Friday, January 06, 2006

second draft

Eight days in Lhasa

for Matthew Power and Steven Schroeder


Xiangalila (Shangrila)

in my ears
air so thin, so pure
this must be
the sound of less than nothing

lungs at rest lean uphill

mountains throw themselves around
sunshower from my hotel windows

dry height they have here leaves you hungry

they're building the old town right now
believe me it will be truly ancient
older than Lijiang, more authentic than Dali

flying in we saw the clouds in Yunnan
a blind sweep down between clad ridges
and cosy the country in pyjamas

waiting for sky to lighten
day to brighten
for breath to draw itself
from attention

the higher the sky
the further from heaven

sun fierce at this height
still a long way to go

in the room the kettle starts
like a truck climbing endlessly into mountains
switchbacks and gravel, devil’s elbows downhill,
breaks are spongy
just as dreamt
on the road's wrong side,
never giving way

you can wear
your old dusty pants
west in China
no one minds …
my Shangrila –
a country where
you can’t be overdressed

blessed bells at flutter and the ringing drapes
cowboy hats come through the temple court
leave drizzling day behind

slight shit smell as well
rich red robes of the faithful
their footwear various
two monks stroke the temple’s luck lions
a ragged hag rings prayer wheel round
lads at prostration make a sound like mahjong

for distance
hear two-stroke labour
at the dreaming hill

walls are alive with
the journey made wheel
the wheel bent to streets
where everyone sings

night falls for certain
close the lowing hills are knit

at last lying in bed with the rain

a breeze gathers curtains
around the lit doorway
thus splitting joining
the sign for eternity

prayer flags at Da Bao Monastery

the wheels creak like birds
where pilgrims have passed

some prayers are trod to ground
none forgotten

a forest of flags all ages

wheels all the way up the hill
and we turn them
for world peace
for friends absent, present,
for this place, its people
for all we selfish selves desiring
on the way and gone

in cowbells now a sow approaches
rooster heralds all

prayers knotted through trees hill high
all flags tied to this one breath
the sky composing
a roof of prayers

pouring home these words
to air devoted
and high above
the motor's hum
hear the shepherd's
horns attending
chicken on the grassy rooftop
squirrel in the arms of pine

shadows of prayer flags
grounding move earth

the mountain itself in prayer
where the flags soak in with each rain

and there are clouds
the day has brought here
brought with the silence
of words long since left

after this singular breath
say eternity
there comes
the scramble of tourists
reminding me
who I am

eight days in Lhasa

day one

the wind mistaken for the rain
down to the smell
of strange light on rooftops

as if the world’s brightness
were turned up

beginning of the world a storm
no thing to know then
no one to know

a wrinkled folk
squinting with
storm in the cloud sea

from which the world churned
clouds like milk
world butter below

a king thereafter cord descending
rights divine assumed

or there is this other cast
a monkey and these breasts misshapen
vulva from which tribes are sprung

the monkey was Chenrezig
from his compassion
all descended into human form


landing here
already an hour of the day absented

all the way from the airport
hands held out
mushrooms offered
red flags
show happy peasants abiding

selling the season
shells of homes
the hills alive with nomad tribes

and later with the hour retrieved
the same or subtly changed

then the wheel begins

a turn around the Bakhor
- holiest of the city’s circuits
where everything is bargained for

filthy without touching a thing

breathless just turning in the bath
just standing, drinking water
breathless just breathing


past glass
a sky of nights never come

monks on mobiles
circle the Jokhang

eyes slow into the mountains, stumble
hungering for breath

Samsara then – the suffering sea
because the world was wished to be

lose an hour
but the clock takes us in
top of the world smells of shit

you can’t expect enlightenment on the first day

I frame the advertisement
it says
‘Come to Tibet! Feel twenty years older!
Climbing stairs here is like climbing a ladder!
Feel like a mountain climber! Come to Tibet!’

day two


in early hours it comes
high wind on the high plain

in memory of skies long since
dawn improvised
from night’s spare parts

windows storm rattled
mist to light
sound of sweeping in the courtyard

then when the rain settles
gentle on the world below
first flies adorn the casement
and the voice of a goat from city depths

