know what to believe anymore, or how to improve herself; the days pass by in a series of “faces and darkness”, with only death to look forward to and old age to make things worse. I wonder how each of us will react when we encounter Old Age. Will we each treat her as a friend or foe? Confront her and fight her? Or embrace her? I guess it’s hard to tell.

At least, I hope that no one turns into a fish.

Actually, the body is quite pretty.


A poem for thought: Anastasia and Sandman, by Larry Levis

Anastasia and Sandman


The brow of a horse in that moment when
The horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough
It seems to inhale the water, is holy.

I refuse to explain.

When the horse had gone the water in the trough,
All through the empty summer,

Went on reflecting clouds & stars.

The horse cropping grass in a field,
And the fly buzzing around its eyes, are more real
Than the mist in one corner of the field.

Or the angel hidden in the mist, for that matter.

Members of the Committee on the Ineffable,
Let me illustrate this with a story, & ask you all
To rest your heads on the table, cushioned,
If you wish, in your hands, &, if you want,
Comforted by a small carton of milk
To drink from, as you once did, long ago,
When there was only a curriculum of beach grass,
When the University of Flies was only a distant humming.

In Romania, after the war, Stalin confiscated
The horses that had been used to work the fields.
“You won’t need horses now,” Stalin said, cupping
His hand to his ear, “Can’t you hear the tractors
Coming in the distance? I hear them already.”

The crowd in the Callea Victoria listened closely
But no one heard anything. In the distance
There was only the faint glow of a few clouds.
And the horses were led into boxcars & emerged
As the dimly remembered meals of flesh
That fed the starving Poles
During that famine, & part of the next one–
In which even words grew thin & transparent,
Like the pale wings of ants that flew
Out of the oldest houses, & slowly
What had been real in words began to be replaced
By what was not real, by the not exactly real.
“Well, not exactly, but. . .” became the preferred
Administrative phrasing so that the man
Standing with his hat in his hands would not guess
That the phrasing of a few words had already swept
The earth from beneath his feet. “That horse I had,
He was more real than any angel,
The housefly, when I had a house, was real too,”
Is what the man thought.
Yet it wasn’t more than a few months
Before the man began to wonder, talking
To himself out loud before the others,
“Was the horse real? Was the house real?”
An angel flew in and out of the high window
In the factory where the man worked, his hands
Numb with cold. He hated the window & the light
Entering the window & he hated the angel.
Because the angel could not be carved into meat
Or dumped into the ossuary & become part
Of the landfill at the edge of town,
It therefore could not acquire a soul,
And resembled in significance nothing more
Than a light summer dress when the body has gone.

The man survived because, after a while,
He shut up about it.

Stalin had a deep understanding of the kulaks,
Their sense of marginalization & belief in the land;

That is why he killed them all.

Members of the Committee on Solitude, consider
Our own impoverishment & the progress of that famine,
In which, now, it is becoming impossible
To feel anything when we contemplate the burial,
Alive, in a two-hour period, of hundreds of people.
Who were not clichés, who did not know they would be
The illegible blank of the past that lives in each
Of us, even in some guy watering his lawn

On a summer night. Consider

The death of Stalin & the slow, uninterrupted
Evolution of the horse, a species no one,
Not even Stalin, could extinguish, almost as if
What could not be altered was something
Noble in the look of its face, something

Incapable of treachery.

Then imagine, in your planning proposals,
The exact moment in the future when an angel
Might alight & crawl like a fly into the ear of a horse,
And then, eventually, into the brain of a horse,
And imagine further that the angel in the brain
Of this horse is, for the horse cropping grass
In the field, largely irrelevant, a mist in the corner
Of the field, something that disappears,
The horse thinks, when weight is passed through it,
Something that will not even carry the weight
Of its own father
On its back, the horse decides, & so demonstrates
This by swishing at a fly with its tail, by continuing
To graze as the dusk comes on & almost until it is night.

Old contrivers, daydreamers, walking chemistry sets,
Exhausted chimneysweeps of the spaces
Between words, where the Holy Ghost tastes just
Like the dust it is made of,
Let’s tear up our lecture notes & throw them out
The window.
Let’s do it right now before wisdom descends upon us
Like a spiderweb over a burned-out theater marquee,
Because what’s the use?
I keep going to meetings where no one’s there,
And contributing to the discussion;
And besides, behind the angel hissing in its mist
Is a gate that leads only into another field,
Another outcropping of stones & withered grass, where
A horse named Sandman & a horse named Anastasia
Used to stand at the fence & watch the traffic pass.
Where there were outdoor concerts once, in summer,
Under the missing & innumerable stars.

by Larry Levis

A poem for thought: Daybreak, by Liu Xiaobo

for Xia

over the tall ashen wall, between
the sound of vegetables being chopped
daybreak’s bound, severed,
dissipated by a paralysis of spirit

what is the difference
between the light and the darkness
that seems to surface through my eyes’
apertures, from my seat of rust
I can’t tell if it’s the glint of chains
in the cell, or the god of nature
behind the wall
daily dissidence
makes the arrogant
sun stunned to no end

daybreak a vast emptiness
you in a far place
with nights of love stored away

6. 30. 1997

– by Liu Xiaobo (translated by Jeffrey Yang)

A poem for thought: “Beautiful Ohio” by James Wright

Beautiful Ohio

Those old Winnebago men
Knew what they were singing.
All summer long and all alone,
I had found a way
To sit on a railroad tie
Above the sewer main.
It spilled a shining waterfall out of a pipe
Somebody had gouged through the slanted earth.
Sixteen thousand and five hundred more or less people
In Martins Ferry, my home, my native country,
Quickened the river
With the speed of light.
And the light caught there
The solid speed of their lives
In the instant of that waterfall.
I know what we call it
Most of the time.
But I have my own song for it,
And sometimes, even today,
I call it beauty.–James Wright

Note:  In the poem, Winnebago doesn’t refer to the large camper (basically a house on wheels) that Americans like to buy in their retirement to drive to the Grand Canyon. Rather, it refers to the Native American Indian tribe that lived near the Ohio River

Discovered: the “God Particle”

You’ve likely caught wind of the exciting announcement that two teams of scientists believe they have discovered the long-theorized Higgs Boson, or “God Particle.” If the research withstands scrutiny, and is upheld in future research, the discovery lends credence to the half-century old Standard Model in Physics.

For a good summary of what this all means, here’s a nice article by science journalist Dennis Overbye in The New York Times. 

The BBC Magazine also has a curious article on what they call the “poetry” of naming in particle physics: Gluon, Boson, Neutrino, etc.

There is great poetry in science–but this quality of wonder that has been part of scientific inquiry and discovery is, unfortunately, sometimes lost. In this excerpt from the poem “God Particles,” by Filipino-American poet R.A. Villanueva, I think we get a glimpse of this wonder at what the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius called “the Nature of Things”:

Miles beneath Geneva the men dig
with shovels and picks, churn
the bedrock with tumblers and water

-drills.Soon, tunnels will run
beneath the Jura watershed
into France, will be held

together with pipes and bolts,
supercooled magnets in triplet
arrays. There will be beams

of light, diodes in measured pulses.
If the God particle exists, they promise,
we will hold it—there, in the instant

between nothingness and mass.

“On Doomsday, I will say aloud,/I came from the world with my heart full of hope”

A beautiful, sobering article by journalist/poet Eliza Griswold about “Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry.” 
Griswold visits with members of a secret group of Afghan women who risk the punishment of their fathers, brothers, and husbands to write poems exploring their hopes and desires. When discovered, women have been beaten, and sometimes killed, for writing their poems.
What do you want so much that you would take such a risk?