18 May 2019
21 April 2019
where my father’s ashes lie,
a path winds its way
from the house of urns
past a bamboo garden
where the wind sings
as it rustles through
the stems and
to a sudden pond,
still and clear, like
small red bridge,
I can see the
reflections of sun
Arowana, with scales
as silver as the
glide through the
On the rocks
a solitary tortoise sits,
its little head raised,
lost in thought,
its quiet universe.
In the evenings
my father comes here too,
standing by the red
bridge, to watch
He says nothing,
but he smiles,
so I think he is at peace.
Prompt: Write a poem about something you want to protect. It can be a relationship, a memory, something in nature, or something in or about yourself. If this is a first person poem, allow the speaker to be vulnerable.
I had a hole
in my heart
and to patch it up
their way through
then later closed
it back up
10 inches running down
the middle of my
is what was left
When I showed it
to you, you ran
gently along the
and kissed it
Boy, Playing Chess
The boy with the
is plotting murder.
He's sitting on an
adult's chair, his legs
dangling in mid-air,
as his face alternates
between scowl and
while he calculates
manipulating the pieces
on the black and
in his mind's eye.
When his small
hand reaches out to
his adult opponent
winces and squirms
a little, but the boy
doesn't seem to
care or notice,
his eyes stay fixed
on the board,
and the pawn grimly
soldiers on, heading
for the queening
My Bedtime Monsters
Look at the monsters beneath my bed!
One is purple and the others are red.
Their eyes are bright and their claws are long
They play all night, as they sing their song:
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!"
They hide in the day from dear old Mum
When Dad's around, they're rather glum.
When I'm alone, they giggle so loud
From under the bed, they come tumbling out
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!"
They hop on my pillows and dance on the floor,
But first they will always close the door.
They don't really want my parents to know
How loud they are, when their voices go:
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!"
There's Starky the Stink, and Polly the Plump
Fannie the Fink, and Grolly the Grump.
They're fun and friendly, like friends should be
And I'm so glad that they're friends with me
"RoOo-ah woO-ah RooOo!"
20 April 2019
- 90, and he still doesn't quite believe in God.
"Forgive me for that," he nearly says,
he almost prays, when alone,
as if half-suspecting some sort of afterlife.
It's like his old hunch,
that great grand theory - the whispers of Marxist,
Marxist, Marxist echoing through the church,
then turning strangely into empty air.
03 June 2011
Heading home, bone-weary,
riding on the last train for the northeast line
with his eyes closed, his mind fading out on itself
one dark memory falling into the next,
collapsing into dream. From within,
the doubts emerge, one by one, like small,
implacable stars, tugging at each other
from distances impossible to resolve,
until that sudden light, at tunnel’s
end, breaks into consciousness,
the doors sliding open, the last passengers
shuffling out, as he wakes to see that
he’s gone too far again, missed his stop
searching for himself on the
way back home.
22 May 2008
- The Widow
or rather continued
standing at a distance
to watch her days
fall away like leaves.
In her mind, she began
to rewrite the
unhappy plots of
improved endings to
Slowly, she withdrew from
the babble and noise
of the outside world
into the secret inner
temple of herself
where she alone was martyr –
the one betrayed by the other
who left too soon.
Her prayers were never
but she remained in
where all was safe,
21 May 2008
Sipping a little water
he calmly talks of pain.
He trusts in Jesus (I do not)
believes in heaven
(I do not), and for a
last wish, would have me
trust and believe too.
Then he coughs, once,
very hard -
blood and phlegm
spilling from his mouth
landing on his shirt,
a dark patch like cancer.
As I reach for the tissue box,
he lifts his arms slightly
away from himself,
a look of mild disgust
on his face,
as if his body were
a broken old TV or car,
a piece of machinery
soon to be thrown
10 May 2008
03 May 2008
- On Foreign Talent
All the world’s a stage.
We are actors.
The script of my country
has been rewritten
for new and foreign
I could leave to act
or else forever play
the minor parts.
says the director.
It’s his call.
