‘People of Melaka came crowding to see what the Franks looked like, and they were all astonished and said, “These are white Bengalis!” Around each Frank was a crowd of Malays: some twisting his beard, some taking off his hat, some grasping his hand…’ – Sejarah Melayu, Ch. 29.
This is how we knew the difference: eyes
Like porcelain. Cheeks that flushed at sea
From thirst and stale wine, arms white as snow
Soft to the touch, a shout beneath our hands.
The way they stood, without ceremony,
Thighs aching from the long walk up the sand,
Their shoes. Their hardened faces, sharp as prows.
When they came in the middle of a dry
Season we knew they meant no good or ill,
Carried nothing. Out of the empty hull
They gave themselves into our company,
Worshipped at our tables, sat down to eat
From the same dishes. When the month was up
We walked across the water to their ships
With bread and writhing fish for a long journey…
In the end, our children will ask, what was it
That gave them away at the next monsoon?
Instead of skin, steel. Instead of matted
Curls swept back with laughter, casques. Instead
Of sails emblazoned with the afternoon’s
Sun, these shadows on the harbour: turrets
Laced with pikes, burning fat, the smell
Of anchovies, saltpetre. When we fell
At a distance, it was as if we’d never met.
Theophilus Kwek is the author of three collections, They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2013), and Giving Ground (2016). He won the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets Prize in 2016, and was president of the Oxford University Poetry Society. ‘The Difference’ is featured in Issue Five of The Lonely Crowd, alongside two other new poems from Theophilus. You can purchase it here.
See the site tomorrow to read Theophilus Kwek On Writing ‘The Difference’.
© Theophilus Kwek, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.