TONGA - poem by Hugh Cook - poem about a medical aid mission to the Third World




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(medical aid mission)

Shrill antennae of hurricane
Worry the roof.
The spray drifts in the wind.
Yesterday, I swam
Adrift in the sponge-bath sea.
In the laboratory,
Clotted blood and faeces -
The interminable variations
Of human shit.
Coral, cowrie, a South-sea sun.
The spray drifts;
Flies, mosquitoes,
Die in the drift.
Faeces swirl in the selenite.
A coloured boy swings a machete
Idly by the roadside,
Dark face, white smile.
His blood burns in the incinerator,
Bubbles and burns.
A flare of blazing diesel.
Urine, faeces, blood.
Colonies of strep and staph
Melt and fall to embers.
Overcast, undercast,
Clouds mounting, mounting.
A fever scratches my scalp.
The boy with the machete smiles
And his blood boils.
Long chains from a soldier's ear
String out under the microscope.
My face floats in the water,
Breathing the other elements.
My hands scan the currents of the reef,
Scan murder -
And handful of dead things
Goes into the boiling water.
A fish-stink fills the laboratory.
Fungus, fever, blood and shit.
The pump in my hands
Spreads insecticide,
Spreads a fine mesh of death in the wind.
In the wind,
Nausea, giddiness, blurred vision
And liquid shit.
Worms writhe in the selenite,
White night-crawlers.
Atele, Atele, Atele beach,
The radio writhes;
Voices bubble underwater, drowning.

Author's note: this poem was first published when it was uploaded to my Internet site on Friday 2003 July 19. However, it was actually written more than twenty years previously, back in the Twentieth Century.

At the time that I wrote this poem, I didn't really know what it was about. However, looking back, it seems reasonably clear that it was about my first adult encounter with the Third World.

I didn't think of Tonga as being "the Third World" but in some ways it was.

There's an incident that sticks in my memory, an incident not from the trip to Tonga but from a later trip, one to Fiji, which is also, in some ways, a Third World country.

I was standing by the roadside with a bunch of guys and a kid came by. A schoolkid. He had some bananas in a paper bag, and he traded the bananas for some food we had. (I forget what kind of food - biscuits or something.)

When the trade was done, the kid seemed reluctant to go, and it looked as if there might be some kind of problem. But what?

One of us, better traveled than the others, said "Maybe he wants the paper bag back."

So someone offered the kid the paper bag which had been used to carry the bananas, and he took it, smiling, and cheerfully went on his way, problem evidently solved. He presumably had access to plenty of bananas (there didn't seem to be any shortage of them in that part of Fiji) but the paper bag was (unimaginably to us) a thing of value.

"His lunch box," said someone.

And maybe it was.

That memory has stayed with me down through the years.

Publication details: "Tonga" was written back in the Twentieth Century but was first published when posted on the Internet on 2003 July 19. Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.

TONGA - poem by Hugh Cook - poem about a medical aid mission to the Third World

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