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Poem of the week: Kite-Flyers of Cengkareng by Iain Bamforth


A description of boys flying homemade kites against the Jakarta dusk juxtaposes the past and future of globalised Asia

This week's poem, Kite-Flyers of Cengkareng by Iain Bamforth, uses an almost imagist technique, not only to present the eye with sharp, memorable scenes but to produce visual contrasts that suggest a larger moral statement.

The poems in Bamforth's globe-spanning new collection, The Crossing Fee, often begin with an act of naming or placing, as here. If, like me, you had never previously heard of Cengkareng, you need only read a short way into the first stanza to feel you've breathed its air. It's an inconsequential place, as the parenthetical fourth line suggests – simply a collection of "shanties" beside Jakarta's international airport, forming a drab intersection between poverty and wealth, demeaned tradition and unlovable modernity.

The kites bring colour and vitality into this landscape. The first we see are designed to look like "dragons, dugongs and birds-of-paradise". They are works of art, finely handmade, perhaps, and vulnerable compared with the "massive tonnage of the wide-bodied jets". The phrase "masters of lift and drag" tacitly seems to equate the kite-flyers' aerodynamic skills with those of the airline pilots nearby. But, because of the proximity to the airport, the pastime is forbidden, and the kites are set loose "in the face of a municipal restraining order". Coming in from Europe "against the dusk" the planes, unlike the kites, have a season-defying relentlessness. The informal opposition movement of the massed kites is clearly at risk: the boys themselves are at risk. But they go unpunished in the poem, and the penalties remain hypothetical.

Now we hear their voices, and see boys themselves, crowded on to the breeze blocks of the perimeter road. There's no space for them to run around, it seems: they must stand still, like anglers in reverse, "waiting for their fish to fly". This stanza takes the same themes as the first, filling them out with extra detail and resonance. We see more of the kites, contrasted worlds symbolised in the different materials, the "homemade plastic confections" and those made of natural bamboo and canvas. New densities of reference are contained in the semiotics and shapes, the "swastikas in Sanskrit" (Indonesia's earliest piece of writing is a 5th-century series of Sanskrit inscriptions) and those beautiful polyhedrons constituting Plato's solids. Intricately constructed and ordered systems are seemingly at odds with "God's own legal system" (an implied unhealthy alliance of religion and state?) and their ability to "slip the strictures" may be tenuous and temporary, dependent on "nerves of gossamer" – an image suggesting both the kite-strings and the delicacy and daring of the young kite-flyers.

All the while the sky has been darkening in its quick tropical dusk, and night comes down swiftly in the last quatrain. Each stanza has begun with an evocation of the wind, and now there's a new touch of malevolence in the gust that first "bites" the kites then "lets them drop". They are replaced by the brilliant lights of the skyline over the Bay of Jakarta. The "performative script" suggests advertising signs, company logos and all the insistent invitation of consumerism. But the image of "steel and glass dirigibles" implies, perhaps, that progress may be as floaty and tenuous as the kites. The poem, though, is not on a mission to preach against the corruption and pollution entailed by "the global order": once again, it simply demonstrates the overlap of different "worlds" that are almost different timezones.

The collection's title, The Crossing Fee, alludes to the voyage imaginaire of a "legendary German hero" – unidentified, though he sounds a little like Baron Münchausen – but despite the mythical underpinning, and the interest in ideas, these multi-layered poems are grounded in myth-challenging reality. As in Kite-Flyers of Cengkareng, by juxtaposing past and future with sympathy and astuteness rather than nostalgia, the Asian poems are not only fascinating and informative dispatches from locations Bamforth knows well, but warnings about the emergent world we've helped create in the image of the global market, and still don't always recognise as part of our own world.

Kite-Flyers of Cengkareng

From early April to late September,
when dry trade winds well up from the Java Sea,
masters of lift and drag in Cengkareng
(the shanties next to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport)
loose their dragons, dugongs and birds-of-paradise
in the face of a municipal restraining order
to protect the massive tonnage of the wide-bodied jets
coming in from Europe against the dusk.

The wind brings their voices, hundreds of small boys
on breeze blocks along the perimeter road
waiting for their fish to fly. Homemade plastic confections
or canvas on a bamboo frame break into sail;
swastikas in Sanskrit and severely Platonic geometries
slip the strictures of God's own legal system
and only nerves of gossamer, as the deep blue turns to indigo,
align such flying colours with the ground.

A last evening gust bites their kites, then lets them drop,
and already the Bay of Jakarta is swarming with signs
in the implacably performative script
of the global order, its steel and glass dirigibles.

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