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On The White Empty Page..... and more

"Sometime I wish there were no words

so that we could talk with our hearts

translate thoughts to smiles

and lite ballads with our eyes"

(From: WORDS)


Is there really a curtain,

a curtain not really there?

A veil far finer than smoke,

and far lighter than air?

Are you beyond that curtain

that screens your world from mine?

Can we sense or touch

or exchange a thought or a sign?

I believe there is a moment

a rare moment bright and frail

hidden in the folds of time

a magic chink in the veil.

Ssh...the hours are dreaming;

the minutes are wandering away;

time is drifting and forgetting

and turning to look another way...

Now, we steal the fairy moment

and let it shine soft and fair,

we smile into each other's minds

and whisper in voices of wind and air.








ได้ไหม ที่เราจะสำนึกหรือสัมผัส










มาซิ ฉวยช่วงเวลา พราวพร่างดังนฤมิต




(Curtain หนึ่งในบทกวีในเล่มนี้ แปล โดยคุณหญิงจำนงศรี )


(Introduction to On The White Empty Page and More by critic and scholar Chetana Nagavajara)

To Introduce Chamnongsri Rutnin's poetry is not an easy task. The first question that comes to mind is whether a Thai poet writing in English could ever hope to achieve something original. Chamnongsri's creative mode is not that of translating from Thai into English. She may be writing about things Thai, but she certainly thinks in English. The adoption of the medium of expression in this case does not necessarily mean total acceptance of the world-view of the originating culture. It may be futile to ask whether she is writing in a first, second or foreign language, and an analogy with, say, a Singaporean poet writing in English may not help either. One single reading of poems like PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN and OLD HOUSE BY THE KLONG can convince any Thai reader where Chamnongsri really belongs, for there is no trace of exoticism here. Those years in the West have not turned her into an outsider. Chamnongsri remains very much a Thai. imbibing the cultural riches of her native land and feeling herself very much at home. To say this is also to pay tribute to her English masters : they have given her a very good command of a new tongue without locking her up in a cultural prison-house.

But it would be a total fallacy to claim that one can cleanse a language of its historical context or to neutralize it to the point where it becomes just a medium. Chamnongsri will be the last person to deny her debt to Western culture. A comparative study could be written on echoes of English Romanticism in her work (more of Keats than Byron) or on the lure of "the empty page" known to Mallarme' a hundred years earlier. Certain lapses into stereotyped Western poetic modes crop up now and then, such as the lifeless abstraction of MY TIME and the exaggerated modernist conciseness of ON A CHIANGMAI DOI. To me Chamnongsri is at her best when she knows how to marry the best of both worlds, particularly when she immerses herself in the Thai way of life, only to emerge with felicitous expressions reflecting literary sophistication of the kind that she must have learned from the West. The suggestiveness and the freshness that inform a poem like BRIDAL GARLANDS owe much to this happy marriage, and a Thai born and bred in Thailand would probably not have achieved the noble simplicity of MY COUNTRY WOMEN- in my opinion the best poem of the collection - in which

the expression of human warmth and compassion is borne out by a series of almost arbitrary images that lead on to the notions of 'femininity' and 'motherhood' no longer appearing as abstract concepts amidst the sensuousness of these images. One can no longer speak of East or West, Thai or English. This is just poetry.

To talk of Chamnongsri's 'Thainess' is to plunge ourselves in an insoluble dilemma, for this characteristic trait of her poetic work accounts for both her strengths and weaknesses. Most of the poems in this volume are somehow or other marked by what I would call 'an aesthetics of reticence.' I shall clarify myself. A certain type of reservation, best expressed by the French word "pudeur", pervades most of her poetry. A Thai lady of good breeding is traditionally schooled in this difficult art of "pudeur" whereby she shall not externalise her inner most sentiments in explicit form. This particular schooling in manners and emotions have gone to produce exquisite love-poetry, and even the classical Thai dance has created wonders with this! What Chamnongsri has done is to elevate a matter of manners and emotions to a philosophic stance. Even in a seemingly conventional poem like CURTAIN, "the minutes are wandering away" and "time is ... turning to look another way" . Unattainability and unfulfillment have as their allies uncertainty and indeterminacy. When the poet speaks of LONELINESS, no single answer is given as to what it is : we are offered as many as three alternatives to choose from. You must not give away what you really think. The constant use of the interrogative form is another discernible tactic. The entire poem TERRITORY OF ICE is carried through in a series

of questions.

