City of Sandalwood

         (Vientiane, Laos)



Remember with me the world blinded by noon-

day sun. The slow-moving gait of water buffalo

shambling down the road, bellies so broad

and crusted with mud, they pass for prehistoric

reptiles. How each sunset lights the river on fire

like kerosene poured from a flame-colored sky.

It’s been decades, but I haven’t forgotten

the streets; elegant, weary boulevards lined

with teak trees and wrought-iron gates, buildings

that still buckle under the weight of empire.


This, a city of remnants: a strand of hair fallen

from Buddha’s head, a footprint preserved

in stone when he passed—or was it a dragon?

Details that elude, even as they’re remembered.

A pile of feathers and stringy, shredded meat

at the bottom of a bird cage, the work

of an adopted stray cat later found dead

in a pool of spilled petrol. Our pet menagerie.

I’ll go back someday, though I don’t speak

the language, can’t remember how to piece

the city back together; but mute, lost, living

as if underwater, that’s how we first arrived.


A trick of childhood, that places remembered

seem grander than they are. Once, I returned

to our old house, found it strangely diminished.

Plaster walls worn; the main house squat, provincial.

The marble wasn’t marble but polished concrete;

the grounds, overrun with frangipani bushes,

a riot of coconut trees, had dramatically shrunk.

The world recedes. Moss-covered, crumbling

stupas at every intersection, temple walls etched

with dragons, keepers of the gate. What’s the tale?

A virgin sacrifice; some ancient, toothy curse.

And our little family—we vanished without a trace.

Handprints left in concrete, a pair of dead sparrows

buried in the front yard. How little we leave behind.

Mia Ayumi Malhotra is a Kundiman and VONA/Voices Fellow. Her poems have appeared in Mid-American Review, Drunken Boat, Greensboro Review, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.