FEBRUARY 19th 2017
Caged in a Flat World
The world can never be round
We could not have found all the gourds and drunkards
Swerved off in times of earthquakes and tsunamis
Or whirled to its edges by hurricanes
They would be dangling on threads of spiders
Praying for the tenderness in a mother’s hand
To lift them up from jaws and claws of darkness.
We wouldn’t have grown shells on our skin
After the blood baths from wolves,
We would just float in space
Our lives not tilting at the axis along with earth’s.
Or, our murderers would have washed down
To rot in deep sea caves at the world’s laterals.
Yet here we are, caged in this brutish world
Its ends so intent on getting us locked on its islands
Of war, murder and treachery.
With lies of horizons that stretch to as far as they can
And the end meeting the beginning. Where earth
is a dark cave in a river
that swallows scubas
with a thousand divers staring
at the bright shadows of the sun and its rays
hanging freely from splendour.
there is just me.
and the many kisses I throw at the moon
when it flees the night in space
its lips iced with frost.
JANUARY 22nd 2017
slow cold wind all night then
it dies at the daybreak . . .
three white ducks
chanting down the pond
someone pushes the handpump
gush of water
muffled cough, a kid’s cry
dampish firewood squeaks and burns
smoke – they’re preparing some tea
the old shopkeeper says
(rubbing his palms)
it’ll be colder
than yesterday . . .
you can hear the
and a child’s cry
and a muffled cough
while you sip
your first chai and
the mynahs sitting on the
the chaiwallah talks
about his son’s
marriage and the distant roar
of a tiger
he heard near Guwahati . . .
sawmill comes alive
suddenly, the mechanical sound, monotonous . . .
about the long gone train
that must be reaching home
in an hour or so . . .
JANUARY 15th 2017
the small dead branches
a nightbird sings and air hiss . . .
of a long distance truck . . .
diwali happened a week back, a few
crackers still burst
looking up i see
scorpio, with antares, the fire star, burning orange; vega, in the center
of the sky
a half open window
the lights of the diwali night
the ks link road, desolate
will long be remembered. . .
her side of bed
empty . . .
Keshavi signs the papers
is from Colombo
return her passport . . .
she smiles back
in Unilever, speaks good
says she watches lots of Bollywood
stuff, Shahrukh, yeah
she will stay here for
10 days and
pray to Buddha
you know. . .
she won’t meet me at the
Sri Lankan monastery, I should come to
Colombo (flashes her smile)
turns away, waves back
she has a deep blue
pair of Nikes
(translated by Shelly Bryant)
DECEMBER 15th 2017
The English translation of this poem was first published in the programme notes of A Melody named Memory, an event on October 7, 2017 as part of The Arts House’s Poetry with Music series.
Nan Zi (Lee Guan Poon)
the wind through our sleeves
greeted by the sound like roaring waves
sounds ringing in the ear canal
the trees, a wall of green
seen from speeding cars
looking like they will soon collapse
the wheels are an untiring monster
the body of metal
devouring endless miles of road
relentlessly running on
tightly hold Fate’s steering wheel
what we want to throw out
is not just today’s weather
only an unknown puzzle
can spark our interest in exploration
the fast-moving scenery
fills our eyes
it hits us rhythmically
the monster’s metal bones
the lights like giant pincers
pushing the fog to a halt
drinking enough oil
all that distance
all bowed down
waving the white flag
20 February 1981
from Nan Zi’s Biological Clock, 1994
incorporated into secondary school Chinese textbooks in the 1970s
(translated as ‘Singapore Suite’ by Shelly Bryant)
DECEMBER 11th 2017
The English translation of this poem was first published in the programme notes of A Melody named Memory, an event on October 7, 2017 as part of The Arts House’s Poetry with Music series.
Wu Mu (Teo Sum Lim)
– Smoking Barrel –
the Gurkhas hold the hot smoking barrels
aimed coldly at me
with the language of the British colonial government
that year at the Kong Hwa School on Guillemard Road
exploding at the boiling point
(killing is terrible –
the two retreating student leaders before the barrels
like two abandoned, fleeing defeated foes
their crumpling girlish images mesh into mine
refreshing memories now lost half a century)
the group cannot go headless
I choose to walk out on the conflict
to stand and face this turbulent, fearful age
the schemes and oppressions
of the British colonial government
where the century’s loudest clamour was raised
before the students’ puzzled eyes, I hold my hands high
with this weak flesh
a kind of sacrificial expression
I walk toward these mercenaries
I walk toward the hot smoking barrels they hold
I walk toward purgatory
– Building the MRT Tracks –
outside the house, outside the expressway
highrise buildings and all the civilised construction
accompanied by an unrestrained sound
of continued building
building history, building
of concrete and reinforced pride
the bloodline of a leonine nation
huge palm fronds piercing the clouds
the note sounds unendingly
spread south to north, west to east
such a rugged character
building the MRT tracks, rich in time and space
each section of track pulsing
each cylinder overlaid
with unparalleled confidence
9 June 1986
first published 13 June 1986 in Lianhe Zaobao • Nebula
– City –
the city wakes from sweet morning dreams
the yellow streetlamps rub sleepy eyes
and corridor lights doze
at rest, red night lights warning flying planes overhead
as neon’s glow is suspended in the rising light of dawn
the HDB flats sown, then renovated every five years
on hard earth, the sound of pile drivers can hardly wait to ring
the jackhammer rushes to join the chorus
the lights have faded, but the birds
in the branches have yet to open their mouths
the long waves of sound sink heavily into earth and skin
there where our Indian compatriots drum and sing
at the corner of the community centre,
and someone contends with the city’s main tune
for the sake of something called Asian cultural values
in the bold morning
giving a final pull
14 November 1988
first published 8 December 1988 in Lianhe Zaobao • Art City
DECEMBER 8th 2017
Someone has to play the dog on a leash.
I wrote it down locked out
“did the cop leave his mark on me when he still didn’t look away?”
hid the character
for peace has the grain radical in it:
if everyone can eat…
Real dogs are not leashed
though sometimes they are
clothed. Small pink shoes and baggy tube shirt skirt.
A European family of five locks eyes with the least interesting thing on the street:
How much fun is it to edit your food and face? Curious, they got their phones out. I couldn’t tell if you were sick, even when you coughed. Maybe it was smoke. I massaged my own back with a pissed fist.
I guessed how to speak second language sign language. No one noticed the pig in misery while they took pictures with the midget puppy. I keep telling you it’s not hypocritical to prefer food that doesn’t come from your own restaurant. I heard of a girl without lobes who buys hoops just for fun.
The hardest part of miming is keeping symmetry in air. Please do not smoke during the entire flight. She signs the word for “stewardess” like the child that claimed 可以. Her arms gesture above the cobalt neck noose, the bow.
The sign has EXIT lit up in two languages: 出口 plus the arrow. 我们都知道怎么离开. Patterns folding inside, themselves fat in a core.
It’s a difficult trend for 老外, the outside. Other citizens pursue a collective personification of nation, and 外国人, pretend, again. Some vowels you have to send.
Everything you ever wanted to know about animals.
Underwater, Gilgamesh stole the vibrator. I moved into his jaw and we didn’t kiss. He was the strongest; I was the one killing villains. The crab king and I alternated wins; his legs were his downfall. It took a lot of work to crush a crustacean. Old skin slid off the shelled sea mammoth. The ocean ate it. Gilgamesh was the last whale there.
Other species are a mystery. Snakes will not seem to be handicapped. Their soft underbelly is their soft underbelly. Do beavers use sonar? Let this be self-evident: cats can hear death. Everything you see could be remembered. Are salmon bottom feeders? Trust: fish farms would not exist if you didn’t get hungry. I first noticed the circles in your neck when it became clear you were like one of those priests, treating all prey the same.
(translated as “Combing Up, Never to Marry” by Shelly Bryant)
DECEMBER 4th 2017
The English translation of this poem was first published in the programme notes of A Melody named Memory, an event on October 7, 2017 as part of The Arts House’s Poetry with Music series.
Combing Up, Never to Marry
lying softly on the shoulders
is it only shiny, raven-black hair?
it is dazzling, flickering youth
meandering from Tangshan to Nanyang
a rustling banana breeze, a drizzling coconut rain
the mysterious waterfall
purged over thousands of miles to a slim waistline
delicate and slender, swaying
how many heartstrings from the Han household
how many sentiments of a good man
all have a single effect
– each in turn lifted
ninth day of the sixth month, the sparrow chirps
crying in the morning light
as everything begins to open its eyes
to find the world still beautiful
how can it be
that the day is still lovely
small bamboo comb in the grasp
the present age
combing out the longing and romance
coming out the good man
of the Han household
infinite affection, all-embracing love
every stroke, combed
so neat, so clear
looking around in this moment
all is cold and clean
three thousand strands of affection
starting from the ninth day of the sixth month
tightly bound to the back of the head
smooth, dense, neat
no longer free to fly
unable to attract the wind, unable to dress up
where it is touched, the eyes
none without pain, bright eyes
all saddened and melancholy
why comb this brilliant
this bright age of sixteen
down this long lonely road?
why comb sentiments
this girlish sentiment
into sighs of midnight dreams?
why comb the love of the young man
into a lifetime of regret?
why? tell me, why?
Buddha, Kuanyin, eyes of kindness
in the lotus position, silent
listening to the voices of celibate girls
for the sake of dilapidated Tangshan homes
for the sake of the brothers who must carry on the family line
for the sake of not becoming a wife
the uncertain fate of the daughter-in-law
you have no resentment
with your slim hands
you are willing
to live a lonely life
in exchange for sufficient clothing and food
the day you decided to comb your hair up, you said
the temple bells were especially crisp
smoke drifts, full of father and mother
and brothers’ kind smiles
you say your heart is full of joy
is that true?
have you really never known regret?
an age towers, fifty years
in dust, grease, sewage
long past, with no hate, no love
callouses on your hands and feet
for the distant family, a nephew
building house after house
now, the sun setting, the breeze starting
you are a fast-burning candle
will these brothers, these people
with blood ties or without
grant to you
a tile? beneath your feet
an inch of ground to give?
that year kneeling before the gods
joyful and wholehearted
comb up, never to marry
so moving, that filial piety
did you imagine half a century later
how you would sort through the melancholy
is it more sorrowful the more it is combined?
does each stroke not bring more chaos? at last
the chaos is desolate
unsettled, even more
an unrelenting pain
written in the late 1980s
from Dan Ying’s The Tales Behind the Hair, 1993
DECEMBER 1st 2017
A middle-aged lady sits, heavy
with plastic baggies of
“Smells good right? You want one? Cannot,
got fine. Fine how much money ah?
