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

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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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Repave – 2017, In Review

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Inside the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Paris, March 2017.

Time is relentless
it casts long, tremulous shadows
& we, we are always in transit
fleeting & flitting
between light & dark & translucence 
always fickle
always whisked away by loftiness
by that crumbling feeling
or the lift away.
We don’t study the minute details
but we take in beauty in spoonfuls, gallons…
What ephemeral creatures we are.
We must tread lightly on this earth.

Time is indeed relentless. Each calendar year folds us in without our volition, without countdowns or resolutions, without eyes squeezed shut at a wish being prayed in the middle of a street glistening with rain, praying for better, for more, for an expanse of white happiness to spread into the hours & days & months that will trudge on. When do we stand still long enough to let our souls catch up with our bodies that are always going places? When do we repave?

Rely, rely, rely, rely
Behave, behave, behave, behave
(spent all of that time not wanting to…)
Decide, decide, decide, decide
Repave, repave, repave, repave
(spent all of that time not wanting to…)

Alaskans – Volcano Choir

Now’s as good a time as any. Here are some highlights – with lots of pictures, because sometimes words just don’t do enough justice.


Swansea / Hay-on-Wye/ Cardiff / Paris / Berlin / London.

Six places in five weeks. A pilgrimage like none other.

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Bible school & moody coastlines.
The world’s first national book town.
A harrowing experience.
Wordlessness in my soul city.
Contemplation in the concrete.
Lightheartedness & the going home.


New Beginnings.

& yet all of that didn’t mean I had any real answers to the biggest question… What next? It’s not easy picking up the pieces when what you thought you would be doing your own life suddenly grinds to a halt. Coming back home, I prayed hard & knuckled down, steeling myself for a lengthy, vigorous search.

Turns out I didn’t have to. I went for an interview for a job that I don’t think I was even qualified for, got an offer a few hours after, & started at a new workplace two weeks later. & while the first few months were incredibly tough (still is, most days), I cut my teeth at whatever task I was given & tried to positively impact the people I was surrounded with. Ministry in the marketplace. & while I’m still making mistakes & learning fast & furious on the job, I’m more convinced than ever that this is where God has placed me in this season.

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Four people with two Beatles songs between us, all in a illicitly-booked meeting room.

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ASLB Halloween – where we all drew names & came dressed as each other. One of my favourite workdays of the year.
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Of course, there’s the real Halloween, where the true nightmare is the client who gives you sleepless nights & sore eyes. 
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Getting coffee. Anywhere. Always. 


Church.

Another huge curveball was ministry. What was supposed to be a year of rest turned into a year of shock, struggle, & anger. This came with the painful leaving of many lifelong friends as well – planned or unplanned.

But finally, things came to a head & all the shock & struggle & anger turned into an acceptance of new responsibility, of new calling. Where did it come from? I suppose from the realisation that what mattered at the end of the day was the people & knowing how precious each of them were to God.

Break my heart for what breaks yours
Everything I am for your kingdom’s cause

Even though I could walk away from a ministry, there was no way I could walk away from its people. I will serve the church – my church – with as much strength as I have & for however long God grants me the grace to.

Ministry is such a joy, anyway. Like when I got to see three new people from my lifenet get baptised:

Incredible.

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The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
    you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

Psalm 16:5 – 6 (ESV)


My Dinner with André.

For the longest time, I dreamt about eating food like this. I spent hours poring over Lucky Peach & Bon Appétit magazines, devouring the column inches & holding the glossy images close to my nose. People who know me know how much food means to me (somewhere between the extremes of gluttony & gastronomy, I hope). I read about restaurants like The French Laundry, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, Noma, El Bulli, Fäviken, D.O.M., Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Atelier Crenn & André. André. I never thought I would be able to eat at one of them. Last year, I finally did.

29 courses. 16 glasses of champagne & wine. 5 hours. A dizzy night full of curiosity & surprises. A night redolent with memory.


… & speaking of good food.

In 2017, I ate…

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& ate…

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& ate some more…

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& so the pattern continues on, well into 2018.

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Yay!


Concerts / Festivals / Exhibitions

Totally blew my entertainment budget but loved every single minute spent at a gig or museum.

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Lucy Rose. A beautiful set & documentary showing held in an old-fashioned theatre (The Projector). No frills, all heart.
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The wonderful, inimitable Leslie Feist at the Esplanade Theatre playing most of her latest album – Pleasure – & a few classics, of course.
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HONNE at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. A night of groovy, “baby-making” music. One more off the bucket list.
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Singapore Design Film Festival. Interesting set of films at a nostalgic venue.

Singapore Writer’s Festival. Highlights included getting to meet my ex- creative writing professor Jennifer Crawford, the teacher who impacted me most in my university days & whose double-book release we celebrated together, attending a Simon Armitage poetry reading session & taking a picture with him after (sublime, & then not so much), & all-in-all, remembering how far Singapore has come in the literary world – how after decades, poetry is a luxury that we can finally afford.

Century of Light – An exhibition of impressionist works curated by the National Gallery. So happy to have gotten a taste of the Musée d’Orsay in the most beautiful museum in Singapore.


& last but not least… the little creative things I managed to accomplish last year.

Because I’ve already written so much about the importance of creating, I won’t go into another spiel. It’s been an incredible year with a few sparks of inspiration. All glory to God, my creator. Among all the little essays & poems & sketches, here are a few of the bigger milestones.

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Dream, Memory, Life – a collection of travel essays proudly brought to you by the Hougang Literary Society. We printed 100 copies & sold them at our church’s Christmas fest to raise funds. This little book took most nights for three months (publishing is hard, guys) but it was worth it because we raised over a thousand dollars for missionary work in Kyrgyzstan!

An accompanying photo exhibition – another fund-raising effort, made possible mostly because of my talented photographer friend Faith. Loved how much effort was put into this & how so many people supported this artistic endeavour. To think that our photos of doors & elephants & trees & all the other little things we found beautiful are having in people’s homes, right now.

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Another fun photoshoot that I did for a client. Was pretty stressed about it, but thank God it turned out okay!

A second little gig – opening for Jean Tan, one of my favourite local songwriters & friend, who officially released her Hideaway EP that night. It was a three-song set but as usual, it’s daunting to be in the presence of such great talent. But this gig did force me to write a song that I ended up spontaneously singing with Jawn Chan that night. Such a magical moment to sing a line & hear a roomful of people chiming in after, singing back to me – I am a writer, I am gone / tell me your story, oh come to me…

 


Storytelling. That’s what 2017 was about. Come to think of it, it’s been a year spent repaving, a restoration of joy in the search of all things beautiful.

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

 

(Gerald Manley Hopkins, 1884 – 1889)

 

& 2018?

Therein lies cities to be traveled. Lines waiting to be written. A hundred things to be made with one’s hands, conversations to be had, love to be lost & then won again. Newness in a page turning. Hello, hello. 

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