Poetry / March 2012 (Issue 16)

Six Poems from Ancestral Worship

by David Mckirdy


Hannibal crossed The Alps,
for conquest and glory.
We, adventurers of a different stripe,
crossed the sea,
destination Hong Kong
on the P & O liner
S.S. Carthage.
Built by fellow Scots, launched on our own River Clyde.

Up the gangway hand in hand we boarded,
working class folk with boot-strap aspirations,
to cabins
second class,
the apartheid of imperial caste.
no P.O.S.H. travel for us but S.O.S.O.:
'Starboard out, staying out'
unlike that great general,
never coming home,
to disappointment and betrayal.

As we waved goodbye streamers severed our links
leaving monochrome memories and the 1950s in our wake
through Port Said, Suez, Aden and beyond
black-and-white Britain displaced, obscured
forgotten by senses now shaken by
shocking, pungent, grating
colours, odours and sounds,
familiarity growing as we travel ever Eastward
Warm and wet like a return to the womb.

Perhaps I'll linger here a while.


for Leung Ping Kwan

We arrived on the same day,
you in the hold of a fishing junk,
me on the P & O liner.
Settling into a three-storey house
the shipping crates were delivered by noon,
discarded they made a hut for you on the hill.

We lived on either side of the same street.
kept apart by the wall between
a physical and symbolic construct
to prevent dis-ease, or going native.

We tried to connect
but concrete and closed minds are tough to conquer,
a catchment for inhibitions carelessly thrown,
not so for hurled rocks and insults.

We flew kites across the top
swooping and dancing as one,
the caress
then the cut of the string.

We learned each other's tongue;
through jagged gaps
"Good morning", "Jo San"
"How are you?", "Nei ho ma?"
"What is your name?", "Nei Gieu mut yeh meng?"
"Well fuck your mother!", "Dieu nei lo mo!"

We left home together for school,
you on foot,
me on the bus,
attending classes at either end of another street,
both burdened by the hopes and expectations
of another generation.

We arrived on the same day,
grew up together - apart.
One colony - two systems.
Two people - one future.


Chinese gentlemen in traditional robes
inhabit the streets of my youth,     
scribes with folding tables and chairs
inkstone and brushes.
Gaunt classical scholars
performing exquisite caligraphy - for utility
in the service of
illiterate labourers.
The highest expression of the literary arts
reduced to mere communication.

Letters home to be read and narrated
by others, in other streets in other cities.
Part fortune teller, psychologist, agony uncle,
bad news censored, rendered palatable,
with subtlety and nuance,
good tidings enhanced.

In another place, another time
they would be
court officials, magistrates,
rather than abroad in-significance
at the sharp end of the historical narrative,
the collective amanuensis of a country in chaos.


Nanny, Auntie, Sister, Servant:
A simple woman in black and white
not young, no threat.
A mouth full of gold;
a gilt edged hedge against
famine, war and pestilence.

Poor and illiterate, ideal for scrubbing,
but entrusted with a stranger's child.
A necessity or a convenience for those
too busy, too ill, too worldly.
Trusting eternal motherly love,
of any woman, for any child.
Leaving her own family deprived
of appropriate maternal attention.

Myths of hungry ghosts
one-armed swordsmen
culinary treats and Chinese opera,
we absorb, acquire, adopt
an alien culture
and another mother tongue
these bonds can never be broken -
love is thicker than blood,

Ah May, Amah, Mama,
fifty years on
the shadow of your presence remains
as the wax from the candle I light for you
rolls down

like tears.

AMAH ROCK - Mong Fu Shek

For countless festivals and tides
I have watched and waited
for my husband's return.
Now as I gaze down the valley,
a change has come over our land.
The village and shoreline swamped by an evil upheaval,
water turned to land.
Structures abound as far as the eye can see,
like great ships upended in the earth,
draped in covers like nets.
The light of the black sky inhabits these nets,
lit as for night-fishing
by a mighty demon
trawling for souls.

Perhaps by stealing the giant sea-serpent's pearls
we have broken our pact with the sea.
The gracious Goddess Tin Hau,
who turned me and your son
to stone,
for love and loyalty,
she has forsaken us.
As barbarians race the sacred dragons
on the remains of the river,
noise, smoke and burning rain prevails.
I stand witness to the changes
and pray that you my love
may ever have full nets and a gentle wind
and never return to this place.


The QE2 came home to The Clyde
like a salmon returning to spawn.
She berthed at Greenock
to a festive expression of pride
that Scotland's finest,
in steam and ships and men,
had departed from this place.
Tied fast she strained at the leash
with standards festooned from stern to bow
from ship to shore and beyond
wind-blown like Tibetan prayer flags.

I too returned this year, a prodigal pilgrimage,
no one lined the quay for my arrival,
but my shadow paced the well worn path.
I could have been a riveter or welder;
shipbuilders, the Brahmins of the industrial age.
I would have had a hand in the making,

read the obituary at the end.  

But another destiny awaited me;
We also departed, running,
unclear if it was towards or from something
perhaps both
a Hajj and Hejira combined.

Now like the big ships
I'm all at sea in my native land
constantly drawn to that foreign field,

made home.
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.