You know, we used to live in Sembawang, it was
a slice of kampung life,
a village of unending chatter
a village moved
into newly built flats. But
it is quiet where I stay now. No one talks.
‘Don’t speak to strangers,’ my son says.
‘Don’t be nosy.’ So
I stay silent.
(Doors open and
Do you know? It’s so quiet where I live.
I want to move to Yishun. Nearer to my sister.
There’s this hill, once you see it,
soon you will get off the train.
Many urns on this hill.”
One could spy eagles then
soaring in circles
Once it rained for so long
rivers of ashes seeped
into soil, flowed
(translated as “Kallang River” by Shelly Bryant)
NOVEMBER 27th 2017
Shelly Bryant’s English translation of this poem was first published in the programme notes of A Melody named Memory, an event on October 7, 2017 as part of The Arts House’s Poetry with Music series.
There is a river
– One –
flowing so hesitantly
a river, dragon claws extended
from north to south, its banks spread wide
day and night, its low sob
in the memories of our ancestors
sticking like the colour of skin
how many dreams call him back
how many days, deeply entrenched
in the sediment on each bank
water level rising
with each drink of sweat and tears
a whirlpool swirls, looking for a way out
never seeing a thousand miles of majesty
a river, history telling him that it should return
to the colour of the earth
day and night, becoming a scene of hope
that river, beneath my feet and in my heart
belonging to the memories of the past
without reeds, the whitened banks remain fertile
my glorious river
irrigate me, wash me, that river
in my youth I did not know to build a wall around it
once it is allowed to move out into the South China Sea
it never returns to its old dreams
each whirl turns a muddy disk
the river returns
from the naked youth, home to fish and shrimps
it shrinks into a solitary vine, a song creeping on a tiny map
the history book’s final chapter, silently
misfortune is still fortune, misfortune or fortune
the roots of an entire history stationed there
the footprints of the Kallang people
the drifting shadow of a Bugis man
the fishing nets of our ancestors
Raffles’ fleet swept past
the blood from the Japanese warrior’s blade
all have been cleansed here
today, leave no more
last night, a heavy machine’s frame
in the river, amidst the water’s roar
in the tunnel of time
making big changes for you, a complete facelift
that rough iron wrist
thousands of twists and turns leading you
night or day, along these banks and outward
– giving you new life –
to the bitter sea
– Two –
after a light rain
anchored to the bridge
so many years! coming and going
never stopping for a minute to think. Behind
behind is a stone lion
before green waters and blue skies
soft current, calm breeze, solitary man-made rainbow
and yesterday, the scene on both sides so different
yesterday, we leaned on the rail, consuming sweet potatoes
on the left a boatful of rubber, sailed southwards to thriving warehouses
on the right, a tongkang full of boxes started from the UOB Bank warehouse
we squatted on the shoreline releasing and retracting the line
from noon till dusk
from ABCs to PSLE
we ride the stone lion for a photo of our P6 graduation
a cheap camera leaves behind a stack of hazy memories
such as red eggs and coarse rattan
such as Triple 5 cigarettes and comics
such as pulling braids and throwing cockroaches
such as Oriental Red and hymn class
such as struggle and conflict
such as hungry and not hungry
such as ought
and ought not
but what about earlier
an earlier time
at high tide when we caught black shrimps and fingernail clams at tide’s ebb
at noon the rubber factory bell sounds, some
ate and some went to class
we sang of Liu Sanjie and eating green bean soup
bare-butted bathing in the river and playing in the mud
one day members of the Black Ox Party rushed over, then hurried away
one day a fire burned, purging our youthful dreams
we shed tears
and prayed for rain
rain fell on the heart of our yesterdays, and
the bridge of today. On the river
the bridged banks, the lush weeds
stone pier on either side, the fishing boat here no more
leaning on the rail, what should we recall?
the bustle of cars on the bridge
beneath the bridge, the thick waters
coated with a rainbow of grease
flowing waters move toward the past
flowing time grows mouldy before me. Look around
behind me, only a few columns of Bugis Village remain
before me, Marina City waves to me
should I go?
on the riverside, two chairs
with rain and dust, let me sit
and quietly recall. This river
was the longest green shore, and here
lies my first dream…
27 October 1986
from Xi Ni’er’s Kidnapped Years, 1989
NOVEMBER 24th 2017
He was seven that year, when his father fell down at home, he picked up the phone, not panicking at all.
His mother, a painter, remarried a retired general, while he chose to avoid enlistment through self-mutilation.
He came from Daejeon, South Korea. In the taxi he gave me an unexpected kiss, then became distant again, like a stone evaporating from a stone.
Finally leaving China, in an airport hotel, he decided to once more experience the thrill of a stranger.
Back then my family lived near the reservoir, my father a lumberjack,
my mother a small grocer, her trips into town to restock would sometimes keep her late,
and when her ferry reached the center of the lake, the engine switched off, we would quietly float. Countless egrets engulfed the shore, while the flooded houses would occasionally emerge, covered in soggy weeds.
(Translated by Irene Chen and Judith Huang. Edited by Chen Bo and Kassy Lee.)
NOVEMBER 17th 2017
Other than the older ones, no one blinked. I asked what you had for lunch and you said it was some kind of rubric; where the snow fell hard, I ate in yellow. I somehow hated even your chuckle. It swung in everyone’s air, empty and sterile, a hanged eunuch. Your shorthand stretched. You were giving them orders. I tapped on the window since the door was locked. I made it a calm tap, like all I wanted was the attention of a bird.
The crazy that comes from posture. The silent crazy, the one you just see. Her weight balances on one foot, her neck twists. What’s the definition of a resource? There are rules about how much space has to be between people in a car and people on the street. Her hand breaks them and slams itself on the window. Her head seems to grow.
If you fall, the baby falls. “Men don’t hear that.” How many disasters could you email through? You were never gullible. She smashed the glass and used it on you. Opening your mouth hurt. Some people blamed heavy winds for her broken foot. The last thing you were was surprised. She didn’t know what would happen tomorrow but when she saw the calendar she had to update.
When she felt nervous she vomited entrance. Her phlegm was an escalator. Everyone stood still and descended. Traded tips. Advice about stocks. Slime metal edged along. The man next to her spoke into his left ear, convincing himself to invest. They were getting lower as her blood rose. The bottom was somewhere to be from instead of toward, she thought. Her gut protested. The headset men stomped on spiked stair metal. Something flipped; the ceiling was coming down. They started to die noticeably. Life left that underground. She was the only one still living in the sand lamp. Carved her name into the last raw stomach, and she, the blonde girl no one knew, finally made friends. Her loyal group, her gold trophies.
Ode To Armadillo. Little armored thing. Show me your cheek teeth. I’d let you bite me if we videotape it. How many weapons could I make from your carcass? I was always your claw but in death it was you who dug me. End of story quick change.
You were alone unless it was breeding season. I knew you were getting younger when you got loose skin, reaching sexual maturity at nine weeks. You were the comfortably disheveled sort. If pursued, the armadillo changes from its normal shifting shuffling to a scuttle, eventually reaching a gallop with remarkable speed.
It was hard work but eventually I caught up to you. Played the cheetah. I never thought revenge was an ugly word until I started wearing it. Stop complaining, I only took your tail.
NOVEMBER 3rd 2017
The teat in my fist
squirts, misses steel,
hits straw. I am as thirsty
for lost milk as the calf
mewling in its stall.
* The first section of this poem first appeared as an individual piece in The Bitter Oleander
OCTOBER 30th 2017
Too long have I lingered in the scriptorium and mistaken
the glowering spines for young British art. These days I use
an Oreo wrapper as a bookmark: its ultramarine like
the angels in the Wilton Diptych. What sets my announcements
apart from the Lord’s prank on Abraham? Demurring, I reject
the edicts that issue from the Hegelian hivemind. Instead, the silverfish purr
and unmake knowledge out of circulation. Now keep your volume down
lest you arouse the class consciousness. That day I saw a beautiful
octogenarian, all distinction erased between her
and the metropolis’s leading organ. Between you and me,
someone’s slipped something into my drink and it tastes
just like water. The story of my life has been a burr
on shimmering copper. In the new shelving system, poetry is beside
the dissident history of dry-cleaning. A youth corps
is always handy. This one makes sense, at last.
When I approach the threshold, sickness muddles my intestine
warfare. Out there lie worlds suffused with brilliant magenta, with men
whose arms are like wasp’s wings, and chess pieces are reserve currency.
The dire stillness of Sunday leaves me
gasping against the parquet. Road-widening
continues. Ma is getting her hair done
again. In Bukit Merah, a man fitfully
pisses into a storm drain. Soft fruit
is stepped on, a gravelly paste on
gravel. They say fried chicken
has never been so widely available.
Trump thinks we’re Indonesia, Vietnam, North Korea.
Parliament is closed today, but so are
KTV lounges. In Canto, we say we’ve waited
so long, even our necks are long. After I’m dead,
please burn the epic poem I wrote
about conservancy charges. When is
the next election, asked nobody.
At the market, the uncle is somewhat
ethnocentric. This new development combines
retail, petroleum refining and jazz. Buy low
and sell before the ICBM is fired.
I deny everything, even my denials. I wish
to make a living writing haikus on teabags.
The nation’s favourite sex position
is tax-deductible. Like everyone else,
I cried. I get up from the floor
and make myself a highball. Tonight
I will dream of a snake made of
green smoke, sliding vaguely through
the mile-a-minute, either going home
or elsewhere, it’s impossible to say.
OCTOBER 27th 2017
I changed shoes for the burial.
The earth, soft from rain,
was hungry for the black stems
of my funeral heels.
It was hungry for you too,
waiting only for lurid green turf
to give way to reality,
a hole gouged in a field.
The funeral director looked
away; your brothers
pulled back plastic ground,
took up shovels.
I grasped a handle too—bent
my woman’s body into pivot
of muscle and dirt until the throb
of earth on wood faded, until soil
landed on soil as softly as snow
on snow, until there was no hole.
The men stood silent. Burial
is no more a man’s task
than birth is.
the power failed.
Dark sifted through cold,
a halo of shadow around downed towers.
The city waited. The country waited.
Hogs lay frozen against the ditch,
smelling of snow, flesh crystallized
beneath skin. We waited
for the ground to thaw.
OCTOBER 23rd 2017
I saw the stars tonight,
and know they saw us
just as we see them:
as pinpoints of light
in a vast pointillist canvas.
As their earthly parallel
made by the same master
but of different material:
they: of dying light,
us: of living pulses.
And just as some stars burn brighter than others,
so it is true of you:
the focus of their lofty perspective,
their Polaris, their Sigma Octantis.