Although I feel cheated,
I know that his show
must go on.
29 April 2008
- The Execution of Nguyen Tuong Van
Death came on a quiet Friday, before sunrise,
Slow as the final footsteps to the prison yard
Abrupt as a broken neck.
So you've crossed, Nguyen, into the clear light,
A place without need for answers
While we who sleep in darkness
Grope and wrestle with our questions,
Stumble through our savage dreams.
20 March 2008
- Business Travel
Between one delayed flight and the next
I orbit in airport lounges,
drift from one cup of coffee to another,
my mind slipping from the pages
of a meaningless magazine
into memories of life elsewhere,
your touch, the sound of your voice,
like signals from a distant planet
that I'd missed, and miss again.
16 February 2008
- The Trains
You sit and wait and watch.
As the train approaches, you get up
and you walk, to the yellow line,
beyond the yellow line,
........ fling yourself straight
down on the tracks.
But you don’t.
......... You only think about it.
You sit and wait and watch.
The doors open. People, real people
walk, to the train,
........... to the yellow line,
............................ beyond the yellow line,
into the train. Then the doors close
and they’re gone,
........ back to their own lives,
slow at first, then faster, faster
until the train grows thin
in the distance,
.......... becomes nothing.
21 January 2008
- The Schoolgirl Kills Herself After Failing an Exam
She jumps from the tenth floor of a housing block
into the brief wild terror of freedom, and transforms
into twelve paragraphs of newsprint in the Straits Times,
cool and objective, black and white, the verifiable facts only.
We are told that her classmates are "shocked".
And that her parents refuse to comment. We know that
for her last exam she scored 41 marks, a fatal result.
A teacher describes her as a "quiet, hardworking girl".
We feel obliged to pause to reflect. We wish to search
our conscience. She was only eleven, we remind ourselves.
There must be others like her. There must be another way,
we suspect, for children to grow up in this country.
But yesterday’s news is quick to slide into the grey of memory.
She will become another incidental casualty. We turn the page.
We forget. Again we trip and fall head first into the future,
down into the depths of a national urge to never stop excelling.
11 October 2007
To be still, but for breath
And to watch its rise and fall.
To sit in your own mind
And know that you are sitting.
Enter the soundless void
That you have never been
For there has never been
anywhere else to be.
10 August 2007
- Not Home
I was eight, and alone.
Waiting in the garden I talked
to trees. Seeds sprouted.
Crickets sang. In the house
Grandma lay dying.
Caught an insect, held it
in my hand. Plucked a leg off,
as I softly sang. Very cruel,
very bad. Surely Papa would
come home, if I were bad.
Make me hurt, for being bad.
One more leg then, and another.
Time crawled. I lost count.
Finally there were no more legs,
but Papa wasn’t home.
I dropped the useless insect
on the ground. In the house
Grandma went on dying.
On and on her body twitched,
till I crushed it with a stone.
Papa wasn’t home.
You fall in love with a woman
because she is so new:
the physiology, the colour of her hair,
the way she walks, turns, says hello.
Everything is new, the territory unknown:
you are drawn like a moth at night
to a glass-walled flame.
As you approach, she runs away:
that is part of the game.
If she simply says, "Yes, I am ready,"
the mystery would fade that very moment -
in fact you would think of
how to run away. Man is a hunter,
so when the woman is chased,
running away, hiding here and there,
avoiding, saying no,
the man gets hot. The challenge
becomes intense, the woman must be
conquered. Now he grows ready
to die for her, to do whatever is needed,
his heart will flutter, he will fly,
singe his wings on her heat,
beat his small head on her glass walls.
Before the night ends, he will
take her, yes he must, before she too
burns out in the first cold
light of dawn.
20 January 2007
- My Father Growing Old
I imagine him getting up early to make
his own coffee. Reading the papers.
No plans for the day. Turning on the radio
a little louder than it has to be.
Alone at home. Then the phone ringing,
he goes to answer it and finds me
on the line. His son, a grown man now,
calling from another country, increasingly
distant, more and more a stranger.
