To Tashkent

Lady in seat 19E, you didn’t know
I was watching but I was, secretly.
Was it your first time flying?

It certainly seemed like it
the way you smiled the whole time
and fumbled with your seatbelt

and asked for both coffee and wine
as the sour-faced stewardess
rolled by. When they announced

our descent your eyes were glued
to the oblong of dark sky, transfixed
by pixelations from the ground.

I watched, if only with my side eye.
Even as grown ups I don’t think
we’ll ever get tired of it; the feeling

of being in the thick of things.
In a world up above where we
tessellate till our bodies meet

all we dream of is the landing.
And when we finally touched down
you clapped! You were only one

and you didn’t seem to care at all.
My ghosting hands felt the
phantom slap as we left for transit

me in my world-weary way
you onwards to maybe, definitely,
your second flight ever to Tashkent.

See, pure passenger, you can almost
taste the ash on your lip as you go on
to be sullied by an earth without wonder.

Heavenly bodies are like two ships sailing,
two trees kissing, two strangers passing,
an Agnus Dei prayer up in the air.

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New Year’s Eve (& other poems)

It’s 2019. Suddenly, everything is new. Or least, our perceptions of things are.

It’s been a while, but I’m still here. These four poems are for you. Happy new year.


 

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Sisyphus’ Struggle

Through the fingerlings of gargantuan rain trees,
I finally found what I sought for in the pockets of light.
I peek through my own fingers and all is sharp

every colour, every line
the verticals stretching out into the sky like me.
I could almost touch the cloud linings.

Heavenly Father, you know me better than I know myself.
Sometimes it feels like I don’t even know me.
I only remember it was there

on that Swansea shore where I finally felt something, anything,
all in a ripple, all in a ribcage.
In the moment everything is so beautiful, so converse

to what you’ve known your whole life…
Man, this beauty, it could make a grown man cry.
You wouldn’t know unless you were standing at the precipice.

 

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Anna was a Dancer

and he couldn’t help but love her
a silver stream to a fierce gushing torrent
she reigns back on anger that does not have a name
“You don’t know a thing,
you don’t know a thing.”

Still, her body is a melody that
seeps and weeps and traces cities for twenty leagues
Anna, Anna-
Oft he dreams of the murmured syllables that
carry into trees and turn into night hisses…
Oh save your brothers, selfish lover
this pain that torments was never meant
to be your inheritance

Anna was a dancer
and wherever an echo can resonate
he hears her name
off on another sierra, off on another long ship
off the tips of leaves that flutter like errant tongues
Lord! On the brook
is where everything ended
and began
again

 

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push to enter

plastic electric music
soundtrack to our beating feet
down as we recede
denim jacket
cuffed up at the sleeve
eleven dollars and a cold coffee
salami sandwich
fuel up and laugh
push to enter
up on the 13th floor
is where we belong
you lean in and tell me
you sleep on trains in the day
and can’t fall asleep in bed
are you lonely?
I can imagine
But baby
there’s no way you could love me like I love you
I know so much but I don’t know you (I want to)
I was just passing through
but you ruined me and you know it
now I’m looking so hard for Love
I might have missed it
done and dusted
so what’s the story?
maybe we can be
alone together now

 

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New Year’s Eve

It is the hour
when the intangible thing between
what’s good and what’s great
slips away like an oyster
and yet I am recalcitrant
a person of evaporation
it’s fresh in my veins, the delay
and I’m still trying to find God in the detail
in my mind’s hills and dales and valleys and vales
only to dissolve in the nothingness
of half-sleep
and wordlessness

Tiny Movies / The Art of a Music Video

I remember
We were walking up to strawberry swing
I can’t wait ’til the morning
Wouldn’t wanna change a thing

People moving all the time
Inside a perfectly straight line
Don’t you wanna curve away
It’s such
It’s such a perfect day

It’s such a perfect day

Now the sky could be blue
I don’t mind
Without you it’s a waste of time…

 


 

I forgot how much I enjoy watching good music videos. The kind that’s almost an art unto itself.

It’s not easy to make a good one (I reckon). You’re trying to tell a complicated story in a little more than 3 minutes and most of the time, people don’t have very much to say. But on the rare occasion where one does get it right, even a mediocre song can be elevated to something great. The music videos become tiny movies where the song evolves into the soundtrack of a little piece of film. Two elements sharing a dance on an empty stage.

Anyway, here’s a list of some of my favourites. I’m afraid they’re quite predictable. Most of them have some form of dancing, stop-motion, single shot takes, brilliant colours or just silly, romantic things…

 

Falling Water – Maggie Rogers

They say all Maggie Rogers videos are sort of the same (take a look at the Alaska or On + Off music videos) and while I agree, I just love the way she dances in this one. Half-possessed, half in total control. Hypnotising.

