Dan Overgaard was born and raised in Thailand. He attended Westmont College, dropped out, moved to Seattle, became a transit operator, then managed transit technology projects and programs. He’s now retired and catching up on reading. His poems have appeared in Santa Clara Review, Sparks of Calliope, Across The Margin, The Galway Review, Shark Reef, Willawaw Journal, As It Ought To Be Magazine, Canary Lit Mag, Allegro Poetry, Triggerfish Critical Review and other journals. Read more at: danovergaard.com.
Photograph © Robert Wade
DECORATING & BANANAS
The bougainvillea and hibiscus bloomed
on tipping wooden fences in the lane
that took us into town. My bicycle
snick-snicking as I wobbled with the weight
of Mom, I steered around some sleeping dogs
and desultory roosters, but her arm
around my anxious, energetic waist
conveyed no lack of confidence. I rang
my bell and pushed, imagining the calves,
the extraordinary calves of men
who drove the sahm-law—meaning, “three-wheel”—
pushing down hard, but not as hard as them.
Some women watched us from their open doors,
and maybe waved or smiled at Mom behind.
She never learned to drive, and didn’t like
a bicycle much, either, but would ride
side-saddle anywhere with Dad, and now with me.
Since tropical savannas have no pines,
at Christmas we would improvise a tree.
Now I remember one, much better than the others,
rigged with green silk and a small umbrella
upright in a pot, together with a string
of Christmas lights—silk over the half-open
umbrella, gathered with ribbon, then spread
across the table, a Christmas meadow.
With shepherds, sheep and reindeer, cards would graze
their way across the meadow and take a leap
to reach the bookshelf, pulling heavy sleighs
and trailing holly, bows, and silver bells.
Some wise men bearing gifts were stalled on hills
approaching, still approaching, Bethlehem,
or—if they had arrived—were gathered round
and did not seem quite ready to sit down.
But we were getting closer. Little gifts
were showing up and leaning on each other,
slightly wrinkled in some wrapping from last year.
There was no Christmas shopping in Tak,
no clothes I liked, no stores with Christmas sales
or specials, holiday lights and music, stuff like that.
You might say Santa Claus had not arrived
in Thailand yet, and wouldn’t for several years.
So gifts were made or mailed or packed along,
possibly bought in Bangkok weeks before
on Silom Road at the Tung Who Store,
the bright new Central Department Store,
or the bookstore of the Christian Literature Crusade.
I could endure the time till Christmas Eve
by sorting the barrage of stamps that brought
my snapshot cousins, so much larger and
accomplished every year—as aunts relayed
the news from Minnesota, Canada,
Ohio, Illinois—and other exotic places
Mom assured me that I’d been, but that all
ran together in my memory then:
America was grass, intensely green.
Among the many cards and letters from
family friends and missionaries—Java,
England, Pennsylvania, Australia and Alaska—
we’d find the one with elegant best wishes
in my sister Sharon’s calligraphic hand.
Nothing in that unornamented air
disturbed the lean attentiveness of palms,
particularly when the lepers sang—
and yes, lepers was the usage of the time.
Their colony was not that far away,
a bike ride out a dirt road from the town.
Their cheerful a cappella Silent Night
was softly ragged in the morning shade,
and carried hints of pentatonic tones
that gave the classic European tune
a slightly mournful, melancholy sound.
But nobody cried, nobody cried “Unclean!”
and nothing upstaged their gently rising prayer.
Some afternoons—though not as often as
I wanted, maybe once or twice a month
when I was home from boarding school—we packed
a snack, some towels and suits, maybe a few
bottles of orange Fanta and precious ice
from our kerosene-powered fridge, and
headed west in the Jeep, toward Burma,
to Lan Sang Park and its waterfalls in the hills—
crossing the muddy Ping and past the Boy Scout camp,
a turn, then up a dusty logging road.
We felt relieving shade as the broad-leafed trees
closed in, and heard the growing chorus of the falls.
Down the unmarked trail past deep bamboo,
a log bridge with a railing took us across
a shallow, rock-ribbed washboard, where the stream
spread out so musically, and sparkled in the sun.
Around us, hollowed walls of rock, like ruins,
sent echoes of the chorus back, the way
they had for a thousand, thousand years.
There were a couple sala by the stream—
simple, open, wooden-floored pavilions
roofed with tin—where we could leave our things.
Mom liked to stay there with a book
and maybe another missionary or two
who came along, to read or meditate and rest,
and listen to the concert of the falls.
My favorite waterfall was farther up,
a darkly stippled pool restless with spray
around the falls, but wide and deep enough
for floating, diving, swimming underwater
across and coming up, happily gasping.
