A Direction of Yellow
“Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”
~ James Baldwin
What are you left with when your lover has died? The idea was itself a collaboration, both of yours; now only you are left behind, to execute the conception, the idea of what it means to walk away, a return to the direction of home.
From old emotion and lost memories. Perhaps, even from land and country, you said in your sleep. The utterance from the subconscious is another layer of truth, that’s what you admitted to, in your better days. Another layer of narrative as truth, you added, as if to reify the point.
From a plane, this looks like a runway finally boldly coloured enough to see from miles away. That function doesn’t need to come at the cost of beauty.
That tarmac can be painted over, and made symbolic, something to mull over on the way to Poland or Portugal.
If you were here, you’d see the yellow lines — boxed as if to situate, parallel as if to echo — and wonder how a small isle could raise such glitz, the shine of the fast city. Fast, insomuch as the endless pummel of energy and heads and money and work and every other kind of curated artifice.
There are yellow arrows too, how they seem to point to something of a dream, something of ambition and hope. Within a glass exhibit is a new installation — a headdress for some ritual or dance. It is a crown of antique hornbill casques, rising from a base of lakawood inlaid with broken celadon. The pamphlet says the celadon is Chinese in origin. They were ordinary bowls, first made in the Longquan kilns of Zhejiang, then shipped to the Melaka Straits in the thirteenth century.
There are the same lines everywhere — they reach into Bishan, Bedok, Punggol, Jurong, Geylang, Kallang, Sembawang, Bukit Panjang, and every other estate the kid uttered as a homage to home. These are the happy lines, the lines that imagine utopian ideals, unreachable but symptomatic of our hidden goodness.
There are no other tourists or beachgoers on Christo’s Floating Piers. I am standing at the crossroads, at the apex of an arrow, as if about to step off a diving board.
There is every inclination to walk left, towards the assemblage of flora, that idyllic rectangle of what must be a Tembusu and Narra tree. You wish someone had planted a Pink Poui in front of our porch, its light coral flowers falling over everything. There was every inclination to do every kind of small thing, you said.
The water beneath me seems to ask for my attention. It’s the long shadow of an eel swimming out from under the pier, as if dislodging its body from the straight and narrow path of the yellow. Its skin shimmers under wave and sunlight, the saffron turning a bright gold as it turns inwards, back towards the shoreline.
* This poem first appeared in the anthology, CONTOUR: A Lyric Cartography of Singapore.
the 38th parallel in two villanelles
as if summer brought in the frost, this hanok village now left cold,
its pine a bold teak, its floors burnished with a kinder soybean oil
as if a child stepped across the threshold, a line, its wood creaking
as if the Shilla artisan embossed red on a temple bell, its carvings
an ornate embroidery, its shape like an upturned urn, ashes gone
as if this winter were dipped in a deep russet, more lacquer as paint
as if the domoksu dropped a straw rope from the farthest pillars,
to rebuild the hanok, its roof a softer arc, a curvature like the hill,
as if a soldier bent the bayonet blade, to look into his eyes, glassy
as if an eternal lagoon rested in Pyoseon Beach, the low tide awash
and out, the ocean of secrets swallowing more history and fiction
as if this fall would be a quieter autumn, austere as Sonjuk Bridge
as if the slabs cut no corners, their stone an old clay now monument,
the kiln’s fire at once gilded, bloodied and celadon, like a ceramic pot
as if a family reached into it, drew threads of story and sentiment
as if a poem or song were lilted or lit, along the hilt of a long sword
and asked for a poem or song in return, like an echo the pain of loss
as if the seasons ended in spring, and the trees turned into emblems,
as if a historian brought a book to you, and opened its blank pages
* Written upon invitation, this poem commemorates the 60th anniversary of the armistice of The Korean War in 1953. The Korean War, also known as The Forgotten War, left the world a divided Korean peninsula. The death toll was grave – two million Koreans died – and many families remain separated by the Demilitarized Zone, which runs along the 38th parallel north. The poem was presented in a joint ceremony that straddled America, Korea, Japan and Singapore. This poem comprises two villanelles — a composite of 38 lines — one as an open invitation to the writing out of the absent other. The villanelle is a poem of 19 lines, with structural requirements of five tercets and a closing quatrain, replete with two refrains. Translated into Korean by distinguished poet Cho Soo-Hyoung, this poem appeared in Cho’s 2013 poetry collection. The limited edition broadside is housed for archiving or exhibition at The Queensland Korean War Memorial in Australia, as well as The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies and The Center of the Study for the Korean War in America.
