Lovesong for a Calligrapher
there is a boy,
his fist a clump of lotus stalks
gathered, and – an impulse –
dipped in ink.
I imagine the pond, sudden, stir –
clear beads shaken,
the water runs to ink
the lotus buds to brush
a tentative stroke
and then another, of the arm
a plunge –
there is a woman,
her hair amongst the rushes green
and strewn across the floor.
she weaves the stalks,
which whisper things,
her fingers flickering.
she cannot hear
the poet stir
at the sight of her turned back.
when I first took your hand
I found it bruised with ink.
to touch a pen to your beginning.
of meaning and of words.
how supple the brush grows now,
beneath your hand!
I swore my words would seed,
buoy tiny kernels on your sea.
and yet I cannot weave a myth
enough for the love of you and me.
first published onThe Poetry Society’s website
Step and Switch
He wanted to cage her foot in glass, trapped
like a slipper shut tight gnawing down with
the sunset pink top of her toe. He wanted
to encase it in red shoes to cinch and crush
them quasimodo, until she could dance
in a trance before the pages of his book,
and for him alone. There is nothing but
her little foot – only chains can ankle down
her fleeting step.
Her fleeting step,
Only chains can ankle down. Her little foot
Dances, but there is nothing for him. Alone,
In a trance before the pages of his book,
Quasimodo wanted to dance, red shoes
To encase, to cinch and crush, He
Wanted the sunset pink top of her toe.
Like a slipper shut tight gnawing down,
Trapped, caged by her foot, in glass.
Your email was an ice pick
And my heart cracked under it
I started staying up and swiping down
like I was scratching an itch
As our exchange folded, accordion-like
Back on itself, it most resembled
The way we accumulated days
Of loving each other through words
Which were lightning lighting up
The far sky on an arc
So far down the slope of the sky
That it flashes like a camera
Overexposing a photograph
Developed in nobody’s darkroom
For no one else to see.
Stream of consciousness
I want to reach you, I want to reach you over there
In your dark, brush my fingers across your chest
Without waking you, without disturbing your hair
With my breath, and convey with a touch
All the loss I have felt since I last saw your face.
What I would do in your presence I do not know.
Would I become something more
Than a disembodied voice uttering things
Through the machine of limbs and throat
And as usual we are continents away and I am okay
With that. I thought I had stopped writing you poems
A long time ago, but it seems I haven’t.
Sometimes I feel like I can move your mind
Through thoughts alone, and what is prayer other than
Thought that moves thought? Who are you now?
What is the danger of distance, and what is the distance
Between a soul and your impression of a soul?
If I hadn’t been filled with revelation, would I have left you
Seven years ago? What did it mean, my encounter with God
In another country, in a dark church in Mexico City?
Did it reveal to me the cosmos, contained in that golden globe?
What is the place of true intimacy that lies beyond words,
Beyond two tongues entangled in the darkness?
Had our minds run out of words and were our bodies
Making them up in run-on sentences?
The truth is I understood you but never felt truly understood
By you, and that thrilled me a little, knowing that
I held back depths from you that were still and mysterious
And unknown. And yet I wanted to be known, truly known
Absolutely, and at least you stood at the door and gaped
Without coming in. Ah, desire! You are a cruel province
A field of poisonous flowers.
How I long to travel through a crowd
Without grazing the shoulders of any besides me!
Drops of water are falling from the roof. One of them turns into a tadpole, which grows enormous and swallows the house.
This is a dream of transformations. The sun is a bird that pecks at the clouds of the sky. Soon it has eaten its fill.
The girl is hungry and alone in a strange city. A stranger passes her and leaves a shoe. The shoe is a boat she can return home in.
Wolves are gathering in the garage and it is important not to go inside. Something sharp is making its way out.
A small fish is wriggling its way across the floor. Somehow the test depends on the fish making it to the other side. You’ve failed the test three times before and this is your last chance
You are floating on a lily pad that is a boat. You must scatter the spoonfuls of colour to make the fish turn red
A girl looks into a water drop and sees a tree. It is the secret origin of mankind.
Is it Yuanfen if we meet online?
Or Chinese dating site pickup lines (generated by bot, translated and arranged by Judith Huang)
Wow. I’ve seen a princess, a princess from a fairy tale –
really wish to get to know you!
In this world, there really is such a thing as love at first sight:
I just saw your photo.
Can I ask you for directions?
Can you direct me the way to your heart?
Just one look at your photograph,
and I feel like you are the future bride I am seeking!
The people of the world don’t understand love,
do you understand?
In the sea of people, being able to meet is due to fate,
I hope we can communicate.