Feeling intrepid—but without knowing
the word—I clambered quickly up the rocks
and, with abandon, flung myself in air to meet
my bow-legged twin, my wavy silhouette.
Then, while the waves regrouped above my head,
I’d satisfy my toes in leaves, in mud,
collect the kicks behind my banged-up knees,
be counting five to think of something sleek,
and ride my kicks and goose-bumps back to light.
Speculative as recollection is,
the past retains its shapes so stubbornly.
I can’t avoid our homemade Christmas trees,
for instance, not when I recall the way
the lights against the pleated cone of silk
blinked so successfully, and I can still feel
faint echoes of those falls. Time sticks to things:
though I’ve seen one or two old photographs of Dad
in the early days—white pants and shirt, safari
pith and dusty shoes, like Livingstone, et al—
by the time I was around he’d shed that image,
dressing simply, almost nondescript, and
often Mom despaired of his faded shirts and pants.
Being a kid, I didn’t understand it then,
or see the way he was so comfortable in words,
delighting in and being moved by them.
He liked to be playful in English, but I think
he most loved the idiomatic music,
all those rhythms and curlicues of Thai;
its structure, wit, and brevity; its casual
eloquence and layers of formality.
Forty and more years later, in Arizona,
until the shadows closed his pages, he would sit
with his Thai New Testament—which I now have,
he taped it together years ago—reading aloud,
and play old tapes of sermons by Buddhist monks.
Evenings in Tak, he often stopped by a local temple,
chatting for hours with the monks, though I was bored,
long after the glaring neon lights came on,
the mosquitoes and bugs dive-bombing everyone.
He loved to learn new phrases and metaphors—
such as Ngoo, ngoo, plah, plah (“Snake, snake, fish, fish”),
which is a self-deprecating way to admit
what you know, when you don’t know that much—
and this dignified his outreach, his campaigns.
Some forty years later, when we took him back
for a visit, his friend the old monk now was still there
in that glaring neon light, how many hundreds
and hundreds of nights later, how many thousands
of generations of bugs, and they laughed, these two
old holy men, laughing, enjoying each other.
There was no winter in that wonderland.
Jack Frost did not drop by to filigree
the windowpanes—we had no windowpanes,
and hardly even any rooms with screens—
sometimes, perhaps, just the dining room,
screened in for an itch-free refuge at mealtime.
We slept, but sweating, under mosquito nets
most of the year, though it was cool and dry
around Christmas, which came as a relief,
when the nets were almost comfortably warm.
We decked a wall with some cut-out paper bells
and sang of roasting chestnuts—but outside,
bananas fried above an open fire.
Monsoons of time have flooded over me, washing
away the endless afternoon of Christmas Eve,
the dinner that simply took too long
and Dad’s mysterious errand, followed by
boxes shifting gently in other rooms.
But finally, I recall, it came to pass that we
were gathered in our upstairs sitting room
around the little scene of Christmas lights.
This may have been the year—I think it was—
when I was asked to be the one to read
the simple Christmas story from Luke Two.
We prayed, and talked of Sharon, Paul and Mark
who, at this hour, were waking in America
somewhere. I tried, but couldn’t picture them.
Then came the gifts. I don’t recall what I
gave Mom, but for Dad, I definitely
should have gone with anything from CLC
instead of the flashy Central Department Store,
where I, mysteriously, had been captivated by
some aliens, and surrendered my allowance
for a paperback by Erich von Daniken—
Chariots of the Gods, or something like that—
I remember the garish cover, but can’t read it from here.
Yet Dad, unwrapping it, was kind, in a way
I have since learned was Lutheran, Minnesota nice:
“Oh my, look at that, how interesting!”
From Mom and Dad, two of their gifts for me
were resonant with possibilities.
The first came with some clues that eventually
took me down to the garage, where I was
surprised by a brilliant green wooden bench
with a foot-rail, high up on wheels and topped
with a long seat cushion from the Jeep.
Half a dozen missionary barrels
filled up one whole side of my bedroom
under a frame of plywood and a curtain,
waiting now for the magic transformation
into my own gigantic writing desk.
The second was a big box, way too light
to be much of anything. Inside, another,
all taped up, then a smaller box, hiding
in wads of paper, which I pulled out, and
that’s when my disappointment must have shown—
but then I saw the bottom of the box
where Mom had pasted, from a catalog,
a cut-out picture of—what was it?—a guitar!
Confused, I looked around, then Mom explained:
next time in Bangkok, we would buy a real one.
I tipped the box to look again and felt
the promise, but could not imagine all
the music that was coming, and what else.
So there we sat amid the gifts, though we
would soon traverse afar, like we three kings.
