R-and-R Centre: An Incident from the Vietnam War
We built a palace for them, made of bedrooms.
We even tracked down playmates for them
(No easy job since prostitutes went out
When self-rule came). We dug a pool,
Constructed shops, and a hut for movies
With benches outside for the girls to wait on.
Serene House was what we called it.
We did our bit in that war.
Air America brought them from the battlefield.
We lifted the girls from the suburbs by buses:
Chinese, Indian, Malay, Eurasian,
Healthy and well-fed and full of play.
There were cameras in plenty, tape-recorders
And binoculars for the soldiers to buy
For the girls; for the girls to sell back
To the shops; for the shops to sell to the soldiers.
Serene House was near the varsity. The GIs
Strayed across the campus with Nikons and blank faces:
It was feared they might assault the female students.
They seemed scared of their own cameras.
They looked at nobody; nobody looked at them.
That violence down the road -
It was good for business, and we did our bit.
Otherwise it was a vulgar subject.
Once I found a GI in the corridor,
Young and dazed, gazing at the notice-boards.
The Misses Menon, Lee, Fernandez, Poh and Noor
Should report for a tutorial at 3 p.m.
Bringing their copies of The Revenger's Tragedy ...
If Mr Sharma fails to pass his essay up this week
He will find himself in serious trouble...
The Literary Society seeks help in cutting sandwiches ...
He was still there thirty minutes later,
A stunned calf. I asked if I could help.
He shrank away: 'It is not allowed to stand here?'
The corridor was dingy, walls streaked with bat shit,
somewhere a typewriter clacked like small arms.
'Is there ... would there be a ... library?'
One of the best in fact in South-east Asia. -
I offered to show him. He trembled
with a furtive pleasure. His only licence
Was to kill, to copulate and purchase cameras.
What sort of books would he like to see?
Outside in the quad he was jumpy,
As if unused to the open. He glanced behind,
Then whispered. Yes, there was something ...
Did I think ...
What could he be after? The Natural History
of the Poontang, with Plates, by some defrocked
Medico called Aristotle? How to Get to Sweden
By Kon-Tiki through the Indian Ocean?
'Would they have anything ...' A quick look
Round - ' ... by Cardinal Newman, do you think?'
I left him in the stacks, the Apologia in his hands,
He didn't notice when I went away.
Inside Serene House, in the meantime,
Girls galore (such lengths we went to!)
Lolled on the benches, played with binoculars,
Clicked their empty cameras, and groused.
The soldiers were happy to quit Vietnam;
Five days with us, and they were glad to go back,
Rest and recreation, they said, was too much for them.
We weren't surprised when the Americans didn't win.
from Collected Poems (Carcanet, 1999), copyright © D. J. Enright 1999, used by permission of the author's estate and the publisher.