Dorian Gray
on top of the world

tankha is mirror
picture of the striving self
the Buddha you will be

pinch yourself – be here
be sunk
be these your depths

everyone can haggle
for tankha
the kind mechanically made
authentic peasantry’s devotion
authentic bourgeois decoration

the drum in your temple
beats against
time’s irrelevance

tankhas come with silky covers
so that the devotee
need not be frightened
by the mirror
she makes
of desire

Potala 1

anyone can see
peasants were
needful of liberation

from feudal superstition
from overlord rantings

look at the palace of chapels
devotion cascading
down the stone hill

peasant hands
threw all this up

call devotion
their thrall –

in the land of snows
a lion throne

see here
handprints of the fifth
footprints too
small but compassion
can leave an impression

how many tonnes of gold
still in the fifth Dalai Lama’s
gorgeous tomb stupa?

white rabbits and golden monkeys
guide us through the Potala

to the snake room
aptly named for
the tantra tantrums here enacted

wakey wakey!
everything as the boy lama left it
except for the drifting veneer
of change renewed ever
in small notes from China

peasants are still peasants here

it was the fifth’s short lived successor
who could piss from the top of the Potala
and exercise such tantric acumen
he’d draw the urine
back up into himself
just before it hit the ground

he whom the Jesuit described
in terms of unbridled licentiousness
‘from whom no good looking person
of either sex was safe’

the seventh is famous for the sand mandala
still has to be kept under glass

time in all its strange centuries sits here
under eternity’s emblem

and what if this tomb were the poor’s only joy?
this cave of sky theirs alone

if just this one opiate worked,
then we’d see
dull uniforms in bromide
needful of liberation

from conception’s flat wheel
still turning

we all are

home into dreams
the pilgrim’s way

let peasants be peasants

white rabbit and golden monkey
sweet magic dissolving in us

we dissolving
step by step down
like a woollen flag
from heaven
for winter
till no one
the steps
at all

call that
a liberation

in memory of that lovable rake
the sixth Dalai Lama

bring on the wisdom girls
tiger and apple

call me king if you like

the bar-girl and the beer
my refuge haven
‘as long as the pale moon
dwells on the mountain
bliss from the female form
is mine’

o I’ll come back as a handful of dust
but for the moment compassion’s form
suggests an earthier boyish norm
or you might call it lust

Bakhor circuit

every day
the wheel desiring
round we go

the Buddhist shoppers’ paradise
nirvana this for tourists too

whistling street of bicycle taxis
rancid with wafting smoke
of the butter lamps

devotion to motion
colours days with smog

joy in the mantras
prayer flags blacken

all this from the tourists’ rooftops

Bakhor – the endless wheel – desire
venerated in objects of devotion

they’re the kind you take home
hang on wall
or round the neck to travel
spiritual calm you bring your corner
drawing to it eternity’s dust
and pack away in a drawer at last

under hats of every colour
dark jowls
fingers press cloth across the machine
the lamps burn on

let us loosen the imagery
or call that appropriating

hear tractors plough through city streets

Lhasa – goat city
rain recedes but mist clings on
smoke rises to the challenge

it’s feet which turn the wheel
feet the without which
wishing’s done for

feet – the slaves
of desire and devotion


night comes singing
from the streets below
shouts musical too
and the dogs’ dull percussion
something competitive
in and of the throat
as if they had learned
how to strangle each other

rain and the night take up

kingdom of theocrats
each to the eternal submitting

image of Maitreya

anniversary Potala

ringed by its smoke wreathed circuit of stalls
carpet shops, pilgrims prostrating

behind the hoardings for the celebration
of so much Tibetan autonomy

across the road from the Agricultural Bank
where none of the auto-tellers play today

here’s the pile of stones for the fifty kwai note
wu shi ren min bi

day three


every day here
the practice of breathlessness

one drum in this temple beats against
irrelevance of time

heart less pumping
nothing slows the chatter

against breathlessness
silence as practice

mind to its drum
runs on

the Dhod Gu Hotel

first fly of day
its paws at rub
to waking light
always preparing

a western orientalism

room burnished within
the cornices all gold adorned
a team of craftsmen
have fashioned my room
out of Nepali colours

indeterminate face
all morning to get up
to get the hang of
prayer flags at flutter
washing on lines

on the stairs meet
the West’s new Reich of the groove minded mystic
health conscious, how they pick here like sparrows

