The Guide to Heaven and Hell
by Marly Youmans
Hawking snails, the peddler might be a warlock
Selling illness masked in pepper and garlic:
I name him Yama, god of flukeworm death,
Who rides his buffalo and pilfers breath,
Then yanks us into hell. The bas relief
At Angkor Wat—imp-bitings past belief—
Asks why do devilish things so fascinate
While floating heavens seem a placid fate?
Our driver Ouen says, “I play monkey
In Khmer Rouge time. Still here. I was lucky.”
The pink banana flowers, green-horned rose
Of dragonfruit, longans, limes, and mangoes
Make Earth a paradise of peacock-fruit,
Though in the marketplace are somber suits,
Less heavenly, of faceless water beetles,
Midden heaps of dead that shrilled and tweedled,
Crispy grasshopper and tarantula.
(Close by, a girl is whirling hula-
Hoops, shouting Dollah! Dollah!) Tep Meth explains
The tastiest are bugs that after rains
Go scuttling from the leaves—her mother strips
The armored frock-coat wings away and snips
What’s left in tiny flecks to spice a meal.
Starvation’s grub-and-cricket years reveal
Where world is edible . . . Solid tells me
I play monkey means Ouen climbed a tree
To scrump some fruit. Where each bite’s forbidden,
What’s to do but steal and hunker, hidden?
In memory he sees the soldiers shoot
And children murdered for a piece of fruit.
(Mosquitoes fog the air around my head . . .
A prick, a slap, a flash of dengue-dread.)
East of Eden, Solid must be my guide.
He nods and says, “That’s how my sister died.”