Without you, unanchored by your glow
they would wander aimlessly,
lose themselves in their heavenly sea,
unraveling the constellations,
leaving gaping holes
through which we would fall
each night we gazed up at the sky,
swallowed by the ever-expanding darkness,
consumed by nothingness.
First, all was nothing:
darkness upon darkness.
Then, we played our hands at God:
we reached and grasped and touched and caressed,
we crafted and molded and heated and quenched,
and we relinquished to witness
the two new worlds we created:
The first one is without you:
desolate, parched, scorched—
the true pilgrim’s path and ultimate test.
The second one is with you:
lush, humid, bountiful—
the settler’s dream until realized
and the insects torment and the plain no longer beckons.
We should have remained in the darkness,
the only forms in the formlessness,
to undulate endlessly
as the substance of dreams.
OCTOBER 16th 2017
At Night, after the Screams
we hear him walk
to the kitchen,
his callused feet scuff
the hardwood floor, hear
him mutter curses
at the carpet,
perpetually curled, hear him
on the linoleum
of the kitchen
So much is hidden
by our mother,
behind cans and boxes.
that he loves—
Mallomars, Mr. Chips,
We hear him
the cans clinking,
the boxes tearing open,
and his hands,
through wax paper
and plastic packaging.
the refrigerator suck
its light through the cracks
of our bedroom doors.
When he stands
in that cold light,
when he upends the milk carton,
when he douses
in his throat,
does he wonder, as we
what made him scream,
his mother’s name?
(after Dorianne Laux)
When I was sixteen years old and did not
need sleep to feel rested, or a job for
money, I joined the veterans outside
the Camp Street Blood Bank at 7 a.m.
where they smoked cigarettes peeled off
the cobblestones and drank MD 20-20
from pint bottles. They wiped their mouths on
the greasy sleeves of fringed jackets or jungle
cammies, looking for a piece of cardboard
or some old magazine to slap on the spit
and piss and vomit laminating
the sidewalks they slept on. I did not feel
soiled by the filth on their fingernails,
the grease in their hair, or the gravel in their
throats. I was enthralled by the lies they told
about where they’d been, what they’d seen, how
many they’d killed, and the way they told those
lies, as if they believed them. As if I
believed them, too.
Inside the clinic
we reclined on hard gurneys, flies lining
the rims of Dixie cups filled with urine.
“Shame, Shame, Shame” on the radio,
unlicensed nurses in tight white uniforms
dancing the Bump between rows of our
worn-out soles. They pushed thick cold cannulas
in our arms and our bloods drained into
plastic tubing. Arterial blood, slow
and thin. Blood over the legal limit, blood
so dirty it had fleas. Blood of our fathers
who’d disowned us, blood of our mothers
whose faces we’d failed to erase. At night,
I’d be back on Bourbon Street, a pint low,
a dollar flush, Buster’s beans and rice glued
to my ribs. Blue notes from clarinets
and guitars joining the termites spinning
in the halos of street lamps, go-cups crowning
the trash cans and dribbling into the gutter
with the butts and the oysters and the sweat
off the shower-capped jheri-curled tap
dancer from Desire Project scraping spoons
across the slats of a metal scratchboard.
Hawkers barking at the swarms of tourists
gawking at strippers in storefront displays,
and the runaway girls at the topless
shoeshine spit-shining white loafers
on the feet of insurance agents from
Mutual of Omaha. The veterans,
my blood brothers, they’d lurk in the shadows
and scan the sidewalks for half-smoked butts,
and I’d help them put together the lies
they’d tell to strangers tonight, and repeat
to me in the morning, forgetting half
of those lies were mine, and I’d forget, too.
At dawn the gulls laugh again.
Two gray angelfish ascend …
… kiss the surface …
… recede …
the water’s surface wrinkles.
Pink light separates the gray sky from the gray sea.
Enormous clouds form like the aftermath of great explosions.
How pensive this daybreak,
a grenade without a pin.
In a needling insect heat the dawn’s final breeze fades
A jeep’s lights flash on, it backs out of the commissary.
Pelicans lift from the pylons.
The Cuban whore retreats up the Bluff Road,
her sandals dangling from a finger.
Once on a moonless night
I lost my companions.
Their beams were bright
but I’d edged over
an outcropping into
darkness and touched down softly
on a rubble ledge
where the wall pulsed
with half-hidden forms, eyes
on the ends of stalks,
spiny feelers testing the current,
in a blink,
spaghetti worms retracting.
So sadly familiar—
things I desire withdrawing,
I extend a hand.
The reef folding into itself
like a fist. Then,
from the stacks of plate coral,
the arm of an octopus slid,
and another, two more,
for my fingertips,
my palm. The soft sack
of the octopus followed,
the flesh of my wrist,
my arm. My heart
pounding. Turquoise pink
explosions rushing across
the octopus’s form. At my armpit,
she tucked in,
sliding her arms
around my neck
and shoulder, her skin
the blue and yellow
of my dive skin.
She stayed with me
such a short time,
those narrow slits,
heavy with trust,
and my breath
so calm, so easy.
banged on their tanks,
summoning me to ascend.
OCTOBER 13th 2017
The Storm (Father Hector, San Jose Nov 8 2013)
When the water came
I was alone hiding, taking cover,
anticipating that the roofing might not hold,
worried of dying.
The water came
the strong winds howling, shaking the whole place,
white mist like needles piercing through my skin.
I’m going to die in this place.
Later our neighbors came
scampering climbing shouting panicking.
This is okay, this is good—
there’s somebody to tell my relatives
I died this way.
The Giant Claw (Beatrice Zabala, 16, Palo, Nov 8, 2013)
Before the giant claw came, I was inside
the comfort room with my grandmother.
She was praying the whole time. My parents
called us to transfer to a safer room,
but the winds kicked up, slamming on our door.
The wind was like a drunken man punching
the door, kicking it, trying to rip it apart.
The strong winds against my father’s strength.
Then suddenly, I felt water on the floor.
I thought fresh water from the river, it
didn’t smell salty. It started to rise,
to our knees, our waist, our chin. Salt water.
How was it possible? The sea was almost
a kilometer away! Then, the giant claw came.
The Surge (Zenia Dulce, 46, Professor UP Visayas. Tacloban, Nov 8, 2013)
I called to her,
I called to her and then
we held each other’s hand
and then suddenly the water under her
inside the house it was eating up the whole house
and she said oh my god
and then suddenly
one wave washed her down then another wave
another wave brought her up
so I held her
another wave put us both down together
with the whole house
so all the house and us we were under
and we did not know what was happening to us
but we held on together
we are both safe she knows because I am holding on to her
I give her a signal to hold on tightly
and then we were engulfed by the water
and then we tried to go up
once we neared the surface I released her
so that we would be able to have the chance to crawl up and swim
well the water was actually pushing us up together
I was telling her to it’s OK you release
so she released her hold on me also
and we resurfaced but the problem
we were both trapped big debris uh, maybe big debris
like this four or six like this
I don’t know it’s big I was scratched
this is still the bruise uh what do you call this my remembrance
and that was how many months ago that was six months eight months ago
and that bruise is still there
I was struck here also at my back
and she was struck at the neck I heard the snap
like that super loud
and then there was no emotion on her face
I saw the blood blood blood coming out from her nose and mouth
I thought oh my god she’s dead
and then slowly slowly
she was sinking
Among the Pines (On Being Recalled to Office)
Among the pines chancing upon old inscriptions,
Ignoramuses stop crowing my remove to northern mountains.
The man now comes forth not without purpose –
such as apes, cranes, never could understand.
(translated by Shelly Bryant)
The Same Stretch of Sky
written for the 2013 National Library Board “Read! Singapore” campaign
a world of chaos
eyes that have slept for a millennium
gradually condensing millions of miles of mulberry fields
coming from earth to heaven
from the same stretch of sky
after the regime change
faces already covered with frost
lift your eyes
aren’t these the flickering tears of a hero
and the resentment that can never be purged
all the compassion
all the sympathy
all the affection
from this same stretch of sky
different skin color
– heaven wants us tightly intertwined
barefoot on the equator
the same sun
the same rain
from this same stretch of sky
never again to allow
dreams to founder, stranded
never again to allow
sorrow to continue to spread
scattering the dream
love fills the irrigation channels
cultivating the heart
watching the river of clouds above
the moon smiles in the stars’ twinkling
coming from the same stretch of sky
spread the scrolls of the chronicles
read of Pangu opening up the heavens
with all our lofty ideals
let heart and heart
hand and hand be joined
we all have this same stretch of the sky
our shared good fortune
now and forever
SEPTEMBER 29th 2017
Entering/Exiting a Carpark
By Chow Teck Seng
The car keeps backing
into position, no return, no regret –
no longer possessing the shiny shards of youth.
The rocket has landed.
The memory has wandered off.
Plato, like a flyaway brolly.
The carpark frequently disguises itself as a full stop.
Habitually buckling up the seatbelt
preparing to enjoy a repetitive miniseries during the journey –
the wiping effect makes me think of this as a nostalgic film.
Premonition is a xeroxed sea.
Between the eyes, the needle of a compass.
Within that rear-view glance, finally a most familiar and mundane tenderness.
Not a dislocation, but unable to forget ever turning back.
So the carpark is also not a comma.
The next day, as well as the journey, will not repeat.
Streetlamps and the pulled handbrake softly inform you
that a car, stopping, is an unclear and naked semicolon.
The taillights and the sound of alighting footsteps
stitch up the misaligned scenes like garment seams.
The carpark, in the rain, is like the fleeing
happiness of a corpse that has just left the mortuary.
(Translation by Yong Shu Hoong)
* previously published, without the English translation, in Chow Teck Seng’s Poetry of You and Me (Lingzi Media, 2012)
SEPTEMBER 25th 2017
The Path of Least Resistance
Sit back, relax… unclench the fists.
It’s peace of mind we’re paying for –
and we’re paying a lot – when we
entrust the task of navigating these
unacquainted roads to an assigned
driver-for-hire. But this hardly
justifies our trust in the system; or
is it a collective resignation to fate?
Fate, as in the game of chance,
or divine will that we assume will
always be to our advantage. Breathe
in and out, as our van weaves in and
out of traffic flow. We’d like to think
the driver knows what he’s doing,
though he doth tootle on the horn
too much, especially when he’s trying
to warn any car that gets in his way
and needs to be overtaken. It seems
one false move by one of the many
stakeholders could spell disaster, yet
everything hangs in balance. Faith,
I tell my agitated heart, faith! Let
nature – the human kind included
– take its course, as man and car meld
into a single deity, all-seeing, that
rips us through the slaughter of sun
and sheets of rain, passing road-
hogging tuk-tuks along mist-shrouded
winding roads… before providing
in these verdant hills and plantations
an elixir for the violence of our pursuit.