like that spoilt boy Gautama
who’d never seen suffering

nothing is good enough for
the Babel grumbling legion
among whom number me
because there’s
no amount of objectification
gets me off the list

outside the world adorned in mist

unknown motors hailing
through windows

the Dhod Gu Hotel has no lift
climbing those stairs

rancid risings of the street
even to this fourth floor height

twenty years older
what better meditation
on decay to come

at the top of the stairs
a basin scraped from the mountains around
as where a dog came burying

down there the police
red epaulettes, black caps
at table singing, whistling
all stages between
breakfast in steam
the whistling stops

for breath must be
caught with breakfast

Bakhor Circuit

how to breathe in the smoke that is offered
(Wednesday is incense day)

kup hei fu hei
in Cantonese

attention is drawn
where nothing should be

the Bakhor circuit – shop lined
stalled arrangement of temptations
against which true pilgrims are proof

there are plenty of fakes here
everyone’s telling me

see the man beating his child
with the prayer beads
they’re authentic,
so is the action
and to be fair
he’s beating himself as well

on every shopfront
flags of the nation

on every rooftop
prayer flags rot

breath dissolves
to smoke

like prayer
feet falling endlessly on

aum mane padme aum


the hive of Lhasa
wheel unto itself

where other worlds have overtaken
this our world
blameless remains

as always
light cast through smoke
mote beam

before the Jokhang main gate
throng of prostrators
crowd of cameras behind

best to bring your own bedding for the job
cardboard knee protection
some gardening gloves will come in handy

a thousand Buddhas watching the thieves
watching the crowd

blue sky through the wheel

always higher to climb


gold glints in the darkness
there’s an opening

prostrate before the Jokhang

perpetual motion

a line dance to the holiest corners
thermos and prayer wheel
each keeping hold

low hum like a hive
the mantra is moving
butter lamps burn ever on


which thou least holy?

the old Tibetan man washing his raw corn
from the revered tap
tourists washing hands over his corn
the girl with a camera who catches it all
monk unconcerned brushing by
the foreign devil with the pen
who gets it down
your reading eye
mind behind that
all second guessing
perpetual motion

oiling the prayer wheels
but that’s not enough
another devotee comes after
with a rag for the drips


a slit in the roof whence the pilgrim’s proceeding

devotion needs must be public performance
selves lost in the forward flow

light of day above the dark
a moment’s calm in smoke

nothing unpainted
nothing uncarved

on the roof with his mobile
where cameras blaze
their here and now
thus mock the eternal
mocks them

between her face and the lens
the old woman holds her prayer wheel

a refuge in the dharma there


a spin together

they’re a wheel
we’re a wheel
spun and spinning
done, beginning

by cloisters beside
come sudden calm
ruined chanting
rickety echo

colours subdued here

worship is public performance
tashidele with monks we whisper

enlightenment strides out of light
through doorway
clears the throat to spit

crowd at a distance
merely mumble
seeming stillness
yet it flows


the mountains too in prayers are wreathed

everything sewn together

gorgeous the images
lean every way

the tourist not knowing which way to turn

blue sky through the wheel

there’s always higher
and when you’re finished climbing
see how the sky still keeps at its distance

blue greys into smoke

dark of streets lost
last shutters come down

at Dunya’s
– on Beijing Donglu

place of refuge
where we
drink altitude tea
before going home
to the oxygen pillow

on streets of Lhasa
the lungs are never filled
the throat is never cleared

but on Beijing Donglu
at Dunya’s
world away

I seek refuge from the filthy air
the crowds of pilgrims
their lice
and the more microscopic lice tormentors

unwelcome tenants of the gut
let me be no refuge for

bring me the coconut lassi!
day four

inside out

so many dream tracks
this one night

the bath runs
kettle boils

outside the chanting
more melodic than ever
voices of women

sleep leans in
these many lines

climbing stairs like a young man again

dreaming the sea,
of sea levelling
billow bright

sun slanting
wake to the full orchestra
mist lifting, cymbals

then cloud smog grey
in the highest

traffic’s dull rhythm
the all accompanying
modernity of place

so tiring to talk

descending to breakfast
meet them on stairs
I’m the man who wasn’t there
tomorrow – won’t it be the same?

