“A Poem in Praise of a Slum” by Peter Goodwin

Peter Goodwin


It would be called, I suppose, a slum⎯
small wooden houses packed tightly together
on an unpaved dusty road, kids playing
in the dirt, riding bikes and making noise,
puddles when it rains, streams rushing when
it really rains, stagnant canals overflowing
with fish and naked boys swimming and grown
women washing, windows open, the smell of fried
rice with shredded pork or marinated shrimp, spicy
duck soup served soon after the duck stopped squawking,
half dressed men sitting on plastic furniture drinking cheap
liquor and we all knew each other’s business—
I enjoy the community of an open air cafe next to my house
rambling conversations, awkward in partially learned languages,
fueled with strong drink and local gossip, news from the jungle
and the war; where I learned not to mind sweating in the unbearable
heat and enjoy the hot spicy food that sweated me even more;
cooled by women whose Buddhism was so gentle
they would not even swat mosquitoes but directed a fan
to sweep them away; who knew how to create art in a table
setting, a flower arrangement or with a welcoming
lingering gesture, who always look so smilingly
fresh in spite of the dust and a lack of running water,
or in the rainy season, the mud—
My home on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand

so different
from the apartment I had in Japan
a neat tidy place
in a well-managed building
well-oiled and well-organized
clean and scrubbed
just like the streets
and the rest of the city
the trash cans
all properly labeled
standing at attention
outside each apartment door—
the woman on the floor above
who had always bowed politely
as we passed each other
in the stairs or hallway
empties her trash can
(differentiated from mine
by only a squiggle)
on my doorstep
and I catch her in the act
shouted at her, screamed at her
and she retorted in Japanese.
We bellow at each other
in our respective languages
communicating very well
our anger and our incomprehension.

She disappeared
inside her clean orderly space
and I was left
with the dirtiest doorstep
in all of Japan.
The next day
my host and employer
chastised me for disturbing the peace
creating an embarrassment
and advised me
to pay more attention
to all the essential squiggles
in the Japanese language
and never
make an ugly
untidy sound again
that is just not done
in Japan.

Japan is not a slum.

from Rattle #22, Winter 2004

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