到陌生地 把驾驶工作 交托
某一随机安排租车司机 的结果 这还
抑或 一种我们总误会 会天从人意
的天意 来 来 深吸一口气
身为司机 当知其所当为 即使
过多 而且是为肃清自己前行车道 防止
错误 将导致他们的灾难 信任
任一切 顺其自然 自是那种
天人合一 成仙成佛 仿佛 人在做
天在看 我们如何穿透雨 穿过夺命的阳光
(Translation by Chow Teck Seng)
SEPTEMBER 22nd 2017
Put On/Slip Off
– The philosophy of dressing
By Chow Teck Seng
You slip off, we put on
Put on innocence, slip off decorum.
For our beautiful kindergarten we put on uniforms
Tucked in an era where Nezha hadn’t yet been forgotten
Walking towards the school’s rain-soaked compound
Slipping off canvas shoes coated with whitener
Slipping off, the whiteness slips off like water
Slipping, even the wet socks slip off,
And then putting on the upcoming year, putting on growth.
Putting on pyjamas white shirt blue skirt dress shirt trousers leather shoes
Putting on underwear house clothes Bermuda shorts slippers
Button up, belt up, smoothen the creases
Zip up, tidy up the collar.
The women paint their lips, ink their brows, put on makeup
Dab on perfume, fix on earrings.
The monks put on robes, the heathens knot their neckties.
The trees put on sunshine as a cosmetic mask
Put on the years like a net
Slip off leaves and beauty.
The men put on army uniforms and wear patriotism on their sleeves
Slip off the four seasons.
The apples are skinless, the fox is wagging its tail in The Little Prince,
The snakes unroll outdated skins, the lizards shake off their timely tails.
Are angels fully-clothed or naked?
Is the devil masked or baring his fangs?
In wedding banquets of strangers, and politically-correct occasions,
We would still be putting on sharp suits
Jackets, masks, gold-rimmed glasses
Wine glasses tight in our clasp –
Glasses that wear a certain sophisticated sheen.
(Translation by Yong Shu Hoong)
* previously published, without the English translation, in Chow Teck Seng’s Poetry of You and Me (Lingzi Media, 2012)
SEPTEMBER 18th 2017
When a batch of my books arrives
from my publisher’s warehouse, I notice
Added annotations: yellowed specks
and blotches; I worry about customer
complaints over such imperfections.
A more understanding reader accepts
these pages as living tissues capable
of aging gracefully with the weather.
Nothing remains in mint condition
For too long. When I part my shirt,
I try to decrypt the coded message
of moles new and ancient; scars
of different vintages; spots, like the
smattering on the sun’s photosphere…
Then learning how Roman soldiers
used to chisel faces off statues, I
consider what memories I wish to
blanch from history, which words
to erase from skin. And enquire:
Should I advocate a return to that
shrink-wrapped state of newness?
Or otherwise remain, like grand
trees that lent me their name,
peaceable within reams of barks:
What’s mottled, and overlaid with lichens,
is a new body for my remaining journey.
出版社货仓 抵达家中 赫然发觉
留若树死留皮 成纸成册 留则
(Translation by Chow Teck Seng)
SEPTEMBER 8th 2017
I seek out a woman so I can talk to her about her breasts,
and she says it’s brave of me to claim I see them.
She’s been growing flowers with her husband for years,
and she talks about the flowers like they’re the land of the dead,
like she’s afraid to get lost at midnight around them.
It’s decided it’s more acceptable for me to scrub her back.
She says: They’ll drink the blood but with flower roots in their hair.
She means her husband is tending to the flowers
while lying on his side. I’m scrubbing her too hard but can’t stop.
Before this, I forgot dirt exists under cement roads.
To be more specific,
we’re both standing in Baihuashenchu Alley,
her back to me, no water. I’m just using a hairbrush on her back.
Harder, she screams.
Her hair takes on the quality of roots,
and I see now the tips are actually in the dirt.
How is there not any blood on her back?
But what’s in the ground is lapping up liquid.
We’re in this alley, and I see the key-maker
who’s sitting on his stool—he opens his mouth and a fly comes out.
I forgot what I did to her husband with my hands
prior to her smearing him with the paint roller.
She bends down to moan and breathe near him to simulate life.
She can travel any distance with her hair still in the soil.
I can’t get her skin tone right
after I realize she has a back where her chest should be.
When I saw her yesterday tending to the flowers with her husband
but looking at me for too long, I saw her shirt said HFIL,
but any kid can tell that it used to be HELL.
I look again, and just for a second I see a shadow
is actually a decapitated dinosaur. This place is too much.
Are they timeless beings or just scientists who can bend light around objects?
I want to call her a gender neutral term,
so I say “elderly person,” and that feels right.
The grieving souls—wolves waiting for me at the gate
cascade up, a hideous arch. Frozen or displayed,
they end at the wall in a pile.
I am now where artists get their ideas.
She says: I picked this to be the last thing you see.
I’m not dying; I’m going to another dimension,
but I must leave everything here.
AUGUST 28th 2017
take a walk
today after meeting a friend I
ambled through orchard road,
absentminded without a destination;
paused for an out-of-tune singer and
exasperated accompanying beatboxer;
wandered through lucky plaza curious
about the bastion of pinoy secrets; past the
rows of emerald hill bars inhabited by
expats and disgruntled white collars;
sipped a mojito in the masquerade of a
sanfran cable car; wove through shuttered
shops and dimmed stores; cast curious
glances upon fellow wednesday night
streetwalkers; peered into bank buildings
like art installations and furniture stores like
colonial houses; ventured to art galleries
that only allowed for window scrutiny;
thought about nothing in particular. the
adage that singapore has no soul is
reflected by the shiny artifice of its
shopping district: a grandiose veneer that
masks a system of transactions and
conditions. this is not the place to find
poetry recitals or aspiring bands or
bartending conversationalists or morose
comedians; this is not a place to expect
meaningful and heady exchanges (with
exception to dinner’s dialogue); the city
projects the image of what is expected of
luxury and commerce- a moving image
sustained without substance.
i need to know
to conversations that
to billowing ambition
twice-boiled aromas and
bitter chocolate, no, to
in hongdae thrift
stores, no, to unwitting
glances during mimed
raps, no, to untouched
afternoon smiles, no,
to the first time i
mustered what i
had and asked
if we could
billy joel on a mountainside path
singing of heartbreak and drink
amidst flanks of dust and rock
and well-dressed nepalese that make
ramshackle buildings and traffic disorder
(there are neither addresses
nor traffic lights but a cacaphony of car horns)
even more baffling. the momentary
discomfort of 10 hour journeys in
of destitution and poverty and
masses of people and acres
of farmland that whisk past our windows.
we sip their chai, eat their momos,
chow mein, dhaal bhat;
our tourist’s novelty is their daily diet.
I wince at the
juxtaposition of dulcet
california tones and the
monotony of nepali workmen.
open fields team with crumbling
rocks and crags; a farmer walks
by with a line of livestock-
our urban eyes jolt at the sight of
goats and cows and chickens
and those who tend to the
hopes of harvest. the local
pastor diagnoses them with
“they work for 4 months a year
and spend the rest doing little else”
would a taste of
salvation arouse them from
we offer our services-
a football, a
guitar, they snap our photos like
zoo animals. they accept us
into their homes, perhaps
endeared by a foreign face rather
than a savior’s sacrifice. the
prayer circles assure us we have
scattered the seeds; we wait
for them to flourish.
AUGUST 25th 2017
The following poems were previously published, without the English translation, in Chow Teck Seng’s Poetry of You and Me (Lingzi Media, 2012).
Time is a mongrel,
its wide-open mouth
gnawing at the belly of the moon.
So every night is
predestined for a new gaping hole.
But all’s well, just 15 days
the moon is fair and fattened again.
We are like the moon,
wounded by dog-bites all over.
(Translation by Yong Shu Hoong)
Eat Drink Mountain River
Three or two bowls
are hoisted by left hand in one move.
Snowy mountain, snowy mountain –
the rice grains waft like snow flakes
dissolving in mouth.
Right hand, in two claps of lightning,
claws up a mouthful of rice,
splitting apart the mountain of ice.
The occasional spoonful of soup
is extracted from a large porcelain bowl.
The river, the river
ripples with an oily sheen; meat boulders as moats
the water wades past mountain-slopes to gush in.
Who would use the four seasonal styles of gastronomy
on two or three appetisers? Wavering
like butterflies among flowers,
broken husks scatter, only to be
whisked away with red petals and leaves.
Your cravings not yet fulfilled,
thunder reverberates from the blue.
A hand rubs the bridge of a nose.
As casual conversation ensues, soup becomes sudden storm:
Everything fades into nothingness.
(Translation by Yong Shu Hoong)
AUGUST 21st 2017
hồ chí minh
like flotsam in a slipstream
anxious swarms nudging
through gaps, I twist
to avoid their brusque advance
as epaulette-bearing shophouse
guards glance furtively from
their stools. the humidity
is swift and familiar, local cacophony
splashed with tonal colour, food
painted with colonial hues-
the city whispers
“I’m not some war torn country.”
I slurp pho in a 6-villa compound;
I nod guiltily at limbless beggars.
a tremulous emotional current
envelops me at the war museum: the
claymore that’s accompanied me
for months rests indignantly in a glass
case. the trenches, jungle marches,
rifles held above crossed water:
I quiver with sympathy
for the vietcong
the new face of vietnam
is global: the young
bury their dead, epithets in
museum displays and lacquer
rendered with expressionist
technique. scars are masked
by korean cosmetics, echoes
drowned by the zing of
fast food (I am told today’s
youth could not fit in the cu
chi tunnels), moans and cries
swallowed in the optimistic
motorbike hum- it is more
fastidious to march to this beat.
market vendors jockey for
attention, food stalls wave
their laminated menus, old
cyclo peddlers grunt at
the chaos in the junctions,
acrobats leap on bamboo to
remember the pulse of
village life, I stand with unease
in the facsimile of a gangnam
my tuition teacher
turned her center
into a mahjong den
“you deserve a break,”
teaching us to fling
thick tiles, eye one
the click-clack of
tile walls as if to
guard state secrets.
we’d bet on things like
school postings and
scores, things so
important to a 12-year old
in a game of mahjong.
we never did play again; our
teacher wary after they
complained, “teach our kids
to score, not gamble,” and
the humdrum of
encroached on our aptitudes
the clicking of tiles a
coda resounding in
* Primary School Leaving Examination
harbinger: starched fabric rests on
shoulders, the auditorium a
formidable patchwork of stern and
naive, a song resounds- the
lyrics wrestle on your tongue
arborescence: nurturing gentlemen is
like pruning bonsai- every red stroke
a snip, every reprimand a shear,
pressure toughens the bark, but can
trees water themselves?
supine: there’s a compulsion to let
the winds bowl you over- you’ll learn
to say no after calling it quits too
many nights, red retinas tracing
the reasons not to get out of bed
epoch: a young man has clear
milestones- graduation, enlistment,
parades. we are not empires that wax
and wane, we look on zeitgeists with
denouement: typing poems in an
empty bunk, ignoring the thought of
arrested development, cautiously
contemplating what comes next,
short answer- more of the same
(translated into Mandarin by Chow Teck Seng)
AUGUST 18th 2017
I’m not a vegetarian
but I go meatless
on occasions for
the best intentions.
