The Geometry of Donald Judd
says the subject heading of my best friend.
He’s walked to the edge
of life, the cliff on which hangs every impossible thing—
life, to him, is one long song
of abstruse sayings—and that faraway,
one can barely make out
a single thing of the odd-shaped mass,
how the rear of his old Volvo
juts out, the lave net barely keeping together
the sheets and plates and broken transistor.
There’s a gillnet, bulbous with everybody’s hope.
The bottom trawl drags along
codling and groundfish wrapped
around each other
to keep out danger, no matter the futility.
You are the keeper of drift nets and ghost nets.
The landing net houses no love like this.
You are the keeper of my heart,
and you release it past reef, this fringe of land.
* This poem first appeared in the Notre Dame Review.
The Invisible Puvis Figure
Two libraries have risen out of nowhere.
Miles of books, strewn across the city of Orphalese,
tomes littering the horizon
like an archipelago, like old tortoise shell.
Edward Said is rereading what people call platitudes;
after all these decades, will this Orientalism ever end?
Kahlil Gibran is Almustafa, at least in skin and spirit;
every fable another parable, so open
as to become prophecy.
The author as jester, as serious as he is unserious.
This unenviable act of balance—and prudence—
where did such early wanderlust come from?
What blessed name did Almustafa give every stone?
In Gibran, an immersion in Boston’s fin de siècle.
Gibran, hand in hand with Mary Haskell.
Gibran, holed up in winter at the Academy Julian in Paris.
Gibran, on a mountain, with the Maronites of Bisharri.
Of the twenty-six homilies, which homily rewrites love
as desire first, hope second—and faith forever?
* This poem first appeared in the Notre Dame Review.
The Rubric Cube
There is a rubric for everything.
There is a rubric for how modernist a poem might be.
There is a rubric for how postmodern a poem might be.
There is a rubric for how bizarre that last line sounds.
How the poststructuralist echews structure.
Chews it up, and spits it out.
But how the chewing gum sticks to his gums.
Textual analysis has that stickiness.
The sticky details of what it means to do a close reading.
To attend to metaphor, and how it extends itself.
Even when the lines don’t line up.
Intentionally, or otherwise.
Even when the pauses and lapses define themselves.
In the open spaces, in these moments of erasure.
In this lattice of open spaces lies a vastness.
An expanse of undiscovered meaning, plain and unruptured.
Like the quintessential tabula rasa.
There is a rubric for how much history has been erased.
There is a rubric for how much pain has been erased.
There is a rubric for how much story remains unwritten.
Fill in the rubric of the untold story.
Fill in the rubric of the life of the star-crossed lovers.
Fill in the rubric of where the lovers will meet next.
* This poem is an excerpt from the poetry collection, Apophenia.
Mise-En-Scène of Hope
The Structuralist has returned to sit in the empty chair.
The other empty chair is reserved, for the Semiotician.
The New Critic is unearthing scripture in faraway Algiers.
The New Historicist walks by the shelf on Hayden White.
The Marxist Critic starts a conversation with the beggar.
The beggar bemoans all occupations, and the moneyed.
The Postcolonial Theorist drinks from the baptismal font.
As if to say let’s drink to this, the washing clean of things.
The Feminist Critic is talking about Virginia Woolf.
In relation to Cixous and Irigaray, each id at a time.
The Psychoanalytic Critic notes the babble, all wads of it.
The Ecocritic has a picnic by the lake, near the tree line.
The Queer Scholar is wearing angel wings and pink pumps.
As if to say this is the elevation, this is an evolved stage.
Of condition, of desire and need to share every anecdote.
Even if the narrative has become a kind of shuffling.
A kind of circumvention, a steady equivocation to elude.
The Russian Formalist has defamiliarized every tenet.
Which theorist has written a love note to all authors?
* This poem first appeared in Poetry at Sangam House.
Beyond the Loge
The proscenium stage is awash with objects —
an upside-down piano, ottomans in batik,
coolies without faces, moments of erasure.
An ethnographer can’t help but objectify
both the watching and what’s being watched.
