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from the August 2015 issue

When

1

When the ever so polite earthquake
Rocked our village
I heard the singing and dancing
In the village square
Suddenly fall silent. Insects and other animals
The grass, plants, and trees
And even the words that were being spoken
Sentences filled with anger that billowed like smoke
Suddenly fell mute. All was still

2

Our small and stuffy room with its cracked wall
A lantern flickering from lack of oil
The bed with its creaky springs and withered pillows
Where all was fatigue and exhaustion, moans and sighs
Seem so distant now. Even the oaths and curses
The shrieks and cries that resounded like pounding on a drum
Are barely audible. I see night dragging its sandals
And dawn anchoring itself on the bamboo
I see the distant horizon and camps of slow-moving clouds
Tinged with red blanketing, a man bent over in pain
The back of a man who is the horizon. Suddenly again we feel
That small quake, a brief pounding, and a gentle nudge
Time loses its footstep, minutes shed their seconds
And hours pool like gutter water. As memory roams free
Thoughts jump from their nest and feelings emerge effortlessly
There is no difference between hope and hopelessness
And life and death are so close to each other. Space and time
Are thrown from their axis. Sky and earth embrace like lovers
Who’ve long not met. And silence rules from its throne

3

When the surly tide
Swept away coconut leaves and rooftops
When a windstorm attacked paddy fields and orchards
Knocking down mosques and prayer houses, and flattening
Shoddily maintained primary schools and health centers
I saw fish flying, chickens running, and cows, and goats dying in their pens
With flashlights and lanterns, watchmen dug through the rubble
In search of corpses. The next day soldiers and police arrived
To dig a mass grave and bury the casualties together
Before they decomposed.Then an aftershock rocked us once more
And fucking flood waters swept in again. Everything passed
Even our long genealogy, which was wrested from its deepest roots
Everything passed, even history that had forced us to go
To unknown places. And we had to accept it
That nothing would return, nothing at all
Even our own existence or nonexistence

4

I forgot seasons and weather, gave up on dates and days
Knew only that there were still aftenoons and evenings
Darkness and light and pain and happiness
For such a long time I did not care about good or bad
Right or wrong, reputable or disreputable
All I did was play dominos, moving from tent to tent
Barrack to barrack and command post to command post
Until I finally found my rail-thin wife sheltered in a cardboard shack
And then we were in love again. In love when waiting our turn at the outhouse
In love when waiting for the food rations to be handed out
In love when watching the Independence Day parade
Election campaign speeches at the village center
And waiting our turn to vote in the voting booth
But such bullshit that here, in this middle of this flow of hot mud
We were told to vote for ward leader, district chief, governor,
And president. We were told to choose one from among the many
Who were handing out T-shirts, calendars, posters, and food packets
One from among those people whose faces were plastered everywhere
Even though we didn’t know them and had never heard their voices
So, to make it easy, we just chose the one with the thickest mustache

5

On the sloping riverbank, atop a smelly heap of trash
A hovel, our future, rose into the air, spun momentarily
Then collapsed and was washed away. Floods come every year
Fires most every month, stomach ailments on a weekly basis
Hunger and anger our daily friends. For so long we’ve been forgotten
Moving from beneath bridges to retired railway cars,
Yet we always find a reason to laugh at most any situation
Yesterday, a neighbor fell from a building onto the high-power electric lines
Yesterday we found another corpse floating in the well.
Last night our oldest was arrested by the police. Our third caught avian flu.
And then we hear, softly in the distance, the president
With his pleasant voice, singing on television
Probably about the rainbows that have disappeared from our eyes

 

First published as “Ketika” in Bagian dari Kegembiraan (Tasikmalaya: Pustaka Azan, July 2013). © Acep Zamzam Noor. Translation © 2015 by John McGlynn. Forthcoming in Like Death Approaching & Other Poems (Jakarta: The Lontar Foundation, October 2015).

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