The call cheers him up, nonetheless.
He says, “How are you? How’s everything?”
He really wants to know. He is my father,
after all. He is growing old. But I don’t
know where to start. I want to tell him that
I love him and that I’m sorry I have to
live my own life now. But these are not the
things I know how to say from a distance.
These are things I may never learn to say.
So instead we speak of smaller daily things,
and soon the brief connection between us
will unmake itself, and expire.
25 December 2006
- December Shopping
Here comes Christmas. Take it, strip it down,
wash it clean, then doll it up, prettify,
package, add a ribbon. Now offer it up for sale,
an orchard road product made new again.
See the santa claus reindeer at centrepoint,
touch the gold-dusted wings of angel
mannequins, feel the softness, the warmth
of cotton-wool snow, meltproof against
the little coloured blinking bulbs.
Do you not rejoice, would you not sing
along in a fa-la-la-la-la sort of way?
Meet baby jesus and holy mother,
starring as takashimaya decorations,
the three wise men as props.
The crowds are awful, the roads too long,
for roads that lead nowhere,
but the lights are bright and the sales –
oh, the wonderful sales! – are truly
a shopper's paradise. What you buy is
what you are, and what you are is here,
on display, for sale, at a discount,
very, very cheap. What joy! What happiness!
What a birthday bash! Give thanks,
for the power of visa, the size
of your December bonus, for this
great offering of material things.
Let us eat, let us feast like gluttons,
swarm like flies, drown in proverbial milk
and honey - it’s christmas, after all,
Singapore’s greatest shopping season.
08 December 2006
Running means that you will
never die. That’s why you come back,
year after year, day after day
to your training routes
the sound of your shoes hitting the ground
like a dream of heart and rhythm
one beat at a time, then another and another
that horizon in your mind still invisible,
beautiful, always beyond reach.
05 November 2006
- ondaatje’s handwriting
this fine distillation
on your pages
so cool and
like one raindrop
along the edge
of a leaf
then, at the tip
as if time itself
23 October 2006
When I hold you darkly
on crumpled linen
without words –
search my eyes then
you'll know I think
04 October 2006
If I could stand away from myself
And look at me, I think I would be amazed.
I fear I’ve gone a little crazy.
I sit alone in cafes pondering mysteries.
I hear voices where none should be.
“Follow me, follow me,” they say.
When the weather changes,
I read the clouds for messages.
Every person passing me on the street
is an omen. Most of all, I have seen
how all of us are one,
Wrapped in the same mystery.
When I am cut, you bleed.
Now this sight is stripped from me.
Now I cry. I weep. I want to write down
What I saw. I am an error,
I am lost. What is given can after all
Be taken away. I want it back.
What’s the meaning of meaning?
- Men and Women Can't Be Friends
Now when I was a kid I watched a movie
called "When Harry met Sally" which I suppose
must be some kind of classic by now.
I think it was Harry who said to Sally, or
maybe it was Sally who said to Harry,
that men and women can't be friends
because sex gets in the way.
It's sad that this is true, because right now
as I sit and talk to you, I'm wondering
what you look like in the nude.
Because you look really sexy today.
My girlfriend would hit me if she knew,
and your boyfriend would hit me if he knew.
You would hit me too if you knew,
or maybe you'd be flattered.
But anyway the point is I can't stop wondering
what you look like in the nude.
I'm not going to kiss you or hug you or
touch your breasts or anything like that.
But I really can't or won't stop wondering
what you look like in the nude.
And maybe this is why men and women
can't ever be friends.
30 September 2006
Somewhere along the way,
I became familiar with these games
of words and politics.
Learned to play them well.
So did you.
Now we know how to smile
when we say the things we don’t mean.
The half-truth is a useful tool.
Every day, we’re masking objectives
and planning new manoeuvres
in the dark.
Although you have my respect,
you do not have my trust.
We play these games too well.
I smile at you, and remain wary.
- Any Different
Work hard, live long, sleep well,
don't think too much, and remember
to die quietly when it's your turn to go.
