Around the same time, I began reading Saksiri Meesomsueb’s That Hand Is White (มือนั้นสีขาว). A Thai professor recommended this book when she learned that I wanted to get my feet wet translating more contemporary Thai literature than the classical works I was used to. If it weren’t the case for most Thai authors, I would have been surprised that Meesomsueb hadn’t already been widely translated: since debuting in 1983, Meesomsueb has published eight books of verse and several short story collections, as well as received numerous accolades. As the poet’s third and best-known collection, as well as the winner of the 1992 Southeast Asian Writers (S.E.A. Write) Award, That Hand Is White was an obvious place to start reading, and yet I couldn’t have known how timely my decision would be.
As worshippers and police officers faced off outside Wat Dhammakaya, one poem seemed especially poignant. In “Sleight,” Meesomsueb transports us to a liminal zone between a Buddhist monastery and a marketplace, spaces that never appear very far from each other in the collection. Though in the former material things are renounced, while in the latter they’re openly exchanged, the very first lines complicate otherwise traditional boundaries. The first figures to assemble here in the ambiguous pre-morning light are not as distinguishable as they may seem:
A beggar at the crack of dawn comes with
an empty cup, just as a line of monks
serenely with their bowls set out for alms.
One man has lost his worldly possessions, while the others have willingly given theirs away; all reach out for charity. What makes one holier?
As the poem goes on, these boundaries get murkier still: as monks encourage worshippers to give within temple walls, merchants outside deal in religious icons, shop-women “stretch the truth,” and a snake charmer subdues a hooded cobra. A child is enthralled by the stunt, and:
Back home, his mother shows off a phallus charm,
while he raves about the cobra, spitting as he speaks.
You’re making too much of what you saw, dear.
They only took a snake out of a sack.
How do we distinguish, the poem asks, between truth, exaggeration, and outright deception; ritual, religion, and superstition; an otherworldly feat and a parlor trick? A charlatan posing on his sickbed and a falsely-accused sage?
When she noticed me reading That Hand Is White, my aunt remarked that the poems have a puer cheewit (“for life”) feel to them, a term used to describe a socially-conscious mode in Thai literature and popular music that emerged from the civil unrest of the 1960s and ’70s. True to form, the collection takes on all manner of contemporary woes: wealth disparity, environmental destruction, the desensitizing effects of urban life, the inroads of capitalism into Buddhist practice. But thanks to Meesomsueb’s unique background, That Hand Is White outshines its peers in the same genre. As a songwriter, Meesomsueb deftly adapts traditional Thai meters into a rollicking almost-free verse filled with unexpected rhyme. Moreover, with his initial training as a painter, Meesomsueb’s poems have a strong visual element, unfolding like tableaus: a kitten’s eyes moving from the face of one child to another; a monk’s orange robes amid a crowd of somber civilians; the flashing white soles of a teacher’s feet over a classroom floor. And since many of the poems are also told from the perspective of children, a fantastic quality pervades them: animals snicker and grin, toy guns go off, the moon is a crispy white rice cracker. Through this, Meesomsueb has a way of speaking to contemporary concerns from a timeless, almost archetypal place, without seeming didactic or weighed-down by specifics that will seem dated later. And, as I would soon find, a way of speaking to situations far beyond Thai borders.
I returned to the US briefly in early July, landing in Chicago a few hours after a sniper had gunned down several police officers in Texas—this in a country still reeling from the Orlando nightclub massacre the month before, the ongoing shootings of unarmed people of color by law enforcement, and where the debate over sensible gun regulations was once again boiling over.
“Even a wooden gun can kill,” warns another poem in That Hand Is White, “if one think it real, no gun of wood.” In this poem, simply titled “Change,” an angry father snatches a toy rifle from an older boy who has been teasing his son, mistaking it for a real one, and knocks the bully about the ears. But violence only begets violence, and the two men are merely inverses of each other: just as the father overreacts to a toy gun, thinking it more dangerous than it really is, the bully, taught that force is an appropriate means of self-expression, grows to regard real weapons as playthings: “He sees a real gun as wooden, fun to trigger; / that seed of anger you’ve sown within him / has changed the wooden gun slung off his shoulder.”