Eating too fast is
another sin. When I
bite my lip and blood
corrupts my vegetables
I’m no longer even
a vegetarian for a day.
(Translation by Chow Teck Seng)
Meat Joy, 2014*
To put it blandly, it is
But armed with a pinch
of salt, I can certainly try
to unlock all the flavours
and serve a fresh perspective.
Take for example, a wedge
of New York City, stuck
in a mall in Hillview where a few
HDB blocks used to stand,
before the entire estate
was roundly erased. After dust
settles, the new sign proclaims:
Dean & DeLuca. A chain of
upscale grocery stores, first
started in SoHo in 1977.
This is 2014, 11.30am.
I’m having my $18 burger.
The beef is so thick that
well-doneness doesn’t seep into
the patty’s core. I survey
the large plate, and consider how
best to devour the grub.
My mouth isn’t wide enough.
So I pick up the knife
to draw blood by carving
through the meat, reflecting:
How well this red sap
must look, when splattered
across the floor space
of gleaming white marble!
I feel like having a brawl
With the taste of violence
upon the wingtip of my tongue.
But there’s no worthy opponent
here – only nerdy schoolgirls
fretting over homework, and
straight-laced office workers
celebrating Happy Birthday
with a silly cupcake bearing
a desolate candle.
I want to get up
and blow out that flame
wavering for way too long
under someone else’s nose,
but I’m too filled to move.
I do not dare to request
for more hot water to douse
my half-spent teabag.
Lunchtime is officially over
If not for the haze, lapping
menacingly against full-length window.
* This poem appeared on the website Kitaab and in Yong Shu Hoong’s chapbook, Right of the Soil (Nanyang Technological University & Ethos Books, 2016), but without the Chinese translation.
Dean & DeLuca
(Translation by Chow Teck Seng)
AUGUST 14th 2017
Gather in the outcasts, all who’ve gone astray
In God’s preferred version
of this year’s Christmas card
I’m seven months pregnant
seven months on from our wedding
You’re a man now, by the way
with an untweezed moustache
and a paisley green cravat
that matches my maternity dress
at least in the sense that I’m red
and you’re green and God may be
color-blind as a dog but He knows
the Christmas color grayscale tones
from watching It’s a Wonderful Life.
We’ll watch it too this year, in God’s
preferred version of our Thanksgiving,
and not cringe at George Bailey’s
abusive tantrums but cheer at the final
family scene and God will smile
when we don’t pull out the tripod
for our yearly Christmas card picture
of two dykes and a dog.
When you tire of your homeland
Gather up one corner
and start walking away
Stroll through a neighboring autumn
Drag your native land over leaves
red and yellow like flattened peaches
Stretch your home spaghetti-thin
But careful! Not so fast!
When it becomes impractical
to tow your old life any farther
make your way to the national gallery
There find the painting with a thousand snaking rivers
and thread your country up to the oily horizon
All of us are soft and easily bruised
the flatulent boys of a kindlier youth
the sleeping patterns of fur and dripping noses
the careless rise and fall of mud-matted flanks
we’d bathe our lungs in comfortable grunge
wilting flower-weeds in pots that miss the sun
yellowed upholstery with its own nicotine cravings
on the radio, hear a recording of the tossing sea
imagine it in the stately grey of old BBC broadcasts
wonder about waves you can’t see
outside, the air is much too fine to breathe
donkeys chase nervous chickens through the yard
Defend the Holy General
His sons: the one a strapping lad,
a captain, the other his quavering ship,
whistling with wormholes.
Both throw the knuckles for something
to do but see in every comrade’s smile
only molars caked with gold
His vision: his keyring of monocles
His blood: warmer than he thinks
and harder to reach than his wife’s
her child’s bed leaking
into theirs every month
To him it only happened once
His kingdom: a ground so salty
the vegetables come up pickled
while the trees twist
gnarled like pretzels
Defend him still
the holy general
the general store
the storied past
the pastor’s wine
or swine that you are
Do you know the moment
when it occurs to you that
so-and-so from your childhood
must have been rich or ill or
pregnant or getting a divorce or
racist or not all that bright
and you realize that you are both
the reader and the unreliable narrator
of your own life story
and nothing you observe
can be trusted completely
even now when it is clear
that your math teacher was gay
and your pastor not aloof but shy
and your babysitter a drunk
and your mother always terrified
that something would happen to you,
her favorite of all her children?
AUGUST 11th 2017
Young I left home, old I return
Village accent unchanged but temples greyed, thinning
The children I meet know me not
Smilingly asking, From where comes our guest?
AUGUST 7th 2017
Watching the Detectives in Time of National Crisis – a Love Poem
When Omar Little gets killed
in the back of the, no, I’m not going to tell
I’m not going to tell you
in case you haven’t seen it.
And the reveal matters.
And so there is always a place
where the story starts
the waters arrived at where
the god declares she is a god
and you who are so good at
making something out of nothing
child of the general truths
at play in the fields
can tell me who the speaker of this poem is.
Newborns stumble out of the womb
already mourning the closing of Jersey Boys
all crying from homesickness.
The speaker of this poem was convinced
he was once filled with god’s breath
and that’s how he got addicted
to this breathing thing.
The country breaking in his chest
like a borrowed heart.
Satan, that old philanthropist
grins back from the TV screen
“Lenny Briscoe smiles and looks at the body”
says the augmentation for the
the speaker of this poem –
her worries make a nest in her mouth,
the death of a loved one first imagined
the lines of their face
now suddenly the clutter
in an apartment being packed up for moving.
Whiskey’s best advice is to find
Venus in the night sky
and the speaker of this poem
is forever seeking that which is
not yet mortal.
Perhaps the poem is not a thing
but just a condition of things,
and Kanye West you see
is Hölderlin and Joey Bishop was
the red shirt of the rat pack
but that’s not who Jersey Boys
Detectives look for fingerprints
because they’re seeking fingers.
If I make this skull a lyre
will this light pluck the strings?
To truly love is to never speak
to honor with a poem is to trample
And this isn’t about you
but it is still to say I love you.
They Eat Fire
The flat Atlantic chalky in the sun.
New York, a cluttered interruption.
For a moment, you feel yourself a comet.
For a moment you feel falling,
as if this could not be by design.
Breath held, denied the rest of the cabin,
as if you might need it in some wet, darkness
that you will be plunged into panicking,
until the stiffened muscles of your buttocks
shiver into relaxation under the blunt
guidance of wheels on the runway.
And your mouth opens slight.
Lungs gulp the customs air,
and after making no declarations
your body settles in to the lounge chair
like you had arrived at Lourdes,
faithful, to drink their waters
of Bud Ice and bathe in their cathode rays.
“How do you top a year like that?”
asks the ad for a news program,
as if they had planned it all around their ratings;
revolution in June, earthquake in August,
elections tainted and war, war, war.
The bartender shuffles TV channels
like a deck of cards fanned out electronically.
A hurried traveler, laptop on barstool,
taps formica with a credit card,
causing the channel surf to touch ground
on nature programming.
An unbodied voice says that the early earth
was bombarded with meteors and asteroids,
accompanied by a computer generated image
of firey streaks falling over mountains.
They are researching volcano chimneys
on the ocean floor. In the coldest, darkest place on earth,
where previously it was thought there could be no life,
there are stacks of fire filled with organisms
that defy genus and phylum,
that defy the disciplines of science.
For so long they have survived.
They don’t swim but attach themselves
directly to the column, tunneling in,
rooted almost, and they seem to live on geology alone,
some nutrition there is in explosions.
Blind, cold, alive, they eat fire.
Channel switch bursts across screen.
Ted Koppel’s voice cuts in before
his shock of red hair comes into focus.
Going over the day’s bombings of Serbia,
and the strength of the Serbian resolve.
The night sky, a murky darkness
broken by the flash of bombs
seems subterranean, submerged.
The field interview – a man with a mouth
like a cemetery recounts though
tombstone teeth what makes his
brothers such great fighters:
They tunnel and wait, they hide and seek,
they dedicated. They eat fire.
AUGUST 4th 2017
There is no street where I live
The leaves of the houseplants rattle
A town of scorched earth and fire escapes,
the city beside the strait
Only the inner layers pasted over remain
Today is not a shade of anything
a city grown weary of rebirth
of the scent of raspberries and wood
The place that made your cars
will open itself to you tonight
on land that cannot be new
as the hush or the day or
the air blowing between rotting boards
that gird the soggier organs
the scaffolding of a rust empire
with wild dogs for sentries
Mammatus clouds hover over telephone lines,
fingertips poised to pluck the strings of a guitar.
Neil hangs upside-down from the tire swing
jabbing at roly-polies until his stick snaps.
He dismounts with a neat somersault and
brushes the woodchips from his ecto green windbreaker.
Next year, his parents will split. He’ll move with his mom
to the neighborhood where all the wild boys live.
I climb the slide, boots slip-squeaking,
and thump up to a landing caked with wet-pulped leaves.
He’ll take pills in high school and get suspended for fighting
while I rack up scholarships and slice myself with broken lightbulbs.
I scout the woods where we’re not allowed to go.
It’s almost dark and there are no birds.
A flashing needle strings white light across the sky
and then fades as a crash rends the day,
a smoker clearing his throat
before spitting out a thunderstorm,
and we run.
