BOEY KIM CHENG
Boey Kim Cheng is a Singapore poet who has tried to make a home in
Australia. He has four collections: Somewhere Bound(1989), Another Place
(1992) and Days of No Name(1995), After the Fire(forthcoming) and is
currently completing a book of personal essays. He teaches Creative
Writing at the University of Newcastle.
After the Fire
The man at the crematorium
brings us the tray, all that is left
after the gas jets. All that you were,
our lives in you. I wonder how much
of the ash is coffin, how much
you, how a life can be pulverised
and reduced to an urnful.
But the gravity of the man
assures me. He pieces you
together, his post-mortem
reconstructing your life.
A broken man, he says, picking
the slivers, the bits that sum up
the whole man. He wants us
to go through the pieces
to make sure you are all there.
He has a responsibility
to the living and the dead, he says,
to get it right. He starts from the base,
an anatomy lesson in Hokkien,
showing us what we didn't see
in life, where it went wrong, the rot
attacking the tibia, the fatal flaw
in the scaffolding. A smoker
and drinker, and a fracture
that never healed, he adds.
The cranium piece completes
you and the ash is poured
into the urn. He says we have to rig you up
in sequence, from the feet,
so that in afterlife, you will be upright,
standing on even feet and ground.
He knows, he is a Buddhist shaman,
a messenger between men and gods.
I take his word like sacrament,
take the jade-green stone urn,
and cradle its surprising weight.
Broken vessel when alive,
whose edges didn't fit, whose pieces
wouldn't stay, that wanted to be broken
again and again, you are now
collected in this urn that seems heavier
than the sum of its sifted contents.
I can see you in heaven
materialising from the urn,
the scraps and dust
assembled into a ladder
of bone and flesh, up
on your feet, the limp gone,
dusting the ash off,
and ready to walk
back into our lives.
My father hands me over the sampan's dipping bow
to the boatman's leathery hands sitting me in the stern;
he eases beside me and you know he is in his element.
The boat is turned, the engine gunned
and off we go over the thumping waves.
My heart heaves as the hull leaps and dips
from choppy swell to swell, and for the first time
I taste the sea, the spun salt spume spraying
our faces, the last light gilding my father's frame,
his image spectral almost, hovering.
His eyes are fixed on the distance, buoyant, free
from debts, going for the big catch. The kelong
bobs into view, a fishing outpost staked out
like an oil rig with huts and walkways,
all stakes, stilts and slats cane-lashed
and-trussed naillessly to farm
the sea. The boatman slows his craft
along the landing stage, cuts the outboard
and tosses up a rope to berth. I am relayed
by tremendous fisher hands to the dipping raft
of sun-warmed boards, trailing my father
on trembling legs up the timber planks
to the kelong compound, my head reeling
from the lurching waters
tilting the horizon end to end.
My father carries me into the hut
where I sit and find equilibrium
on a floating world of water and air.
The smell of salted fish everywhere
and through the gaps of the worn timber floor
you can see the threadwork of the tossing tides
and imagine the kelong's legs stretching
miles to the ocean bed. You feel the pulse, the tug
of the depths at the kelong frame and wonder
if it will hold. Out in the dazzle
my father is talking fish talk with the kelong men
and I see him for the first time
at home, as he is not on dry land,
at the helm of his life for once, the water
a safe distance from horses and drink.
Later I learn to trust the aerial walkways,
fit my tread to the swaying sense of things,
the planks bending but holding firm with each step
and I am walking on water, a weekend
of buoyancy with my father in the watery realm.
After a dinner of fried trevally and rice,
a Conradian moment when the owner tells
how last monsoon a storm blew this way
and lashed the kelong till it groaned and keened
and came undone. How he held to a steadfast
stake and lived to tell the tale. The voices
bob and fade above the lapping waves
and I fall into tidal sleep, the moon
dragging shoals of light across
the kaleidoscopic aquarium.
The kelong is hovering in a realm
neither water nor land, loosened
like a runaway zeppelin from the ocean's dream,
trawling nets through currents awash
with stars. I keep still beside my father,
afraid any small step may capsize
the moment, halt the slow drift to a place
that is neither up nor down, present nor past,
the certain sensation between father and son
that each lives and stays in the other.
In the middle of the dream I wake
to my father's tug and we are out
on the platform, the hurricane lamps
illuminating a theatre of catch and haul
while the sea watches in the dark.
The nets are reeled in, like a retiarius
ceiling, and there is a heaven of fish
heaving, thrashing scales, and mouths
agape in hosannas of death, all winched
and dropped on the floodlit deck.
The men fall to their fish business,
wading with buckets through the gleaming bounty
picking prawns, squid, whitebait and trevally
all kicking, the deck thrumming with last gasps;
only the jellyfish are flung back to the source.
In the morning my father shows me
a starfish and some seahorses, souvenirs
I deposit back home in a pail of water.
For weeks I will them to move,
loosed on the currents of my five-year-
old mind. They disappear like my father
into a sea where all the lost things are.
In my dream I cast about for the word
that will reel in the sea hoard in one haul:
starfish, seahorses, and my father.
So late in his life
my father starts naming the vanished places:
Buffalo Road, Robinsons,
The Arcade and Satay Club,
places now remote as the stars
in a galaxy already extinct.
He draws on his cigarette
but his breath is cold,
his voice ashen
as if he is already dead.
The night listens to the reel of names,
to the echo behind, to the blanks
in the man's geography.
I don't know if it is the dead places
calling him to come home
or my father summoning them
for a last walk. He intones
Johnson Pier, Malacca Street,
Old World, New World,
as if piecing together the alleys,
the streets and neighbourhood
of his body, reassembling
the ruined city
of his vanished self.
His cigarette has gone out
and the ash dangles.
Soon his name will be erased
like the street names
and I will take over the chant:
Raffles Place, Change Alley,
calling the dead places
and my father home.
Starting with Australia, she slides the stamps
behind the filmy strip, the album breathing
promise in its fresh gluey feel, the world
being collected and unfolding as it fills up
shelf by shelf. As her five-year-old fingers
gingerly slip the countries into place, the questions
spill out, like the stamps from an old album
I opened yesterday, forgotten pressed flowers
of a time when the world arrived
in a philatelic queue, surviving
emblems from my stamp-mad phase.
Is Australia our home?
What is this country? Why doesn't it exist
anymore? Why is the Queen's face
on the stamps of so many nations?
We finger an atlas
of vanished countries: CCCP, Yugoslavia
East Germany, Rhodesia, Malaya,
my childhood coming into place
under her learning fingers.
I remember the thrill as my fingers walked
the filmy rows, past the flora and fauna,
the faces of presidents and royalties,
gleaning a sense of a world out there
from the passage of stamps.
Those were my first travels,
transported on those serrated tokens
beyond the one-room flat
in Geylang Bahru
to the origins of those couriers.
The years of collecting culminated
in three bountiful, loaded albums
tokens that brought those countries,
their histories and languages
to my fingertips.
I want to bequeath my daughter the albums
whole, the worlds I found and arranged,
but they have diminished to this half-filled, yellowed
album, proudly marked 1973, owned
bilingually in English and Chinese.
A few stamps have slipped from their moorings
and some lodge in the wrong countries;
others like the Burmese row still sit
faithfully in place. The missing ranks lost,
like many other things,
in transit, between houses, countries
But in a strange way they are here,
all of the missing stamps and years,
the way those vanished republics
emerge in the atlas with new names,
present as my daughter picks
the last of a Singapore series
when it was still part of Malaya,
fingers the face of a youthful Elizabeth
pendant over a Chinese junk,
and slips it home.
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