14 January 2006

Lo Ching.

            Foreign Worker Cutting Trees

            On this island, the branches of tall trees
            in public places are not permitted
            to grow as they please

            but must be regularly trimmed on
            hot restless sun-drenched days
            by foreign workers

            bearing electric saws, climbing
            with bare hands and feet
            up into alien treetop territory.

            Today I held my breath as I watched
            one of these men make his way
            twenty metres up above ground -

            if he fell he would surely break a limb
            or back or otherwise kill himself on
            this hot, forgettable afternoon,

            a thousand miles from home.
            Knowing this, perhaps, he kept pausing,
            looking for right places to put his foot;

            taking each small step with an infinite,
            enduring patience. Finally reaching a safe perch,
            from which he knew he could not fall.

            He put down his saw in the fork of two
            small branches. Wiped the sweat from
            his face with the back of his hand.

            And sat down, legs dangling, to rest a while,
            amidst the spreading arms of the giant
            rain tree, to catch the view.

            It struck me then, how simple, how harsh,
            life could be. You thought only about one thing
            at a time. Where to step next. How to cut

            a branch. How not to fall. How not to think
            of your wife or lover, back bent, planting padi
            seedlings in the rain-soaked fields

            of another country. All your days
            were slipping by, up in the leafy treetops of
            a distant island. You could think,

            as long as you liked, on these hot
            endless afternoons. There would always
            be enough trees for that.
posted by Gilbert at Saturday, January 14, 2006


Blogger ericlow said...

hi gilbert,

cool. minor stereotyping in stanza no.11 though.


January 15, 2006  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

It's an old poem, I think it was my first-ever poem to be published. The "No Other City" anthology.

It was written with a Thai worker in mind - they used to be in Singapore in great numbers after their economy crashed in 1997/98 - but nowadays Thai workers seem to have disappeared from S'pore.

January 15, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

That's why I thought I have read this somewhere before...I casually browse through a few peoms in that anthology. :)

The distant outsider's view works really nicely, even as it attempts to reach out as it were to understand another.

The stanza beginning "It struck me then, how simple, how harsh,/
life could be..." reminded me a bit of a W.B. Yeats poem I read when I was first introduced to poetry as an undergraduate (really regret that I was such very late-comer to lit)

January 15, 2006  
Blogger Carol said...

Beautiful image.

I am confused by the third last stanza where you say that you do not have to think and the last stanza where you could have time to think.

January 16, 2006  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

Ooops. Good point, Carol. I can see what I meant, but I can also see what you meant, and I think the fault must lie with me as poet, for potentially confusing the reader.

Anyway, what I meant was this, in prose form:

"Your life is so harsh that you can only think about one thing at a time. So you think of the following things, on at a time:

1. Where to step next.
2. How to cut a branch.
3. How not to fall.
4. How to keep distracting yourself, so as not to miss your wife or lover back in your own country.

Meanwhile, your days are slipping by here in Singapore. It feels like this will go on forever. You work every day, and you keep thinking, one thing at a time. The trees are endless. You'll be stuck here thinking, for a long, long time."

There. But as I said, yours is a good point, and I'll have to think about how to edit this poem slightly.

January 16, 2006  
Blogger sigmund fraud said...

"...There would always/ be enough trees for that." Very cryptic. Very thought provoking.

Good read.

January 24, 2006  

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