Poetry is there to reflect the fleeting moment, the unfinished creation, the endless movement and the infinite longing for some distant ideal.

Yet this is exactly where the charm of Chamnongsri's poetry lies. The "grey area", so to speak, where the bliss of incompleteness and indeterminacy can take place has its irresistible attraction. In the case of TWILIGHT HOUR, the "soundless skysong...swells the void / then recedes...". Why must it be "soundless" and why must it "recede" so soon, one is tempted to ask! But how could it be otherwise, since the poet has opted for an aesthetics of unattainability? One has to admit that such aesthetic and poetic strategy may have excluded our poet from probing other types of human experience and thereby restricted her vision. But we must realize at the same time that this happens by design, and not by default. The poem A WOMAN TO HER DAUGHTER is quite explicit on this point.

Being a mere woman,

I can only ask you, a woman-to-be

to softly sense and tenderly touch

life's multi-textured realities


with a woman's heart,

try to feel and understand.

Forever try to understand.

This is indeed a significant passage, for it is a vivid statement of Chamnongsri's poetic mode. You need a certain self-discipline to be able to "softly sense and tenderly touch /life's multi-textured realities".

The question remains whether the poet is prepared to go beyond trying "to feel and understand" She certainly knows of the tragedy of life, but she would rather leave it lurking behind somewhere instead of coming face to face with it.

In DEATH OF A FRIENDSHIP she confesses : "I have seen its death / I have seen it fade / I have seen it die", and goes on to qualify this confession with "Not burning with passion/not aching with love". Her treatment of "tragic" themes somehow lacks poignancy. In the poem entitled TRAGEDY, the use of imagery serving the purpose of a moral tale rather precludes real tragic feeling, and the re-telling of the traditional legend of Phra Lor in KALONG is too much in a conciliatory vein.

The avoidance of tragedy is certainly in consonance with the poetics of reticence, which can also assume the form of a non-communication, such as in the case of the poem NON-EXISTENT DESTINATION. The fate of the "GARLAND BOY" must have moved the poet, but we are not allowed to probe deeper into her innermost feeling. Communication is disrupted : "the 3 M sunscreened glass / ... keeps out the speaking eyes". At one point the tragedy of the small man almost succeeds in creating a disturbing social awareness in her, for the poet becomes aware of what "separate(s) our worlds"! But she stops short at that. The aesthetics of unfulfillment thus becomes an aesthetics of social non-commitment. We have to go to the poem ON PEOPLE -AN ANSWER TO A QUESTION for a more explicit counsel. Here the poet admits : "Their arrogance / are sheets of pain / masking unquiet lakes / of fears and loneliness". She is aware of the hidden force that could erupt at any moment. But poetry has a healing power that can counteract any potential violence, for, as we have seen earlier, the poet has mastered the art of "feeling and understanding". The poem concludes in the following manner:

Hear the dark waters

whisper a voiceless song;

listening makes it swell

intoxicating the air

with sweetness.

"Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner" (To understand everything is to excuse everything), so goes the old French saying. This could apply to Chamnongsri's poetry as well. The avoidance of tragedy, of violence, of conflict lies at the cultural roots of the "land of smiles". In this sense, Chamnongsri is very much a Thai poet.

