Thai Comic Books
Poems from my life in Thailand
With the Peace Corps
by Burgess Needle (Thailand 1967-69)
Big Table Publishing, $14.00
60 pages
2013

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo(Nigeria 1964-66)

In the Tucson Weekly, Author/Critic Jarret Keene wrote that in the poem “Who Collects the Eggs” Burgess Needle is exposing how the “teacher inevitably becomes a student, and how a child’s perspective is often more realistic and more enlightening than any so-called grown-up’s.” I concur absolutely; indeed, Needle’s collection Thai Comic Books is about this maturation, a process that perhaps most volunteers experience. An experience that seems to validate why the Peace Corps in the 1960s and still today is worthy of expansion  (Congress please take notice).

Postcard photos of ducks in Boston intrigue his Thai school children. They ask who owns the ducks . He answers that nobody owns them:

PUBLIC ducks.
What does that MEAN?
Why do children feed them?
WHAT do people feed them?
How much does it COST?

If those are not their ducks,
why do they feed them?…
I don’t know, I admitted.

How much are duck eggs in America?
Once again I displayed my ignorance.

What do they do when the old ducks die?
That question was confusing.

After we kill an old duck, she explained, my mother saves
the feathers, we sell the neck and the feet
and she makes pudding from the blood.

Everyone in American is rich…
they feed other peoples’ ducks,
no one collects the eggs,
small ducks are free,
dead ducks are thrown away,
no one uses the feathers…

You must be rich to be so careless.

This disconnect seems extraterrestrial to Needle (and many PCVs). Today, with iphones, photo apps, and Internet, etc., there might be less cultural confusion, but Needle revives the cultural awakening most of us–who served “back in the day”–confronted when we tried to explain America. “Shortstop in Thailand” is another poem illustrating the impenetrable gap between cultures. Needle is asked to introduce baseball to his students, but even before the pitch, “Everyone stepped away from the plate.” “No one wanted to cover first base, die / and return prematurely as a dog or peacock.” Eventually, Needle fails as “Monsoon rain dissolved the chalk line. / I sat in my room and threw a softball against / a wall over and over. Reincarnated as Steve McQueen.”

Needle describes in clear, unpretentious language what he sees and senses in his environment, from the children and the rice-patty buffalo to the inscrutable “cop” who withdrew to raise rice, and was “The Kindest Man in the World.” The man had “loathed his reflection / in the eyes of others so took the love of his life to this / barren lot and shortly had two children and no rice. / Nothing. No seed. No water.” Needle’s friend says simply, “The Buddha will show his love for this man.

With subtle humor Needle captures Thai culture, his and their joy, and his own missteps. His use of Buddhism’s calming influence on the people is as unassuming as the Thai environment. The people are noble and selfless in spite of the dangerous times, with war and rebellion throughout Southeast Asia. Needle portrays the compassion for each other that is elemental to Thai culture. “Banana Stand,” is a simple, but enlightening poem: the stand “had no sign that said: / Banana Stand / There were in fact no bananas.” There were banana trees with bananas nearby, and “as a courtesy walkers / purchased  some fruit from  / the banana stand with no bananas . Needle writes “one might have / thought it was a movie set / except there were no cameras /no lighting crew no microphones / and of course no bananas.”

There is much more in this collection of  poems by Needle to recommend it to readers. Stick with them and reflect; notice the gentleness of both the author and the culture. Notice Needle’s plain style that could easily pass as  prose, except that the cumulative emotional effect of the collection far exceeds any verbal summary.

Digital technology chased Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964-66)) out of the classroom, so he retired from community college teaching. He misses the classroom but not grading student essays. After teaching others writing for forty-five years, he is finally trying to teach himself how to write. His first lesson was the futility of being a “couch potato” and pretending to intellectualize life.