PAUL’S SECOND SESTINA TO TIMOTHY
Hold fast the form of sound words. — II Timothy 1:13, KJV
Greetings again, beloved Timothy.
God’s mercy, grace and peace to you. I hold
you in remembrance daily, hold you fast
in all my prayers. When I recall the form
of your new faith amid that crowd and sound,
I ask you not to be ashamed of words,
not those of Christ, nor mine. We were called in words—
before the world began, Timothy—
called and saved in words. Remember the sound
of Christ, the certainty of his form,
and the unexpected firmness of his hold.
However loose our acts, his words are fast.
Therefore my son, be strong in grace in Christ, fast-
ening your allegiance there, committing words
reliably unto others. A soldier’s form
is never a civilian’s, Timothy.
Ready yourself for hardness and know what you hold.
Study to show yourself approved. Make no vain sound.
Mockery, boasting, lies and unsound
thinking, murderous double- and fast
talk, arrogance—these are the signs of losing hold,
signs of the final days. All, spending words,
inhabit and clothe themselves. Here, Timothy,
here is your test of dedication. Show your form.
With snakes and sticks and other tricks of form,
magicians resisted Moses. All resist the sound
of truth, although they say know it, Timothy.
Listen to how they babble, see how fast
they spin, with twisted logic and profanity. Words
frighten them the same way memory does. Words hold.
You must be pure and bold in faith, in purpose. Hold
for the crown that comes to righteous form.
Turn from the fables, focus on the words—
humility will be golden, will be fast.
I have believed, and am persuaded by His sound:
He keeps and is committed to us, Timothy.
Come fast with Mark, before the winter, Timothy.
I leave with words, leave words, leave you these sounds.
I fought with form and finished with what I hold.
AFTER THE WAR
We can skip the celebration.
Hand the chief a flat balloon
while an improvised explosion
lacerates the next platoon.
Seeing bloody repercussions
on repeat, let’s contemplate
the tangled litigation
for a wrangled head of state.
With the swagger and conviction
of a sheriff in a town
making hasty prosecution,
rounding up and facing down,
he conveyed a bold impression—
but the black and white of noon
washed away the complication
that this weren’t no damn cartoon.
Dusty centuries of passion,
wrought by grievance, wrung in heat,
called by rote, by lamentation,
ran in riots in the street.
In some camps, indoctrination
hammers children into tools—
fires up a generation,
but depreciates their souls
with the blinding expectation
scores of virgins will accord
every martyr’s self-ignition
with their suicide’s reward.
Sleekest methods of destruction
slew two giants, killing scores.
Struck from sky, in conflagration,
souls were flung to evermore.
Stunned by sudden immolation—
scorched by jet fuel into grief—
gave a new preoccupation:
briefly meet those lives in brief.
All recoiled for retribution.
Pale supply clerks stocked supplies,
scheduled food and ammunition
over oceans, through the skies.
Soaring high in preparation,
sleek as hawks who dive for prey,
pilots eyed the situation,
quickly rocketing away.
Then with laser concentration
scouts on horseback guided bombs,
pounded caves with devastation,
sealed them up as rocky tombs.
But amongst the tribal factions
camped in fallow poppy fields,
plotters knotted by religion
calculated future yields.
Memories of an occupation—
rusting tanks and broken jets,
crops of mines—but what’s a nation?
The Great Game takes new bets.
Searching worldwide for connections,
intel chiefs and analysts
dusted off old target lists.
vexed police, and bureaucrats.
Never mind the opposition,
here’s a wicked enemy!
They proclaimed it as preemption,
not religious enmity.
Ton by tonnage of projection
an aggressive self-protection,
But some unexploded questions
burrowed deeply, like a doubt,
in the bunker of convictions
and the corridors of clout:
Has our targeting precision
Can we muscle out corruption,
missile in democracy?
Cliques of giant corporations,
shoving forward hastily,
snatched up bids for reconstruction
on the people’s subsidy.
Making mockery of caution,
taking potshots at the poor,
they unhinged the Constitution,
swung it open like a door,
propped it back with explanations,
swept the threshold of debris,
dumped a trunk of old objections,
offered guests the third degree.
Spies maneuvered in commotion,
lost some face and leaked some files.
Called to answer for decisions,
they declassified awhile,
then resumed their operations
with the courage to believe
that the grateful of the nation
do have memories just like sieves.
fueled by fury in the east
sparks a blaze of speculation.
Talking heads guess what is next.
Take a question for discussion:
Are we safe the way we are?
What is offense? What’s protection?
What is open? What’s ajar?
Well, there was no celebration—
but the revelation is
a persistent apprehension:
there’s no after, after this.