how cold was your shoulder?
disappointing to find foreigners
in Lhasa

the tourist annoyed
won’t even avert eyes
throws back more of accusation
against fellow feeling

too tough for the suffered comforts round here
shouldn’t they be staying at the Cesspit Hotel?
or the La Du Zi Lu Dian?

the Lonely Planet tells such a story:
a woman lost her footing, fell in the pit
and a day in the bath
new clothes head to toe
had a hard time thereafter
parting with her shit smelling money

we fortunate others
keep puffing as if
there were merely
bad air to expel

summer palace of the Dalai Lamas

the playground in ruins
prayer flags still fly

first chapel features
that girl
with her head
in a tizz
her hands
full of cash,
turning made easy
with that many arms

midtemple the bee loud buzz
meditation finding its public

which next on the circuit
accosts authentic
peasant songs
work chants
they chew gum while they’re singing
you try it

they’re rebuilding the palace
beating the mud roof home

I catch
outpouring of these lungs
with MP3

silence of bicycle
below feet of passage

they’re noted
on paper
and blog into book
the great museum of mind
files all

precincts of temple
just next door to zoo

where cruelty finds objects truly other

how can compassion take human form?
what other form would it find?


marigold, sweet William
unknown flowers
grace the paths

incense and butter lamps
make rancid faint breath

gridlock in the garage
so many palanquins

two tiny stone pandas
supplicate for our rubbish


the summer palace
just as he left it
bath still running
BBC in its walnut static
Mary Celeste of
the eastern theocracy

whence the 14th Dalai Lama (the present)
fled into the self help wonderland of the West


small boys tugging robes between cartwheels
monks good humoured in their robes
as tolerance insists

a mantra to butter gods up
stuffed tiger in the temple
where lamps
burn on devotedly

the playground is at prayer with its ages
the sky is Tibet’s ruined flag

the Tibet museum

Its celestial poise since antiquity never fails to agitate our patriotic pride.
– first caption in English on the wall walking in

high cheekbones on the high plateau
close to the ancestral grounds

it is the land of the talking calculator
Duo xiao chien? – they scrabble for the battery
when white faces loom

sky-scraping tablelands
are something to shrug off

lofty mountains, torrential rivers
welcome you – honourable guest

history steals a march on us here
glorious and comradely
future as wry as the past

join up the dots
in any tongue – progress!
yes it takes patience
what else have we got?

the streets are a museum too
of wheel and hoof
getting gone

I’ve never seen so many solar powered kettles
midsummer and still
I’ve never seen even one come to the boil

ten p.m.

pilgrims abed
streets belong to tourists and taxis
street vendors pack the world’s treasure away

it’s only the hard core devout
prostrate now
around the Bakhor,
around the Jokhang
around the clock
they go

two pilgrims even
cover the circuit with synchronised prostrations
which could be Tibet’s contribution to Olympic culture
and why not?
safety in numbers, moral support

surely the truly devout wait for winter?

day five


a day’s fast on roof tiles
among the street’s calls

it was a fitful sleep brought me

ineffable distant hills
pavement smoking
call dusk

mists wreathe
in mountainous day
edge dull green

damp in the courtyard below
watch birds diving
out of rooftops rising

all red flags now
fresh at the breezes

how tawdry old prayers
limp swaying in clouds
sign the decaying order

by the window opposite
man of my age sits smoking
child in the window too

bobbing agitated as if full of questions
behind – a wife cooking
all the one room

refuge in bed
for the loose bowelled voyeur
smoke manages its way to clouds

as if there were no distance at all
hear rain on a tin roof
telling me home

beggars of Lhasa

elbow pinchers
great unwashed

ingenious folk
hard to see how they do it
where the limbs and the timber attach

to what end
meld with the pilgrims
who will say they are not?