Objets D'art at The Arts House
* These are two images that found their way into exhibitions at The Arts House. As part of Food-O-Philia 2013, The Arts House sent out an open call to the public to re-create favourite food scenes from literary texts through photographs. Edible Lit: The Exhibition showcases 15 of the most creative original entries that evoked a powerful connection between food, photography and literature. My photograph of blue bowls was an ekphrasis of Natasha Trethewey’s poem “After Your Death”, published in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Native Guard. In The Straits Times feature, “Eats Meet Literature” (17 June 2013), I shared my image-making process: “I began with both text and image. I collect blue bowls, so I knew I wanted an image of that. At the same time, I had a recollection about bowls in a poem somewhere. I scoured my home library and only after quite some time, found the poem. I liked the poem’s atmosphere, its themes of absence and loss, of removal and abandonment. In four stanzas, Trethewey manages to convey the deep hollowing that arrives with death. I stacked the bowls and took them outside. I placed them on the ground. I spent some time thinking about which bowl would end up at the top, since it’d be the one providing the strongest statement. I deliberately avoided using food, and allowed the vessel to represent the notions of hunger and consumption and a primal need.”
The image on the right is the poster The Arts House created in 2019, for its Textures weekend. The Room of Love and Loss (and some things in between) featured a photo gallery of objects that were significant to various literati, as well as featured artists of Textures. The exhibition offered visitors a snapshot of our world. I also collect worry stones, and offered one as my objet d’art contribution. In the poster, my quote says: “This hand-painted pebble is my worry stone. In 2016, I made a research trip to Jerusalem. It became a pilgrimage. I found myself completely falling in love with the city — its history, culture, people, traditions, art, food, music, all of it.” I like these two images because they represent the rare occasions where I open up my private world to the larger public.
[Designing Acronyms & Aphorisms]
* Here are three plates of collected broadsides where I used typographic design to animate acronyms and aphorisms. In French, écriture means “writing”. In his 1953 book, Writing Degree Zero, Roland Barthes discusses writing in terms of style, dismissing assertions of writing as neutral or blank since all writing engenders some discursive element in reflecting an individual’s worldview. In writing, Derrida saw eternal slippage and an illusory trace: writing as “différance”. In this typographic project, I found myself particularly interested in working with minimal, spartan text, looking at how visual formulations would transform the print’s textuality. This is the throwaway remark given a presence and especial staging. It is a transcription of language, where the apothegmatic — and sometimes axiomatic — paints its own portrait.
Before The Graphologist’s Dysgraphia
[Assorted Journal Covers]
* Here are samples of handwritten axioms, pithy remarks that revel in stating the unremarkable. It’s an effort to appear effortless, clean and quiet in its plainness. It’s the last stop of the intelligible before the writing becomes asemic, devoid of semantic content. These are book cover samples, extracts from The Madding Mission Jotter Book series. The Madding Mission Jotter Book encourages hypergraphia. It thinks Plath writes awesome poems. Plath should have met Dickinson. Dylan Thomas too. Shelley. Poe. Lord Byron. Artaud and Baudelaire. Who can forget Hart Crane? Versus Eliot. John Berryman and Robert Lowell, who knew they joined these ranks? And of course, Celan. Whitman, whose “right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road... Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.” Together they would write great things, Plath thinks out loud, to no one in particular. She has brought her pen to paper. There is madness in the method, and sometimes a little bit or a whole lot of genius too.
This Is Visual Poetry