11 April 2006

              somebody's ashes

              caught in my mouth

              as the wind danced wild
              among the offerings

              on a night of hungry ghosts.

              I spat, then spat again


              Not my time yet.
posted by Gilbert at Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

The writing exercise is tough. I find myself being dictated by a title.

The above poem has a specific cultural context. Chinese Singaporeans will understand it, but my non-Asian readers may not. Still I would love to hear what you (the non-Asian readers) make of this poem.

April 11, 2006  
Blogger Bluesky_Liz said...

:D Loved the punchline.

It would be interesting to hear what non-asians or non-singaporeans think of this, though I think they may be confused by the title, thinking that it is literally someone's ashes.

BTW, this is a very interesting exercise you've come up with.

April 11, 2006  
Blogger floots said...

i confess that (as suggested) i did think of it as metaphorically tasting the ashes of one who had died
but i enjoyed it with that meaning
what is its significance within asian culture

April 11, 2006  
Blogger Amy said...

I don't know if the ashes are literally human (very macabre), but the allusion to death is very apparent to me. I first thought of the spitting as a kind of supersticious warding away of the "hungry ghosts," then I thought it may be a literal spitting out of the ashes. Whatever the ashes are, I feel the narrator is trying to keep something at bay. "Not my time yet." Keep walking.

Great poem, Gilbert.

April 12, 2006  
Blogger MB said...

Hm, I took it to be literal ashes and the spitting out of them.

This is nicely terse and intense.

What is "Choi!" ?

April 12, 2006  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

Thanks all for comments. I think the poem does seem to work even for non-Asian readers - that's good to know.

First, the cultural context. There is a particular season in the Chinese calendar called the "Hungry Ghosts Month". It's believed that for this limited time only, the lost souls of hell are permitted to walk freely on earth. It's their temporary reprieve from the tortures of hell.

Many Chinese burn offerings for these lost souls. The offerings are in the form of "hell notes" or "ghost money" (see photo accompanying poem). By burning the notes, it is as if you are donating money to these ghosts.

The burning often takes place in public places eg by the roadside or on the grass etc so it can be quite messy as there are little fires everywhere and the wind can scatter ashes.


In my poem, I am walking somewhere and the ashes have flown into my mouth. I spit them out. This is awfully bad luck; things associated with death and ghosts are awfully bad luck for Chinese people. So I spit again - Choi!.

"Choi" is an ancient Cantonese word which is a multi-purpose anti-hex for warding off evil, bad luck, nasty spirits etc.

Oh, the Chinese always say the word vehemently or in a tone of annoyance. You cannot say it quietly, or calmly, or casually.

"Not my time yet" means it's not my time to die yet, I don't need these ash offerings.


The title turns out to carry several levels of meaning. Who is the "somebody" in "Somebody's Ashes"?

You could think of "somebody" as the person who was burning "hell notes" at the roadside. Or you could think of "somebody" as the ghost or spirit for whom the "hell notes" were burnt. Additionally, the phrase also makes you think of the remains of dead people (which is also somewhat in line with the general feel of the poem).

April 12, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hi Gilbert, what a GREAT poem! I love how the scene is so succintly depicted in so few words, and how the mixture of annoyance and tinge of superstitious fear capture this distinctly Asian/Chinese experience. This simple poem is also layered and ambiguous, projecting a modern, secular outlook, but one that is still rooted in traditional cultural beliefs. If taken from a non-superstitious outsider/reader, this poem could also carry with a kind of mildly 'morbid' humour.

Being a reader of your poems, and having read this pieace and your beautiful haiku, can I kindly ask and book in advance an autographed copy of your first book of poetry? :)

PS. Thanks so much for dropping by the trial blog project, and leaving your insightful comments there. We are still testing the waters, and finding our way.

April 12, 2006  
Blogger Gilbert Koh said...

Dreamer, you're so generous with your praise. :)

If the book ever appears, you get TWO free autographed copies. :)

April 13, 2006  

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