Sunday, May 20, 2007

composite. diplomacy. by PADCHA TUNTHA-OBAS


composite. diplomacy. by Padcha Tuntha-obas
(Tinfish, 2005)

[First published in Boog City, Ed. David Kirschenbaum, March 2007]

Composite materials, from mud brick to concrete, rely on the principle that one material (the matrix) surrounds and binds a cluster of fragments of a stronger material (the reinforcement). In the chapbook composite. diplomacy., Thai writer Padcha Tuntha-obas creates a “composite poetry” with the linguistic materials of Thai and English.

The Thai language contains forty-four letters: 9 middle-tone consonants, 11 high-tone consonants, and 24 low-tone consonants. In a short preface, Tuntha-obas highlights the language’s tonal nature: “There are five levels of tonal pronunciation and four intonation marks; how they correspond depends on the tone of the consonant of the particular word” (4). In Thai poetry there are four main forms: Khloong, Chan, Kaap, and Klorn. Tuntha-obas writes composite. diplomacy. in the oldest form called Khloong Sii Suphaab, whose characteristics “lie in the compulsory uses of specific tonal words at particular syllables” (4). Although the entire chapbook consists only of 2 stanzas (8 lines), the two stanzas undergo experimental transformations and translations.

The first section presents the 8 lines in Thai, followed by a literal translation in parentheses. Here is the translation of the first line:

               (interleafing)(hide)(language) (01)

Throughout the chapbook, the “voice” interweaves its two languages, and locating this voice becomes an act of readerly translation. The next section phonetically translates the Thai into English, scores the syllables, and meditates on the poem in English:
               sieng                               sar

             laew                rong

                          rum                sack         sonne

yin                                              pa

in nine syllables, declarative is that one embraces what one hears. quiet lyric, itself refuses to speak, but insists that one hear completely that which sings. I say I have heard. continually. it has. there. has always been. song in chantry. (07)

Sounding out the words and guessing at their tones places us within the textures of the poem’s “quiet lyric.” Tuntha-obas insists that we completely and continually hear what the poem sings in its composite chantry. In the last section of chapbook, Tuntha-obas accentuates the indeterminacy of translation by presenting a sentence diagram of each line, the line in Thai, and the line in grammatically correct English. Finally, the line is explicated syllable by syllable:

Line 1

syllable 1: /yin/. [tonal pronunciation] 1st level; [tonal mark]: none. Verb. To hear. syllable 2: /laew/. t.p. 4th level; t.m: 2nd level. Adverb. Completely, Already, Readily. syllably 3: /sieng/. t.p.: 5th level; t.m.: none. Noun. Voice. syllable 4: /rum/. t.p: 3rd level; t.m.: 1st level. Verb. To sing persistently […] (16)

Tuntha-obas brings into dialogue the disparate, linguistic materials of Thai and English; within this “diplomacy”, neither language dominates. Instead, each language functions as both matrix and reinforcement at variable moments, equally expressing their potential for song. In composite. diplomacy., Tuntha-obas creates a “composite poetry” as elegant and complex as the natural composite materials of wood and bone.


Craig Santos Perez's reviews have appeared in Jacket, Rain Taxi, Boog City, Slope, Galatea Resurrects, and are forthcoming in Traffic and First Intensity. He blogs at


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