Thursday, January 25, 2007


Tin Moe’s poetry translated by Kyi May Kaung.
Copyright Tin Moe
Translation copyright Kyi May Kaung

Sobs (The Desert Years)

An intake of breath.
A sliver of glass.
Old decades of years
cannot consider.
In these years the bees cannot
make honey the mushrooms
cannot sprout.
All the fields are out of
crops -- Dry.

The mist is damp.
The storm is dim.
The dust rising in clouds,
Along the road where
the bullock cart
has traveled.

Encircled by thorns
The hta-naung tree its trunk
Cat’s claw scratched, is trying
To bloom.

It does not rain.

When it does – it’s not enough
To soak the earth.

In the monastery at
The edge of the village
Are not heard. If they are
they do not enter the ears

There are no novices
Saffron clad
Zilch sounds of young
Reciting the scriptures only the
Kappiya attendant
With his
shaved head falls between the
pillars and the columns of the building.

The earth doesn’t dare
To put forth fruit
It abandons all
And looks at me
At once feeling embarrassed
And frightened as if she
Cannot talk.

When will the sobs change
and the bells ring sweetly again?

New Pages

With one great sigh
So early in the morning
I heave myself out
Of bed

Among the skyscrapers that hit the clouds
The car horns going pipi pipie
The trains full of people ta sisie
The world that stays current with the age
With rapid rat feet
I have to find a place
I can reside
And be safe.

Find my own cool pot
Of village water, on
A stand for strangers, by the roadside.
Ye kyan sin.

Only in old age
When infirmity is catching up with me
Do I have to undertake
This long journey
Of many steps.

On yesterday’s pages
I wrote out the history
So many instances of
So many mistakes
How bitter the taste
Of all those mistakes.

Here, the car engines cough
Into action, in an airplane I have arrived
At the edge of the continent of
North America.

Will I be able
Old and alone as I am
To change the course of history
To edit the past
How will I manage to do

But old as I am
I still have the unrent flag
Of my heart’s spirit still
Waving undaunted.

I can raise up my spirits.

Holding in my hand
A lantern of light
Drinking a potion to keep me
Forever young, I go again to battle singing
A song
Of my own

That sigh that is let out
It’s not
The sign of a deep depression
It is only
The swish of another page turning
Another page
Of my own and my country’s
Dark history.

To Thakin Kodaw Hmaing

With his topknot
On his head
His jacket lopsided
Frogged over
Half his chest, his cloth of
Cotton his yaw
Longyi of indigo
Blue, pundit
Hmaing is a true
Wise man.

With his brain
And his guts
He has risen up
In Revolution.

Miss Red with Little Umbrella.

Gracefully she comes
With her little umbrella.
Come on over, come on over
Teacher is calling.

With her head held up at an angle

Stridently she sings
Recites her lessons. In her
Miss Red
Is always

Copyright Tin Moe
Translation copyright Kyi May Kaung


Burmese Poet Tin Moe: In Memorium.
by Kyi May Kaung (Ph.D.)