Though the poem indeed delivers a “change,” we’re struck by how disappointing it is—the players have switched roles, but it’s still the same game. The ideal of meaningful change hangs tantalizingly aloof above the fixedness of the poem, withholding any answer to the cycle of violence, debate, and deadlock I knew still lay ahead for us.
Over the next few weeks, as I briefly resumed Midwestern life and began translating the poems—as bombs went off around the world, as the US shuddered at the specter of a Trump presidency—Meesomsueb’s poems seemed to be present wherever I looked. On some days, the world felt like the one in “Drowned,” in which a girl’s drawing of a litter of mice, a cat, and a dog cuddling together is blown into a pond by a capricious wind:
She clamps her eyes shut before daring to look
what had become of the cat, the dog, the little micelets,
peaceful only in the hand-drawn picture.
Whoever saw it would have said how pretty.
She reaches out a long stick to save them,
but even wading halfway up her shins can’t help.
And yet, That Hand Is White is not a bleak or nihilistic collection. Its children especially, whose simple innocence and selflessness Meesomsueb idealizes, constantly perform small acts of kindness. “[O]h you children / how much you care,” the speaker beams in “Kids Under an Umbrella.” Four children—like the four syllables in each line of the original Thai—are sharing an umbrella with a kitten in the rain: “it cries meow meow / looking from this face to that.” By the time they grow up, however, Meesomsueb’s children are numb to the needs of others, as in “Doze,” written in the same formal constraints. Here, spiritual values, represented by the appearance of a monk as a flash of yellow robes amid the grey, huddled shapes of a crowded city bus, are willfully ignored:
[the] engine growls
and gearshifts groan
stress beads in drops
just standing room
. . .
at the next stop
oh hey, a monk! . . . now, zzz.
Open your eyes, Meesomsueb implores. Wake up. And perhaps not so much Grow up as Open up, as you did when you were young. Prefaced with the words Only with clean hands can we clean the world, That Hand Is White suggests that the world can be a better place—if we tap into the compassion of youth and renew the childlike sense of empathy to effect change.
In mid-August 2016, after only a month stateside, I returned to Thailand, this time to teach at a university in the country’s mountainous North, set apart from town and surrounded by field and farm. Although I lived just over campus walls, it was on a poorly lit road, in such bad condition that it could hardly be called paved at all. If it rained the potholes ran ankle-deep with water the color of rust and, after sunset, it was almost impossible to avoid falling into one—things I learned the hard way during my first week, when I nearly sprained my ankle feeling for a dry foothold in the dark.
In those first few weeks before I had a car or even a bike, I would trudge the twenty or so minutes to campus cursing my luck, treading gently so as not to speckle my slacks with mud or dust. I complained about it more than I care to admit, like the teacher in “Dogs in the Lead,” who, newly graduated from the city and stationed at a provincial school, has to ride a rickety oxcart to work every day. “My butt’s nearly busted with each pothole we hit,” he groans as mangy strays sniff each other and piss themselves around him. (In my own life, two black dogs once came howling from behind a thicket as I walked past, snapping at my heels.)
It’s clear that Meesomsueb pokes fun at the urban elite through this character, but the extent of his pettiness is so subtly conveyed that it’s easy to miss, and so biting that it’s worth pointing out. “The new teacher mutters something—boohoo—/ his arms cradling a pair of designer shoes,” I would recite under my breath before setting out each morning, cuffing the pant legs high above my own shoes. A few lines later, we hear that the teacher’s students are eager to see—not his rong thao, his shoes, which would have been the obvious subject of interest and which I misread several times—but his roi thao, his footprints. At first, I thought this was a typo until I realized that in Thai primary schools, it’s customary to remove shoes before entering the classroom. The teacher is weeping over shoes that he won’t even wear to class.
In my own life, I was lucky to be able to keep my shoes on in class—to have shoes at all—to be able to walk to work—to be able to walk—to have work in the first place, and with young people at that. Waking up to another rainy workday, I had to remind myself of this—and of Meesomsueb. Only with clean hands can we clean the world, I would groan.
But no one said anything about clean pants and a nice pair of boots.