Accept the standard definitions,
for resistance is useless.
Have we not all yearned to be artists
or martyrs from time to time,
to wear a face in a faceless crowd.
Haven’t you learned yet?
In the dark we are all the same,
just the same, and all your grieving
will not make you any different.
26 September 2006
You think you know my camera well.
The Nikon F2, the reliable silver one, the one I carried
For years with me to weddings, birthdays,
holidays, the convocations of favourite nieces.
To the gushing Merlion, to the National Day Parade,
to the sunset views from the Benjamin Sheares bridge.
To our vacation on the island of Mauritius
where we made much love and swam together
in a picture-perfect blue-green sea. To all our days
together that mattered, and to those that didn’t.
Wherever we went, that old camera came along
like a silent witness, preserving what I saw
through its clear lens. At home, you browsed through
the thick collections of our days and seemed surprised
by how people were always happy, smiling,
looking the right way. Even inanimate objects like rocks,
flowers and the white sands of beaches took on
a calm, benign personality. They seemed to assert
that the world was full of love and other good things
and would stay that way. You did not understand
my art. You did not know what my hands and eye
had done to those moments, how this camera had closed
in what it wanted to see. With care and precision.
With a skill I’d honed for years and practised,
almost like deceit.
22 September 2006
- Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M
You were five months old. New in my life.
You lay in the cot listening to nursery rhymes
repeated by a battery-operated toy. You couldn’t sleep.
When Ba Ba Black Sheep came on for the fourth time,
you wept with what sounded like despair.
Already you had a taste for the better things in life.
From the closet I took the old guitar.
I hadn’t touched it for years. I wiped the dust off
with a cloth. Tuned up the sad, neglected strings again.
But my fingers did remember and my ears were still there.
So I played. I sang Yesterday like a clear memory.
And there was Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence,
and Presley’s Love Me Tender. All oldies even
back when I’d first heard them myself.
In the dark you sat, propped against your baby pillows.
Wide-eyed and listening, you followed my voice and guitar,
gulping down each note. It was like nothing you’d heard before.
You were fascinated. You struggled to stay awake.
At 3 a.m, the last beautiful stanza of If by Bread
finally pulled you into sleep.
But I sat there by myself, playing on. Cradling the guitar
close to me. You remind me of things, son, that I’d known all along.
Like the sound of a simple major chord. And the way the old songs talk
of love and tell a story. I teach you words, I sing you songs,
and you teach me again their possibilities.
09 August 2006
- National Day Parade
I had a small part in a
Big show of a great little nation.
My uniformed mates and I were
To march out, swing left,
Turn twice, and get off the grounds
In twenty seconds flat.
Meanwhile the music boomed,
The lasers splashed,
And the darkened crowds hit
A new high of pre-planned,
Later at home, my mother replayed
The video tape five times
But couldn't tell her tiny toy-
Soldier son from any of the rest.
"That one is me," I said,
Pointing at the screen.
I couldn’t be sure.
Still we laughed and clapped
Our hands like children,
Knowing that it was never
Supposed to matter.
04 August 2006
- ching ming
to bright hill temple she has gone
carrying joss and money
bringing food and drink
for her mother-in-law’s soul.
lychees oranges and one apple
two bowls of white rice
three vegetarian dishes
ang ku kueh and bean paste buns
joss sticks chopsticks
a vase to hold the flowers
two chinese cuplets
to hold the chinese tea.
with a weary heart
she kneels before the urn
to explain for those
who are not here.
ah seng cannot come
he is too busy at the office
tua gor cannot come because
she is in poor health
ah leong will not come
now that he is baptised
ji gor is not coming
but i do not know why.
so today i come alone, mother
i bring your favourite dishes
this money i burn for your
use in the other world
the years pass and we forget
but i am here, mother, and today
you shall not be lonely
in the season of the dead.
29 June 2006
- Happy Birthday To Me
33 years old, and starting from scratch.
The world as womb. My time has come.
As young, and as old, as I'll ever be.
What lies beyond? Which doors do I close,
what part of me do I take with me?