I have dwelt at some length on Chamnongsri's aesthetics of reticence, for it is precisely this point that distinguishes her from many of her Thai contemporaries. In a sense, she is more 'traditional' than they are, inspite of her exposure to Western culture. The difference is not to be explained sociologically. She definitely has not turned a blind eye on social problems, but her aspiration is a philosophic one. She tries to transcend social awareness through philosophical awakening, this may not be a strategy that many of her contemporaries would choose to adopt. But she knows what she is doing. Even when she contemplates nature, she does so with a definite philosophical frame of mind. The poem HUA HIN is a case in point. Not that she is unaware of both "storms and changeabilities", but "the lyrical sea and I" are tied in a friendship that has lasted from childhood till "these calmer days". There is something Wordsworthian in Chamnongsri's philosophy of nature. Her best poems can, in one way or the other, be classified as nature-poetry. The poems, modernized jataka-inspired didactic tales pioneered by the doyen of contemporary Thai poets, Angkarn Kalayanapong, are professions of faith in the ways of nature. On the one hand, nature offers its protective arms to all things, as in THE WINDCRAB, but on the other hand, nature too is subject to the law of transiency, as most succinctly suggested in RAINDROP AND LOTUS LEAF. But this acceptance of the impermanence

of things does not give rise to any tragic sense, for nature is self-renewing and self-perpetuating. Endless messages of hope could be deciphered from nature, and "much more" can be culled from it than what the author of THE ANGRY EARTH AND THE TAMARIND SEED is prepared to offer. To follow nature's way is to follow the way of freedom, and the dichotomy between nature and artifice is vividly brought to the fore in THE BECKONING.

It is to be expected that the poet's faith in nature must necessarily engender an aversion to things mechanized, stereo-typed of even regimental. IN A NEW YORK HOTEL is not merely an expression of a "culture shock". It is more of an indictment against de-humanized, mechanical way of life. Her derision of "high blown talk about style and technology / Pre and Post Hi-tech and all that jargon in ROBOT BUILDING ON SATHORN is carried through in a similar humanist vein, full of humour and without malignancy. We must not forget that in the lead poem ON THE WHITE EMPTY PAGE the poet sets out as her goal to "fill the blankness / with something / of man". That is why she condemns the doctrinaire regimentation of "I talk, you listen" IN TO A FRESHMAN CLASS.

This refusal of the artificial, the rigid, the mechanical and the unnatural is not to be confused with the kind of sobriety, refinement and self-discipline that are the guiding principles of Chamnongsri's aesthetics of reticence. The particular kind of discipline acceptable to our poet is of a more rarefied nature. It is the code of conduct of highly cultivated people known in Thai as "pudee" turned into an artistic principle. And only a "pudee"could write a poem like PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN which we might as well call a poem to silence Karl Marx. Strictly speaking, the old class-consciousness and class-distinction are still there. But the human warmth that exudes from "the ruling class" and the sincerity that pervades the entire poem are so disarming that no-one would have a heart to talk about class-conflict and class-struggle any more.

Chamnongsri's poetry is thus representative of the fate of modern Thailand. Acquiescence to the order of things may signify indifference or lethargy in some societies, but here it becomes a profession of faith in human kindness, peaceful co-existence and mutual respect. The aesthetics of reticence is not to be taken as a poetic strategy. It is a way of life. One may argue about the merits and demerits of Chamnongsri's poetry, but one can hardly argue about her integrity. She is true to herself and to her people.

That our bard can sing so well with a borrowed tongue must remain a marvel.

Chetana Nagavajara

New Year 1988


Publication Data

Author : Chamnongsri (Rutnin) Hanchanlash

First Published in 1988 by Pleasant Media Ltd.Part.

2nd Published in 2001 by >>

หนังสือรวมบทกวี และบทร้อยแก้ว รวมถึงนิทาน ที่คุณหญิงจำนงศรีได้เขียนไว้ ในช่วงเวลาหลายสิบปี


ผู้เขียน: คุณหญิงจำนงศรี (รัตนิน) หาญเจนลักษณ์

พิมพ์ครั้งที่ 1 Pleasant Media Ltd.Part. 2531

พิมพ์ครั้งที่ 2 2544


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