from Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint


Antics on Elephant-back

When, over the vast jungle, daylight failed,
the elephant-handlers chose twenty beasts
and led them for outfitting in the field.

With silks they draped one whose walk wavered least
and as our master’s own mount set her apart;
then in the same clearing laid down to rest

awaiting the dawn, when our march would start.
His Highness as well went straightway to bed
with troops arranged in four shifts to keep guard.

The other attendants slept as if dead,
utterly spent—all but myself, for so strong
was the heartache that my love for you bred

I could hear the watchmen before long
taking their break, and their voices at play
challenging each other to compose “half-songs.”

Some sang of the woods as they do in the plays
in slow, plaintive tones. Though I could have joined,
instead, through the night I lay turned away

and gazed at the moon wheeling his course.
Reminded of you, by chance his namesake,
my pain was too great to be written in verse!

At that same hour when the wild roosters break
the night’s calm with crowing, and the songbirds
start calling each other, I started awake—

thinking it was your clear voice that I heard;
but then saw the moon, still bright overhead,
the elephants in single-file ordered.

My comrades also awoke, and these made
their own racket: some hollered to rouse
the stragglers; rolled mats or rations bundled,

or bickered over whose howdah was whose.
Some others clambered onto elephant-back:
to them, piece by piece, our equipment arose,

but when they couldn’t keep up, then crack!
went the dishes; plates clanged against cups;
rice pots were shattered; bowls and pitchers broke,

and chili-paste urns lay bottom-side up           
on the ground where they fell. But we only tied
the trays of betelwood to strands of rope

and left them hanging from the elephants’ sides—
in trying times much lovelier than earthenwares.
The women who came made a pitiful sight:

their baubles were broken, their combs and mirrors,
their pots of creams and turmeric powder.
The owners could only watch this in tears.

Come time to board, they fared little better:
in trim, foot-length skirts so neatly dressed,
the girls were unable to swing their legs over

the elephants’ humps. Instead, all distressed,
they’d flail on the cords around the animals’ necks.
And if one of the elephants should twist

a trunk towards them, the maidens would shriek,
tear their Indian dresses, lose their grips,
and to the ground tumble with a great smack.

 The officers chortled until their sides were stiff
—then, suddenly stern, called their men to make haste.
Onto the elephants some hauled themselves up

and pulled the women after them by their wrists;
while others, swapping modesty for speed,
heaved the poor girls aboard by the waist.

Once sunlight across the landscape had spread,
and each man had eaten to his heart’s fill,
His Highness, throned on the mount of state, bade

his driver lead us into the hills.
Departing our campsite by the pier
we entered an expanse of open field,

our caravan kicking into the air
above the mountain-pass, enormous dust clouds,
each stride causing the howdahs to waver,

so that our bodies were jostled about.
Guard-elephants ringed His Highness’ mount;
behind, in one long train, we servants rode.

Unlucky as always, I sat at the front
of a young bull, his head dripping with oil.
For laughs, a friend slapped my ride with his hand:

the creature charged for the woods, and I fell
—almost fell off, but the rider in rear
caught hold of me. Can you picture my gall?

I wanted to leap off that beast, right there
in the middle of that forsaken wood,
but knew I’d never live it down—my peers

all would have said I had a woman’s heart.

Recalling Love Scenes by Pleasant River

A tree leaned its branches over the water.
I helped tie a vine-swing around one bough.
The ladies took turns at calling each other

to push them on this—but slowly now, slow.
Like Sita hanging herself in the theater,
the girls swaying each other seemed just so.

The vine, though, was brittle; one girl, unluckier
than her companions: when she was swung,
the cord snapped and plunged her into the water;

her breast-cloth flew off, her gold trinkets rang.
In laughter both banks erupted as one,
but at the sight of those women, a pang

rose in my chest, and I stifled a groan.
Still, that pleasant stream lived up to its name:
As in the Inao, the girls’ worship done,

the gallant watched as they played in the stream,
one and the same seemed his story and mine.
The pebbles like crystal or the red gem

glimmered; or, if green, were brilliantly green;
there came little fish, two by two, swimming past,      
and flower petals of all kinds were strewn

on the waters within the lovers’ midst—
though heartsick, these flowers afforded some cheer.
Of these the couples competed to gather the most;

on this afternoon, more than a hundred pairs
to dip themselves in the stream had come down,
and steal hidden glances from one another.

Amid such delight, I suffered alone
and this embittered the pain that I felt.
Watching those lovers, each one with his own,

I thought of the days when the two of us dwelled
ardent in love. It nearly cost me my life
before that could be: I plead and I wheeled

before I could win you to clasp as my wife!
In anger you’ve all but severed those ties
and now, not having composed our strife,

I’ve been summoned into this wilderness.
Not even Inao, who bore the curved blade,
when parted from Chindra knew sorrow like this;

not Sudhón, Manohra gone from his side;
not Rama when Sita was stolen from him.
Not even to Indra the Thousand-Eyed,

did such heartache and anguish come
when his lady took her love to the grave.
Though masters of the earth, the four of them

were humbled by Love and brought to grief.
Yet even their woes weighed far less than mine:
not one month had passed since you rebuffed me,

my friends were already noting how thin
my body had grown, reduced to its frame;
I wouldn’t say why. So, over the scene

in that place of smooth currents, Pleasant Stream,
in these long thoughts absorbed, I gazed—until
the sun neared his setting. By the way I came,

I turned back to our campsite beside the Hill.

translated from the Thai by Noh Anothai