Beside the Church
Rain between the digging
and the burying meant
summer afternoons of
muddy swimming holes
We leapt from earthmovers
shrieking as we plunged underground,
ballooned our breath in our cheeks,
and spit out dirty bubbles
We sliced a worm with a spade
and the dead fell out
but we were small gods:
we’d made another worm
We sprawled in new grass
thin tufts in the dirt
looked straight up the rain
to the black
dirt coming down
Feed me only what is necessary
What is tender might be necessary
Feed me the train like a chain of clay beads
encircling the lady’s green wrist
its boxcars brown as a burlap sack
caked with the mud of potatoes
Feed me the red you suck off a candy cane
leaving a stabbing white icicle
Then feed me the icicle
the seasonal stalactite
that drips itself to life and death
Melt it for me with your breath
Feed me your grab bag face:
your punched in nose and your
beautiful eyes that can only be
the churning surf you kept
Feed my teenage demand
that you be everything:
breakfast, lunch, and dinner
morning, noon, and night
Feed me only what is necessary
and all you are is necessary
I’d feed you too, I would,
but I can never be just another
that’s not paying attention
Apologetics of a College Freshman
To the termites of the last empire:
Sorry, but we chew our own cities now
inflate them in the mornings
sour apple bubblegum
and swallow them at night
not the other way around
To the tobacconists of the old century:
Sorry, but we roll our own now
stash Mom and Dad in the Christmas cupboard
and take them out to wrap around boxes
crease their edges and trim the excess
while Mom’s still flatly nattering away
To the factory farmers of yesteryear:
Sorry, but we grow our own now
sprinkle the seeds of children in classroom
plumbing – they sprout from the walls
absorb their math and science and then
we pluck them and send them to college in vases
To the bankers of ages past:
Sorry, but we save our own now
drop kisses in jam jars with buttons
and cursing coins and wishes and
every extra Sunday we save till the
end of our days and then spend
To the gods of a time gone by:
Sorry, but we are our own now
fathers, mothers, devils, angels
prophets, priests, chosen people
and if we seem a touch surreal
well, let’s be honest, so were you
JULY 31st 2017
At the Brooklyn Promenade
Blue clouds of the dusk sky
shimmer on the surface of the harbor;
placemats of blue lace on a bluer table,
and then shift back to something more
cloudlike; something less, being only
the things that they are, and reflections at that.
And what of it. All day
sorting a crate of our recent past
which cannot go away
fast enough, dividing stacks
of almost identical diagnosis attempts,
a hundred pages of the unsaid,
layered blue of MRI prints –
a series of study sketches
toward an unfinished work.
This park is the triumph of making,
a template for Sunday afternoons
where I had guided her slowly,
so careful as to be clumsy,
along the promenade to sit
on a bench under Brooklyn Bridge,
its vast arc the manifest perfected
sum of some quantifiable knowledge,
because it was something she could do,
just to get out for a while.
Today, a man photographs
the cobbles along the walkway
littered with cellophane and
pink strands from a feather boa,
a newspaper soggy with urine,
its letters running like mascara;
these are all this day alone,
against the irreducible sky
and the splendor of structure;
what the wind has done
to make this day particular.
And these shapes changing
on the water like like or as
are not even, cannot be what I sing
because memory is death; it kills the things
you cherish or dread and replaces
each one with your memory of it:
a hollowness built of the real.
And suddenly it was almost me who
could not walk to a bench by the bridge,
although it never was,
although my arms and legs
obey my commands,
do what I tell them but never what I want:
wrong and helpless,
I span one to the other
because all I can do is identify
make myself metaphor,
a thing that might look like,
that you think is but isn’t.
And I want to dive,
that marriage of plummet and jump,
in below the refracted sky,
to the water’s silence
and come out on the surface
that might make me one of
these changing things I cannot change,
which will erase my clumsiness
and redraw me as shimmer.
Autumn Walk After Jodorowsky
More métier en scene
than inchoate vagabond
some summer in the knees
some summer in green
and of course in the water
were protean secrets,
the day and clock pulse
still too small to retain
an atmosphere true but
in the forge of gravity
The Empress of autumn
sought the star, summer
plunged below and yellow
irises found hiding spots
and our eyes seeking them
confirmed that we all sought
the commensal beauty
and usefulness therein –
big fish and little fish
bandicoot and boa –
blood is protein knowledge
on autumn’s whistle stop
or winter’s all aboard,
but summer yes she bleeds –
rats and racoons wreak
havoc around her feet
cluttered under composts
of spring that winter nicked.
Poem on Madonna’s 50th Birthday
here is August soaked with reminder
that the world is material that changes
there’s a flag at half mast
for someone who didn’t even make the papers
the rainy season comes upon us
like it was the tropics like the
flutters and hums on Bleeker
were south beach waves and breezes
the flutters and hums on Bleeker
that becomes a material that changes
Paparazzi armies lay siege to the ineffable
dumpy men made of rain
make glimmer solid in a flashbulb
and Elvis Presley 31 years dead
waits with us to reinsert mystery
into the material substance of our lives
says with us we ache we ache we ache
comes to love us
as we come to love ourselves
by waiting upon those
we desire to both want and be
until memory strikes a pose
and crosses over the borderline
of our love.
JULY 24th 2017
Empty mountains – no one seen
yet echoing voices are heard
Setting sunlight enters deep forest
again lighting the moss green
JULY 17th 2017
(A translation of this piece into English by Tse Hao Guang can be found here.)
JULY 10th 2017
The Sect Which Pulls the Sinews: I’ve Seen You Handle Cocoons*
“[A man] shall not lie with another man as [he would] with a woman, it is a to’eva.”
Silkworm dung lines my gums for tea;
I clutch menorah for paddle.
Malka, give me mother-strength
to save the scrolls.
I could never lie with Yôhanan
as I lie with women—
our chewing mouthparts,
our tongues just wringed fiber.
My holy sparks dwell in him.
The first time I touched a boy,
I glimpsed pomegranate arils in the bowl
and felt beetles walk across my chest.
When I crushed them,
a monstrous insect leg broke
forth from my midsection,
ready to strike me at any time—
how I discovered my nature.
With faith, I could have spat into my hand,
clapped, and scored myself with a knife.
Instead, I, the most Chinese of the Chinese Jews,
love Silk Maker Yôhanan,
who sees me as a dybbuk.
It’s true I carve questions onto the bones
of a rooster during Passover
and leave my doorpost bare.
You bring the smell of juniper and ammonia,
he hissed at my belly while breaking his tools.
I burned this foreign body once to please him,
but new and stranger shoots emerged.
I imagine placing his hand there.
There is no Malka,
Just a mother who carved Shalom
onto my infant chest
before drowning herself.
Carry me away, Yôhanan,
if I wind myself up in the floating Torah;
the sign on my hand is twisted bark,
fringe, spooned over pulp.
I’ve seen you handle cocoons.
* First published in ICON
We Must Kill All Rats Before We Can Kill Your Rats*
When I’m up late mixing concrete, the little children who live inside the walls scratch out phoenix designs. I talk to myself to drown out their chants of white devil,
and never once do I mention the Revolution—only how the leaders put an end to starvation.
I explained all my problems to the apartment manager, but he just said: We must kill all rats before we can kill your rats. It’s true because the police only wiped out the local cat population after they had reached a tipping point.
To talk of starvation—my mom stopped feeding me when I was five because she was too busy sleeping with men to get free rations of chocolates and cigarettes. No wonder I ask the gods for more and more offspring—
no one pays attention to just one emaciated child.
Soon I was allowed to plug up all the rat holes in my apartment if I paid for the cement myself. Word of my strong character spread to all the parents on the block with left-overwomen daughters. Every mother I meet bows and gives me soft chicken bones and eggs preserved in ash and salt. I only take them because it means less food for her.
The guards told me with pride that they help all the sick mothers on my block. Just in case it’s true, I place bananas at the feet of Shiva gutting a mermaid-whore so I can convince the gods to make more mothers suffer alone.
I spend my time renovating my apartment, teaching English, shooting roosters bound to blocks of ice, or volunteering to improve society. Just yesterday Onion’s parents gave her gold earrings and pushed her into the closet where I was waiting to finally give them a grandson. I paid for those earrings myself.
Her male ancestors stood on a cloud and cheered me on with their demands for a male heir. I told her what I tell all the girls: I want to investigate your faith.
Many of these so-called cherished mothers here sleep stacked in silos that once stored rice. I shook their hands while the director of the senior center snapped some photos. The newspaper article said I was a doctor from a local medical university doing routine check-ups.
Western man monitors health of Bao Ming . . . .
Her kind won’t be safe anywhere in this world.
* First published in Skidrow Penthouse
Thanks to CR Press
JUNE 27th 2017
If sadness has a shape, it’d be uneven.
Shin Godzilla steps, steps on houses, houses, houses.
Spatial memory builds along the track.
A missing piece is replaced. But.
If dream draws a line, it’d be disconnected.
Things don’t go as planned. Therefore.
A little fugue will ring at the next stop.
It’s too fast; my heart is still at Tokyo Station.
JUNE 23rd 2017
The city of forbidden shrines
I was almost born in the lunar month of padded clothing
in the solar term of almost summer
in the season of ringing cicadas
in the city of forbidden shrines
almost spent a girlhood watching sandstorms
tearing through the almost golden sunlight
I almost scraped dust off my knees each day for fifteen years
almost painted paper tigers each year to burn
I could almost hold all the meanings of 家 in my mouth
without swallowing: [home, family, domestic
a measure word for every almost-place I’ve ever been]
like the swimming pool turning almost blue
or the mausoleum of almost ten thousand oranges
in the land of almost I would never breathe an ocean
never hold mountains in my arms
except in almost-dreams
in which long white clouds drift
almost close enough to touch
They say they will build a forest city so that one day our lungs will know what it means to breathe. We won’t notice at first, just a windfall of flower stamens floating down around us one Wednesday afternoon. Then moss spreading through cracks in the pavement and vines curling around streetlights. Blossom trees leaning over balconies, reaching across inner-city highways. Yellow chrysanthemums floating inside water coolers, trees dropping ripe plums all over pedestrian crossings, painting them red. Ivy crawling down through the grates into the subway where I will climb over foxgloves and flowering aloes to get onto the train. We will carry umbrellas to protect ourselves from falling apricots. The street corner where we first met will become a sea of violets. The alleyway where we kissed will be submerged in a field of sunflowers all turning their heads towards us. The planes we saw flying overhead when we opened our eyes while kissing will be obscured by a canopy of giant ferns, the sound of their engines drowned out by leaves whispering. We will be unable to find the steps to your apartment among the plane trees. We will touch each other’s faces and realise our irises have changed colour due to the reflections of hydrangeas. We will retrace our steps to find our way home and when we cannot walk anymore we will lay our bodies down on the forest floor, skin against moss, lips touching the blooms, eyes open in the dark, imagining stars.
