TOH HSIEN MIN
Toh Hsien Min is the author of two collections of poetry, Iambus (1994) and
The Enclosure of Love (2001), and the editor of the Quarterly Literary Review
Singapore (www.qlrs.com). His work has also been published in periodicals
such as Acumen, Atlanta Review, Cider Press Review, London Magazine, the
London Review of Books and Oxford Poetry. Hsien Min has also read at the
Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Queensland Poetry Festival.
As my dad used to say whenever he
thought we were spending all his thrift,
do you think I print money? I didn't really
know at that time whether to take him seriously.
I mean, I was six, maybe seven. My concept of
money extended to what I got for wanton mee
at school recess only, and everything else I
asked for knowing who would give it but not
what this person would do to give it to me.
One December, shopping at Isetan, he pretended
to refuse to buy me a die-cast Millennium Falcon,
and when I returned to that special aisle and shelf
in the toy department the last one was gone,
the absent shrine of a forgetful grief. My dad
unwrapped it, under the tree, for a boy who
still believed Santa Claus came down the chimney,
even though we had no chimney. Dad believed
in the deserts of hard work, years and years
with the same employer, saving money by
fixing the blinds and electrical extensions himself.
Never quite recovered when his firm let him go,
three years before retirement age. Now that I've aged
also, and the difference between a good year
and a bad year is a greenback hedge, I know.
My dad doesn't print money, but someone out there
does. It all revolves on being on the right side
of that ocean-equation, whether you're holding Treasuries
and knowing how to deploy the funds you haven't got.
Someone's got to lose, just as somewhere in the world
the stratonimbus plan a margin-call, and elsewhere
beneath molten sky unwearied Namibians speak again
of the season of dry water, stretching endlessly
before them, shimmering like silver, one remove
from the hardtack stop-loss of the ground,
that forgiving, unnourished, ageless ground.
Late, and the cab driver not catching Tan Son Nhat
International Airport, meant it was time for charades:
I stuck both hands flat out on either side and made
the airy edge of a whisper. If he understood
he yet kept tailing a garbage truck, and our having
to be at check-in within twenty minutes left no time
for cross-linguistic debate and failures to follow
instructions to overtake. The Vietnamese can be
sticklers for procedure, and we had to present ourselves
at the appropriate time. It brought to mind how
for a brief spell in the year of my birth, Saigon possessed
the second busiest airport in the world. Hard as it had been,
from the perspective of the Majestic Hotel, overlooking
the rooftops of the city, to fully comprehend how
this has also been one of the tragic cities of the world,
like Troy, Constantinople and Nanking, when the intrusion
of a 4,000 TEU container vessel ploughing serenely up
the Saigon River could warn only of the terror of commerce,
we ask for grace and mercy that this will not be our lot,
but we know that if we had to start over we could renew
ourselves in quite the same way: grabbing at heart,
butter in mouth, stern in spirit. All these people crowding
the departure hall weren't yet fighting to get out,
and when I paid the fare and got our baggage onto the trolley
it was as though we were the all-but-conquered,
fleeing to where our safety could be guaranteed
for as long as we could be only waiting for the siege.
Chicken Catches The Flu
I'm going to keep
very, very quiet
about it, pop
and hope it all
goes away, because
your kids think I come
from a supermarket,
and for you I
ruffle feathers in
prison, or, worse,
the run of the roost,
the open air.
You do not see
my seashell collection,
my bank records,
the typing of emails
to my Thai cousins,
and my trio of feed
at our careful dinner
parties. I know
you've got your eye
on me, each time
I cluck with displeasure.
No one's egging me on:
to say that grain of
truth, you do not
cull your own
when they fall ill,
needs more than pluck.
It worries me to death.
It worries you to murder,
so I'll fold away
and hope you do not
notice the spittle
drying on your
In seven years' time there will be
Not one cell in my body that will hold
The faintest, fleeting, first-hand memory
Of you. As the surviving cells grow old
And die, so will you cease to live in me.
Your worm should vanish from my broken pith.
And yet I fear that I shall not be free,
That you will turn from history to myth.
It will pass on from cell to newborn cell:
That golden age, when everything was good.
The streets were paved with oxygen, the food
Was plentiful and birdsong graced the air.
New cells will sculpt the myth: Never so well!
Never so well! Would that we were there!
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