Edwin Thumboo
Uncle Never Knew

He lived—if you could call it that—two streets off
Boat Quay north. Tranquil as leaves left in a tea cup.
Always alone but never lonely. The daily bustle
Of barge and coolie ferrying rubber, rice and spice,
All energy and profit, for towkays and Guthrie’s,
Slipped past without ripple or sound or promise.
No enterprising cleverness to make his brothers
Happy, as nothing drew him to our hot meridian.

Often after rain, he would watch the day dry out.
But if a few fine drops caught the sun and glittered
Against that thinning blue strip of northern sky,
He was back in Swatow. At his table. Preparing
Ink and brush; fingering his father’s piece of jade;
Intoning Li Po, Tu Fu, and reading Mao. Sipped tea;
Fed his carps, while waiting for his drinking friend.

Great houses are history, clan, essential unity; belief.
A way of life which brooks no breaking of fidelity.
Rooted comforts reaffirm; nothing is extinguished.
Memory is full and whole: he was ensconced; secure.
For a few it’s the only pulse. .Many need this bedrock,
This island, so little that Cheng Ho barely noticed.

Post-astral, Uncle

Stroked his undernourished beard. Spoke to clouds,
Not people. The moon climbed roofs as he waited
For glow-worms to signify the darkening bamboos.
Communing with self, he was his favorite neighbour.

He could not hear migrant hearts change rivers,
From big to a small, smelly one. Or feel dreams
Gather along Carpenter Street, then roll down Telok
Ayer, up Ang Siang Hill, to answer temple bells.
The world was hard language, felt daily, as heart,
And will, drop into soft releasing opium working
Up hungry lungs, as shadows flickered on the wall.

He never knew our age in full; had no transplanted way
To name its joys, its follies. True exile, he denied our
Home, till life do us part, in ’51, leaving companions
Marx, Engle and Mao, Lu Shun, the Li Sao, T’ao Ch’ien.

When I am by you, river, I feel Uncle watching me.
I hear much from inside his spirit, his affirmations.
Old Country stories re-surface, tell their tale.
That House I’ve never seen, tries to sketch itself.