They lay her limp body, more dead than alive,
before the old abbot, beside the altar.
He asks when her husband was summoned to war:
“A year now? No news? Well, he might still live,
but she…how old is she?
Of course, twenty-five
—adulthood’s hard entrance, though these eyes have never
beheld anyone the age has so withered.
Still, bring the black thread, and she might survive.”
The almanac crackles. He calculates
a name for each star, then from among them
dubs her the brightest: Wan-Tong, “Day of Gold.”
By the gold morning, her fever abates;
better she rises, but what change can claim
the foreboding that on her heart keeps hold?
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: In Thai superstition, 25 is a perilous turning-point in one’s life, a year of either extreme good fortune or pronounced difficulty. As I neared my own twenty-fifth birthday, I thought often of Pim, protagonist of the Thai folk-epic Khun Chang Khun Phaen (“Sir Chang and Sir Phaen,” named after a rival for Pim’s hand and Pim’s husband, respectively). As she neared 25, Khun Phaen was enlisted for battle, and Pim fell so ill pining that the local abbot had to perform a name change on her. ¶ Still commonly practiced in Thailand today—both my mother and aunt bear different names from those on their birth certificates—this ceremony operates on the notion that assuming a new, astrologically auspicious name and, therefore, an identity, can free a person from difficult planetary influences or karmic duress. It also traditionally involves offering food to the spirits, dashing uncooked rice at the “patient,” and finally tying a black thread around her wrist. I wrote this poem wondering if such outward changes—or any, like haircuts and makeovers, the things people seek when making new starts—can really uproot deep-seated inner conditions. ¶ Now almost halfway through my twenty-fifth year, I can’t say I’ve experienced more than the normal growing pains—like working two part-time adjunct positions (which amounts to a full-time job without benefits) and paying off my first car loan. I am, however, losing my hair, and baldness will soon be a trait I share with Khun Chang, the crass, overweight man who attempts to win Wan-Tong in her husband’s absence. The Thais of their day found baldness repulsive, and re-reading the epic—and the slurs Wan-Tong heaps on Khun Chang’s shiny head—before writing this poem was hard on my ego. There are some nights when I think that I need a renaming to ward off my own twenty-fifth birthday blues: redefining my conceptions of masculine beauty and coming to terms with my changing body.
IMAGE: “0-9″ (detail) by Jasper Johns (1961).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Noh Anothai is the pen name of Anothai Kaewkaen, who was a researcher with the Thailand-United States Education Foundation (Fulbright Thailand) between 2011-12. In that time, he translated programs and hosted cultural events for Thailand’s Ministry of Culture and College of Dramatic Arts. He has also written poems for the My First Book Project, which benefits underprivileged Thai students. The winner of Lunch Ticket‘s inaugural Gabo Prize for Translation and Multi-lingual Texts in 2014, Anothai has work forthcoming in The Raintown Review and Structo. Visit him at imallthaidup.wordpress.com.
Author photo by Christopher Fleck.