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Hallaoween Treat! 5 Flavors, A Poem

The Phi Kowpoon. Art by Vongduane Manivong

The Phi Kowpoon. Art by Vongduane Manivong

Happy Halloween! Today at Little Laos on the Prairie we’re sharing a special treat from Lao American poet Bryan Thao Worra, the spooky poem “5 Flavors.”  

This poem was first published at Expanded Horizons Magazine in December 2013 and was nominated for a Rhysling Award. Food, ghosts and family collide in Lao America in this eerie work, which was inspired by a trip to the author’s favorite Lao restaurant in Sacramento, California, the Sabaidee Thai Grille. Uh oh. Now we’re hungry! 

 

5 Flavors

On a good day, a good Lao meal
Can be all you need, whether in Cairo
Or Sacramento, Minnetonka or Houayxay.

So many hungry ghosts in our traditions
Make me ask:

“Don’t they feed you in the underworld?”

Phi Kongkoi, Phi Kasu and Phi Ya Wom.
Phi Phaed, Phi Pob, Phi Dip and more.
Just a fraction of those legendary for
Their paranormal appetites.

It may surprise you, the hungriest of all
Can’t eat more than vapors
During Boun Khao Padab Din,
Wrapped pity strewn about the ground
By strangers who understand
The regular routines of Hell.

I suppose we should be grateful
Most red-mouthed phi who kill
Will make a full meal of you, saep,
Wasting little, barely a drop.

At the Sabaidee Thai Grille, if you ask nicely,
Madame Boualai and Chef Dythavon might make
A special dish of tom mak hung, atomic and dirty.
Dr. Ketmani and I don’t have the guts to try.

Visiting our niece on break from the university,
We settle for coffee and talk of the old country,
Our land of smiling mysteries we’re not meant to know.

Some are benign:

If you sleep among the black gibbons of Bokeo,
A simian Phi Poang Khang passing by might catch you
To slooowly lick salt from your big toe. Nothing more.
Hardly fearsome, but ponder: “Why just the salt?”
Or what would really happen if you interrupt.

Maybe you’ll see
The young Phi Kowpoon as a sweet phi,
Weeping by her banyan tree, selling soup to strangers.
Alas, her vermicelli is always cold as a dead white worm

But you can taste a marvelous hint of mint green as jade,
Juice from coconuts pale as a ghost’s forgotten bones
And red, red curry reminding you of doting Mae.

Be kind, tip a few extra kip,
It’s how she’s spending her afterlife.

Certain spirits are sour as a mango with jaew,
Or cling to tall, tall trees, slender as a dried man
Full of mischief, letting down their hair from twisted
Branches
Daring you to touch
Beneath a full moon,
When monks and babies aren’t watching.

Some come after you
For eating the flesh of pregnant animals,

Others for breaking a law,
A rule older than humanity you can’t possibly know.
But when the wind blows just right,

They’ll remind you.

There’s probably none more bitter
Than a jilted Phi Tai Thong Klom,
Peeved at the world, her unborn baby in tow,
More bile than screaming hot bowl of gaeng kee laek
Big as your head.

Never suggest she brought it on herself.

Phet is a subjective continuum of hot.
A drunk coot once ate a salad
More peppers than papaya, (60+ !)
And lived. It was unreal to witness.

They say certain elder spirits come as a tiny fireball.
Drifting through the night like a dandelion seed,
Slipping past your snoring lips without a sound
To dine,
Your innards tastier than a volcanic ping gai.

They’ll wear you like a tipsy puppet between furtive bites,
Appraise your children and loved ones for the next meal,
Inviting them closer, closer,
Smiling warm.

My niece leans in to hear how you stop any of them.

Born in America,
She thinks there’s a solution for everything.
Silver bullets, a stake, a prayer, a bit of water or fire,
Running an oddball errand.

I hug her for her optimism, and simply tell her,
“We’ll pay, this time.”

Over her objections, I remind her,
Everyone gets their turn.
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