Special Focus on Justin Chin – “Poison”

This is the second part of our “Special Focus” on Justin Chin. The series highlights an important aspect of the work of an established Singapore author. You can read Part 1, Justin Chin’s “Buffed Fag,” here.

Poet, fictionist, essayist, and performance artist, Justin Chin told the truth as he saw it in its defiant and risky–human, in short–contradictions. He could also be very tender in his writings. Chin was born in Kuantan, Malaysia, in 1969, to a father who was the first in his family to go to college and become a doctor. Dr. Chin then opened a small clinic, which his wife helped run. Justin wrote many poems about his father (he wrote more about his mother in prose, and about his aunt, who brought him up in Singapore “by hand,” as Pip from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations says of his abusive upbringing by his sister). At the clinic in a small town surrounded by tropical jungle and suffused with age-old superstitions, the young Justin learned what a miracle medicine was to the sick, the injured, and the desperate. The hope for a cure, learned at his father’s hands, would turn tragic in the AIDS epidemic, into which Justin was plunged when he moved to San Francisco in 1990. The poem “Poison,” featured here, was collected in his second book of poems Harmless Medicine (2001), which was dedicated in memoriam to four of his friends. Justin would go on to write what is probably his most moving book, about tending to his dying father, the Lambda Literary Awards finalist Gutted (2006).


6. Justin lying down

Photograph provided by Dave Thomson.


Justin Chin died in December 2015 at the age of 46. Much beloved in San Francisco, Chin’s friends and fans remembered him in a special tribute, organized by Radar Productions, held in January 2016 at the San Francisco Public Library. This July, a memorial reading of his works will be held in Singapore on Saturday, July 23. For details, please email jeeleong.koh@gmail.com.



by Justin Chin


Four men carry one,
each holding a limb,
wife trailing crying:
bit by a scorpion;

the evil culprit,
black in a jam jar,
rattles against glass.

Poison in the blood,
no feeling in arms and legs.

On the surgical table,
my father strategically
inserts seven fine
needles, newly acquired
acupuncture skills from Taiwan.

Soon, the man walks shakily,
slight limp out of the clinic.

Maybe there was more,
I’m sure there was more
to it than that,
but an eight-year-old boy
in pajamas and slippers
killing time
in his parents’ workplace,

discovers that

xxxx(and it marks him
xxxxfor the rest of his life)

there is a cure
for poison in the blood

put there by scorpions,
snakes, spiders, centipedes
and demons.

xxxxAnd for a while,
the fatal, cancerous
world that spins
towards hell and destruction
slows its revolution,

and there is more
xxxxday and more night.


9.3 Harmless Medicine









“Poison” from Harmless Medicine (Manic D Press: San Francisco) © 2001 by Justin Chin. Used with permission of publisher.

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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