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

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

Beauty in Between

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Causeway

As we cross
I feel the strings loosen on
the things I knit myself to
creature comforts
bad relationships
what you said two years ago in
the hour so full of days
songs, signals, screens
three bars become
two become
one
the little rectangle of light dissolves
as we approach the collection of pink neon
& euphonious sound

I could drown.
I was made for stillness
in a world that prides itself on being loud.
& as the sky unhooks itself from the heavens
& settles on its liquid reflection
I see it all now
how it was meant to be-
untethered, devoid-
eyes open wide to see
the beauty in between things
a breath
a pause
a bridge

Three Trains / Three Stories

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  2230 hrs | 14 February 2018
 North East Line | Boon Keng – Serangoon

They don’t have anymore chickens at Boon Keng!

Chickens?

No more chickens! I went to two NTUCs already this evening. 

It’s an old lady, dressed in a cheongsam top and a slim black pant. She’s carrying many plastic shopping bags, an umbrella and her cracked leather wallet.

Aiyah, my feet hurt, going up and down like that. I’m 64 years old, still have to do this. But what to do? Chinese New Year, right?

She’s looking right at me. Still, I’m reluctant to engage. I’m reading Don Quixote and it’s getting quite exciting. On page 52, the hapless hidalgo is about to be beaten up by a gang along with Rocinante (his horse) and Sancho Panza (his “squire”).

I’m going to try one last time at Serangoon. They have a big NTUC there, some more it’s 24 hours.  Do you know what time the MRT closes down? 

I tell her that I’m not so sure, but that I did hear that there would be an extension of hours because of the holiday. I don’t think she’s heard me because she goes on about the chickens.

I don’t need an uncooked chicken. Even ready-made one will do. They have that now in NTUC, you know? Roast pork also have. You know, last time when my kids were still around, I would never buy this kind, the ready-made kind. Everything cook from scratch. Roast chicken lah. Dumplings. Pen cai. You like pen cai?

Yes, my grandmother makes it every year. 

I also. Last time lah. This kind, can only eat once a year. Long time ago, I will buy how many cans of abalone, you know! Sometimes five cans, six cans, no problem! Will always ask my sons to help me buy early before no stock. All the other special ingredients also. Nian gao, must buy. Also last time, aunty also make pineapple tarts and love letters for all my friends. Good hor?

She’s on a roll now; she won’t stop.

I even know how to make yu sheng myself. Last time where got people buy yu sheng? So expensive now! My daughter loves yu sheng. Nowadays young people don’t like. You like? 

Not really.

You see! But my daughter loves it. I will make big big platters last time for family, to give to neighbours, but especially for my daughter. She loves it, but she isn’t here anymore.

Where is she, aunty?

She stops for a moment, breaks eye contact with me. I think I’ve crossed a line, but her facial expression shifts quickly and she starts to talk again.

Not here lah. All not here. Daughters and sons – all not here. That’s why I just need to buy those ready-made chicken. One can already. Can last for a few days. Don’t worry about aunty. Just need to try at Serangoon. One more time. Okay, my stop already. Bye! Happy Chinese New Year…

 


 

  1400 hrs | 15 February 2018
         North East Line | Outram Park – Dhoby Ghaut

The balloon is in the shape of a cupcake and a little girl is reaching for it. She has blue eyes & strawberry blonde hair and she giggles as she presses her palm against a glass panel riddled with sticky fingerprints, the only thing separating her from her shiny prize. She can’t be more than five.

It’s tied to the bag of a teenager, the pink string looped around the handle twice. Like everyone else on the train, the teenager’s eyes are glued to her phone screen. I peer above the pages of Don Quixote (I’m on page 83 now), transfixed by the girl’s tiny fingers as they make their way towards the stretched, silvery plastic. At one point, they get dangerously close and she turns to her left to grab her brother’s arm. Regarde moi! 

The boy, with his wavy blonde curls and toothy smile, looks a lot like his sister but only twice as mischievous. I glance right and see that they come in a set of four – sister, brother, mother, father – blond and pretty, riding the MRT at 2pm on Chinese New Year eve. They look out of place in a train carriage full of people dressed up in stiff New Year clothes, slightly rumpled in their cotton t-shirts, shorts and sunglasses.

I realise I’ve been staring in their direction too long when the boy starts making faces at me. He sticks his tongue out, his fists curled up in two circles around his eyes. He’s making fun of my glasses! The cheek. I close my book, wiggle my face so that my glasses bounce up and down my nose. He giggles.

Parlez-vous anglais?

I don’t know where that came from – I haven’t spoken French properly in years. Even the boy is taken aback. It’s now his turn to tug on his mother’s shirt. She looks at me, smiles and motions for him to speak to me. He says shyly:

Un peu… un peu d’anglais.

Très bien! Et moi… Je parle un peu français…

My French is elementary, but I have their attention now – even the girl has abandoned her balloon pursuit. The kids start speaking very quickly and excitedly and the mother, who can speak a little bit of English, translates the questions. Like a game, and to everyone’s amusement, I try to recall the little French I know from two university classes to answer them.

They ask where you learn French.

J’étudie français… how do you say “in” in French? Er… “dans”? J’étudie français dans mon université.

Fantastique! Oh… they ask, you go to France before?

Oui, Paris! 

I hold out three of my fingers to indicate that I’ve been to Paris three times (also, I’ve forgotten how to say “thrice” in French) but it’s too late, the kids make a face at the sound of the capital’s name. Even the father, who has been sitting there silently the whole time with his newsboy cap tilted at an angle, shakes his head. The mother laughs.

We don’t like Paris. Ce n’est rien. We live… à l’est, près de la suisse? Better, much better.

Uh oh. I’m not surprised. It seems that the Parisians are the only French who actually like Paris. I talk a little more with the mother and make faces at the kids in between to keep them entertained. By now, even the people around us are hanging onto our stilted sentences, entranced by this odd encounter, listening in.

I find out that the family has been in Singapore for five days but that they will soon make their way to Indonesia to “hike mountains”. They like the outdoors, especially the boys. They also love how hot Singapore is, but admits that it is too crowded to be pleasant, much too crowded.

Is there like…une fête? La célébration?

The mother gestures around her, at everyone in their best clothes, packed like sardines in a tin can in the middle of the afternoon. Before I can even attempt to explain Chinese New Year to her, we’ve arrived at their stop. Dhoby Ghaut. The mother announces that it is time to go and the father tips his cap towards me. The kids wave at me and proudly exclaim:

Goodbye! Goodbye!

To which I respond heartily:

Au revoir! 

It has been five, very surreal minutes. The atmosphere in the cramped train carriage seems a little lighter. Before the family disembarks, the mother turns to me and says this:

Your French is not so good…. but thank you so much! Au revoir!

Well, one thing’s for sure. They are definitely French.

 


 

2330 hrs | 25 February 2018
            North South Line | Orchard – Link to Shaw Theatres

Hi, what’s your name?

Stacy.

My name’s Kenny. I’m 74 years old. Do you like The Carpenters?

Of course I do!

You remind me of Karen Carpenter. Very lovely, but I think you should lose the glasses because they make you look old, you know what I mean?

Oh dear. I’ll make a note of that.

Listen, I’ll play a song for you. You know, “On Top of the World”? Maybe after that – and I hate to be a bother – you could help me out with my rent?

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