He paints the evening sun onto nose and cheeks.
Of the blue girl in plain cotton, dishcloth-white.
The blue girl has no shoes; her toes swollen
and twiddling like thumbs. She is sullen.
“This is the Museum of Life,” she says.
“Maybe only of Time,” he says, dipping brush
into water, shallow and clear against porcelain.
At closing time, the theatre is even quieter.
The fourth wall darkens; big crowds dissipate,
the traffic outside dissolving into silence.
* Commissioned by the National Library Board, this poem was penned for “Poetry on Platforms”, a month-long exhibition of choice poems at City Hall MRT station in 2015. Organised as part of the annual nationwide reading campaign Read! Singapore, this initiative published over 80 poems in the anthology, SingaPoetry, within which was a portable flash drive containing audio recordings of all the featured poems.
a haiku is a blank stare
ask the widower
his nature, time as being—
he’ll laugh, show a room
the way things are
wagon wheels on walls
floorboards, makeshift shelves, china
red everywhere, glaze
small like colour tiles
poet’s principle—to find
smallness in vials, filters, cups
and tea in jam jars
* This poem was published in the poetry collection, Mirror Image Mirage.
a haiku is a road song by the inch
this empty dust road
rising to meet us, grey setts
truism in sheaf—
all human beings
by nature desire knowledge
at its necessity
and his need to sing it whole
trees lining both sides
a bosc pear drops to the earth
spins, nodding axis
* This poem was published in the poetry collection, Mirror Image Mirage.
i is for idealismus
seeing that keller wants the apple centred
on the table she says dealing her cards
her mannish hands her three of hearts
how she wants it as it always was in tawas
the way behind the things of the real
lies the ontological and epistemological
realm of the rarefied idea or the ideal
as tiresias would have it his finger already
drawing a line in the sky over harrisville
then wet sand to say come here to make
a clear divide between the conceptual
and the sensory where kant is in repose
sipping a mocktail its sugar like the finite
incontrovertible self strung up in the world
an eternal practice never to return
to the infinite beyond nature at au sable
like keller walking into two museums
and seeing art and history in the abstract
her own ordinary speech a language of
curves and angles and method and removal
like the angel’s wingbone in a jacket pocket
and christopher reid admitting to a fetish
then talking about jaguars and the sphinx
and the carved bone they make of others
* This poem was published in Of Zoos. It also appears in the poetry collection, Reading to Ted Hesburgh.
fluxus is a gogyohka’s shell and borings
more wringing now unrigging
so our brig pitches, waves
wafer roof torn off
paper money burnt tonight
tonight’s monsoon reddening
pantoums now fractured
can you see the four far ends?
what their display niches show?
tensing braided ropes
to belong, a village song
who has ever rewritten
this bluing writ, in silk—
skin eyes, new for you?
* This poem was published in the anthology, Sunrise From Blue Thunder: A Pirene's Fountain
Anthology for Japan’s Earthquake-Tsunami Relief.
Eleven Ways of Looking at a Square (Two Excerpts)
Georgia Desmarais taps each wall to check for a weak spot. A clue like Rodin first reading Dante, then Baudelaire. “Is today Wednesday or Thursday? Where are the light switches?” Georgia is growing wary, her eye like Max Ernst’s Chinese Nightingale, its iron beak as cold to the touch. No warmth. No barrateen bedding. No food, water or electricity. Just coloured lines, and sometimes a mansard roof. Wenge door at the back, sealed shut. No windbrace or sprockets or windows although occasionally, the crackle of shrinking glass. No turning weather. No mechanism or motif or memory. No handle to grab onto.
Game of Chess
The rook overlooking the pawn. Bishop trapped. Knight in its own interior space. Queen charging into the service box, ribboned heels. Ivory silk. Satin buttons. Wedding shoes. “Do you think there’re seasons on the other side,” Georgia asks, the air stale and grey. Rodin’s “Fugit Amor” casts itself, suede ink on the ogival arch. Its tragic lovers intertwined, gnarled branches. “Paolo and Francesca should have been given leather wings. They would’ve hopped across the black squares and soared past tall gates.” Water is seeping through the chainmail carpet. The queen hangs onto the colonnade line, reaching across the false gallery.
