Thursday, April 7, 2011

Farang – Peter Blair

I thoroughly enjoyed this new collection—it was a delight to read, though in saying that I don’t mean that most of the poems were meant to be amusing. It is simply that they worked, and they worked together as a collection, too. In style, subject and attitude, Farang reminds me of Patrick Hicks's This London.

“Farang” is the Thai word for “foreigner”, and the focus of the collection is Blair’s experiences in Thailand. The sense of foreignness is woven throughout the collection, and applies not only to Americans in Thailand. An ex-monk just out of the monastery feels foreign; a Chinese son fled to Thailand sends letters home, to the amusement of the government censors; Blair feels foreign among his friends back in the states. The effect is a sense of unreality even within the activities of everyday life:

He’s naked except for flip-flops
and frayed jeans cut-off
above mid-thigh and tight
around his bulging belly.

Look at that farang strutting
down the sidewalk, I think,
sweaty, hairy-chest and shock
of frizzed, blond hair bright
in sunlight. Ragged pants,
no shirt, that beard.

I’m about to cross the street
to warn him that we Thais
find big white bodies unsettling
as ghosts, until I glimpse
my pale reflection in a store
window, my round farang eyes
staring back at me in wonder.
One thing I liked about Farang was the way that the poems connected and supported each other. Since Blair writes essentially in prose, unconcerned with any syntactic devices, the collection reads like snippets from a travel diary. As you continue to read, you get to know the personalities of recurring characters: Blair, his Thai girlfriend, his American associates, Thai friends and students. They interact in various situations and small threads of narrative develop. Other poems are not connected to this, but all are somehow concerned with exploring a strange new country that the poet clearly loves. 
Making Sticky Rice on Edgerton Place

I pour the dry white grains into water.
Golden chaff rises to the surface.
Remembering the rice’s bready smell,
the roots of my teeth stir, anticipating
its sticky sweetness. I ate it plain,
or wrapped in banana leaves and roasted
over coals, crunchy outside, a raisin hidden
in the center. I ate it with Sirpan,
at Professor Kwaam’s party.
In the cool season wind, I drove her home
on my bicycle. He came running
with a basket of sticky rice:
For later tonight. Now I stir the pan.
In the water, a curled brown thing wakes,
moves tiny antennae, legs hugging
a swelling rice grain. After 12,000 miles,
years in dry sacks, months on a shelf
at Kim Do Store, this creature revives
in the ricey water like a seed
opening, a memory: Sirpan’s smile
as she lifted her dress around her thighs
wading in the Mekong’s moonlight waves.

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