The fire dancers spin
The fire dancers spin flames to entertain the tourists, the tradition of Thai dancing remade into a modern practice to earn a living, just as generations of fishermen now steer longboats fishing only for tourists. My brother and I have hired such a boat, and our guide, a man named Arune, takes us to see the famous beach that’s been closed, a lagoon with towering cliffs and turquoise water, and reefs where we can snorkel. It’s my brother’s first time snorkeling, and he’s thrilled with each new discovery: a parrotfish, rockfish, lionfish, pufferfish, a barracuda, and even two young reef sharks. It’s been twenty years since I last went snorkeling, and though I too can’t help but laugh as a school of fish swim past me, I also can’t help noticing how much coral, nearly all, has been bleached.
On our final dive, I step down, breaking the glassy surface of the water, and feel my big toe pierced by the single spine of an urchin. My toe begins to throb with a warm pain. I warn my brother to watch out when he enters the water. Starfish and sea otters will eat urchins, and even I have dined on their delicate flesh that tastes so strongly of the sea. I float above a herd of the spiny creatures, reflecting on how it’s hard to stay mad at someone that’s only doing what they must to survive.
This prose poem is part of a series that I wrote while on a trip to Thailand with my brother. “The fire dancers spin” wrestles with paradox, with the notion that Jamaica Kinkaid writes about in “A Small Place” of how “a tourist is an ugly human being” because to be a tourist is to objectify the lives of others for our own entertainment, and with the admission of guilt that comes from accepting one’s place in a globalized world that celebrates wonder even as we destroy it.
Jake Young is the author of the poetry collection American Oak (Main Street Rag, 2018), the poetry chapbook What They Will Say (Finishing Line Press, 2021), and the essay collection True Terroir (Brandenburg Press, 2019). He received his MFA from North Carolina State University and his PhD from the University of Missouri. Jake also serves as the poetry editor for the Chicago Quarterly Review.