I place a biscuit in the beggar’s bowl
discover the child
only seemed to be hungry

there’s the busking chant
makes pilgrim mendicant
or is it the other way around?

the way won’t be told
nor will names be named
so why not sit down in the road

take what comes?
compassion is all we humans require
it has to be bodied, a home

a traveller’s tale

meet Constipated Woman, meet Mr Squirt –
a third world travelling Jack Sprat and wife

toyed with the idea of a swap
but it’s best in the end to own your own ailments

dizzy days
on the tiles
sun struck
wind driven

weary we take the Jokhang circuit
old Lhasa hands now
see the black faced sheep
bleat for high pasture

take off the pressure and nothing runs right

even this Rolls Royce
of cheap Chinese fountain pens –
this Hero
behaves erratically
now it’s come to the great wall
I have in mind

day six

the meditation on decay – travel version

neither has it killed me
nor has it made me strong
still one feels good to feel good
alive alive
such are the tricks of unceasing desire

the body is a porous prison
bars of the soul lie always beyond

rain won’t daunt
cloud like a white scarf
draped through the mountains

like a welcome, a rite of purification
foregrounding flight
the birds attend it

summer snow
and the river runs
from a distance

all courses down

the landscape is a tankha too

silk covered
sky mirrored
in soul and above

so let it be
with our sphincters


though rancid butter is a help
and can always be left
in the sun as required
the meditation on decay
as advised in the sutras
is best effected by proximity
to human faeces

how hard can it be?
the stuff’s always with us

the serious pilgrim tourist
can take away
a shit censer
to swing around at home
when the air gets too fresh

smoke and rancid butter
mingled rise

an aerosol version is being developed
though the irony of such a product
may yet be lost on the more zealous consumer

point is
something’s got to be got
out of the system

oxygen juice – the latest drink
freshly squeezed from the air

it’s angry demons emerge from my bottom
proving the path to enlightenment nigh

Lhasa today

the Chinese town thrown over the prayer wheel
mandala of how the world has to be

flags are their own means of production
peasant and soldier and scholar one

Drepung monastery

water tears off the mountain
turns a wheel in the stream

snot nose temple brats
mindful of
the mantra magic
work their charms
on the up toiling tourist

the creek with lost flags knotted below

butter is the nation’s fuel
and we breathlessly await butter powered vehicles
to bear us up the endless stairs
provided as if to prove vain
efforts at enlightenment

it’s best to build your monastery
high on a hill
not only for the panorama
but to have the invaders
puffed when they come
so slower, so easier to pick off
that way you’ll be able to go on
most of the time enjoying the view

of the old icy waters

give me a pair of Tibetan lungs
big mountain heart

pilgrims bring butter
to keep the lamps burning

monks scrape butter back
make space for more

in the temple
monkeys in karma pyjamas
turn cash into merit –

the temple is strewn with yi jiao notes
each of which bears pictures of determined tribesfolk
looking hopefully left to the future

how then can the face of Maitreya be known?

bitter tears of the child with no cash from me
here’s the authentic I came for

it’s pathos
but rules are rules – today my change is only for buskers

and so now I am privileged to see
all the stages of a tantrum
how expert the acting
the heart in it all

it’s busking
I give

I learn how
everything bends till it breaks
till it’s broken

the wheel can be expected to turn
in our eyes
foot after foot


but I am a tourist and as such
take refuge where there is a tap
cold water – clean hands
to clap

imagine a race of aliens comes
nothing they can’t have
we won’t give

you forget where you are
hear the wheels

you forget
which stairs you came up
which walls came apart

behind us the mud grows over again
monks here mainly counting cash

then where to seek for dispensation?

so playful
can we call it religion?

playing at praying
just look at these lads
mum with the butter thermos
these two tumbling
with the monks
on their beds

at the highest point a lama blesses me
he ties a charm around my neck
wu kwai
all downhill from here

Lhasa satori series

after the 5 kwai blessing and amulet
breathing improved
but I discovered I still had the runs
after all


on the bus I learn
the Lhasa cigarette is much closer to incense
than anything you’ve smoked before
three puffs to the stick

passive smoking on the high plateau
it’s really a comradely thing


in bed breathless
to get out the mantra of tantra
enticements of the lower peaks
those sea level endearments
we all love so well


rain like the footsteps
of everyone everywhere

a planet lost
in puddled light

bicycle wheels churn home

day seven


a shell to the sea
hear the river run there

ridiculous wishes
sustain the mind
the way it goes

one day’s thought leaks into the next
the motion accounted
not in steps taken
but turns of intent

by morning the dreaming mind
has made each bleat of the goat
the sound of someone throwing up

why is this goat here anyway?
who cares?
distraction’s welcome
bowels sync at last


