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What bites the Bard of Pattaya

Dec 08. 2017
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By The Sunday Nation

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In odes to the Thai experience, William Peskett finds merit in the mundane on his way to uncovering the profound.

Imagine William Peskett, resident of Pattaya, an England-born Irishman (assuming there is such a thing in itself), sort of “googling” his name in the collected works of William Shakespeare, resident of Stratford thence London thence Stratford again, and finding multiple entries. 

Peskett, whose short-fiction/essay collections “The Day of the Tiger”, “Selected Short Stories of Thailand” and “Return to the Go-Go” have all drawn praise on this page in recent years, goes by “Will”, as did the Bard of Avon. And, like the Bard did, he recognises the fertile ground for puns therein (“Will will at will repeat”).

In joining at play with the word and name found frolicking in Shakespeare’s Sonnets 135 and 136, Peskett – already a published poet – decided to portray his own world in this rhyme construction that’s not always easy to read and surely trickier to write. He shows a gift for the off-kilter couplets, but he’s the first to admit he’s no Shakespeare:

 

Comparison is reckless and perverse:

Where Will wrote wisdom, I write verse

 

The results are indeed mixed, the subject matter sometimes mundane, but there are many precious gems in this charming collection, lovingly presented in a petite 70-page paperback and illustrated with apt photos. It’s by turns amusing and cheeky, sombre and contemplative.

To begin with, the author looks at what’s on his plate and what’s buzzing around his own flesh – soft-shell crabs and dengue-laden mosquitoes (“The virus that’s to blame is in my blood / Its doings there are doing me no good”). And he converses with them in quizzical monologue, simple thrusts rendered complex by the circuitous, tumbled rhyming.

Paeans to crustaceans and even an insect cursed might be taken as acknowledgement of the ecosystem that preserves us all, yet Peskett has more in mind. He’s frequently tongue-in-cheek and flippant, but he might also be advocating that, rather than Tweeting and Facebooking our days away, we choose real life over its virtual shell. The poem “Mobile” suggests wedding vows updated for the tech era:

 

I will not give you up at any price,

My love, my darling sweetheart, my 

device.

 

Real life, for all its flaws, warrants less criticism when the subjects are human, as in “Expat Love”, safely presumed to be an ode to Peskett’s Thai wife.

“We’re student and instructor sharing praise,” it says, and Thai and farang roles reverse according to each passing day’s needs.

 

When age makes me the tutor you sit 

back

And suffer to be taught the things I’ve 

known;

Then you prepare me in the ways I lack,

So challenged by a culture not my own.

The scribe confesses to limited patience in comparison to his mate, the “diplomat at large”, and in the end concludes (as should all Westerners in their dealings with Thais, and vice versa):

 

We’ll never change each other, let’s be 

clear;

But, still the same, we make our 

contrasts mere.

 

Would that more of Thailand’s grumbling hordes of expatriates understood this. It should be written on the gates at Immigration.

The concepts aren’t so profound when Peskett rides on whimsy alone. Among the lightweight efforts are “Chilli” (“Those blessed with age are nothing like the young; / They crave spice in their lives, not on their tongue”) and “Sukishi”:

 

I’m hungry now, so as I walk I scan

The menus that they put out on the 

street

One common type of which I am a fan

Is one that promises “All You Can Eat”.

 

There are poems about snooker, Songkran, the noble pickup truck, and the Kingdom’s capital (“So only if your system needs a shock / Should you consider visiting Bangkok.” Not surprisingly, Pattaya fares much better in Peskett’s treatment.) 

The entries “Ladyboys” and “Hot” simply joust poetically with conventional notions and matters of fact, offering nothing fresh. But the groan-worthy fluff is handily swept aside by musings of deep poignancy and excellent wordplay. 

In “Ko”, the island destination is “rather an idea that dawns on you as you queue for the ferry”. “Cosmetic Surgery” is a lament for Thais seeking to look less Thai:

 

An Asian face with borrowed Western eyes?

I hear the heavens weep as beauty dies.

 

In “Drink”, present plans for a booze-up clash with dread over future self-remonstration, triggering a bout of schizophrenia, “When thoughtless now ignores what next day thinks.”

The poem “At Hellfire Pass” visits the quiet Kanchanaburi monument to one of the worst ordeals endured in World War II, “the trial that found the giant in every man”:

 

The generation that could meet that 

test

Bore mine, the ones untried whose lives 

are blessed

 

If “The Thailand Sonnets” lacks the sustained power of Peskett’s prose and the sheer thrill of the hunt found in “Day of the Tiger”, there are at least a couple of tigers lurking here. One appears in a humorous admonishment to those who deplore the spectacle of boys in girlie bars:

 

Objectors, fetch a Tiger from your shelf

And sit at home and drink it by your

self.

 

The other is not the beer but a real tiger, observed forlorn in chained captivity:

 

The wild ones, do they visit you at night

And press their noses to yours through 

the wire?

Where you are wronged, do they urge 

what is right?

And, where you’ve lost your fight, do 

they bring fire?

...

What drugs do these small showmen 

give to you

To make you pose with tourists as you 

do?

 

In “Jungle”, what remains of Thailand’s ancient forests are found to be “isolated ... tufts around the planet of our skin”. Peskett named his imprint Cycad Books because he sees cycads as characterising tropical flora equally old. The venerable gingko is just one familiar example. 

“They remind me of visits to humid hothouses in botanical gardens in my youth, times when I never dreamt I’d ever have such things growing in my own garden,” he said in an email. “I trained as a biologist, so it runs deep. Also, cycads haven’t evolved much in 10 million years – so, a bit like me, really.”

 

The Thailand Sonnets

By William Peskett

Published by Cycad Books, 2017

Available at Amazon.com, Bt250 

(e-book Bt66)

 

Reviewed by Paul Dorsey

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