* These prose poems were published in UNION: 15 Years of Drunken Boat, 50 Years of Writing From Singapore. They also appear in the poetry collection, I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist.
The Object of White Noise
“Now we will say it with a small poem.”
~ Ernest Hemingway
Loneliness, I remember you before Polonius’ talk of friendship in old verse,
final ellipsis in short taps and kicks, gusting metaphor extending itself, to think
of death early on, at once counterpoint and bargain end to life, as if to say
long marches were tedium, as Stein’s invitations to garden parties, as want
as insatiable, ripped off book covers, on the quarterdeck or bowsprit, to see
larger ships, castle view beyond Pont Neuf, its elbow of a park, where I read
something of 12 rue de l’Odéon, as concrete a place as Mary’s Avallon, a read
open as Sylvia Beach’s hand, firm shake, first kindness, like the first verse
sciolti da rima, where rhymes recede, caesurae percolating, as the poet sees
rather than hears his words, oblique, their cello and echo, Rodin’s Thinker
in a new tableau, left arm extended like a big wing, fast updraft, as if wanting
flight as escape, denouement, hurtling towards the poplar, rising obelisk to say
this is the way Marlowe wrote of undying dandelions and mirrors, to say
Milton’s Aegean isle was like any other mapped dot, as open an autumn read,
as dismal and removed and blank a slate and stare, singly at Artemis, and want
a new fabric, sky and land, less architrave and Phrygian cadence than verse,
that invention meant movement, a rotation clear of the drydock, of thinking
what virtue to make into a creed, what rendered scruple to surface and see
in the light of day, not to decorate or scaffold, but in burning, to truly see
and intend the words, creation for all its vagaries like a tremulous saying,
its memory, distinct tremor, of Hecht casting Yolek between soldiers, thinking
his lungs would give way, along with his tiny legs, all for one midnight read,
with Spenser asleep, as with the common nightingale, in Augustan verse,
the way Nani tasted cumin, garlic within Ríos’ albondigas, softly wanting
more chiftele in her soup, more celery, carrots and halved onions, to want
so desire is made clear, like agulha rice soaking in flavoured water, and seen
from outside the Oriel window where a boy swivels his orpharion, girl’s verse
rolled into a scroll, yellowed, tied with daisy chain and bow string, as if to say
I made this for weight and resistance and home, so read it the way I read
your every word, fistmele of thought and image, on our long walks, to think
life is but its own long wait, Tennyson searching for the Happy Isles, thinking
maybe a late sun after the rain, in Paris too, its Cubist book carts, same wanton
disregard, or just joie de vivre, like Frost in his seat, same street café, to read
the same tone and rest at line’s end, his road home through apple trees, seeing
Joyce in a make-believe Dublin, as filled with grain and mettle, as if to say
even this libretto, even this madrigal has emptied itself into portamenti, verse
of wanderlust; think Illinois sonata into Hemingway’s Seine, its wave of seers
and their want of love, hope for soft courage, one more ostinato today to say
read me to sleep, beyond this city’s noise and history, and meandering verse.
* The epigraph is taken from “Portrait of a Lady”, Hemingway’s poem about Gertrude Stein. Originally subtitled “The Oak Park Sestina”, the piece remains an ekphrasis of Hemingway’s poem, “[Blank Verse]”, written in Oak Park, 1916. Published in Trapeze the same year, the poem is made up of missing texts, evidenced only through the presence of punctuation marks and symbols. This sestina is an excerpt from the poetry collection, Sanctus Sanctus Dirgha Sanctus.
I Like Tom Sawyer Island:
Epistolary Ballad of Wong Foon Sing in Three Villanelles
“But he went the Hemingway
Weirdly on wings and with maximum pain
We call upon the author to explain.”
~ Nick Cave
Dear Diary, I like islands, the idea of them at least.
People look to islands as a getaway, a way to escape.
