Monday, December 25, 2006



Working elephants on the Mae Rim Road.
The famous writer Ludu Daw Ah Mar said:
Where the great elephants go
Convinced she was right, she started writing –
in the vernacular
not in stilted flowery
traditional prose.
She threw away in full view of everyone, a ball pen, given to her
by the supposedly moderate general, now deposed
since 2004. He’s now himself
under house arrest.
An internal power struggle, in the junta
the permanent purge.

On the Mae Rim Road
the elephants
no longer do
real work, lifting, pulling
pushing teak logs, worth $10,000 each
in 1982.
But now I no longer know the price --
as am considering divorce and no longer
to the teak man.
Since 1988, Thailand has had
a teak export ban. The Thai general immediately
an agreement, to exploit, neighboring Burma’s
teak forests. Suited everyone fine
except the Burmese people; the students who fled
to Thailand after the army clampdown of 1988; the ethnic peoples
on the border.

On the Mae Rim Road
the elephants entertain tourists
going around clumsily in circles, holding each other’s
tails, gingerly in their trunks.
The mahouts are all Karen[1]
have given each elephant
a Karen name.

The younger mahouts are
kinder. An old mahout
has so struck at his elephant
with his chun probe, the edges
of the elephant’s ears, are in tatters
storm tossed
banana leaves. Maybe only I
see this.

Everyone else is too busy
rushing around taking photos
and clapping.

I’ve read, before captive elephants
were taught, to paint
they were so bored
in a western zoo
they masturbated and tried
to fornicate
with the red fire hydrant.

On the Mae Rim Road
the elephants no longer
do real work, but it’s not bad
my tourist guide says:
Easier than hauling logs. Is painting.
My guide Tang who speaks

I am exploring
retiring in Thailand
but it might get
too sleepy, too boring
too political and
too dangerous.

The elephants on the Mae Rim
Road, no longer do real work.
They entertain.
Maybe some have been extras
in the film

Copyright Kyi May Kaung
Chiangmai, Thailand.

[1] An ethnic group living in Burma and Thailand called Kayin or Karen.
[2] A popular film, sponsored by the Thai royal family, edited by Francis Ford Coppola and allegedly very anti-Burmese, but I did not find it so objectionable. To me it appeared to focus more on the court intrigues of the Ayuthia royal family and to blame them for the Burmese invasion. Suryothai was a Thai queen who went to war on an elephant to help her husband and was killed.

Sunday, December 10, 2006



Surreal in Northern Thailand.

Yesterday went on a guided tour.

Doi Inthanon National Park.

King's Project.

Guide says -- "And King, he changed opium into flowers."

Shuttle vans with open sides, packed full of people.

Foreign (farang) tourists refuse to ride. But walking may not be safer.

Scenes run through my head of busted brakes, me with my Mini-Minor

in Rangoon, if brakes go hope steering remains, will be no fun, if shuttle van loses brakes now,

plows into pilgrims to King's Stupa and Queen's Stupa.

Invisible people: The Three Karen Women in ethnic handwoven sarongs and electric pink plastic boots.

Doing the squatting gardening.

I like best -- the summit of Doi Inthanon, small white shrine set in undisturbed jungle, rest of it highly


Can't walk in there, beyond the wooden boardwalk. Undergrowth chest high, vines and mosses. Ferns.

I am fascinated, can't stop looking at the tangles of the vines.

First real jungle I've ever seen.

King Inthanon's ashes

in shrine.

Monk in hermit's bark colored robes

walks slowly in meditation, around


Good place for my own ashes

in good time.

Copyright Kyi May Kaung

Saturday, December 02, 2006



A Funny Thing Happened

At the Kefa Café.

I arrived as usual, 6 PM or a little after.

However early I arrive, Lene and Ababe, the owners

have already arranged the chairs for my Salon

This evening Sarah Browning of D.C. Poets Against War is to read.

I get my coffee and Sarah gets a bottle of water.

Ababe at the counter, says “Two people called

They wanted to know if someone named Baldwin is reading.”


The only Baldwin I know is James.

And maybe the piano.

Sarah runs to where Ababe and Lene stack The City Paper

and sure enough the listing says, “James Baldwin will read with Sarah Browning.”

When I watch James Baldwin on TV on American Masters, I wish,

I had arrived in America soon enough to see him, in person,

As I saw Allen Ginsburg once and Robert Creeley

in Philadelphia.

So we intended to invoke the ghost of James Baldwin at the Kefa Café,

this Christmas, but in the end we forgot.

Sarah said she edited out the most painful of her Iraq poems

because she saw the lady in the audience, who said she came because her friend’s

Son had just died in Iraq, was crying.