One of the most onerous things one has to do, is write an obituary when a fellow poet, artist, writer or dissident dies. I just opened my computer file where tributes to three other notable people who worked for Burma and freedom are still lying quietly, some published, some not.
I first met poet Tin Moe when he wrote to the radio station where I was working in Washington D.C. He wanted to leave Burma and work overseas. This was in 1997. No one at my former workplace did anything to help him, though I showed his letter to another writer and to the then manager, who was in a position to offer him a job.
Tin Moe was already a famous poet and had been in prison a few years. Time passed. I was offered the opportunity to write and produce a weekly program in air on Burmese and international dissident poetry. I started with a piece on the poet Naing Win Swe, who had died in the jungle with other freedom fighters. I thought naively that I would do one weekly column and the next week my material would run out and there would be nothing left to talk about. I did not yet know the extremely important role that poetry plays in oppressive systems like the Burmese one. Every week, I used to get poetry leads from friends and acquaintances and poetry fans. They sent me hand written or transcribed poems, remembered poems, rare editions from Burma and carefully hand copied pages of poems which had been inked out of Burmese magazines by the official censors. My poetry column went on and continued for over three years until my time at the radio ended.
Towards the end, I underwent a good deal of job harassment, resulting in my losing my job in February of 2001. About 1999, Tin Moe arrived in the United States on a visit. I understood that he had managed to emigrate with the help of his daughter, who then lived in Belgium. I did a program on his poetry and translated some of his poems into English. These were featured in an interview about him, based on the radio interview, which I sent to Burma Debate. It is still on line.
A mutual friend said she “would practice videography” by filming me interviewing Tin Moe in my Washington D.C. apartment, so we set up a date. My friend drove Tin Moe over and helped him get back to the house where he was staying.
Tin Moe was a short plump man who looked “typically Burmese” and seemed to be always smiling, despite the vicissitudes of his life. I was reminded of the late writer John Gardner’s words, that “whatever smiling faces they present to the world,” artists and writers always have trauma in their backgrounds. I learned that in addition to the years in prison, Tin Moe had also lost his wife. But he seemed to show none of this on the surface. He appeared even jolly, like a Burmese Santa Claus. He wrote bits of poetry good naturedly for my friend’s seven year old on small scraps of paper, sitting at the same level as the child.
In this interview I asked him when he first learned he was a poet (he said he still did not consider himself one) and what had been the predominant poetic influence in his life. He said, “I’m a very simple person. I yearn for the village where I was born, among the peanut fields.” He then told me that the primary motif of all his work, whether he mentioned it ostensibly or not, was the symbolism of the yay gyan zin, or water pot on a roofed stand, which is outside every village in Burma, to offer drinking water to thirsty travelers. I restrained myself from reminding Tin Moe that the earthen water pots weren’t so hygienic, because people had to drink from the one tin cup provided, and dunk the cup each time into the water pot. Nor did I say that all the tin cups I had seen were all chained to the pots, so as not to be stolen. But it was certainly a beautiful image. Visions of the round-bellied earthenware pots, unglazed and therefore “sweating water” and oh- so cool, and the mini-rice fields of sprouting bright green paddy plants around each pot danced before my eyes. This was indeed the pure and simple Burma we all wish to return to.
I also asked Tin Moe about the influence that two other great poets, Zawgyi (U Thein Han) and Minthuwun (U Wun) had had on his work.
He stopped and said: There is nothing so beautiful, so wonderful and SIMPLE, as the poems of Zawgyi and Minthuwun. So pure in their shining simplicity.
I could not agree more. He told me that the children’s nursery rhymes set to music which I learned as a child growing up in Rangoon, were not traditional, as I had thought, but had all been written by Minthuwun. Maung Lay Yay, Hta Par Tau (Dear younger brother, do get up, the dawn’s early light – or ta kyaw hna kyaw tay ko thee, hget kyar hnoke palee – stanza by stanza she threads her song, bird of the hnoke palee – which I find impossible to translate – Bird of the teasing beak? Bird with a playful mouth?
I learned also that it was Tin Moe who had written the first grade primer with which we all learn our three Rs in Burmese in Burma. An email from a Burmese dissident just pointed out how brilliant these are.
At the very beginning, when all we have learned are single alphabets, such as A, B, C, D and Ka Kha Gha Ga in Burmese, Tin Moe made poem sentences of single alphabets, such as:
Ma Ma Wa Wa Hta Ka, which I always loved and have put on one of my painted ceramics. Fat Older Sister Get Up and Dance! And when we have learned a bit more such as the vowel sounds -- Nga Ei Du Nar The -- My knee hurts!
I asked Tin Moe which was his favorite poem. He did not pause long before he replied, “Htee Kale Ne Ma Ni – surely, Miss Red with the Little Umbrella,” a nursery rhyme.
Tin Moe and Burmese democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s family friends gave me copies of the poem he had written for the funeral of Suu Kyi’s husband, the late Dr. Micheal Aris. I still have, somewhere under my piles of paper, because it is too painful to look at, a funeral program from 2005 for our late friend Daw Taw Myo Myint of Los Angeles, devoted wife, mother and committed dissident, whom Tin Moe also knew and admired. I remember he wrote that Taw was taw te, that is, kind, righteous, good, intelligent, smart, royal, proper, just like her name.
On another occasion, in the summer of 2001, famous student leader of the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations, Moe Thee Zun arrived in the United States. Moe Thee, I found, also had a deep interest in the arts and literature and at that time was working on his own memoirs. Moe Thee went and fetched U Tin Moe from Boston in his car (he had just got his driving license) and brought him to stay at his apartment for a while. Moe Thee then got the idea that he needed to put descriptions of political events between episodes in his own story, so why didn’t he interview me? I had been about 20 years old in 1967, when the anti-Chinese riots took place, when Moe Thee himself was just an infant.
When I arrived at Moe Thee’s apartment in Rockville, M.D., an impromptu soiree was in progress. The front door was propped open, and one of Moe Thee’s close friends was actually sitting slung across the threshold. It was 10 AM on a Saturday.
At the dining table, Tin Moe suddenly burst into a classical song. I told Moe Thee what I could remember of the disturbances of 1967. When it started getting close to lunchtime, I thought we should all chip in and get pizza. But Moe Thee took us all along with him to a neighbor’s house, where we all sat down to a magnificent home cooked meal. Tin Moe remembered all the names of my artsy relatives in Rangoon. On another occasion he read poetry at the Free Burma Coalition.
I don’t know how to honor one great poet, except with the words of another, --Welsh poet and nationalist, Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
R.I.P. – Which I realize now spells “rip.” A friend, writer/historian Bijan C. Bayne, says this is “Rooted Inspirational Poetry.”

