Featured Poem – “Nagercoil”

The spoken word scene in Singapore is diverse and lively. One of its most prominent poets is Deborah Emmanuel. SP is pleased to present her reading “Nagercoil” at the launch of The Loudmouth Series, March 2015.



by Deborah Emmanuel


Nagercoil wakes with the approach of dawn.
The sleepy streets fill fast
with the dark chocolate skinned and busy
taxi men, tradesmen and clerks rush past
uniformed school children with neat braids,
all smelling like the wonder of fresh coconut curry.
It is next to the southernmost tip of India Kanyakumari,
where the sun sets and rises,
orbs leaving a gratuitous golden glow.

100 years ago my grandparents came from there,
every breath skipping a nervous beat
in a boat rocking back and forth like a cradle,
but they couldn’t sleep
because their minds were already dancing upon land,
with unseen smells and sounds and souls,
their teeth weaving the brightly coloured threads of Nagercoil
into a fabric of words falling from their lips
on the sunny soil of Singapore.

My grandparents were teachers but cousins first,
with the same ancestors of the same dreams,
in search of a place where apples from trees
found their way onto teachers’ desks,
not the guts of hungry children,
where a family could be sowed in a big old house
from the seeds of hard work and tradition.

My grandfather was an upright man.
I think his back was straightened with the force of good,
pushing strong against wrong so he didn’t have to see it.
My grandmother would only ever wear a rustling sari made of pristine silk.
She would hold conferences in the kitchen with herself,
the beautiful sound of home a melody from her lips
her children would never recognize.


My father carries the word lightly upon his breath.
He does not long for the weight of its sounds.
He says it is difficult to savour something you do not understand,
and feel sad missing what you will never know.
Nagercoil is an unseen image to him,
the language just senseless noise
but years later I am treading upon the same soil,
muddy boots taking searching steps
backpack filled with English stories
looking for the place I belong but
the history alive in me is unable to speak,
my mouth is a temple without words of praise,
my veins are vessels without blood of my past,
because I want to say Nagercoil like it’s mine
yet I can’t.

I only speak somebody else’s language.

My grandparents came 100 years ago,
every breath skipping a nervous beat
in a boat rocking back and forth like a cradle.
On the long nights they sang a song of India,
for what was then and what would be
a fabric of words falling from their lips in Malayalam,
an heirloom I never received.


Text reprinted by permission of author. Like what you saw? You can watch other videos of Deborah Emmanuel at the newly launched poetry archive, poetry.sg.


Deborah Emmanuel

Deborah Emmanuel is a Singaporean writer, musician and actor. She has performed for Disney and TheatreWorks. Her poetry has been heard by audiences at TEDx Singapore, The Singapore Writers Festival, the Bali Emerging Writers Festival and the Queensland Poetry Festival. Her first collection When I Giggle In My Sleep was published by Red Wheelbarrow Books early 2015. She is currently finishing her next book, Rebel Rites. You can check out her dub/reggae/electro adventure with Wobology at http://www.facebook.com/wobology and her website at http://www.deborahemmanuel.com.


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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