I didn’t see her crying because I was watching Sarah read.

But I thought the lady’s face did look very red and blotchy.

And rather swollen.

I cry too at poetry readings, at the movies and at weddings.

And I do not even yet have, someone I know who knows someone

who died in Iraq,

but the taxi driver says, he has driven, many amputees and their


from Walter Reed on Georgia Avenue (Route 29)

“Even had a meal with one family at McDonald’s


Copyright Kyi May Kaung



Paintings, Poetry and Refugees.

I’ve had a busy week.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, I was at The American University Refugee Conference, where I showed the more political of my art works, small pieces that can be displayed on a table. One is a simplified portrait of Burmese human rights defender Daw Su Su Nway, who sued the Burmese government and was imprisoned for it. She looks like a naive teenager. I painted the oil on canvas with as few colors and lines as I could manage.

As Paul Klee wrote in Berlin as the Nazis came into power "The paintings look back at you." Su Su Nway looks back at us with clear, open eyes. I imagine her saying "I did this and was punished for this. But you can do what your own conscience tells you to."

In a private email exchange a few days ago, another Burmese woman charmingly calls her conscience, her "conscious." There is not much difference between the 2 words.

People who don't have a conscience are hardly conscious.

At A.U., Hatim Eltayeb Mohamed Ali Elmaki also showed his paintings, naïve and colorful, and a friend of mine, Khin May Zaw showed her slides taken at a Burmese refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border.

My art work featured collages, some made from old business cards “woven” into irregular edged pieces that remind me of the split bamboo matting used as thin walls in poor people’s huts and houses in Burma. I flung acrylic paint in a betel nut red onto the pieces. (When I made them in my studio, not at the Conference). It looks like the betel spit which is ubiquitous on Burmese roads, maybe not in Rangoon now, where there are fines for spitting.

I found betel nut paraphernalia – such as small scissors to shave the small hard betel nuts into chewable wafer thin slices, fan-shaped receptacles for betel leaves (which come from a different plant, a vine) and small lidded tubes for holding the quick lime which is dabbed on a betel leaf, before the leaf is folded up and chewed, in markets in S.E. Asia – such as the Chiangmai Night Bazaar. Some are made of finely wrought silver or neillo ware, inlaid with black. I've put a betel chewing set into my short story The Rider of Crocodiles, written in July after a visit to Thailand.

There is really much that is similar in Burmese and Thai culture.

A video/DVD called “Tongues Don’t Have Bones” which uses my poetry illustrated by images – and made by Lisa DiLillo, was shown both on the 27th and the 28th of November at A.U. The title is from a line in one of my poems and is based on a old Burmese saying.

I am surprised and gratified that this piece has had such a long shelf life. Using footage that any tourist could have shot, DiLillo made this enduring piece of art. She has a wonderful sense of the movements in the film, and the cadences of Burmese speech and gesture. I told my A.U audience that the durability of this testifies to the staying power of truth. Lisa DiLillo and I were only its vehicles, working separately before we even met each other.

It shows that truth is the same, whoever is called to witness it, just by turning his or her eyes towards what is happening, and not away.

Some of the poetry I wrote myself, several were translated from poetry, hard to find, by other Burmese poets. One, Naing Win Swe, was a well known communist who converted to democracy and died in the jungle fighting for freedom. His poem depicts "the drowning punishment" used in the jungle. Sometimes the freedom fighters and groups ape the heirarchical structure and harsh extra-legal methods of the military junta.

I reflect on how poetry has a visceral meaning in Burma – as it has in Chile and Russia. There you don’t go to classes to write poetry, in fact you cannot.

You live life and a lot of poetry is written by the oppressed and disposed, some of them in the Burmese gulag.

I want poetry to have the strength and meaning it has over there, where often your life depends on it, literally.

This same week, Sarah Browning of D.C. Poets Against War, read poetry both at A.U at the beginning of the week, and at my salon, Dr. Kaung’s Salon, in Silver Spring, MD, where she also spoke about how D.C. Poets Against War was revived, in the period close to the start of the second Iraq War in 2003.

I had a nice dinner afterwards with Sarah and another poet, Judith McComb.

In this week of activism, poetry and friendship, I feel like a plant that has found the right pot to live in, has just been watered.

Thanks to Michelle Quinteros and Tim Renner, at American University and other student volunteers for the Refugee Conference. My apologies to David Fogel, and the high school students I was scheduled to meet on Tuesday at Gateway Heliport Gallery where the art of 4 refugee artists (including mine and Hatim's has been displayed in the show Freedom since October: I overschedule myself and was unable to make the open mike reading.

I hope this update in some way makes up for my not being able to get there.

Kyi May Kaung

Burl Ives-Ave Maria