Anthony Howell is, in Peter Reading’s words, “an eclectic original”, a poet, artist and novelist whose first collection of poems Inside the Castle was brought out in 1969. In the tradition of Robert Browning and Andre Gide, he often explores ‘immoralism’ in his writings via personae. From Inside, published by the High Window Press in 2017 contains poems relating to prisons and poems of political satire. A former member of the Royal Ballet, his novel In the Company of Others was published by Marion Boyars in 1986. Today, he dances the tango. His most recent book of poetry is Invention of Reality, published by the High Window in 2022.
As if it were a Bow: Poems and Pictures from Thailand
The following poems were written in Thailand in the early months of 2023. Their author is excited to find himself in South East Asia – beyond the pale of the West. He meets tigers close up, gets to know elephants, experiences jungle. Hosted by a Thai family, he is an outsider getting a sense of the country from the inside. His bewilderment increases with each new encounter. At the same time, the vicissitudes of international politics cannot be forgotten, and Thailand offers the writer an opportunity to view the world, and to view himself, from a different perspective to that afforded by his home in London. The result is a collection driven by the heat of the tropics and by a sense of astonishment that alerts him to each unexpected detail of this golden land.
For Bhorani Nissaisorakarn
He climbs her helping trunk to mount.
The crickets’ high-pitched litany
Is overcome by a Vespa.
Then the road falls still and we move on.
No bit, nor rein.
The trunk gets in the way.
Taking all the time in Thailand
To descend a river bank,
Balancing her big mind
Above an observant eye,
She lets her belly down
Into the fishes’ cool swift domain.
They can smell further than us humans.
Seasoned, in the military, medals can be theirs.
Smoky blue, fading to grey:
One ridge arranged behind another.
Differing from other species
More than they do from the beings
Who have shared their lives,
They seem stoned on their own bulk,
Needing to alter their axis
Time and again, made by or
Born of Parvati as she seeks protection
From her partner’s overdone attentions,
Harmonising a quartet of actions:
Tail, feet, trunk and ears
Constantly refining their flourishes
As graceful as the most convex of palms.
Ganesh’s sliced-off head you can replace.
Nevertheless a trunk tends
To dominate a face
And it takes a belly to fertilise a river bed.
As for her consort’s inopportune advance,
Why can’t he simply? Why can’t he learn from the chang
His slow dance, until the step
Finds the eternal pivot stance, rotating on a drum?
Balanced on a single stem,
His several-armed progenitor,
If that is what he is,
Weighs the drum against the flame.
Jowls project the wisdom of Ganesh,
Principal demon, patron of bankers and scribes.
Baggy panted, with his wrinkles young
And yet as old as the tribes.
Those grown ancient with their man
Seem to get more human as they age.
We look down on the twin peaks of her skull
From above the mahout, the quan
Riding her neck, whereas we passengers
Tower above foreshortened Vespas.
Rhythm throws us forwards as well as side to side
At her wooden clapper’s steady cluck.
Swifts use the wires as their warp.
We amble past the big snake.
You have to understand
Your nose being your version of a hand
Which you can also drop to offer him a leg up
His mountain by the slow river’s
Woven silk, the women who weave it
Draw on their faces, lengthening necks
As if in envy of such extensions
As trunks with increasing rings of brass.
Such slender throats, they own,
Unlike their bulls! Like hanging plants,
Like flower chandeliers
Dangling in the afterglow.
Fluted as the swags
Of the Teatro San Carlo,
Goes wading into the water
Guided by a toe at his ear
While the swifts nip here and there.
By a knee-squeeze
At the neck.
There is being us within this beast.
Trunk dealing deftly with banana.
Side shifts from bulk to side.
We are as far from animals
As we are near to man,
Her dad’s woollen present to his little one.
Out of their dung
Comes the first paper.
Elephant and castle in the corner,
Chang rises rapidly
Up the ranks of the white proboscidean regiment.
The promotion of a battle elephant
Necessitates its new rank’s caparison and cap.
Cavalry will never prance before them,
Panicked by the earthquake of their advancing line.
Hogdogs chivvy the peacocks
Into the hula hoop
Flat on the hill tribe’s playing field.
A peak gets
Ripped into a precipice,
And then it’s down
To the valley floor where
Underneath its shoots
The rice reflects its surroundings
As well as the sun setting behind the mountains.
While in a hammock I recline,
A hammock hanging from a pole
Shouldered by two solid men,
Bottles of pop get left by girls
At the spirit house in hope
That petting may not lead to rape.
An old dog dozes
Below the old monk’s beard.
A version of Picasso’s ape,
I’m no match for some divine
Maiden in delicious shape,
Though down the teeming street
I go, while swinging from my pole.
The girls are masked, a sickness feared.
Never again will youth be mine.
My dream dissolves. They put me down.
I must proceed as best I can,
Reliant on these ancient feet.
Who was once Miss Rio-de-Janeiro
Will find Bruce Grove all betting shops and nail bars.
It may have great connections, Tottenham Hale,
With its overground more underground with every added block.
Bruce Grove’s where we shop, at an eerie Azda
And the better Aldi. Buy-to-let’s ghetto grew its roots
In the Windrush days, I guess. Toppuff sets me off
Visualising damp Bruce Grove with its rusted railway bridge,
Its toilets too ornate to be destroyed if not its gazebo
Torn down long ago now. What will she think of the black chicks
Who must have spent such ages on their braids,
Of its grilled kebabs, its purdah and hijabs,
Its marsh barges, joggers, dogs and walkers?
Unsurprised by the prevalence of mobile stores, I’m sure.
After all, they’re everywhere – and that includes
The air-conditioned halls of Chiang-Rai Central where
Every brand is represented, even if the supermarket
On the ground floor proves as enigmatic
As any British Azda. Unlike Tottenham though,
Here juice abounds, as juice-corners also do in Copacabana:
Lichee for acai, come across next to banana
Envelopes and vendors who utilise curious tongs
And culinary thimbles to dribble some intriguing appetizer
Over a variety of balls. I cruise the midnight bazaar,
Pick up a shawl that is still to be had for a song,
Unlike that Haagen Dazs in the glass cabinet of a fridge
In Central, and finish off the night at the Guinness bar
Where a girl in from Laos nurses her backpack and starves.
It’s crowded with its pensioners from Europe who may switch
Into millionaires, craggily knapping their hippy credentials
While chatting up locals masked to be careful.
Rugby pits Wales against Ireland on some distant pitch.
ON THE VERANDA
At length the afternoon concedes
And lets the dark remove our view
As slowly as an hour hand if as inexorable
As the grass appearing after dew.
Some last pods and several stubborn,
Desiccated leaves turn a translucent amber
Seen against a sky free from clouds
But nevertheless so hazy, most of the time,
You wonder, are there stars in Thailand?
Bright as daffodils in England, golden ladies
Seemingly intensify along the lane
While the maker dawdles in his going.
Now those dried out hangers-on
Spread their amber tinge across the West
And over the pineapple rows that climb
Up Under-shovel Hill. Then purple deepens
Every umber sepia as the approach
Of dusk obscures the mountain’s breast.
Even those ladies finally, finally
Turn from gold to grey against the tones
That were colours before, and then
A streetlight opts for the perfect
Moment, as decided by authority,
To switch the night on, spoiling the effect.