27 June 2006
- Rainbow Fish
when we were kids
in the stream
behind our home,
fish those small bright
in the water?
Now we sit here
on a rainy day
over beer and
in a netful of small
see how they gasp
and leap crazily,
after all this time
their silver bellies
still vivid in
- the sun.
24 June 2006
- Poor Speaker
I have a habit of mumbling.
My tongue grows thick and I myself can hear
how from my mouth
one word emerges indistinctly into the next,
like porridge poured onto other
This often happens when I am caught
in one of those social situations
where I need most
to appear sophisticated, intelligent and articulate,
in other words, those occasions
when people talk too much,
say too little and hardly listen at all.
At such times, in a certain ironic way,
the incomprehensible sounds
escaping my lips
are in fact the most appropriate things
I could possibly say.
23 June 2006
- Paddy Chew’s Last Show
Life is real. Art is its mirror. Or is it the
other way round? Paddy Chew has forgotten.
His life is here now, on stage, Paddy starring as himself,
the final act, before the curtain falls
and the lights go out forever.
“This is me,” he says to the audience, “take a look.”
He lifts his shirt up. A stunned silence.
Ribs cast shadows on other ribs. The flesh
has fallen away, the body a territory conquered
by the relentless virus.
This is what Paddy tells his audience:
I liked women. I liked men too.
At least that is what he remembers.
These days his body yearns for nothing, not sex,
not food or water, nothing but its own breath,
exhausted, in and out, in and out,
an almost unnatural thing.
Lies are for the living. Truth is for the brave.
Masks fall away when death comes close.
“I am so close,” Paddy says, “to dying.”
All he wants is to show the audience
what he has seen. That all of us are dying,
and none of us should die alone.
Paddy dies, but not alone. In a way, he lives on too.
Love is his message. Love endures. I did not know him,
but I know what love is. I wrote this poem
so that others like him will live,
and die, but not alone.
22 June 2006
- About My Father
Back from the hospital,
two weeks after the surgeon cut
his heart apart and sewed it
back together again.
He resumes his normal life.
Fixing breakfast in the morning
for the family - bread and jam,
and coffee - then settling down
to read the paper.
Only occasionally speaking,
to express surprise at some event
- reported in the press.
- It is as if nothing has happened.
When he has truly departed
I shall remember him
as he was, here.
A man of few words, inscrutable.
Drinking black, hot coffee.
His eye steady on a world
he'd already begun to
20 June 2006
- Dental Check-Up
The week before my
appointment, I abstain from
coffee, upgrade my brand
and religiously brush
the most difficult crooks
and crannies of
and other recent
Now I open my mouth,
peer hard into the bathroom mirror,
move my tongue from
side to side, self-
Doctor, forgive me,
it's been too long
since my last
19 June 2006
I’m trying to write a poem in the shape of a circle
but all the words are still lingering
on the edge.
I hope they will step in soon.
You want me to say you’re beautiful
but I won't use these tricks
on you -
moonlight walks, sweet words,
fine wine and candlelight
professions of love forever
in silly poems
on rainy nights made
it’s the clever men
who know these tricks,
the women never do -
when I hold you darkly
on crumpled linen
then search my eyes
you'll know that I think
11 June 2006
In a secret place, a very secret place,
with the world so faraway
that I end up whispering to myself.
No one knows I'm here,
and no one will hear me speak.
Just beside me, a clear little stream,
running over pebbles, passing moss-covered rocks.
If I slipped and hit my head,
I think I might stain the water red
and die here.
Listen to how it breathes, babbles, all nonsense,
rushing to irrelevant destinations -
see how it ignores me.
I just might want to slip, hit my head,
to stain the water red
and die here.
04 June 2006
Late at night I return home
from work and find my wife and child
fast asleep together.
When I lift him from her breast
she sighs in her sleep as if lost
in distant dreams.
But in the dark my son stirs
and clings to me,
fighting off the drowsiness
that drapes him like a cloak.
His small arms, recalling
his father’s body, lock around my neck
as if imagining a drowning.