But really they end up being trapped nonetheless.
It was getting crowded everywhere, so we stayed at Harper’s Mill.
The waterwheel seemed smaller, the brick and cobblestone older.
How I never walked into the woods behind it, its Freeman maples.
I still write love notes in my diary, talking to it like an old friend.
Like the one I read out loud in Yunnan, one of its basement taprooms.
About how I couldn’t believe I was dating Janet Smith.
Dear Coroner, I dreamt a sadder Black Dahlia, like a Mary Rogers.
Dear Council, Clifton Collins was the perfect Perry Smith, not Daniel Craig.
Dear Point Grey Residents, I can’t believe I’m dating Robert Blake.
Bob wore a white shirt, tucked in, and carried a knapsack.
It was made of thick hemp, and kept our map and enamel tiffin carrier.
His knife holster only contained a nakiri bocho, a peeling knife too.
He never owned a gun, and the silk nightdress was really a cotton poplin.
Dear Diary, I like Canadians.
Dear History, They are so unlike Americans.
Dear Memory, They go home at night.
Huck made a good home for himself too, in the tree house.
Each room was intimate, with square windows.
They seemed to frame a bit of the sky.
Dear Diary, there was a noose beside the branding iron and wrenches.
Dear History, there was Rothschild in the air, Corona Grande too.
Dear Memory, they wore hoods with eyeholes, put one over my head.
The radio was on in the mornings, usually quieted the waterfowl outside.
It was six weeks between the bed and a chair riveted to the ground.
I could see from under the blindfold, the shuffling of riding boots.
Pigskin loafers, smooth hands, big ring with an emerald cabochon.
Backgammon checkers dropped onto a marble board.
Someone reading L’influence d’un livre aloud to himself.
The gingham tablecloth, whiskey-stained quilts, dusty curtains.
The stoneware jug, bluebells painted on its side.
The freshly picked wildflowers, daisy chain hanging from buckthorn.
Around these objects, a neat confession like a signed letter.
Dear Diary, I think the rain has made a pond on this saltbox roof.
A newborn killer would’ve been more of a coward, one man said.
He should’ve caved in by now, another muttered over a dark lager.
We took our sodas to Aunt Polly’s Dockside Inn.
It had good shade, and the air of Missouri, its sprawling prairies.
Janet pawned her bangle, its Hopi overlay of a flutist in a bear’s paw.
Dear Diary, maybe this summer will be lighter, and a bit kinder.
With more goodwill to go around, like Bob sharing chips over poker.
And more people learning to laugh at themselves, with the times.
Dear Diary, I like Americans.
Dear History, They are so unlike Canadians.
Dear Memory, They do not take their policemen seriously.
The architecture made me think of the bayou back home.
Its boathouses, made of oak and teak, a flag wiped of its emblems.
A dried-up well nearby, the pier jutting into the narrow waterway.
Like the promise of a new life, Jinsuo Island on Kunming Lake.
The fisherman unshackling the black cormorant, free to soar.
Soft shadow over the waters, ring around its throat unfastened.
In the dream, Janet was back in Perth’s wetlands.
Bare feet on buttonweed, wood duck cradled in a cupped palm.
She handed me her straw hat on the floating bridge.
“It’ll keep the sun out of your eyes,” she said, with a smile.
* This poem was a special commission, written for the anthology, Read Write [Hand]: A Multi-Disciplinary Nick Cave Reader. The epigraph includes lines from Cave’s “We Call Upon the Author”. The two buried tercets are extracts of the first three lines of Hemingway’s poems, “I Like Canadians” and “I Like Americans”, both signed off with “By A. Foreigner”. Wong Foon Sing was wrongly accused of murder in Vancouver’s famous Janet Smith case. The case remains unsolved.