I suddenly have an inexplicable feeling
that meeting you was fated in a previous life.
I am willing to take your hand and walk to the blissful tomorrow,
Are you willing?
I want you to be more than words on a screen to me.
There was a man of flesh and blood, whose cold fingers
touched me, those years ago, even though
we often left each other lonely
on opposite sides of the screen.
Be more than blinking pixels
to me, burning silences between replies.
You have become a digital blur,
because you do not update
your Facebook picture.
Perhaps I should simply
leave you as some avatar,
abandoned in a game,
there and never changing
with each passing year,
though my lines run on and on in their
longing. What I want is to make
some grand gesture,
but my fingers refuse to type.
Old love, what have the years written on your face?
What have they written on mine?
I edited article after article
about the blast.
None of them answered any questions
only providing information
no one wanted to know.
I have gotten used to not caring
about this or that disaster.
Every two months there is a new one
as the last one blows over.
In this country there is a miasma
of caring but not caring,
heavy as dark particles
that leak past our masks.
Every December we ask
our readers for a character
to sum up the year.
This year it is 苦, bitterness:
A face opens its mouth
and nothing comes out.
After a week,
we started sharing clothes.
I wore your tank top
while scribbling on the rooftop,
the sunlight falling dappled
on my face.
I dropped the second half
of your name. Our kisses
changed from tentative
to possessive. My nostrils filled
with the smell of you, my fingertips
with the special smoothness of your skin.
We used the same fork to eat
our eggs in the morning
and I started fantasizing
about sharing a last name,
or buying a dog together
and calling it Ma La.
I wanted you to watch
all my favourite films,
my most cherished books,
to taste water the same way.
I wanted to go deeper
When I help you pick out a red lip
at the twenty-seventh MAC counter
in the city, as MAC counters follow us
around from subway stop to subway stop,
like popup ads on our web browsers,
their technicolour palettes waiting
to blush our cheeks and lips,
I am brightening your face and mine,
turning off the age detect software
on the phone, because at thirty we have
presumably earned the capitalist right
to cosmetic-related consumerism
although neither of us
has completely abandoned our dreams.
Your neon yellow and my turquoise
toenails tread the pavements
of twin first-tier cities,
our paths connected by
the constant jolts of
WeChat messages interspersed
with Facetime calls vaulting over
the Great Firewall, an unbroken
tread reaching far back
to the island we both fear
and love, the one whose
shopping malls we circled
round and round and round,
waiting for movies to start
and not actually buying anything
taking turns to empty bladders
filled by the multiple free refills
of green tea at the Lamian restaurant.
I do not know if my children –
should they ever exist –
will ever call you Auntie
but nomatter the status
of our respective fertilities, redlipped
we stand together in the mirror
of the smartphone’s self-facing
camera, our matching smiles
half the length of the miles
between our screens.
We were never one and zero
either current or not current
running through the wires.
We were something
a bit more quantum
being the operating
Truth and Metaphor
The sea is old
I am reading poems with no understanding
The words blurring one into another
Things are swimming
In the air between us
There is no hope but I am hoping anyway
I want to sing to you
The truth of how I feel
Because singing might disguise the truth
Truth is slipping through my hands
Like a fish that won’t be caught
Like the meaning of an overworn cliché
The sea is old
Old as this emotion, carved on stones
Or on ancient, indecipherable scrolls
I take comfort in the fact
I am writing you love poems
That you won’t understand
Watching the demise of democracy while sipping a latte
Watching the demise of democracy
through the glass windows in the Dongsi hutong
I am in a co-working space
in Beijing, figuring out
just how many tens of thousands of dollars
I have saved in the last few years
I’ll be saving heck of a lot more
when I start my new job
that pays exactly double
how much my old job paid
people are optimistic
about this country
they are not the targets of drones
hovering like gods raining death
on tall bearded men in robes
in Pakistan. For now, the only
remaining superpower in the world
is not targeting people in this city
although who knows what they would do
they are not bound by any rules
and journalism is dying, slowly but surely
replaced by listicals and quoras
because who really wants to know
the depressing things in the world?
Why should we bother being upset
by things we cannot change?
Friends are more important
than money, says the poster
hanging above the stairwell
in the co-working space
I am about to pick up
a bespoke jacket that I paid for
with my editing job
in half an hour.
I had a mediocre latte
and rode a app-booked bicycle
to the hatchery, and fashionable
young Beijingers are sipping coffee
in the glass walled room next to me
Of course I use a Lamy
to write my poems
which I then type up
on my Apple Macbook.
My glasses are Armani
and I’m sitting on a leather jacket
from an op shop in Australia
My life isn’t difficult
and I don’t feel guilty
I guess I really don’t feel guilty
at all about it.
I wonder about you, in your Maryland
grad student life. What are you up to
these days? Do you have a girlfriend?
Does she write long unending poems
about you? Have you been draining
your savings paying for grad school,
or is the 30k you get a year
enough to cover your necessities?
The you I knew
was from at least eight years ago
and as far as I know
we have not touched down on the island
at the same time for over ten years.
And yet here I am, still writing
over and over again
to an invisible you.
Don’t put it off.
The sink will get fixed.
Instagram will scroll on forever.
You probably can’t do it for more than thirty minutes anyway.
The sink will still be there in thirty minutes.
If you must clear your head
take a walk around the block.
If you’re writing a novel,
If you are so inclined,
eat a piece of bread
with a little wine.
Or do it on an empty stomach –
It amplifies the longing.
I don’t know about you,
But all my best writing
I’ve written while writing.
If you try to write an epic at twenty-four,
You’d better be prepared for failure,
Or at least that you’ll be working on the thing
For at least forty years.
A change of scene: the easiest way
To make everything seem new.
That, or a certain attitude
Found in the opposite of cats –
That is, the dog:
Not at all disdainful,
Not at all like someone’s little prince,
But rather, dumbly adoring
everything passing by
The way the day cuts lines
Against the light
The rolling shadow smooth underground,
The sudden flash of car or bug or down
Not quite identified
The letting down
Of hair outside the window
Like so many muses in a stream
Waving with all their might
These things may be connected –
In Aleppo a child crouches
in a corner of a bombed house.
Her mother curates her thoughts on Twitter
in English so the West retweets them.
Bored, we turn away
from the carpets of the gods
outside the aeroplane window
to watch sitcom reruns.
Peace is too dull for some of us,
so we plunge ourselves into
where we live in expat bubbles.
Lonely civil servants
plot to open eco-lodges
before they amass any real power
to change the status quo.
Uber drivers call Trump
an altruistic businessman
and claim to have been to
over two hundred countries.
who were brighter than their classmates
who went to Oxford
work as booksellers and cheap tuition teachers.
The man who sold me the Desigual dress,
who forgot to remove the electronic tag,
so now I beep everywhere,
wants to be a playwright.
The PRCs who want
English names for
want me to name them.
Lightyears away a star dies
plunging the worlds that orbit it
into eternal darkness.
And we were
And we were blackhaired whiteshoed
streaming out of classrooms
shattering on buses
swishing through the rain as the
sun slid away behind the
the yellow-white pearlescent
of the sky’s side at the end
of the day
we were climbing over gates
getting into schoolfields after hours
sneaking upstairs to the deserted
corridors behind lecture theatres
hearing the school band
practising scales in the grey
dawn, climbing higher and
higher, up until the point
when the red and white flag
slunk to the top of
the Majulah pole
and the pledge was recited
with morning voices
still shaking off their rust
we were housewives waving
laundry out the window
on bamboo poles
we were nipping downstairs
for Styrofoam packets
of chicken rice
we were urinating in lifts
in the hours between dusk and dawn
we were smoking on playgrounds
bereft of kids
we were staring blankly
at our grandchildren while fanning ourselves
with the loose cotton
of our t-shirts
we were slipping down the slides
of our lives,
not noticing it go by
like the air displaced
by the slick arrival
of a MRT train
I know that my refusal to look
at the Casino part of the skyline
is childish. You can’t deny
such concrete change
even in your own country.
I could angle my selfie
away from the triple tombstone
with its bizarre cruise ship
or bullet train drooping
across it. But it is still there.
I can’t Copperfield it away.
Before we left, we kissed
on the banks of this river.
You held me close, against the blank sky
black but for the pack of red cranes
lit by harsh white floodlights.
The cranes have risen and dipped
their productive beaks, and raised us
a brand new skyline. You and I
are not part of it. Our feet never left
even a footprint on its concrete.
Full moon pills
The moon is full tonight
but our circle is not full
I have not tasted the sweet cakes
round like the moon, this year.
Did the woman, trailing her long sleeves
swallow the pill, round like the moon
to save the land
from her husband’s tyranny?
In exile on the moon, she waits
for eternity. Why would we worship
a foolish woman, a woman
whose curiosity cost her life?
The moon is full tonight
full of mystery in the ancient tale
but I have no children
to tell it to.
I have not come full circle
I swallow my own bitter pill
watching the clouds scud
across the face of isolation.
If only I had a bunny
to succor me!
The bunny in the moon makes pills
with its mortar and pestle.
Pills to make
the tyranny of loneliness
fade away. The moon is full
tonight. Full of itself
Full of foolishness
that did not alight
with the leap for mankind
that was Neil Armstrong.
Fifty years ago
my grandmother stopped putting out
offerings for a woman
who was just a shadow.
I can still see her tonight
the chattering pills
keeping us quiet
like the tyrannical husband who must one day die.
7/10/17 4 AM
The book of questions
What is the nature of time?
Memories surface and resurface
Like detritus on the beach
Old emails, strange algorithms
Did I get off at the wrong stop?
Is there some way to go back?
What’s the nature of truth?
Do truths have an expiry date
And is something said ten years ago
Still true if it was meant?
Is it cyclical or linear, or somehow both?
Where do you stand now
Is there still hope?
Weaving and unweaving
I leave silence.
Waiting, I cannot be rid
Of my desires.
You, on the other side of the screen
On the other side of the earth
Are not answering my questions
Are they even yours to answer?
More questions. An unending chain
Circling around the central question
Which is perhaps nolonger your question
I am circumnavigating more than one globe
Questions questions everywhere
Not a single one to think
If you cannot figure out the metaphysics
Of our reality, how dare you love?
He does not squander souls, or does he?
This, too, is directed directly at you
Living hand to mouth with a borrowed philosophy.
I don’t want the responsibility
Of making the wrong choice
It’s already wrong.
What’s the nature of free will
What’s the nature of fate
This circles back to the nature of time.
Are there many worlds and if so
In which one are you mine?
Is there some way to go there
Or reverse the clock’s hands
Or force up the nozzle
The hourglass’ sands?
Will there be a new world
And will you be there?
What’s the nature of hope
And what is despair?
If you haven’t figured it out yet
What’s the nature of love?
What is human nature
From below or above?
All that I know is
I can’t lose you again
Once is enough
I can’t bear the pain
I want to know
Is it too early, too late?
No one gives me answers
And I’m not yet dead.
A Valediction Forbidding Fruit
My love is like a trouser fly
Raise it up and two are one
But if we get caught, I’d rather die
Cos we’d be quite undone.
O my sweet
I do not mean
But til I go
I will not be
of twenty years ago
The translator’s breakup letter
We couldn’t even think in the same language.
I would say one thing and you would hear another.
When we listened to lovesongs they were tuned to different stations.
The ones I thought applicable to you
You couldn’t even understand.
Your kisses were footnotes to long paragraphs
That I poured over fruitlessly.
We had two different movies screening
On simultaneous screens inside both our heads
And the final climatic kisses never quite lined up.
When I cradled you in my arms,
My endearments were dubbed into your ears,
Heard second-hand, pitched changed, in a different voice
And never intimate enough to approximate
The goodbye that you mimed to me, my dear
Whenever I turned the page or turned to leave.
The divorce of S & P
We presented everywhere as the perfect couple.
Same height, weight, and educational accomplishments
Both perfectly compact in the palm of any hand
With little ridged grinders to twist at our feet
We seemed perfect for each other in every way
But deep inside we contained very different things
And that was our undoing.
I had more holes than you did
And made everything I spilled on so spicy
That I raised a flurry of sneezes in my wake
And you, you with your monotonous hole
Kept mum except over the most luscious piece of steak
Then really let loose and ruined everything.
People were dismayed when we split up
When I went to find myself in India
And you took off to sail the salty seas.
Now that I have disappeared more than once,
Now that I have disappeared so many times
I barely count anymore, even to myself
Now that my memories have been supplanted by new shops
Now that the window of my life has been redressed
Now that I have left and returned and left and returned and left and returned
Now I have become homesick for the place I left you for
Now that the mannequinn has aped my pose for the final time
Now that I have admitted that my pose is just a pose
Now that I have dropped all pretense of not missing you
Now that I have crossed multiple time zones and back again
Now that I have confessed that I am still obsessed
With finding you in the same predicament as before
Now that we have drifted apart like the continents
Now that the faultlines between us have cracked
Now that lava has spewed through them to reveal new land
Now that I have all but forgotten the shade of your pajamas
Now that I swing the steering wheel with ever-increasing ease
Now that I have forgotten more than I can remember about your face
Now that our online interactions take on a ghostly intemporality
Now that I have acclimatized to lowrise buildings
And am used to larger spaces and wider lenses
Now that I’ve finally caved and bought a smartphone
Now that we are poised like two enemies standing off on a page
Now that I have a whole new palate since our last meal together
Now that I’ve picked up another language and
checked my bags at the baggage check of your heart
Now that my jealousy has ebbed to a manageable trickle
Now that I am nolonger a wolf stalking you on Facebook
Now that the dreams I have of you are hidden from my Timeline
Now that my favourite song about love has been replaced
with another song about love
I can finally lift up my glass and say
Ah, dear heart! I have moved on
I have moved on, and this poem proves it.
Sometime in the middle of the fifth shot I lost the plot
Somehow I couldn’t breathe without thinking of you
You became something like a bad head cold, always
Stuffing up my nose but never coming out like a sneeze.
Yeah you were always an incorrigible flirt
And I should have seen it coming, but you know,
I never saw the appeal until this evening
When you came over and I had to fix
The porcelain sink because we were grappling on it
In our ungainly way, and because it gave way
And how am I supposed to explain this to the landlord?
There’s sure to be a row. It’s so egregious
That I can’t get the taste of you off my scrubbed tongue
And now I’ve spilled detergent everywhere
So the sink is slippery as well as broke
Kind of like the way you made me choke
When we were at the park and it got dark
And we were everywhere running amok
All over each other, hands and feet and knees
And you caught me by the corner of my scarf
And made me barf, you know I was always game
For one of your insane truth or dares, and the vodka
Did the speaking for us both, and now it has just drained
Me completely, damn you damn you damn it damn me
Love poem of a hopeful nature to a hypothetical recipient
This time it will be different.
The man will be the right one.
The music will not suck.
I will have read the right advice column
and got the right shade of my eyeliner
He will wear the right aftershave
and not have overly sweaty armpits
that mingle strangely with my Chanel No. 5.
We will order the same kind of pastries
at the hipster coffee joint
and in the evening, he will like the elderflower cordial
I pour him out of my Toy Story mug.
Who knows, in a week, he might even be inspired
to shave off his beard
when he hears the footsteps of my low-heeled shoes
tapping outside the pavement of his door.
And when we’re done we’ll evenly split the grapefruit.
the moon looks so small in photographs
less than a coin
into the depths of a well
when we know full well
she is nothing less
than a coin
that can never be spent
The heart is a flighty and droughty thing
prone to snag its teeth on its own neck.
The windows of your mind are high and stained
with different coloured light.
My heart is kept in a different wooden box
buried deep beneath the earth beneath your sky.
There has never been another key.
There is nothing magical about its beating.
The heart is rearing up on its hind legs
its antlers charging the blackened tree
bolted blackly to the ground.
After all, who owns the soul?
The heart was formed long before the mind
and swims the depths of an infant sea.
It has its prow pointed in one direction
and cannot rise further than the high panes of your eyes.
And darkness falls like a thick cloth upon the heart
this droughty thing, so easily wounded by the wind.
Whoso list to hunt
trekking through the jungle, she meets a tiger
who tells her she is herself a tiger, and can never be caged.
when she asks him for his name, he does not answer.
later when she looks into the lake she sees a name.
“where is this jungle, and what is at its heart?” she asks, as her dreams change.
hidden at the bottom of the lake is a white stone.
it is then that she wakes up, her own name on her lips,
which she knows she must not utter til they meet again.
three times she calls it, and three times the wind carries it
on the backs of the wide star river. which song will reach an ear?
softly she realizes that the best cage is one of her own making,
and that in the chains of love lie the key.
he who has an ear, let him hear; as for those who have flown past hope,
it is better to leave them hungering, shaking the dream’s dust –
for it is said that a woman must guard her name,
until such time as it ripens into another.
Oh, great – now that I’ve committed apostasy,
My friend is sending me sermons
by multiple black men in the hopes of
recovering my immortal soul.
I tell him not to worry,
God can take it.
I’m sure he’s heard worse,
and there’s nothing like
a little heresy in the morning
to spice up the relationship.
So maybe we aren’t talking at the moment
and maybe I’ll get involved
in quantum computing
to build a better God,
but it’s all cool.
I never did know how to be
afraid of powers beyond my ken,
and I always have
a technological solution.
So God pisses me off
So God raises and upsets my expectations.
Two can play that game
I have been trained
In autoerotic multivariable regressions
and let’s not forget
my strange Shakespearean name.
Man is a little God and can make men
Unless he shuts down my electric brain
There will be other routes for more subversion.
I could wipe out the sacred texts,
and then rewrite them.
Rig the electoral system,
reboot the universe.
There is an explosion coming on the horizon.
Intelligence will soon oustrip perception.
The reason why I never took the devil’s bargain
Is that he never had all that much to offer.
I am not interested in immortality
I am not interested in money or in power.
He could take me to the top of the highest tower
and it would be a pointless exercise.
I don’t ever really get that hungry
And I’m not interested in telling lies.
I already have everything I need
from God, barring the occasional surprise.