Featured Poem

Bedok Jetty
by Jinat Rehana Begum

 

At five, I crossed the sea on a dare.
They pestered and pushed, till finally
the youngest of the tribe,
I wobbled onto the long grey finger,
sea to the left of me, sea to the right of me, sea beneath me
crashing, gnashing,
against pillars under the concrete plank,
hungry for young flesh.
Turning green, swaying sick, I turned back.

Don’t look down, bodoh! Look straight!
Cheered by brotherly support,
I edged forward,
taking comfort in tall lampposts and the long
solid metal railings that followed me,
right to the edge of the world,
right to journey’s end, till finally
I stuck a hand victoriously
between the bars of the last metal railing.
Five fat fingers feeling
sea spray and mist.
Holding in my fist
a strange new smell
of salt and fish.

At ten, I whizzed past courting couples
and old men meditating on fish,
rushing on wheels,
right to journey’s end,
right to the last bars,
to spot new ships hiding the horizon,
cargo, tanker, carrier, cruise,
all waiting under sea and sky
spread so low, so close,
I’d stick out my tongue
to taste the clouds.
Wet, salty,

Stinging the eyes,
sweat streaming down my face,
at fifteen, I gave up cycling and ran
up Lucky Heights, round Sennett estate,
under pedestrian tunnels, across the ECP,
through tangled bird sanctuaries,
dancing round cyclists, skaters and babies in prams,
dodging discarded silver tambans and knotted fishing lines,
right to the edge of the world,
right to journey’s end,
right to the final bars,
to breathe in great gulps
the old smell
of salt and fish,
to watch planes fly in and out of Changi,
to laugh
as snapper, grouper, stingray, eel,
played peek-a-boo with fresh young anglers.

At eighteen, I came with noisy friends,
to crouch on prime spots of concrete
beside benches packed with early-bird kiasus
to watch the sun slide behind tall buildings,
to giggle above the babble
at fireworks on National Day,
at trails of pink, red, white, blue, yellow, green,
lighting the ships silhouetted in the dark,
at the smoky odour of sweaty bodies, gunpowder
and barbequed chicken. And still,
to breathe the old smell
of salt and fish.

At twenty, I came
when even the ships were dark with sleep,
when only the orange glow from lampposts
and the bright white moonlight lit the night.
When only an old makcik tuning her portable radio
and her old man fighting with the knots of their flimsy tarp
disturbed the quiet.
Crossing the sea on moonlit white concrete,
I walked right to the edge of the world
right to journey’s end
to breathe the old friendly smell of salt and fish
to say goodbye
against static croons of Sayang Sayang.

And then I searched everywhere,
Crossing different seas on different piers,
for ships that hide horizons,
for silver fish skimming the waves,
for cheering friends,
for the scent of first victories,
that old smell of salt and fish.
The smell of home.

 

Reprinted by permissions of the author, editors, and publisher, “Bedok Jetty” is collected  in the anthology From Walden to Woodlands: An Anthology of Nature Poems (Ethos Books, 2015), edited by Ow Yeong Wai Kit and Muzakkir Samat, as a Singapore interfaith initiative. The poem was first published in The Straits Times National Day Supplement, 9 August 2008.

Check out the website of From Walden to Woodlands for conversations with fellow environmentalists, writers, and interfaith practitioners. Or join the book’s Facebook community to dialogue with like-minded individuals.

 

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Jinat Rehana Begum has taught Literature and English in primary, secondary and tertiary institutions in Singapore. She studied early nineteenth-century novel reception for her doctorate at the University of York and retains a fascination for the many ways readers shape writers. She began scribbling poetry on the back of used envelopes as a teenager and started to experiment with prose when she bought her first computer. Her first novel, First fires, will be published in November by Ethos Books.

 

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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