breastfeeding on the steps
temple hags beg

body as performance
to illustrate desire’s dire results

up the stairs you can hear the hive humming
testosterone chants in the hall

imagine those boys buttering
each the other up
hill of nervous goats behind

there’s a cloud of flies
at the temple’s door
here for the novelty of summer

gold highest to heaven
moss cleaves the stones
that hold the wall

a single bare bulb
hangs blankly

then you come upon the chapel
five hundred monks chanting
a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark

proof of the despotism of orientalisms
you’re the voyeur leaning over
with digital camera, MP3, sketchbook

long nose in the primitives’ trough
from up here on the mezzanine
see monks and their mantras
and the less devout
sipping, chatting, swapping tales
swapping phones
incurring and repaying debts

overseen only by the tourist

a refuge in these
eyes of compassion
fellow feeling

then here come the Polish breasts on tour
‘tashidele,’ I say

the difference between superstition and religion
like the distance from money to cash

I put an ear to the ancient conch
I hear the world revolve

a tiger, a whole mandala of sand

the pilgrim as ant explorer
monastic slut
smell of the short cuts
heaven attends

to stand outside temples
taunting the faithful
whom would that be to mock?

on the prayer circuit
a sea of suffering
fed here and now by a river of rubbish

very postmodern

cattle around the cattle skull mound
model human obliviousness

the all-there-ever-is to depict
and is there any other kind?

‘you can go up little goat,’ she said

the etiquette of pilgrims is such
our self made guide grizzled
speaks unintelligibly
but with fervour

the pointing is a sop
sky home blue here

at last I recall it
the line which was lost

the pivot, the light
the mast
which would have lit the poem whole

what was it again?

broken glass crowns the weed high wall
enlightenment is not for all

the three o’clock gong

a report from the stellar regions
saved by the locked door

feet fall forward too –
into a circle
of words as well

fort da fort da
religion is repetition disorder

finding it can’t be the way

surely it finds you just
en route
at your business

among all things already lost

thank God
this is not a religion

a sleight
to claim existence not clung to


: these are the tricks to unfocus desire

comes down to
who’s got the best story

the wonder of all things
primitive as they seem
endow the mind with wonder

faith is what you won’t get round
it turns the world

live by it

but after all

because the breath is wanted yet
and laughter needs pause to resume

the dogma of poetry
let self efface

sutra of the mist descending
which ridges cannot rise beyond

back on the Bakhor

lice and nits among street vendors
call this a free exchange

‘money, money’
you hear descending
and it’s my language at last

hands out make the ‘gei wo’ sign
adding to this day’s universals

the crumpled form
the dirt clad shape
the old frail hand
which reaches out
to touch the one
I’ll wash ’ere long
I mean asap

last morning

clatter of motors
the day commencing
rhythm deepens
like sweeping
like chanting on a higher plane
or sex on the floor above

traffic of Lhasa is yet
to embrace the muffler

this is Wednesday – the incense day
weeds deemed aromatic
burn everywhere on the pilgrim circuits

taunt of the town in the smoke
which measures out the sky
to call its spirits home

China is an inalienable part of Tibet

ignorance and superstition
a business of chickens and eggs

you build a road
you plan to stay
there’s no apology

green of high summer
cloud taller and taller

without a name
you go to the lama
the higher the better

now that the sack of the city is done
ah but they’ll say – no city before

we’ve the stone spittoon of hoary tradition
mucus the colour of jade set in motion
commemorates the friendly conquests

the world’s bright rooftiles
and higher still
the stupa treasures

see credulous locals
prostrate before the Potala
crowding out the footpath

don’t they know he’s in Daramsala –
that’s where democracy is

these lamas are wisdom incarnate
their wisdom of the inherited kind

before the rough timber hoarding
behind which the fortieth anniversary
party dignitaries on their podium
will backdrop the Potala
all China’s long tradition

for this week
all tourist permits cancelled

in our Tibet
how colourful those tribes
nation makes various


one muzak there is
below all others
tunes the soul to what is, will be
devised it is and unintended

in heavy traffic
in dense smog
the man with the cured pig legs
six of them in the basket
back of his bike
sways and leans
and finally pulls over
to improve his mobile reception

not even you, my reader
can find this remarkable