 

Carried Away – Passion Pit

Relatable. Also, Michael Angelakos and Sophia Bush make a cute couple.

 

Someone That Loves You – Honne

Love the direction and cinematography of this video and how it portrays night-time Tokyo, a city of pink and yellow neon, breathing new life into the tired storyline of a one-night encounter with a beautiful stranger. And the scene of the sakura billowing around the male lead at the end is just breathtaking.

 

Lost Things – A Fine Frenzy

Did I mention how much I love stop-motion?

 

Why Do You Let Me Stay Here – She & Him

Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt may be the biggest friendzone of the 21st century, but they do a mean 60s-inspired look and dance together.

 

Friends – Francis & The Lights feat. Bon Iver

Before I started listening to Francis & The Lights, a friend of mine told me that he had caught their live show and had never seen a more enigmatic and compelling artist in his life. He couldn’t be more right. I also never thought I’d live to see the day where Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) agrees to be in a synchronised dance with another grown man while singing a song about friendship. The bromance is strong in this one.

 

It Hurts! – Bad Bad Hats

Two and a half minutes of juvenility. A necessary thing.

 

Chateau – Angus & Julia Stone

Ever since watching Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere some years back, the Chateau Marmont has become an old and untouchable relic in my mind, shrouded in mystery and other dark things. While the cinematography and chemistry between the leads are lovely, I think I just dig this song a whole lot.

 

Dark Blue – Jack’s Mannequin

… And here’s a classic to round things off in style.

The Shape of Our City

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In this dream, I am a giant holding the shape of my city in the palm of my hand. Like a volcano, I must remain dormant, silent — lest the children of the land notice me. I don’t breathe, just watch with my twin vision of the macro and micro: a generation cross an intersection; a gardener cupping a red flower and bending down to inhale its sweet sickly fragrance; a sunrise as it blossoms from the ground up and reaches the top of things — a bank building, glowing metallic trees, the vault of the sky. Tenderness in the concrete.

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When I wake I will wonder why I didn’t see such beauty all along. In a second I will forget and become minute again. Yes?

Once, I was a giant.

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The past few weeks and all of today, I’ve been telling people how beautiful I find Singapore. I used to dislike it — detested everything, from the shiny Central Business District area to the HDB-riddled landscape, where the air was tense and greasy from one life forcibly rubbed against another and another and another.

Always inherently drawn to the romantic and the juvenile, skylines and spaces would form in my head as I read more and watched movies about foreign lands. I unwittingly started to create my own perfect city: beautiful gothic skyscrapers, the openness of the Santa Monica Pier, cobbled streets of some nameless European small town. In this frame I drew a ghost of a place, a bric-a-brac of stolen scenes, and when the time came for me to seek out this mystical city, I went. If I dreamt it, surely I could find it.

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But of course I couldn’t. Not in Paris, not in Stockholm, not in Sydney or London or San Francisco or Athens or Rome. No matter where I went and how beautiful things were — from the monumental to the footsore particular — all I saw was semblance after semblance of my painted city. Where was this? Where was that? Where was home?

A deep sense of dissatisfaction grew with the world.

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A strange thing started to happen. Each time I stepped off the plane at Changi Airport, a realisation grew steadily — that the shape of my city was never meant to be confined to the orderliness of a New York City grid or the curlicue of Parisian arrondissements; never the subject of a Commissioner’s Plan or Haussmann’s renovation.

As a young nation, we’re only just deciding what we’re supposed to look like. It took me a while to come to terms with that. Singapore was never meant to be romantic or orderly — it is what it is. A jumble of things. The feeling of beginning.

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“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
Hebrews 13:14

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Just like that, my eyes were open to the beauty of an ever-evolving landscape. Listen, structures and scenes change, but our call to the important things stays the same. The old bones of the city remain — prayer, worship, love, hope, wonder.

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I’d like to think that God really was the giant in my dream, holding Singapore in the gentle crest of his open palm as it shifts. In the verses of Psalms 139, King David talks about God forming his inward parts, knitting him together in his mother’s womb, intricately weaving him into the depths of the earth. In the same way, God is shaping the city as surely as he is shaping you, me, us.

Wonderful are your works; my soul knows very well.

10

I feel it all now, the keen sense of home. I feel it when I am crossing the humble intersection between Hougang MRT station and my 5-room flat, and I feel it when I am in a cab hurtling down the East Coast Parkway and watching giant metallic flowers crown from the ground in a distance. Strange how this needle prick of a country can evoke mountains of emotion in a person.

