Poet and painter Angkarn Kallayanapong was born in Nakornsidhammaraj, the southern capital of Siam in 1926 and died in 2012. He wrote primarily from the 1940s to the 1980s, with most of his writing published at the height of the Cold War, during a time of predominant U.S. influence and, later, of Japanese economic engagement in Thailand.
Arnika Fuhrmann‘s Teardrops of Time – Buddhist Aesthetics in the Poetry of Angkarn Kallayanapong, just recently published by SUNY Press, places him, this now revered and respected Thai poet, among the most significant poets of the 20th century (Fuhrmann reads him here in conjunction with both Allen, and, interestingly, the Romanian-born, German-language poet, Paul Celan). She argues that his work (Angkarn’s work) adapts Buddhist principles to offer a “Buddhist-informed reparative vision,” to “re-enchant,” the culture (Thai culture, but an early modern Thai cosmopolitan culture located here, constantly threatened by a crass and materialist globalization), imagination and transcendence return through the redeeming magic of art.
“Angkarn’s poetry”, she writes, “constantly oscillates between the injunction to adhere to Buddhist principles and heed the law of impermanence – and his desire to transcend impermanence for the sake of producing lasting, ethical work… The problem is never entirely resolved, and this produces the tension that gives (it) its contemporaneous and ethical-philosophical charge.”
Allen and Angkarn actually met. Research has placed it to May, or June, of 1963 (Allen stopped by the country (Thailand) on his way back from India). Ormkaew Kallayanapong (who was born in the 1980s), in her biography of her father, recalls being told that when he arrived, he (Allen) asked to meet with “the Beat poets”. Sulak Sivaraksa, the noted public intellectual, and Angkarn’s long-time supporter, confirms this. It was he who took Allen to meet Angkarn. He has also confirmed that he and Allen translated several of Angkarn’s poems on the spot, and then Allen put them into his own language, improvising on Sivaraksa”s translation.
We are extremely happy to present here (courtesy of Fuhrmann’s excellent book) three of those translations.
– starting with Wak Thale (“Scoop Up The Sea”) (1952, the earliest of the three)
Scoop Up The Sea
Take seawater Put in a plate. Eat it with white rice
Collect some stars mix with salt for eating
watching crabs and shellfish singing pretty
Insects crawling on two feet flap upward treat sun and moon
Wart toads high on gold palanquins fly up to see Heaven
Smooth frogs going along on the trip while devas hide in coconut shells
Rai oms mkt love with girls Sleeping nights with them in the sky
Millions of cells and amoebas lift their heads and get rich
The angels are sick of their skies and jump down to earth to eat shit
Enjoy faeces the taste. They can’t find words for it
Forest creepers and trees talk about deep philosophy
Sawdust in the dream calculates the weight of shadow
Those who are afraid to go Heavenly and stay down on Earth are acting silly
As the heavy stuff gets lighter, there’ll be the greatest drunkenness.
Next follows his translation of a poem from 1964 – “Sia Jao“(the title is translated, “I Lost You” – this particular poem, the only one of those translated that saw publication in the West in his lifetime, appeared, alongside Allen’s translation of it, in 1980 in the Seattle-based International Portland Review)
I Lost You
A rainbow jewel – it cracked when I lost you
Who and what in the world is there to want?
Not even hoping for the sky, my face
pressed upon there earth in grief, I eat sand.
From this world to there next this pain will stay:
its traces will not dissipate or fade.
However many lives I’ll have to suffer,
I’ll never give my heart you again.
If you are born in Heaven I shall request
to descend to Hell, where I’d rather burn.
You are the fire and flames, I, only wood.
you may consume me all, even my soul.
Though those ashes haven’t any desire
for you, nor will they have for evermore,
If we should chance to meet in a future life
I’ll scoop out my eyes and cast them away.
Dead, I’ll go and lie below your footstep.
Trample on me then, as you would on grass,
so I shan’t forget the gall or bruises
as long as there’s an earth or there’s a sky, Oei!
“Ginsberg’s rendering of “Sia Jao”, Fuhrmann writes, “is particularly interesting because it brings the poem into conventional yet beautiful English. It does not render the poem very literally, nor does it attempt to retain its Thai-ness through reproducing terms in Thai or approximating its context and lexicon through Buddhist terms.However the conventionality of the poem’s English at the end, is at the end supplemented by the untranslated Thai exclamation “Oei” giving the poem a finally quintessential Thai flavor.
The fact that Sia Jao also “works” within the framework of its more conventional English rendition suggests that what is most strongly operative in the poem is the usage of cosmology as an intensifier of emotion – a feature of “Sia Jao“, translation is able to capture even if its not able to transmit all nuances of expression and tone.”
She notes also a third translation “a partial translation or reformulation” of an earlier work (from 1959), “Panithan Khong Kawi” (which Allen translated as “The Poet’s “Testament”)
The Poet’s “Testament”
I wrap the sky around myself
to keep away the cold
and eat starlight late at night
to take the place of rich
Dew drops scatter below the sky
for me to find and drink.
and out my poems flow
to greet the morn, to last her age.
My heart, sacrificed to its grave
gains unworldly powers;
the spirit flies in lands of dreams
the far side of the sky.
It seeks divinity in Heaven and brings it back to earth
to soothe the sand and grass,
bringing happiness, bringing peace.
My purpose in composing poems
is to salvage the soul.
Fuhrmann again: “What comes as a surprise in Ginsberg’s rendering of the “Testament” is the relatively conventional way in which the poet formulate this eccentric multiword manifesto for poetic creation.In particular, the regularity of the poem’s rhythm in English and the conventionality of the syntax stand out. Sounding more subdued than Angkarn’s original, it brings a new, more sober tone to the world-inventing original panithan, or vow, of Angkarn.”
“To counter the trends of a deplorable present”, Fuhrmann argues, “both Ginsberg and Angkarn invented radical egalitarian ontologies. These come to the fore also in the alternative understanding of knowledge and education that they developed. Both poets not only had the experience of seeing their work villified, they moreover had histories of being expelled from or dropping out of institutions of higher learning (Ginsberg from Columbia University and Angkarn from Silpakorn University). In response to this and as part of their respective alternative world views both create learned cultures that are not dependent on institutions…”
“When considering what might have attracted Allen to Angkarn’s’s work and what unites their poetological concerns”. Fuhrmann concludes, “a number of commonalities stand out” – “In conjunction with their shared aesthetic concerns and critical focus on a South east Asia dominated by US foreign policy in the 1960’s and after, both Ginsberg and Angkarn emerge as Cold War poets who develop extensive vocabularies of disaffection with regard to the political present that they live in. In response to the unbearable parameters of their respective historical situations, both rely on making the imaginaries, especially of Mahayana Buddhism available to coping with an everyday world in which Buddhism shall does not have – or no longer has – a place.”