JUNE 19th 2017
powers divine or demonic
bring forth thunderous
sounds, a raw howl
like waves on the wild deep;
hellish fires’ rumbles
thrill, like a leonine roar
commanding the seas to split
the skies rent ‘twixt stars and sun;
a sudden silence; only soft
sounds of pine forest
its gentle birdcall before
the cabin’s fluttering curtains;
silence, a portent overshadowing
a barren snowy landscape
o’erflown by a solitary bird
singing its sorrowful song;
in sorrowful song, the reed
flute’s secret seduction
like hoofbeats on a frozen
arid land, armor’s beating rhythm;
beating rhythm, a flood of sound
booming, crashing, banging
to signal a new epoch, the tune
of hoofs pounding and blood flowing;
it is Prometheus, the theft
and the rebellion, chained
to his mountain peak, each meal
dug out from his breast;
it is romance, sorrowful and tragic
it is love, devoted and loyal
all-consuming, universal and miraculous
the artist’s inspiration
the genius of heaven
beyond all powers of explanation
lasting beyond human bonds;
a brewing gloom’s complaint
a raging holy love
a tragic compassion’s spirit
– the genius of the arts.
brilliant, furious, fervent, tragic
out of the forge of love
the artistic impulse draws
the peerless opera of Wagner
• Published in March 10, 1923 “Current News · Learning Light” Volume 5.3.8
† translated by Shelly Bryant, October 2013
The translation of this poem was originally commissioned by Lynn Pan for use in her research for her most recent book When True Love Came to China. She has generously allowed us to reprint the work at Alluvium. When True Love Came to China can be found at Amazon.
JUNE 12th 2017
my roots grow secretly
into a path
for lonely wanderers
the boundary evolved
is the only way in
an exercise in trust and patience
in the entry-exit office
I learn to live
on moonless nights
Wet Monday morning
downpour on my old roof
is more renewal
moon lesson at the crossroads
the only clarity
is of this night
received with gratitude
JUNE 9th 2017
I stopped going to church at 17.
All my life, the link seemed tenuous, Jesus
didn’t hold on too tight and I hardly snapped along
to gospel anyway. They were strumming
different chords to mine, really.
Earlier, the holy ghost
of a girl had led her hips and lips to mine,
spectral communion on Sunday afternoons.
My catechism ended when I was caught and
stoned. He didn’t send any thunderbolts.
I stopped going to temples and qingming at 18.
I decided that spirituality was too much work;
my grandfather, ever the investor, would probably
have set up a hedge fund by now. The Mercedes
we bought him would be swathed sacrifice along
with hell notes from six dynasties,
and his gravestone will still be
swept of cobwebs every year whilst his body lies beyond
recognition. Joss sticks become substitutes for cremations,
and the farce of bowing three times stands stark;
a naked emperor — my cousin grudgingly elbows me:
‘nobody ever finds love at a funeral.’
How about we care a little more for the living instead?
I stopped respecting my family at 21.
Insolent fool, what do you know of struggle? You
spilled from my seed, and I raised you
from naught till now —
But Zeus rose up and imprisoned Kronus,
and Oedipus himself was a liminal figure
between sphinx and new gods, Laius.
punchup in a garden
what does it mean to have authority?
to bend and snap at the bough
from family trees to attention.
now titrate me someone who can lead
a household, muster and marshal.
i no longer need verbose phraseology,
nor half moves, nor pacifier
once again, shoved in uniforms
enthralled to sugared canes and dining chairs.
love, your bark is worse than your bite,
and the cold fertilises better than emotions. now
germinate anything but the withered shell that
threatens self-immolation before me today.
seeds for growth she sows, she says, but all she does is decay.
MAY 28th 2017
outside the window a man paints
grey stone tiles with water with
the end of a long brush
each square a house for a letter
on tiles further away
already drying, strokes, shrinking
turning into dots
the cafe is warm the sun
the yellowed gingko
leaves shaking below
JingAn temple, gilded
expanding around me,
bookshelves, books, magazines
he walks with a small limp
across the street
the thicket of gingko, French plane
leaves in the autumn
gilded like the eaves
of the temple after
a light rain falls
MAY 22nd 2017
Lian Hai Guang is currently a postgraduate at Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) Masters of Translation and Interpretation (MTI) Program, located in Singapore. He can be reached at email@example.com.
– Todd Boss
MAY 19th 2017
in my defense
ditches dug, mounds erected
smooth surfaces made rough
preventing passage of hostiles
the scarred face of home
7 March 3529
Kepler K20 mission arrives
then looks back, homeward
on Earth the descendants
of those whose jaws dropped
at the K20’s images
of the titan Saturn
note in despair
even Sol is not the lucida
in the probe’s newfound constellation
a stellar year
the Berlin Wall falling
at Altair’s orbiting wards
while Attila the Hun
ravaging Rome and
Muhammed fleeing Mecca
on Dereb’s planetary plane
distant eyes espy
movements of Earth’s people
the same day Hubble descries
a star’s death throes
its exploding ecstasy
In the Reading Room at the Science Academy
The astronomy journal knows its audience. On the stodgy-looking cover, Luke Skywalker’s name and home planet in large, bold print. I turn to page 03-114, an article about recently-sighted circumstellar and circumbinary planets. I read: as of late 2014, all the circumbinary planets so far sighted are gas giants; none have rocky surfaces.
I memorize the name Kepler 16B, the first transiting circumbinary planet seen by Earth eyes. Perfect for the planet in my short story. I wonder if anyone will pick up on the poetic license – my Kepler 16B will be inhabited, not a huge gasball orbiting its two suns.
Exoplanets in orbit around a single star in a binary system, the two stars orbiting each other once every century or so. I wonder whether Tatooine was meant to be circumstellar or circumbinary. Not well-versed in Star Wars lore beyond the films, I cannot answer the circumbinary-or-circumstellar question. I make a guess. Tatooine: transiting circumbinary planet (but not a gas giant). At least, this fits the sunset in that iconic scene.
The long hand draws near the 5 on the clock’s face. An afternoon, whiled away pondering the path of a planet that does not exist. “Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” Owning the chide, I pack up and leave the Reading Room. Outside, the blaze of my single sun nears the horizon.
under a plane tree canopy
– standstill traffic
bound by metaphors
provided by my race
I think of his magnetism
as that which draws me
not noting its other
equally strong impulse
MAY 12th 2017
Today hot. Lucky I rest.
artist draws woman sitting
In her curves, there are lines, and her lines, curves.
friend paints artist drawing woman sitting
Get right – shape, position, colour – you have a picture.
i describe friend painting artist drawing woman sitting
I see. I like. I write.
you read me describing friend painting artist drawing woman sitting
* inspired by Liu Kang’s Artist and Model (1954). Oil on canvas. Collection of the National Gallery Singapore
curl your shoulders
fumes feed your
i me mine
exploding then rules
and audiences have learned
read only your body and
wonder how you
won respect when all you
* inspired by Latiff Mohidin’s Aku (1958). Oil on board. Collection of the National Gallery Singapore
Curated Five: Only in Singapore
Each pencil-charcoal shaded paper
Human form perfectly caught
Three profiles facing left
Two girls, one man
Two shirtless youths
One full-bodied, gazing left
One seated, turning right
Note their ethnicity
the road oft taken
roads are never equal. poets always claim:
wander to wonder, explore bent undergrowths,
discover divergence. the efficient truth is
we’re forest shrews scurrying black
the everyday path until we know well
how many steps taken to and from home,
where to swerve, not trip over dip-holes,
when to slow down, not fly over bumps,
and crash into our enemies’ mouths.
surprise is far too risky. can we survive?
ages hence, the woods can be just as glorious
by absorbing how way leads on to way.
evolved into blind mole rats, we’ve kept alive.
so why can’t we hold our heads up high?
MAY 8th 2017
Clusters of dust blossom with the winter
In my body there are kegs of Chinese beer
I inhale blue-white air
Walls drip sweat and all I want is water
The bottle a place in darkness
The forest trail
The wide bridge flowing with the currents
and the end of wilderness,
craving juices, gazing at plums that quench thirst
Springs melted from snow and ice on top of the
mountain converge underground,
moving along holes and cracks in the basalt
There are many aged boats
The spring adjusts the seasons with the wind of her soul
It dissolves silicon dioxide in surrounding rocks to form
silicate-type mineral water with low sodium
from beneath the volcanic basalt surface
purified through the rock stratum before gushing out from below
suitable for long term consumption
Clouds poured into her mouth
become words walking her gardens
Two drops on a leave laugh as if sharing an inside joke
all this came to pass with us
money plants creep in through the water
Unintelligible characters swim
Flowers are born, beautiful people surrounded by water
I ask Feng Xiaoyang about the Nongfu Spring
He says it doesn’t exist
for Claudia Mejía
Demonstrate your understanding in 511
a conversation with Borges
a petition from an old severe peasant
—after surfing for three years— in Nanjing
the emperor receives the patriarch of Hindustan
these happenings and these beings are momentaneous
their mansions raided corporal punishment
too feeble to talk playing decent go pre-dream
brought to the house confiscated poetry
on the road in particular, the datalogs
flake across the desk if one person committed a crime
revise the law if the household had seniors or children
—full of nihilism— the Bodhidharma:
I don’t know who I am. who is it?
three pounds of lino. the letter kills.
I dreamed I was a profile. When I woke up I ignored
if I had a dream where I was a profile or
if I was a profile dreaming of being me
It all started when we looked at each other
with a special tactile chemistry
When the world crashes on my hand
other people and I are of the same womb
made me what I am
we are just good friends
I’m a wéixīn man
And we are still good friends
software for the purpose of finding you
wéixīn man with character amnesia
use it only as a backup
that its sorry was dancing
I close my eyes and there you are
When my hand laughs
I’m a wéixīn man, and I’m gonna say
You know the way it is
watching every glyph
content not for sale
“At thirty a man stands”
giving the right to use his content
with no fees or charges payable to him by them
export it everywhere in the world
Another wéixīn man
By its grace i am new man
And my song is filled with joy
Of its image I am a reflection
“At forty a man is no longer puzzled”
under rocks and a thousand places
in order to comply with applicable laws or regulations
his data may have already been disclosed
pack it in a crate and ship it off
because autocomplete software
A gust rises I’m a wéixīn man
With predictive text from the 1950s conquering my words
But we are still friends. The software studies my habits
And my answer sounds like me with character amnesia
like me at my most generic
MAY 5th 2017
Cyril Wong is the author of The Lover’s Inventory, and other works of poetry and fiction in Singapore.
Ben Lerner writes in The Hatred of Poetry,
“Everybody can write a poem,” and asks if
“the distillation of your innermost being …
[can] make a readership, however small, a People …?”
Maybe because I’m not American
or because I was never a Universalist,
I’ve always thought, “Of course not!”
I write for you (as you watch your action-movie
beside me on a plane drifting through turbulence)
but more likely for me—or the infinity within me/us
that doesn’t toss, swell or shrink beyond
the vicissitudes of self, the words we tell ourselves.