Ibsen’s Wild Duck on Apron Stage
“This three-room HDB will not be big enough,” Sze Leong says. “Where will the attic be? Where will the elderly Ekdal emerge from, to show he wasn’t the one upstairs, there to shoot the duck?” Min lifts her camera, and scouts the small place through her viewfinder. She has the intensity of Hjalmar, as if photography or film was her field of work. “This home cannot accommodate the stage,” Sze Leong insists. The point is to have an audience of no more than four persons. They’d be seated on a raised dais outside the living room window. Along the corridor. This limited gaze would reflect the closed setting, the claustrophobia—the wild duck would have been a witness of this kind, if it had been peeping through a hole in the ceiling. It’d see Gina pull Håkon towards her chest, spooning him the salted mustard greens, then daring a kiss on the lips. It’d see Gregers brooding in the spare room, thinking about the lies inhabiting these walls. And it’d see Hedvig’s young naiveté, and how she looks to it for a proper denouement. A wild thing turned symbol. Of despair. Of a rescue, the salvific and the redemptive. Then of a circular motion, of death by association, and a misguided sacrifice. Min will rid the play entirely of Relling, a character she feels says too much. Too much reading into things—their psychology. Even if Ibsen liked to do the same, like a shorebird nearing saltwater, awaiting slaughter.
* This postcard fiction first appeared in Twenty-Four Flavours: Salted Vegetables and Duck Soup. It is an excerpt from the hybrid work, FOODPORN cum Maundy Thursday.
The Octopus, Our Extraterrestrial Life Form
Did you see Ryan Reynolds go pale in the face, and cough up pools of blood? Did you see his limp body, already dead, involuntarily jerk—it was like a tick, or a bit of fits—floating in mid-air in that space laboratory? It was a seizure, in a manner of speaking—that octopus thing from Mars was seizing his insides. God knows what it was engulfing—did you see how it enveloped the poor white mouse like a thick rubber glove? Gut, colon, liver, kidneys, even back up to lungs and heart, out the throat again. Did you see how exobiologist Hugh Derry’s glove turned inside out, wafting out of that lab box, the alien exploring its shape and material, how the glove looked like a fully formed hand? It was to say here’s pointing at you, kid. Here’s a long overdue payback for the way you’ve treated life, and everything that inhabits your shared space. It was poetic justice, until you actually started feeling an aversion to the alien aggression, the way quarantine officer Miranda North said it. She said she hated it, however irrational that response might have seemed. MOS Burger has a new tako burger. I asked the cashier what the white topping was— potato salad or mushroom sauce?—and what of the dark gravy above the patty? Is it teriyaki or their trademark demi-glaze, which I wouldn’t have gone for? I never got the answer because the query was shouted out to the kitchen, then the back room, and the manager couldn’t be found. Not that any response was required, not that it would have made much difference. It was just a question that popped, like a soap bubble barely making it out of the bubble stick, that then vanished—and it didn’t matter whether the question was ever conceived in the first place. Some questions are like that, take on that tenor. It’s a tenor that’s actually quite enviable—the tenor of does-it-really-fucking-matter. Some article said that people who don’t mind swearing in regular speech actually make for more honesty. The laying it bare, leaving it all out there, actually means there’s less of the hiding, less of the unseen motive. It’s a lovely miscegenation going on here, a kind of uncomfortable mesh-up of the vulgar and the good.
* This lyric essay first appeared in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.
Voice Print of Silence
“All the being and the doing,
expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated…”
~ Virginia Woolf
this poem has no sound to it
no analogue or amplification or attenuation
no otolith to cast shape on movement or direction
how gravity grounds everything, except helfgott
his souvenirs d’andalousie a litany of quick notes
traversing his city street, sound of zinc hitting
air » bone » liquid
outer ear » middle ear » inner ear
outer ear » middle ear » inner ear
air » bone » liquid
in absentia, this poem denotes sound’s nature
what whistle or timbre, what imaging or agitation
drops into, the large canvas of denuded language
no swim of meaning thus, no mirrored semibreve
helfgott’s schmetterling in mid-flight
big wings disappearing, its own shadow zone
* Penned during SingPoWriMo 2017, this poem is an anima methodi, a poetic form
conceived by Eric Tinsay Valles and myself. It was subsequently included in the anthology,
Anima Methodi: The Poetics of Mirroring. For more on the form, please check out its entry
on the site, Southeast Asian Poetic Forms.
