Featured Poem

Sub Rosa
by Yeow Kai Chai

for Roland, Earnest, Jeremy and Kumar

Tonight, unlike the first night, the moon is
Unseen, luring the seeker into a sky inked with
Riddles of God. Ascribe names to stars, trees,
White-taped plots of land swiftly laid claim to.
Here. This is where we sleep. And that’s where
They’d come without warning. All we want:
Rations from the cookhouse arriving in a three-tonner,
Kicking up much dust and necessary fuss,
Sending a stray pebble straight at a hapless knee.
Whereupon all living things, heard and hidden,
Stir in shadows of speed and interest.
This is, after all, only 1900 hours in the second
Night in a week-long military exercise off
A dirt track not marked on the map leading us…
To the sand quarry hideout for the Famous Five.
O the pits! Piqued by a molotov going off
In his head (let’s say), Roland looks up
From his newspaper to the night canvas above,
Detecting alliances shift with distance
And longing, our breath hanging on a prayer.
Clouds, of course, reply dutifully: Truth is
A paler shade of grey steeled by a whip of lightning
And an inevitable wet blanket. A rip, roar,
Then the beginning of the end. Pelting. Drizzling.
I am that private on guard assaulted by blank
But the stench of urine, and the rustle of
Sniffer dogs shopping around for improper luggage
And a love handle. Yes, please re-read messages.
Earnest doesn’t quite know (yet) when
His mobile’s battery will go flat and kill
Him in mid-sentence. Quarter past two,
You rumble from afar, promising action.
An hour ago, Sim – so quiet and nondescript
No one suspects – pleads with the heavens
To take down the tentage enmeshed
In a skein of wires and electric plugs.
So the world can start afresh with no regrets
Or masking tape. In between this reality
And that, how the Mind fools itself,
Turning bits and scraps into musique concrete:
Here, a tactical generator drones as monotone.
My future electronica on another planet.
Another white bed-sheet. What is, the only
Solace for a radio signaller nodding on
A graveyard shift. On a ripen thigh,
A lazy mozzie buzzes and sucks through
A ready-made straw, seconds stretched like
Dragon’s beard in this city of distractions.
I shall name it Buddy, and that, Lucy.
John, you’re making out news headlines
Encrypted across blackboard like testimonial:
Is victimhood self-infliction or happenstance
Drilled through thick skull? The King is
Alive. Here begins the revolution of the apolitical:
A panther’s fled the Johor zoo. Jumbo swims
Across the straits, leaving footprints in Tekong
Though it is never spotted. Yesterday’s papers
Thumbed through like the last vestiges of civilisation.
A picture speaks a thousand cliches and the streets
Of Ramallah and Philadelphia are starting to
Merge in a bullet. We are on a first-name basis
In case you’re wondering about where our
Relationship is at. Untreated, fungal flowers
Bloom across white skin like bombs dropped
From high altitude. Meanwhile, the magnificent
Posterior of the Hottentot Venus grabs him
And never lets him go. The feminist objects.
The recruit wets himself. Someone’s Britney
Ring-tone goes off. Scanned, the obituary
Is an art gallery of 24-hour people, a family tree
Of identified campadres and tenuous allegiances.
Elsewhere, the taste police are out patrolling
when Joni spots Just Ice spelled out
On a license plate on a white stretch limousine
As it drives past during the L.A. riots. There is
A tonal shift in the September nimbus
As Sumatra rages and Singapore stumbles into
The new millennium. My heart goes out to
The sentry who stands near the concertina wire
While the rain finally comes slap him senseless.
Helmet is a green corona, poncho an emperor’s cape.
His wife well-oiled. He fidgets and scratches his balls
– when he thinks no one is looking – holding
A cylum stick or a dildo for lone companionship.
Am I delirious? Luna peeps out from decorous
Grey curtain like a juicy pear skinned by Mother.
Here’s Father’s bald dome rising over that sandy hill.
O, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Everything reminds me
Of my dead dog. The plotting cloud formations
Creep up on the unsuspecting, and every rank
Has to get up and run for cover in the mandala,
And the loquacious Jeremy will finally be silenced.
Earlier, under the camouflage canopy of an M113,
The self-styled guru spills a rumour of angels
To a den of men huddled together by loneliness
And utter boredom. Spot the devil grin in the
Thick, black mushroom. Everything is a conspiracy
Theory hatched by phantom menaces as curious
Under the riddled blue. One of the listeners
Is sweet Joel, Mr Devout Christian. He’s filed away
His Chinese dialect name the day he is reborn.
Reformatted, it seems. Another contrarian
Is Chandran, everybody’s favourite Court Jester,
As funny as Chaplin and as wily as Benigni.
Yet back home he is the strict disciplinarian
His two boys fear. What’s eating you, my darling?
Every time we pass by the pitch-dark guard house
On the other side of the fence at midnight,
Did it see us? There was no indication he would do
Such a thing. Where it would be star-less in the city,
Out here in the field, the burqa raised,
And the lovers are pointing out Orion, dogs of god,
We are nothing but a bunch of reservists
United in stinky, unwashed No. 4s, munching
Sugarless donuts and bad coffee at midnight.
A week later an old Chinese man would doze off
In the empty park beside a stadium under renovation.
Heart heaving, the 20-year-old national serviceman,
Perturbed by another human’s presence,
Walks briskly past the sleeper towards the lights.
Elsewhere, under similar circumstances, a connection
Is registered and freedom spells anarchy, lives
Lost to the scorpion’s sting or revived to the rush
Of blood through arteries of forbidden love.
Sex kills. The clock reads 1.56am, give
And take a few tsunamis. On the runway,
Sunken-cheek models are wrapped in balaclavas
With Gaddafi’s keffiyeh, and the hippest
Drugstore heister headgear. Timing is everything
And naming is the first step to totalitarianism…
Push the lever and we’ll all know in a few starry
Seconds whether yours is the fatal absolution.
Pre-destinarians consider what fate has for
Non-believers or sinners, rounding up recruits
In the name of the future, the past and the present.
The character looks up and the labia minora
Swells and turns darker as it fills with Rebena.
Then a loud crash – a man has lost control of
His rickety machine. Race indeterminate, though
If you put a gun to my head, he looks Chinese.
His skin bloodless and eyes hard and unreadable.
The dogs, ears pricked, sense the earth move
Before the seismic shift a continent away.
Unbound, his package, flung onto grass patch,
Spills anthrax, talcum or some unknown
White substance (whatever you desire) rolls
like ancient tongue, waking up that silly old fart.
Tonight, the sky is black, new and beautiful.

 

Reprinted with the author’s permission, the poem appears in Pretend I’m Not Here (firstfruits publications).

 

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Yeow Kai Chai has two poetry collections, Secret Manta (2001), which was adapted from an entry shortlisted for the 1995 Singapore Literature Prize, and Pretend I’m Not Here (2006). His third collection, One to the Dark Tower Comes, is forthcoming. A co-editor of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS), he reviews music for The Straits Times.

 

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

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