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It all comes down to this moment. Sitting in the backseat of my friend’s car as she cruises down St. Andrew’s Road, framed by the lights of the National Gallery on our left and the pitch blackness of the Padang on the right, I sigh and say one more time: Gosh, Singapore is so beautiful.

Silence. No reply from either of my friends.

Of course we know this; we knew it all along. We sit quietly, watch the silver cross tchotchke dangle above the car dashboard, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…

 

Originally published on SELAH.
Photos by Marcus Goh & Zann Lee

Postcard: Ho Chi Minh City (from the ground)

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To the bellows and the
hot electronic sound
to carry whole families on
two wheels and then some
politely tapping on metallic
beasts larger than life
the vision of the coming days elusive
tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow
you know
what it’s like
those were tender times…

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I love it; that perfect blend of first world and third world. The fact that you can sit on a tiny stool, elbows resting on knees, have a 90-cent noodle soup thickened with crayfish shells and pig blood on a table balanced precariously on a crooked, potholed pavement, then hop onto a GrabBike and streak across the district, inhaling the sweet petrichor emanating from the tarmac and holding onto the shirt of a stranger so as not to fall off as he makes that final turn only to arrive at a beautiful, refurbished warehouse cafe for Vietnamese coffee brewed in a chemex and order the most American thing – a plate of French fries with Heinz tomato ketchup – all of this in just half an hour is extremely confusing but in a way that makes sense somehow.

Talk about dual worlds, about a divided feeling.

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Come to think of it, I know the feeling well because I straddle both worlds from minute to minute as a middle class citizen in my own home country Singapore, an affluent city state that grew up way too quickly and till today isn’t quite sure what to make of itself. I ride the 8:40am train to work from Monday to Friday with thousands of commuters, work myself to the bone in an air-conditioned office until I can stumble home when the sky has turned into an inky blue-black and eat a takeaway subway sandwich in front of my new MacBook Pro. I am divided in unrest day to day, switching roles so often that I’ve become tangled within, reduced to silent screams.

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A friend of mine asked me recently if being in third-world countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and the like energised me or left me exhausted. I couldn’t give her a straight answer because it’s a little bit of both for me.

In every Singaporean lies a scission. Similarly, in a place like Ho Chi Minh City, the old and the new commingle in a shared space of the present and of the mind, which is why I feel that I carry tension wherever I travel to, especially when things seem too picture perfect or utterly dispiriting. But here, here in this city, tension finally meets tension and like a pair of old friends, they hug and link hands and cross the street into characteristic, Saigon traffic, the dusty motorbikes curling around them till they disappear.

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Postcard: Ho Chi Minh City (from the air)

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Everything looks better from the air.
You can’t see the holes in things
the cracks, the crisp clap

of a city that was born hungry
angry tawdry proud and lovely
I cover my eyes to what

I do not want to see.
Fork to an eyeball, I write stories
that will never again be spoken

or heard. Who’s to say who’s listening
through the cabin window, the thin,
plastic film? Soon I will descend

into thick stickiness and dread
but for now in the cold slickness
devoid of grime, bring me metaphors

and I will hold them up to the light.

In Praise of Shadows

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For a while now it’s been coming. I am spent I am so many people I know I must leave right now but where to? Wherever my book bag can take me. To the sierras of Andalusia. To the blue-green islands on the Indian Ocean. To the Danube river, the Norwegian fjords, the Himalayan mountain ranges.  I’m on the upper deck of bus 80 as the colours of a thousand Tibetan flags fill my eyes. Damn its not easy to sit still with the feeling of “now” grinding at your temples. Don’t blink don’t move don’t blink don’t move don’t blink. Just you and the book in your lap. Familiarise yourself with the nomenclature and don’t let the sentence leave your eyeline.

Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.

As we cross the painted shophouses of Geylang the details open up I see it all suddenly the carved stone flowers the garish pink and green paint dirty and flaking and oh God it’s so beautiful and just like that the tears are streaming down onto the pages of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, the black ink lines spreading like blood from a bullet wound.

If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty…

An hour later I am at a table with friends having steak bagels and coffee, the thick, acidic ambrosia, a gift from God, surely. The only marks of the feelings past are the faint tear streaks I tried to rub away with the back of my hand but they don’t quite fade away enough. Do they know? I’m looking at life happening outside the glass windows and suddenly everything is alright I’m supposed to be right here within and without sipping a flat coke with a cockeyed beagle sitting at my feet. I’m right here but I was not made for here.

If I find in myself desires nothing in this world can satisfy,
I can only conclude that I was not made for here