So here too is the language of loss
the fear of loss,
and this is how he learns to love,
as we ourselves have learned.
We forget, we crowd
our lives with white noise,
bright colours, a thousand
- irrelevant things,
but in the end we return
to all there really is –
the sons, the fathers
the women whom they love
and in all the nights ahead
this great black fear
02 June 2006
- Third Party
The woman I love
is yelling at her mother
who is yelling back.
I try to intercede,
to make peace.
She snaps, “Shut up,
it’s none of your business.”
On this point alone,
her mother fully agrees.
I sit back, roll my eyes
at the ceiling.
Taking the spectator’s
They turn back to their
- When I Was Little
Dragons used to dance in the sky,
and strange animals stretched as far as the eye
could see, cotton white against brilliant blue.
They would not speak, but I saw them going through
their lazy movements, changing shape with the wind,
sometimes disappearing, then reappearing,
sometimes looking down to watch us crawling
about on earth. They knew we wouldn’t notice.
- Bako Island
Thirty minutes by boat takes me from here
to a village where people make their living
tossing nets into the sea;
but at sunset on Bako
no footprints walk the beach but mine
and all the world is sky and ocean.
Still it seems that no one knows
this place, no one remembers
how a hermit crab defies, marking
a wind-swept, wave-swept beach
with the sandy trails of
its lonely travels.
29 May 2006
- church wedding
The handsome groom, smiling like plastic,
systematically shook two hundred
The nervous, excited bride constantly
touched her frizzled hair as she mingled
and made silly small talk rapidly.
The balding, cheerful pastor, arriving
slightly late in his immaculate suit, delivered
his well-rehearsed, eloquent sermon
on God, love and the bonds between
man and wife. The non-Christian guests held
brown little hymnbooks and opened
their awkward mouths, as others rose
to their feet and sang `Amazing Grace'.
Somewhere at the back of the chapel,
a baby burst into violent tears,
and her parents hushed and shushed,
trying in vain to stop her.
25 May 2006
………but my body's
a silent shadow
……… gliding on the blue
………………….. of pool bottom.
…. Flecks of sun dance
……….on my skin
…….but in my ears
there is only gurgling,
as i submerge,
with the arc of
Those of you who fly
…………………will mock my
and call me
……….a poor little frog
but i'm really just
……………….a very lazy whale
………..with one lifetime
24 May 2006
- Social Ambitions
to my dreams
I have to
almost very nearly
but never quite
It seems that the
- same goes for
- nearly everyone else
- in this peculiar,
22 May 2006
- House Lizard
He thinks the wall is his,
and the ceiling too,
the little monster,
his eyes beady black,
his fat body growing fatter
as the months go by.
Night after night he feeds
like a glutton on the
that, drawn by the table
fly in through the window.
He shits on the sill,
leaving black pellets of
and when I'm not here,
into my mug as if it’s
his goddamned sofa.
When I'm in the room,
he prudently sticks
to the ceiling,
beyond my easy reach,
going tsk tsk tsk in his
I swear he's laughing.
He’d better watch it,
or one of these days
I'll shoot him down
with a thick rubber band.
Bang. Thwack his fat little
head good and proper.
He'll fall to the floor
with brains puddling
around his head,
tail leaping off
his corpse giggling
like a muscle
in the throes of
19 May 2006
- Turtle Pond
Theirs surely is a small universe,
yet they sit perfectly still on the rocks,
little heads held up,
lost in thought
too profound for me
Some kind of
hunting has been
and it’s the thrill
that I’m after,
the victory of
on a piece of life,
trapping it in
pressing it down
into black and
16 April 2006
- Editing Poetry
I am at work
my lines of
as I bring out
- The Beggars in Chinatown
One of them approaches me now,
small and bent-over, shrivelled
by age and history.
She mumbles and stretches out
her wrinkled paw to ask for coins -
but I look away, apologetic.
I do not see her.
I tell myself that by now she must
be used to being invisible.
The poor do not usually exist –
they merely inhabit some mysterious zone
beyond the range of our