Sunday, June 08, 2008

History and Geography

This is the first section of some prose poetry that I wrote back in the mid 1990s. The imagery is a mix of San Antonio (in particular what it looked like if you took a busride from the affluent Northwest side downtown) and Kuala Lumpur and the pseudo-historical references were heavily influenced by the texts I was reading while teaching Texas history to 7th graders in Northside Independent School District. And I believe there is much that was intentionally derivative of Kafka and Borges. And there are some metafictional (and historiagraphical) aspects similar to some similar writings from about 1991.

See In the Colonial City for the introduction to this series. See The Legacy of Conquest for the next section.

1. History and Geography

In the colonial city, you recognize changes slowly. Time thickens. Perception is delayed. The place transforms itself until suddenly you realize you are there, it has always been this way—you have been standing at this exact same spot your entire life.

A ride on one of the city buses illustrates this phenomenon. At each stop further South (or North relative to the side of the equator where you happen to find yourself) the ratio of brown bodies gradually increases; the streets begin to fork and crack; the metal shopfronts pulled down to protect the glass become more and more prominent (by this point, bars will no longer do) until old men with shotguns loiter in turbans with long white beards[1]

You will know when you arrive downtown in the colonial city. You will know when you have made it, because there will be tourists everywhere. Tourists are the ones who take the time to look under statues or peek behind silkscreen portraits—lifting the edges of the gold “made in” sticker, checking for authenticity. Tourists are the ones who have a use for the souvenirs that only a colonial city can provide[2]

Tourists also share an appreciation for History, for they know how much has happened here. It is true, the brass plagues on every street-corner prove it—as does the guide book that is available at information kiosks everywhere. This book is useful for foreigners and locals alike, because it contains the texts of all that has happened here. The entries in the guidebook are identical to what is written on historical markers.

On the top of each page is a symbol that corresponds exactly to the one of the marker.[3] It is in this manner that you can precisely determine what happened wherever you happen to find yourself standing.

Now, it would be irresponsible of me if I did not mention that it is possible to navigate the streets of our city without the use of this guide book. There is a slight chance you can put these events into a logical sequence. You just might be able to make sense of it all on your midnight strolls here—but it is not recommended.

You see, many of the letters on the plagues have become worn or corroded (particularly in less desirable sections of town,) making the markers difficult if not impossible to read[4]

I know what you are thinking. There is an easy solution to that…
But alas, if there is one law that is rigorously enforced here, it is that metal polish (or any of the strong solvents) must not be carried on your person. This provision may seem strange, perhaps even archaic, but there is certain logic to it (much like the ban on wire cutters in the outer provinces.) You see the past must be preserved—left as it was. History must not be polished, embellished or made clean.

This is one of the guiding principles here in the colonial city and it applies to each of the many historical sites, both large and small—even for our most famous shrine, for which the city gets its name.[5]

It is for this reason that you need the book.

1 - In the colonial city, hair has been known to grow to infinite lengths.
2 - There is no kitsch in the colonial city.
3 - It is impossible to reproduce these symbols in the current typeface.
4 - Only the blind are permitted to make rubbings of historical markers.
5 - In the colonial city, we form our most precious memories in wax.

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