Born in Malacca in 1941, Salleh spent ten years Down Under
as one of the last Colombo Plan Scholars. But instead of
studying, he got married to a fellow student in his first year
at the University of Adelaide. His in-laws disapproved, so
the couple moved to Hobart where Salleh became a student
of one of Australia's major poets, James McAuley, at the
University of Tasmania. He returned to Malaysia in 1973 to
lecture in English Literature at Universiti Malaya, but quit in
1983 to become a freelance scribbler, actor and translator.
His first book was the bilingual poetry collection, Sajak-
Sajak Saleh: Poems Sacred and Profane
(Teks, 1987). It was
followed by As I Please (Skoob, 1994) and Nothing Is Sacred
(Maya Press, 2003), which were compilations of his popular
New Straits Times column, the poetry book Adam's Dream
(Silverfish, 2007), and the play The Amok of Mat Solo
(Silverfish, 2011). He died in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2020.

'...and We know
what his soul whispereth to him,
and We are nearer to him than the
jugular vein.'
- The Glorious Qur'an, Qaf. 16
(Translated by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall)

Moments that peeled my awareness
were the times I remember you best:
mornings in autumn, your gaiety dissolving
the secret tension of light and air,
lithely lisping the magic of your name
into the smell of each falling leaf
that clung to your hair.

One such morning remains
the clearest of all,
like a thin slant of light
in a dark musty hall.

That morning the current of air
touched your bone.

You were standing on the slope of the path,
your feet anchored to a mass of leaves,
clinging damply to the earth.
You saw me off with a sticky kiss,
sensing your moment in the slant of light,
your bewildered voice lisping a wish
I couldn't hear.

I jumped over the fence
and left your voice to freeze
in the light.

Two hours later,
a casual voiec clinically declared:
'Your child is dead.'

Now you are dead, I want to dream
your physicality
back into this house
in which you hardly lived.
Defiantly, I filled the rooms
with your laughing faces, defiling
the ritual of denial
I'd been taught to observed.
Discreetness of absence my Ria
cannot be,
in the space that was your hair
between darkness and light,
in the trace of your breath
that my tongue must retrace.
I can smell your body still
in the thick mohair rug,
my tactile little darling,
you learnt the rub of things
with the feel of fur
on your cheeks.
Your butterfly kisses
on the side of my neck,
on my scarred ageless face,
taught me the joy you felt
in the fact of the senses.
Tauntingly physical
was your being,
testing mine and the world's
with dark trembling lashes;
that queer left eye
(faulty delivery, that doctor said)
fluttering more than the other
the lashes of your joy in my joy
in your realness.

You were nearer to me, my Ria,
than my own jugular vein.

At times, your alertness
quickened my sense
of futility—
as when, puzzled
by my burning life away,
you made a wild lunge
and singed the lash
of your troubled eye.
At times, your alertness
quickened my sense
of what you meant—
as when, heady
with knowing curiosity
you somersaulted on to our love—
spent bodies,
your crazy nose triumphantly sniffing
the smell of rancid honeyed cheese
through screwed-up sheets.

The room seemed suspended
in the haze of the sea,
the light a blend of dusk and dawn.
You were sitting on the edge of my bed,
in which so many needs
were hurriedly buried,
in which so many betrayals
were joyfully consummated,
true to the sterile sensuality
of this time, of this place.
It all seemed part of a floating world,
the still silent sea below;
your child face aged,
your legs casually crossed,
the way you crossed them
when you parodied my pretence
of being a man.
Grace was yours, meaning was yours,
as you shook the clipped vines of your hair
over the floating form of another self;
no bitterness, all sweetness,
as you breathed a breath of spring
along the slant of autumn light,
stirring the presence of warmth
in the chilly dullness of the air.
It was a dream so physical
I woke up to the feel of your breath,
your sister kneeling by your side,
her breezy greeting riding the light,
the moment of your name alive
in those honeyed eyes
staring in the sun.

Joy means your name Ria
in the tongue of your blood,
a tongue I must learn again
to sing the mystery of our pain.

Be with me my Ria
in the sheer light
of my old sun.

Sandy Bay

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