Poetry / June 2012 (Issue 17)

Two Poems

by Daryl Qilin Yam

Change Your Heart; Look Around You

We're sitting with our asses slouching half-out of our chairs. You're playing a song on
     your handphone: it's Hokkien or Cantonese, I can't really tell, but I know it's loud
     and I can't believe you listen to this.
I'm playing my own song on the computer now, a low sad voice telling me things: I
     promised myself I'd only sigh today, but I went on and played a Lonely Hearts
     playlist meant for someone else. I'm reading e-mails from the past on the other tab
     to cheer me up and it's not really working, but neither am I.

I am on the last train home, apparently. I say apparently, because it's not. It just feels that
     way, which is both the truth and an excuse.
The sun's just setting, that centre of colour in the distance: the clouds go forth and
     beyond, over my head; at the other side of the carriage, the window is still blue, a
     little azure, teal, maybe, save for the reflection of myself looking inwards and
     outwards. That and everything is one and the same.

Home: I cross alleyways, I move over grass; I pass by the back gates of houses; I am
     followed by the notes of a piano, played in the distance.
Yesterday was the wake and yesterday was not. Yesterday was yesterday and soon it will
     be the day before the last. Once you were flesh and now you are not.
I climb stairs. I trail the fall of trumpet flowers from the treetops. (I smell curry, I smell
     joss sticks, I smell paper money.) An old woman ambles past me, like deer crossing
     before a car, and I had been driving in the middle of the woods; an old man trails
     behind her, trails behind her, trails behind her.

"Everyone's gotta learn sometime;"
it's making me worse. "Everybody's gotta burn sometime."
I've been pretending to cry these days, on top of other things.

I'd be walking by that long drain that runs beside the train station. I'd see the tree planted
     at the opposite bank, its trunk bent forward, its branches reaching over into
     the canal. There'd be a stream flowing by, a steady line of brown water: I'd see flashes of
     silver, and the waving hands of moss and algae growing on the bed. Once I had a
     dream of you, set in this very place: sometimes you'd appear by my side, and
     sometimes you won't.
That's all.

Still, home: after the traffic lights, it's a straight path. The traffic noise blends into
     a fuzzy, grey haze, and I leave it behind. From now on it's pavement and the grass
     fighting through the cracks. From now on it's the blanket of flowers that have fallen
     from the trees, once pink but now rotting brown on the tarmac. Sometimes another
     flower falls from the treetops, and once I thought you were lucky to see it happen.
It only happens once or twice a year, when all the trees down the street are in full bloom.
     The same trees are the ones grown around the cemeteries, the Chinese ones, and I
     try not to think about that, but by then it's too late, for I already have. I've written it down.

This is the dream I have of you: you're eating durians; you're having bak kut teh; you're
     joking about how handsome the veins on your arms are; you're sleeping on the table
     with your back facing towards me.
I'm there at your lousy Chinese wedding, and I'm placed at one of the tables at the far
     end of the hall. I think it's okay. There's a slideshow of you; you and your bride; you
     and your friends, with just that rare one of the both of us. You'd be on stage, you'd
     be making rounds, you'd be laughing; you’d be happy, grinning till your eyes
     disappear, while I, in addition to the usual, pretend to smile.

- This is the last train home.
- "Change your heart; look around you."
- (Something is always burning.)
- Someday, you are going to die.

I walk home, with music playing in my ears. The notes of a piano follow me wherever I
     go: there are open windows all around me, and I look into the iris that is each and
     every one. I know not the soundtrack to my life, but I'm getting close.
I love you and I don't love you. I want you around and I don't. I need you but I try to
     think of other things. My life has always been about other things, other people, I
     don't know why. I like drains, and canals, and void decks. I lean towards songs
     without words: I don't want to be told what to do, and the worst lyrics often sound
     the nicest. I don't know why.

Remember: #3-#7

3 Buona Vista
I was raised here, but born elsewhere:
I knew not the playground outside the kindergarten, enclosed by the surrounding blocks;
I knew not the children, laughing and screaming, sounds echoing off the walls,
Everywhere the lives of people behind a closed door and two dark windows,
Behind a closed door and two dark windows
(units ever on repeating down the corridors, ever on repeating;)

Voices carrying up and beyond onto the many floors watching over us, while I punched you in the chest
As you lay on the slide, wincing and howling:
(sounds ever on repeating down the corridors, ever on repeating.)
I knew not the mattress, or the iron the lay beside it;
I knew not the elevator, green and smelling of pee.

4 These Shelves
Look at these shelves. I tried putting you away
But I couldn't. My friend was recently diagnosed
With clinical depression and she asked me
What letting go meant;
And I had to ask her to be more specific
Because I just didn't know what to say. Have you
Seen these shelves? The handles on the drawers,
The books, the little trophies I've managed to win,
The photographs of myself when I was three,
Riding my first bike. Who knows where it is now,
Whether my father had thrown it into the trash
Or left it in our old apartment for others to play with.
It used to mean something, but now for the life of me
I can't remember. I can't recall a single detail.
Looking at the photographs I can't even tell
If I was happy about the bike, or just obliging my parents,
Posing for the camera. If you asked me about it
I wouldn't know what to say.

5 O, Childhood
Remember how we rode in the car
Behind the wheel, on our father's lap:
Remember the safety, the pleasant warmth;
The light, slanting through the windows; the wind outside
We couldn’t touch, but could only imagine:
Remember the arms beside us, turning the wheel;
How small it made us feel.

Remember his voice, too:
Remember how he thought you knew the difference
Between a Honda and a Hyundai;
Remember feeling the words, as you leant against his chest;
The gentle hum, lining your back.

O, Childhood!
Beloved, estranged, prodigal!
To me, you belong.

6 allez en avant
It is early. The day has barely begun. A white light pours through the window of the
     balcony, and spills into my room; somehow I know I must go.
Go where? Go forth to what, and to whom? I look out and see the backyards of my
     neighbours, their curtained windows, a forest of bamboo someone is growing;
I see a horizon marked by terracotta tiles and the wires of antennas, I hear cicadas and the
     roosting of birds and the playing of a school song;
I pick out smells, strong yet distant: the business of a wok, the breath of dogs, the smell
     of soap, the powerful odour of earth and water.

I set off. The day is passing, and my legs lead me to nowhere and everywhere, and my
     heart refuses to settle:
Where will I take me? To which streets, and to whose lanes? Who shall I meet, and how?
     Which of my senses shall guide me?
I cut through cities, I pass by factories: I speed between stations, I trawl along highways: I
     walk through patches of forest, walk across open plains:
I navigate streams, I follow rivers: I run after clouds, plot my atlas across them: I dim the
     lights and adjust to darkness: I pick out stars, and plot my atlas once again.

It is late. I find myself back home. What use are these maps, these atlases? But there are
     steps beside my house I've never seen before; steps that lead down a grassy slope:
They bring me to a canal, threading through the backyards of houses: bamboo sways,
     swabbed by the moonlight; the curtains remain drawn, unlit from within;
I smell earth, and water; I hear cicadas, music playing; I see the balcony on which I once
     stood, from where I could see the horizon.
Where have I gone? To which places, and to whose? I have loved in ways I choose to let
     go: I am twenty, beloved and estranged, prodigal to my own heart.

7 Home
Maybe I walked too fast,
Or felt too slowly.

I'm surrounded by all these homes,
Still trying to call one my own.
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.