by Toh Hsien Min
I don’t know if it was before, because
or when he first developed symptoms that
she left him. In any case, his body started
to turn to bone. His neck and shoulders flared
up, hot and red and swollen; then it spread
down his body, back to front, his own
flesh harbouring beneath the surface a coarse,
rebellious, calcifying mass that slowly
became new bone, following the same
process of skeleton formation in
an embryo. His bruises healed as bone,
his joints grew uselessly sealed. Surgeons said
more bone would grow if they were to operate.
He was seen by specialists and famed professors;
none could tender a solution, as
there was no cure; he had a strange disorder
caused by one gene broken. So he grew
more vertebrate, more blasé and more mature,
some say unfeeling also, like a stone;
but that was wrong: he felt, although he made
no bones about what life had dealt him. He
had none to remonstrate with; his DNA
had spoken, other people merely cut
him to the bone with words like knives. Years passed
that stretched out prone inside a nutshell, like
a richness of unknown longings and fears.
He could hardly move, his urgency
diminished, and his only consolation
came in needing none, accepting his fate,
not shelling out blame for having to become
a Gregor with an exoskeleton;
and in that same dwelling without desolation,
as his parents rallied round their son,
I do believe he found a perfect love.
Author’s note: The poem is based on a rare, real-life disease called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva.
Reprinted with the author’s permission, the slightly revised poem is from The Enclosure of Love, Landmark Books, Singapore.
Photo by David Liew
Toh Hsien Min has published three collections of poetry, most recently the Singapore Literature Prize-shortlisted Means To An End (Singapore, 2008). His work has also been published in periodicals such as Acumen, Atlanta Review, the London Review of Books, Poetry Salzburg Review and Staple, as well as anthologies such as the Carcanet Oxford Poets 2013 and the W.W. Norton Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. His work has been translated into Finnish, French, Italian, Russian and Spanish, and he has been invited to international literary festivals from Sweden to Australia.
In the 2013 Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry, his earlier work was described as that of “an observant traveller and inventive formalist, adept at casual rhyme, colloquial phrasing and poignant structural returns…. Means to an End… broke forcefully out of this mould in flowing O’Haraesque verse paragraphs reflecting on the enmeshed existence of the poet as a global consumer.”
Hsien Min also serves as founding editor of the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.