Adam Aitken: Notes on the River

1 October 2008

a river's there
for cutting grass

for police to
drop their pants

have their fill
al fresco

for girls to sober up

on a life
whittled away

by extortion

icons of shame
drifting in the garden shadows

who complains?
no-one writes or can

this my accident
of passing by




It is not a river at all
but a question.
An infant's mellifluous endurance.
One can ask of it direction,
or turn it to some western trope
for progress, decline and fall.
Or pay it homage,
find Hell at the end of it,
and Heaven also.
I scream at it, it whispers.
A big harbour man I'll never buy it.

It is either stagnant, or engorged.
A mini Mississippi
hugged by a shanty town Cambodians claim
is Vietnamese.
We walk its lazy curve, hold hands and harmonise
to a soprano line
of whistling bats in the Grand Hotel Gardens.
A discarded brassiere
or a dead black snake in a rubbish bin.
Gardeners play drafts with bottle tops
and frangipani petals,
rank and file drawn on the earth.
A sandalled army toting wipper-snippers
slashing grass.
Keep off it say the signs
in the ancient lettering of priests.




The river stopped yesterday.
So ochreous, I had feared a complete emptying.
It was the same water today
as yesterday. The same slime.
It will ebb backwards and forwards
Between the left side and the right of my brain.
Yesterday I missed you, now I don't.




The Mekong turns the corner
where it meets the Tonle Sap.
The moon is full tomorrow, glowing
on the inland sea.
Miraculous hydrology!
The annual catfish migration begins.
I will miss you once again.



This morning a man in green overalls
scoops out the river's scurf of plastic, then
a bottle, returning to the greater flow
its precious contents
with slow and infinite patience.
Magenta flowers on the wisteria.
One might fall pregnant here
or win the dragon boat race.
Youths cuddle and spawn,
police count their bribes, adjusting ever upwards
with inflation, and they know
road rules are for them.
The river, in whatever epic you choose,
will take a sepia tone,
and content itself to reflect
our vast melancholy,
our ennui,
like the Seine in autumn.



A modernity, a solution is required!
VoilĂ ! Slums levelled, wharves, boat ramps.
It's called central planning.
Whites, Koreans, Chinese
in cravats and big sombreros
sipping caiperoskas
in the Foreign Correspondents Club.
In the new arcade of palms
the slavegirl folds her fan
and turns on the air-conditioner.




Old-timers remember fish so thick,
a living slurry smacking the oars.
To these images I rig a theory of fluid dynamics
and digital composition,
a poetic somewhere between
Baudelaire and Photoshop:
'fields tinged with red, the rivers yellow
and the trees painted blue.
Nature has no imagination.'
19th Century mezzotint
in the Victoriana Lounge.
Benjamin's “upholstered tropics”.




What unites the above?
My sympathy for semi-literate kids
relaying a shuttlecock
with slabs of plywood.
We dislike stagnant ponds
and sheet metal sweatshops –
but that was another river.
This is the river “which only to look upon
all men are cured”.
The net yields fish so tiny now
but their eyes are big enough and wide
this far – so far – up country.

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