A Traveller’s Guide to the East Indies

by S. K. Kelen


To arrive anywhere tonight
you travel a road lit only by fireflies
to towns whose names really
mean ‘tomb of a hundred martyrs’.
Invisible birds sing tinkling vowels
— words from a time
before history invaded.

Frogs roar louder and louder
kick-starting a generator.
Trees, pagoda, the moon
a shaking world in lagoon water.

Beware the regiments of the kangaroo!
Progress follows without emission controls.
Across, say, the Banda Sea or clouded mountain ranges
a world lost for ten thousand years
soon adjusts to ghetto-blasters and minibuses.

Western airliners overhead: missiles
that deliver foreign exchange.
Banyan trees grow sideways through the air.
Shouts and shrieks of barter and cash
amplify in a packed bazaar.

Crowds ebb and swell, laughing.
Trays of trinkets, batiks, sweets, fruit
and vegetables all laid out on small grass mats.
Beggars harangue pointing at their children.

A legendary pickpocket, Dusk, splashes red over the sky.


In Sumatran cities transvestites caterwaul
after visitors’ fair skin.
Bus races over cliffs are a diversion
most prefer to miss, likewise a tiger
loose in a longhouse
though if one wears the brass ring a shaman prescribes
a tiger’s friendship is assured.
Indeed you’ll be invited home to its lair
and there smoke pipes of jungle grass,
receive potent amulets as gifts.

Kalimantan monkeys and wildcats screech like brakes
before a crash. Honey bears and orangutans,
chant laments, carry giant lilies to hideaways
as all the forests are felled
so throw-away-teak-chopsticks
adorn Japanese bowls.

Whilst animist priests fill an earth station’s dish
with rice, square rigged ships ply old spice routes.
On deck, gladly corrupted sailors swig arak
and drunk as baboons on durians their minds
swim off to the Roaring Forties.

S. K. Kelen's picture

S. K. Kelen is a widely published Australian poet. His most recent books are Goddess of Mercy (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2002), and Earthly Delights (Pandanus Press, 2006)

Last updated July 20, 2011