What is the word that means
an existence of looking
both inwardly—without judgment
or desire to derive absolute sense—
towards an unfolding profundity,
and outwardly from somewhere
beneath the surface of our bodies
at every word, gesture and
reciprocity passing for time, all
without feeling divided, absent,
sorrowful or benumbed?
We think about moving to Malaysia
when we have enough money
or when we run out of excuses.
Anywhere freer than Singapore.
Not freer, but across the causeway
we could disappear in that hinterland
that isn’t an island; that is vast enough.
We talk of leaving but never go.
Night inclines us to each other.
Two homosexuals in a possibly more
conservative country—the irony.
Or maybe not at all ironic, since
being invisible is what we’re used to
and now it could be an advantage.
Yes, the irony. No hope of changing
society; instead we pick a Malaccan
condo beside a hospital, as healthcare
is important in our old age. Imagine
that: we might die together
far from here, when our home here
shades into a dream we might finally
depart, before waking up together
inside a better dream. Our merging
bodies on the bed; peninsula
withstanding the sea.
MAY 5th 2017
Seeing an Old Friend in Kyoto
The scent is
the white ocean
a kettle and a sponge
ex-lovers stand by
A story is
in the margin
Fill the glass
let water overflow
braid with light
by rotating my notebook
I coat the sky
yellow ocre, much white
and a touch of black
APRIL 28th 2017
awaiting still the appearance
of a qiagban to mark my piety
my thoughts turn to you
– a beginning of my devotions
breath sucked along the passage
blocked, the words that wish to fly
on a heavenward trajectory, me to you
– the suppression of mine for yours
point from which all else flows
thought and speech mustering
as if for a final stand
before at last dropping to our knees
knees, palms, breast, face
all laid out on the earth
a single string vibrating
within the chthonic chord
Special Administrative District
Khitan Liao Manchu
a buffer zone shredded
absorbed by a neighborly trio
no trace left
on the maps we know
Not Your Business
it’s not your business, she said
when I commented on the pair
lounging nearby in the teahouse
then turned to the dragonfly
just settling in the flowerbed
with her lens, six inches long
tiny trees in robust bloom
azaleas’ varicolored blaze
their prismatic symphony
had yet to sound
a short-lived song
two days later
as I spoke of the hues
echoed in the setting sun
reflected in your eyes
a pine stands by the plum tree
at the pond’s edge
white blooms, a celebration of the snow
releasing its hold on the earth
laid over the prickly scene
of a more constant verdure
Fu Xi Temple
Brought here by fortune’s turn, hearing the whisper in ancient branches, I feel no regrets.
“How old is that cypress?”
“That one? It’s young. Four, maybe five hundred years. This one over here, though, it’s 1,300 years old. Give or take.”
encircling a phoenix –
the twist of his blade
the movements of timepieces
on high; Earth’s flow
around her sun
a running stream dammed
time, pooling at the neck
insisting on its trajectory
with each falling grain
walking on its hands
we pace ourselves
its cadence prescribing
the flow of our days
life’s events marked
birth graduation marriage death
life’s days passed
in the spaces in between
APRIL 24th 2017
Destitute refugees craving a haven
discovered themselves foreigners in a foreign land
yet safe and spared, culture-shocked Semites
grateful for remoteness from genocidal Europe
even if desperate for food and housing
while old barracks with bunk beds
were hastily converted into group shelters called
Addled by their alienage, they haunted
soup kitchens during prandial hours,
puzzling over characters, admiring
Huangpu River from the Bund, Cathay Hotel,
and Beaux Arts manses of a cosmopolitan
milieu disrupted on a day hateful and fateful
by invasive imperial Axis neighbors
who soon cordoned them off like cattle
into Hongkou district, a sector restricted,
reserved for the stateless.
An unlikely Judeo-Sino bond was forged there
where strangers and locals shared hardship, where
the chicken liver kreplach and the pork won ton
encountered their dumpling dopplegänger
in proximate tureens and bowls
steaming hot with comfort’s scents.
At war’s end, conquerors retreated and troubles
subsided, parting those who together
had borne woes, had endured mutual foes,
and earned the dignity due survivors.
In days to come, they would periodically
reflect on past trials and fearful years,
fondly recalling erstwhile ties ever
preserved in the amber of the moment.
APRIL 17th 2017
Dreaming of Kyoto in Osaka
and growing old in that town
where shrines would knock
tranquility into us at every turn
and a Buddha statue is composed
from ashes of the dead.
But food would hold no flavour
for your curried tongue; ryokans
have no proper chairs and the floor
is not for sleeping. A distant mountain
we’d never climb together
reminds me of our bodies
melded peacefully on a funeral pyre.
dying is loving
us for now.
When the mind moves faster
than light and so it freezes—
our marriage plays out in multiple
scenes on a distant screen;
forming, deforming, un-
forming. Until the return to where
we are now, like a rubber band
springing back to its original shape.
What am I left with that I’m left
to continue? What keeps me going
except for the slow hand of time
and the minutiae of love?
My mother told her children we must
never marry anyone outside our race,
never leave the church,
never become queer. I’ve never
been more Chinese, more holy, more
conventional than when I’m with you,
my lovely Indian man.
Your Hindu sacred thread moves
against my skin like a shifting line
in sand. When my wrist gets caught
in its loop, I know we’re conjoined and
Not that it made a difference: humiliation
instead of triumph, Kafkaesque equivocation
of government officials, the press, social media—
not what we had in mind. Who knew that terrorists
would need courses in corporate messaging?
Tourists clutch their purchases against their chests,
whispering ISIS or Al-Qaeda under stalled breath
before crossing the street or re-entering trains
that pick up speed once the last body is cleared,
keeping to panicked schedules and bypassing history.
Debuting at Bangkok’s Min Buri court, my sallow face
oiled by camera flashes should have disappointed
many who thought (like me) the bomber in the photo
was handsome. This kind of work ages you,
I’d tell you. Running like a mad dog from Turkey
to Laos, Cambodia, then Thailand, praying over
forged passports, bomb-wires, bracing for the blast—
such travail sucks the soul’s buoyancy from within…
But I can’t be sorry, it’s too late to be sorry—
“Uyghur” or “Uighur”, which is correct? Who knows
that I misspelled “Istanbul” in my passport?
What does sending these people back to China
have to do with us? they must ask. Grey Wolf, Grey
Wolves: shoppers at Siam Paragon must believe
it refers to the latest brand of underwear or shoes—
If this is the life I chose, then this is the life
I’ve chosen, I remind myself. With no more fight
left in me, I’m dragged lackadaisically between stations
like a drugged delinquent. From the police car,
I spot the Erawan Shrine again, one of the faces
of four-faced Brahma merely abraded; as if the deity
had deigned to permit a cursory show of vulnerability
before lustre is restored; with dancers prancing
around it to welcome, with intolerable grace, the passing
of tragedy, the immutability of change, a new day.
A birdcall I mistake for warm vibrato, a soprano warming up becoming the koel I recognise but shrink from recognising, because I want not to break the surface of sound with my discrimination of that sound; acknowledging instead that surface is singular, stretching from koel to these ears then my skull, travelling along the underside of skin to inspire goosebumps, the thrill of an alto trill beginning in my own throat; an unending surface of vibration, perhaps, that merges with the vibration of cells in my body, going deeper still—but what’s deeper than the wavering surface of everything? (Nothing.)
APRIL 10th 2017
for and after Lisa Jarnot
I am a green FOTON dump truck heaped with delta soil
cut from the alluvial plain buoying up Shaanxi Nan Lu
on a Thursday evening buying Sichuan pepper peanuts
and two tall Super “Dry” Asahi silver cans. “KARAKUCHI.”
I am APAC and graying temples in Uniqlo Heattech™
raw cashews and roasted pumpkin seeds shrunk-wrapped
in celadon flex-Styrofoam beds with the smell of lice shampoo
in the makeshift bathroom of the makeshift half Deco house
made & shifted before the war and after, wafting in with flower
markets blooming round and all the people feeling capital
the traffic lights through warped French windows counting
down, a bird today, it’s possible, in a cage singing, talking,
joking with old men smoking, I am on the Metro headed
home from Shanghai’s transit well, the old railway station, I am
stuck in traffic near the mudflats by the river, I am yet
however still, tattooless, in fleece, and feeling newly brave
Previously published online and in print in The Brooklyn Rail
The Broken Pole
Age-old methods gull new angles, dropping air
under which we slip like ants in sand
bank lobby abstract at the back of the plane (Shanghai Air)
spit on the tarmac receding
And on the screen the waitress dishes
mash notes, the abstract’s defaced, hitchhikers
rip the car door off again and again, a maintenance man
flips sealant onto passersby and imperial power
is instantiated in orange glazed vessels
the potter’s daughter throws herself in the fire
fire burns in the engines
the engines pass us through air as we learn of the bell
the bellmaker’s daughter throws herself in the fire
the bell thereby successfully forged
father and son saved
daughter singing in the engines
Above the Waves
Late Cold War-era life preserver
Fresh tongue depressor, please
Black cracked leather band found digging cat’s grave
Tin tub dub reverb pebble down corrugated galvanized pipe
Generator motor oil pools in outdoor lathe shade
Bamboo scaffolding and waffled concrete walk
Imperative forms tomorrow, infinitive today
Cucumber light flat on our pants
Mistake to worry grammar
Ladder feet in hair tufts downwind from curbside barber chair
It’s like this
but only for a second, rough
equivalence between said
She woke up with bits
of fuzz in her bangs
Now to walk is just enough
Flat screens, steam tables, particle board,
industrial glue, hexagonal pavers (rust
bone and celadon), pork belly futures
The art we hope to post as notes. Plaster
words in the mouth of the moment.
Why not jump in the ocean? The answer
Everybody acts like A. fell out of the sky, walked
on water a while, fell back in, picked a wet smoke
from his shirt pocket, pulled out a dripping
Bic, flicked and lit, inhaled, exhaled a stream
of gold, violet, crimson and lemon petals
that settled on the sand under the waves, raising
new land, umber and sienna and ocher (a scene on silk).
And a character who comes and goes at will—
opens the book, closes it
and we appear, disappear
I say look, the ape is weak
virtually non-existent; it does not
exist independently of us, besides
A journey of reclamation peaches
A whole note interpolated in a five-measure rest
The danger over
Always a hint of sewage
Green hatchery shirt, surplus binoculars
Burred purple and red lint
Hold hands and drop!
Thicker points than thought
a whole new island of the lost
to be found without
Dangle of furs and pelts
roots uprooted and bodies
slung from guywire
Night: tightrope, the peer
ball, an oily pool with green
interlinear highlighter notes scrawled
lines opening like an off
zipper with threads in its teeth
“Above the Waves”, “The Broken Pole”, and “The Ape” were previously published in Sal Mimeo.