[Let’s Fall Asleep, Sail Across This Rite of Passage]
“I wanted to address it to you right away, like a piece of news,
an adventure, a chance simultaneously anodine, anecdotal,
and overwhelming, the most ancient and the last.”
~ Derrida, The Post Card
Dear Letter of Letters, which ridge? Which bridge and shoreline for the Signers,
far from high seas—the beryl and olive, how visibly oceanic? The Language, waves
to all ears, only the echo, itself one faring tide after another, an acoustic mirror.
What mirror, you ask, what is its own story and history? How pointed, image at rest,
afloat, barely apparent or rendered. How the Waders come, Senders of the Lighthouse
no longer frail, what inner light of memory. That, and what was once brave, even valuable.
For example, you say. As if to end on something soundless, a caged bird, long songless.
Beside it, an epistle left unsent. Of what origin, you ask, known or unknown? Of what
intent and sentiment, what inhumed feeling? You hold a letter too. You, remote, closer
to the ground. Of the Void, you say. As if to think is to know—is to exist, is to give form.
Every lost allegory another bottle in the water. Every drowning another lament, yet life
to come. Also a possible line and sound, like me, before the birthday poem. If you wait,
wait for the pause, soft erasure—feel the lake fill itself. Not the obvious blue, but here.
In relation, always the laved sky, teal water. Within it, Inland Island adrift, and at large.
* I read this found//fount sonnet for my public address at the Botanic Gardens on National Reading Day 2018, an event organised by the National Library Board, National Parks Board, and Singapore Press Holdings. I then led the some 4,000 attendees to Read-for-Books, a charity book drive which aims to raise awareness and share the joy of reading with the underprivileged. The base text of this poem is Derrida’s The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, translated by Alan Bass. The fourteen found words are as follows: signers, visibly, to, not, senders, that, example, of, feel, is, every, me, not, relation. I invented the found//fount sonnet in 2017. Its history and formal structure can be found here, at Southeast Asian Poetic Forms.
Strangely, This Metamodernist Yellow
“It isn’t easy to say anything real anymore.”
Some things have been so looked at,
so much as to have been infused
with some spirit, of the cryptic and sublime.
It’s 1950, a year before completion.
Dali looks at the murk of white and mustard,
how they must be mixed into an emergent light.
The yellow spreads itself across a field,
unconscious and ranging
like an animal in shallow water.
Maize. Vanilla. Lemon rind and pulp.
Chiffon, like the sponge cake we shared.
Saffron, the colour of Bierstadt’s dimly lit century.
Flax, sullen and remote, next to the brighter Aureolin.
“And Jonquil, how exacting even a colour can be.”
Jonquil: the precise yellow, tired and burnt,
of the feather we found.
The feather was caught in a fake summer breeze.
It was a Mark Rothko summer, as matter-of-fact
as this moment, of recollection and retrieval.
“You can tease out the sublime, identify it.”
The sublime has a colour all its own,
how it shifts its shape for every eye and sentiment.
This must be what a giving love feels like,
the constant yawing between desire and identity.
“What of possession of the ideal, what of presence?”
There is nothing onerous in this sincere admission.
None of the onerous this ideal reader knows,
has become accustomed to,
like old conventions, or this force and drag of habit.
Brice Marden is painting another winding road,
its yellow brick deeper than the one in The Attended.
My room is painted yellow too,
in a happier Stil de grain,
three coats for a thick firmament,
to last longer,
as if the buckthorn berries never ripened on stem.
“As if nothing in this room ever came of age.”
It’s a bedroom and study, a closet and small library.
In it, Ed Ruscha is painting shadows in yellow,
what angles they form next to his Easy Street.
It’s a room of compendiums, of things placed.
The insides are paved with David Hockney tiles,
walls painted in the same yellow as the outside.
As if to say it’s the same here
—here, within your mind—
as it is outside, in someone else’s created world.
* This poem first appeared in T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore.