Poetry / November 2008 (Issue 5)

Three Poems

by Toh Hsien Min

Auguste Escoffier

When the great chef strode into the scullery
his eye was taken by the sight of a young Asian
furiously polishing the silverware. At once he saw
the valour of hard work, took a shine to the youth
and pulled up a kitchen stool. Young man, he said,
knowing how much future to offer for his present ends,
if you apply yourself in this way to the art of cooking,
with a good master you can become the finest chef
of your generation. When he realised he was being
spoken to, and who it was who had spoken to him,
the scullery hand lifted his head, showing fine cheeks
filled with a grace not unlike frailty, or uncertainty.
He had little more than wanted to prove himself,
in gratitude for a less hard living than shovelling snow
or stoking coal, which had conspired with damp cold
to press his health against him. He had treated himself
with Shakespeare and Dickens, read from a language
still foreign to him, and had begun to write poems he
did not know the value of. But here was his chance
to show what he was made of. He told the master chef
he was working only towards overthrowing the French
in his home country. When the young man was done,
the French chef smiled. Ah, he was a communist.
There was even more promise in that. It took vision
and rebellion to attain greatness in the culinary arts,
as the creator of pêche melba and tournedos rossini
knew, and from cooking through the 1870 war
he also knew politics was seldom as urgent as food.
Put aside your revolutionary ideas, he said, and I
will teach you the art of cooking. Communist legend
tells us the young man declined, but he did turn up
in the pastry section shortly after, working on pies.
Perhaps he saw the possibility of art in it, and in
the possibility of art the possibility of moving people,
and in the possibility of moving people the chance
of shortening his struggle. Perhaps he only saw
an easier time than polishing silver. Whether he found
what he'd supposed or not is not known either, but,
not long after, he left for Paris, to enlighten his people,
cook up a storm and keep the home fires burning.

Advice to the Temp Handing out Flyers

The first thing you should do is learn to look
deeply into people’s faces, to see if they are happy
or sad or frustrated, and how they might react
to your approach, for after a certain age faces
show what simmering urgencies pulse behind them.
Next, spend a second to note how your prospects
move: power walkers will have no time for you,
and, curiously enough, neither will the very slowest,
who take life at a pace at which they have to ignore
everything around them. Observe how they dress:
should there be a streak of flamboyance you know
if they take your flyer it is only as an act of charity.
The man who has passed you for the fourth time
may be your employer's spy, sent to check you
haven't dumped your stack in the bin, so smile
sweetly and thrust a flyer at him if he hasn't still
got one in hand; just be sure you haven’t offered
two in your rush. You have to make this extra effort,
because this job differs from holding cans on flag day,
for guilt can be extracted from underneath granite
but indifference is its own flighty but recordable will.
Therefore the ones you want are the indistinguishables,
those who don't in any way stand out from the crowd:
they are the crowd. These are the people who expect
to take a flyer, neither out of courtesy nor obligation,
but because they cannot conceive of not doing so,
even if their reward has no more grain of interest
than the dashed promise of lottery, and even though
they will then aim the flyer at the nearest dustbin.
That is what you are there for, to intrude on public
consciousness for a moment like a breathless
feather of an unearned whisper, in this indirect transfer
of wood-fibre into plastic bin-liner; surely this end
justifies the meanness you have to put up with,
and if the crowd may think it nothing to crow about
you must know that only how you imagine the role
makes these hours time you will not want to claw back
when you become a member of the sombre, suited flock.

After Catullus

Fool, what you know you've lost admit to losing.
Time was the sun shone brilliantly for you,
When you kept with a young girl in her choosing,
Loved by you as lovers never do.
It was her gift to hold as yours to grant.
Then when those fine amusements did ensue
Which you did want nor did the girl not want,
Truly, the sun shone brilliantly for you.
Now she's stopped wanting, you must also cease.
Don't chase what takes flight, nor embrace the night.
For she'll be sorry when she's all alone.
Who'll find her pretty now? Whom will she tease?
Whom will she kiss and whose lips will she bite?
For you, your mind made up, will stand as stone.

Editors' note: A review of Toh Hsien Min's new poetry collection Means to an End by Eddie Tay is available in this issue (issue #5) of Cha.

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