Trans-Sumatran Highway & Other Poems
House Of Rats
They’re up there, all right,
in the roof playing scrabble, listening to
scratchy old Fats Waller records.
They started out as a gang of desperadoes
escaped from a laboratory,
arrived via a garbage truck
up overhanging tree branches
elbowed their way in & soon
the colony is an empire of rats
who eat the insulation batts
chew wires, through the ceiling
to ransack the kitchen
take bites out of everything
& carry off furniture. I can hear them
scurrying with bits & pieces, hammering & sawing:
they’re building houses – a model rat town – with
imitation garages to park stolen toy cars in.
After munching down another box of double strength poison
the rats are back at work with a vengeance, thump
around the rafters insulating the house with rat shit.
Or hard at love writhing, squealing
like sick starlings or kicked puppies. The weaker explode
and TV screens fill with rats‘ blood but there’s
more where they came from. Teeming over
mountains, down valleys, jamming highways, falling
off bridges to scurry ashore up storm water drains.
Exterminators arrive dressed as astronauts and poison
the house for ten thousand years. It’s time to move out.
But the rats have laid eggs in your pockets, stow
away, follow you from house to house.
The curse enters its exponential phase.
Tentacles unwind from the ceiling, dirty great moths
and leopard slugs take over your happy home.
Soon you are a trellis. That’s just what the rats say.
I’m down here listening to radio messages,
oiling automatic weapons, building rockets.
Living in a rat’s belly.
Is a race track built for carts, winds a silver spell over a dragon’s back.
The bus has no front brakes and our lives are God’s will,
Life turns with the wheels
The bus stops at a walking highway.
Hello Money, the children welcome you, smile sweetly,
their eyes shine sun and mountain.
Rickety rope bridges criss-cross the Bohorok River
that surges the approaching mountain tsunami.
And at the head of the river is the Jungle Inn
where the manager registers guests in the heart of darkness.
Elements are real, everything else is a game or trick
and at night the mountain gods demonstrate glee.
Sheet lightning frames river & forest in white light
shows the once quiet river is black and angry
with churning mud. Air crackles, lightning in the river
flash flash the lightning is in us electric humans.
The wind brings the cries of angry elephants
river swells like high sea &
on its banks the bamboo towns wait.
Every Sunday gibbons, white and black monkeys
overrun villages on the Trans-Sumatra Highway.
Occasionally, a bamboo tiger kitten will stray…
A ragged boy chases a bicycle wheel with a stick
through coffee and pepper trees.
Beyond the Government Orang-utan Sanatorium,
past the final waterfalls and bamboo walls
far from the rice paddy’s jaws and grinding saws
a tiger roars his name Harimau, Harimau, Harimau.
Closer to town, it’s weekend fun and the end for a honeybear
and her cubs squaring up to a pack of hunting dogs.
Back at the Jungle Inn, mushrooms explode
in a vicious brew specially prepared for Hari Merdeka.
Drink magic the sky sings, stars form themselves
into a map of the archipelago.
on TV with the sound turned down,
the President’s Jakarta parade elicits much laughter.
As it is a holiday appease volcano spirits
with sacrifices of lit cigarettes,
leave rice on roofs for storms to eat.
Almost facing the Malacca Straits, Medan is a city that chokes
on vinyl air, satellite dishes mount tenements‘
rusted iron roofs TVs shout foreign devilry.
Smoky traffic, honking horns, crunching gears.
Air burns. It might be Hell but above the din
a 200 decibel call to prayer echoes in every heart.
Hectares of sweets & crunchy treats
fill bustling Bukittinggi markets where everyone just eats.
Here Zeus lands and falls in love with a cocktail waitress
from Nias and this event recurs daily,
a portent amplified by a convention of Batak gangsters
at the Modern Hotel, Parapet,
looms in the Muslim Women’s League
Brestagi branch’s deliberations.
Deeper in the markets‘ maze darkness eats daylight
stalls sell sweets for cruel tastes,
there’s a fresh tiger on display
(tracked for eight days in Jambi Province).
Benny the jammu is running with bottles
to drain the cat’s blood fast so it’s bottled hot
while his apprentice has the arduous task of grinding bones/
Toto has a buyer for the skin and the Sultan of Dash
has first options on the penis; the brain is eaten
on the spot. Whiskers and whatever’s left will be spread thinly
through an assortment of teas, pills and jellies for export.
Along a track winding through rice fields, a boy
chases a bicycle wheel with a stick.
Lake Maninjau’s scenery shifts about, sky trades
colours with mountains disguised as clouds
a billion shades of grey and blue
the crickets‘ song is everything.
Maninjau the poets‘ lake is serene with traffic’s non-stop zoom.
Old men in coolie hats paddle canoes to heaven.
The tourists‘ many-tongued chatter fires up
when the power fails, bark with gusto.
Sunset glistens across waking water
blinding as shaman’s dust.
catch the cockroach boat
for Tanjung Priok,
port of Jakarta )
Open the refrigerator & it laughs
look outside at the white fire
above an exploding deep freeze
from nowhere daggers
the white whirl upward, upward
down & ever in
deep chill atoms collide
in ode to the wind
lizards of snow
blow along the road
then the lizards twist
into rough helixes
that sweep themselves
& let go
Jack Blizzard stands at the edge of town
he breathes in & car batteries die
slicks the road and exhales harder—
that man headed home
won’t make it this time-—
a thin picnic blanket
locked in the trunk—
anyway car doors froze—
the snow dance—a burning lung—
white twist—the poor man shouts—
blood holes up finally in its canyon—
gleam popsicle & stalagmite
—then the letting go—one breath
glazes him to the windscreen.
The houses are shaking, a tubercular
whistle pitches high into scream
drops hard to bang on the window
like passing thunder.
Old Jack Blizzard’s at the door, now,
chainsaw laughing as he tricks the lock
blows it open, whirls things like a hay devil
and you have to push so hard to get him out.
Jack cackles down Main Street,
takes an ice hammer from his belly
smashes himself into a thousand shards
and where he stood
poisoned wolf is born,
who bites the ass
of a wino waking to his heart’s chill
and regurgitates bloody snow
stumble, prey to the wolf
gone long ago.
Windows roar as the ice seeds
hatch vapour renditions in the air:
coyote, jack rabbit, buffalo, and bear
join the wolf turning out of Main into Elm,
snow lizards powder the sidewalks
sweep all before, Jack’s fingers
glide under every door.