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Poem: I Smell Buffalo in Cambodia

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Today’s Poet’s Corner contribution from published poet and writing teacher Adam Aitken evokes both the sights and scents of a different land.

I Smell Buffalo in Cambodia
after Tomaž Šalamun

I smell buffalo in Cambodia, ruins in Angkor.
I had come from a rich disinfected nation
to one overflowing with frozen steaks
and a disarming happiness.
No difference here between a frog and its dreams.
The delicacy of their verbs offsets
the barbarity of their past actions.
Neighbours covet the smoked, dried, and the barbequed.
I smell drains, cats, and charcoal in the slums.
Monks disappear into the night; by the time
the tracker elephant finds them they aren’t chanting.
Will I ever see the frescoes in Wat Bo again?

I smell American aftershave
stalking the tunnels of Danang.
Pourissement in the Orient.
I smell flattery and artifice
among the smiling machines of Pub Street.
When you drive on the right, it smells odd.
I perch my glass of mint and lime
on a humidor for Cuban cigars.
I smell a gingko spa for Wall Street divorcees.
I smell coffee harvested from civet shit
priced in Dong, a notorious
perfumed currency.

When they boil the silkworms, I smell it.
Mould in the post office is worse
than mildew in the police kiosk
but nicer than French butter going off in the palace fridge.
Mothballs roll about the bottom drawer.
When you jet in from Mumbai
in your cowboy boots
you notice the lack of crows.
Why? The smell, the jasmine, the priests.
Smell it, bottle it. Call it Shalimar, then sell it.
Here there are vultures kept alive on UN grants.
I stick my beak in a Citroen and inhale the leather.
I smell a delinquent reading,
the aromatics of customer satisfaction.
It is spring again, spring and all.
I take my own sweet time to smell it.

Adam Aitken was born in London of Australian and Thai parents and spent part of his childhood in Thailand before coming to Australia. He gained his PhD in Creative Writing from Sydney University in 2006, was Visiting Distinguished Writer at the University of Hawaii in 2010, and Resident at the Australia Council’s Keesing Studio in Paris in 2012. He has taught narrative writing at the Sydney University of Technology, and has published six collections of his own poetry, as well as appearing widely in anthologies and journals. His poem today, which has appeared internationally, first appeared in Australia in the literary journal Southerly.

Readers’ original and unpublished poems of up to 40 lines can be emailed, with postal address, to A poetry book will be awarded to each contributor.

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