January 23, 2007

Monday, January 22, 2007


U.S. Midterms -- Nov 9, 2006.
When my niece, of mixed parentage, was seven, she drew herself as ET, with the caption, “Yumi, where the hell are you from?” After 20+ years in the United States, I still feel an outsider. American politics as gleaned from sound bites is not easy to understand. Until about a week ago, when I saw a documentary on how midterm elections are run, I had no idea that they are run at the local level, mostly by volunteers, who are mostly aging baby boomers. On Monday, I was sick from my annual flu shot. On Tuesday I went for my morning walk with my senior friends, in our neighborhood in Maryland, which is the most educated in the United States, has the highest percentage of postgraduate degree-holders. As we walked among the immaculate, at least 3 m. dollar homes, two of my friends carefully gave me a rundown on the candidates based on their research. I had been too busy to do my own. One woman, in her mid-70s, spoke of how “Now I understand how Hitler came to power in Germany.” She said with G.W. Bush it was all “oil and papa.”
Buoyed up by the conversation, assured by my friends that I did not need any form of identification, I rushed to the Village Center, which was the polling center for the day. Two people who were on the Democratic ballot, including a woman named Susan C. Lee, running for House of Delegates, greeted us smiling at the entrance. “Please vote for the Democratic Party,” she said. “I intend to,” I said purposefully. I was so happy I was going to vote in a few minutes for the first time in my life.
It was not to be. Despite spelling my name for them twice, they could not find me on the list. It turned out I had not registered to vote 21 days earlier as I was supposed to. “Don’t worry,” someone said, “we’ll get you set up so you can vote in 2 years.”
Dejected, I walked out of the center. At the door, a reporter came up to me and asked me if I had voted. He said, “Even if you didn’t get to vote, would you like to talk to us? Do you like the direction in which the Republicans are taking us?”
Would I like to talk! “The war in Iraq,” I started out, “they should have been better prepared. It isn’t so easy to go in there ‘to set up democracy’ without knowing the culture or anything. The Democrats have been traditionally for the underclass. I think they will see to raising the minimum wage. We’ll get to a solution of the war situation, talk about things we need to, like the environment.”
Two days later, with Republican Sen. George Allen conceding defeat to Jim Webb in Virginia, just a little southwest, across the Potomac from us in Maryland, the Democrats are now in control of both houses of Congress by a 51-49 majority. Yesterday Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resigned, Democrat Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House. All my friends are beaming, passing around chocolates, saying they don’t need to move to Canada or Australia after all.
Oddly, The Independent and the BBC have given us the best analyses of the changes. That’s nothing new. A lot of us gave up on the American media some time ago.
I like Nancy Pelosi. Saw her once in the Rayburn Building in D.C. when she came to give a speech on Burmese democracy leader Suu Kyi’s birthday. Pelosi is brainy, tough and beautiful. She doesn’t mince words, has called President Bush an emperor without clothes. She gets right to the point, never stops smiling, but is firm. During Chinese New Year in San Francisco, she knew to wear red. Hopefully, as Bush and Pelosi both talk of bi-partisan solutions (to Iraq) I look forward to a time when I won’t need to turn my TV off when Jim Lehrer on the McNeil Lehrer News Hour says every evening – in reference to the daily war dead – “And here in silence are the names of – more.”
We all know more Iraquis have died and are barely counted, let alone named. According to journalist Judith Coburn, the number in 2005 as counted by IBC (Iraq Body Count) was between nearly 23,000 and 26,000.
That’s an enormous number. Now (Jan 2007) it is reported at 34,000, more than ten times the number of the more than 3000 reported American dead.
The Democratic Party should not let down its guard. President Bush apparently still has some tricks up his sleeve. On Thursday he submitted the nomination of the unpopular and controversial John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.; he’s pushing legislation to pass the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program. Donald Rumsfeld might have been just a convenient fall guy.

My archive at IISH, Amsterdam--