Two poems by Ken Turner

Crossing the Border Near Lahore

It’s the absence of sound that startles.
Punjabi blackbirds chatter like jackals
but even they fall silent at this gap,
the only way to get there from here
unless by air, like the phantoms
that flicker on a million TV screens
or the missiles scudding
through thin Kashmiri clouds.

The birds must know
the history of this place, red
weddings and henna, the common
fields of mustard and wheat, how lines
penciled on drawing-room maps
surgically severed
what once was shared earth.
How rivers clogged, the villages darkened with smoke
as ghost trains groaned through the border
leaking their loads on the rails.

Years on, decades, and still a shudder:
our palates dry as this earth,
our battered luggage disarmed. Other lines
come to mind, other passages—Berlin,
Mason-Dixon, the bright beaches
of Haifa—places once rinsed
in animal sweat, where fear
swelled like a corpse in the sun.

The roads to this place ran hot that summer.
The customs hall is cool and empty now
in a time of no traffic. It smells
of disinfectant. We exit under scrutiny,
crows dark as bruises huddled in the trees.

Saigon Streets

Huddled like the paddy ducks
I saw from the bus in every delta village,
knees drawn to chests and arms folded
like wings, two dark-haired women
and a young man perch on a curb, crouch
for hours behind trays of cigarettes, cheap
sweets, and pirated English titles:Lonely
Planet Vietnam, The Quiet American,
The Things They Carried.

Motorbikes swarm the street like angry bees, hissing
buses hose the sidewalk with fumes
and on another street in this city

a man’s skin, kerosene-doused, sizzled
and popped, his shaved head shining
into darkness, rust robes brooding into black.
Flames exalted his flesh, flapped in the air
as shutters snapped when I was still a child
to bequeath me that instant and more:
a road of running children and chemical fire,
the man with eyes clenched against the bullet
about to breach his skull, his blood about
to flush the gutter. Monsoons muscle through these streets
each year, scrub and scrub at the stubborn stains.

Tonight these three roost on their concrete
nest, the young man’s eyes narrow
above a sharp nose, his parted hair soft
and brown as my daughter’s, damaged
leg hidden until he dips and lurches across the street.
Whose child might he be? Outside the city
along the road to Trang Bang, the children must be quiet
at last. A gentle darkness should be soaking the fields,
the buffalo settled like boulders.
Somewhere an egret is rising
unseen against the trees. I watch
the vendors move their lips, their voices lost
in traffic: a film without sound, exacting, elusive.

About the author

Ken Turner has been working, writing, and running overseas for eighteen years. He has taught in Congo, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, Venezuela, and currently, China.…

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Issue 14 · February 2012

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