Poetry / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

Strategic Sand Reserves

by Anurak Saelaow

"Much of Singapore lies less than 50 feet above sea level. A third of the island sits around 16 feet above the water—low enough to give planners the jitters." —New York Times article dated April 20, 2017


Strange, then, for an island to fear
the pending swell of the sea,
a coming tide high enough to nix

all trace of a history. The curling
commas of beaches scribbled over
with a child's wayward hand.

From the jetty we watch the flares
arc, then scatter. Dark water
echoes their light, as if in warning,

oily streaks of red stretched out
across its surface like a sudden
grasping claw. Miles away,

huddled underneath tarps,
mounds of sand loom in wait.
I imagine stripping off and diving,

feeling the coarseness rasp
against my body. Between
my toes the nascent land sifts

and courses, shifting around
the shape of my form, yearns
to be poured into being.


From above a fringe of white coast surrounds
the island like a chalk outline, keeping

at bay the encroaching blue that laps
constantly at our ankles. From the jetty

I gaze into a puddle and find the garlanded,
wavering form of a distant uncle, his eyes

opaque in the brine. Even in darkness
his rough skin flaunts its burnish,

a constellation of marks from the furled sails
of another time. He surfaces and gurgles

like a buoy hauled inland. I lean in
and hear a voice like an ancestral foghorn:

Reclaim. I shiver like a Danish prince
even in the heat of the tropics, thinking

of the taste of saltwater filtered through
the collective mouth of a nation, a people

retching from the weight of the sea. The tip
of my uncle's nose is washed away.


Only half-waking, oceans away, can I
confront the coming depth. I dream
of scooping water off my father's face

as he lies ear-deep, buried in sand.
How he shakes and spits as brine
trickles in and the waves conduct

their slow march up the shore.
My hands are freshly raw, stinging
with salt, unable to peel back

the tide as it seeps into his nostrils,
the gasping sinkhole of his mouth.
Soon I glimpse pearly bubbles,

then nothing. Jerked awake, I think
of the haplessness of distance
and time, years used and spent

like rockets I once observed
arcing over water. My parents
encased in that steady accretion

while I bob like a lone beacon
in the Atlantic, roiling in bed,
flashing my signals back east.


To steady myself
I pour words
into dams of silt
to fortify them
like incantations:

granite basalt limestone sand
cement coral mangrove plan

minute month millennium
rope enough to un-vanish

stutter sea enough for sun
sun decade salt decade

Letters swirl on
this inky surface
like urgent
refractions of flares
I fling to home:

sing and pour, father
sing and pour

not decade delay decay decode
but expand expand expand


The water gazes on with the weight of eons. I squint but cannot tell if it is ever turning back.
Image Anurak Saelaow is a Singaporean poet and writer. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Rogue Agent, Hayden's Ferry Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Ekphrastic Review, Street Light Press, Ceriph, and elsewhere. He is the author of one chapbook, Schema (The Operating System, 2015), and holds a BA in creative writing and English from Columbia University.
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