The sludge-river, sluggish in the sun, thickens,
semisolid with carcasses: fish, chicken and sometimes,
pig. Some days it spits and expels bone,
uncannily human. Then, even the impious
stroke their talismans. The monks light joss
to dispel the gathering doom. But the rot and sulphur
lingers, brining and ageing things
before their time.
The future belongs to crowds,
as it always has, and the crowd
is made ever one through the voice,
delivered in skeins of rasping silver:
be patient, forbearing and industrious.
Strengthen the unity of Malaysia.
Let us live in peace and happiness
under the divine protection of God,
the Almighty. Now bear the name
of the Prophet with pride.
God is Great.
After a breakfast of rice lengthened with water and spiked
with salt, he holds his firstborn
above the stench like an idol,
bald, grinning, loose-bellied:
a baby arhat. Gingerly, she sniffs,
unimpressed with her inheritance.
A princeling returned
to the commons, he dreams
of dynasties, entire family trees bristling
with power, every part of his name
gracing the city, his grandson
the Prime Minister.
But for now: coins clink in his pocket
and he will go to the city of fire
to buy sweets for his child,
bearer of too many hopes,
and some eggs for his beloved.
Lost names and ghost streets
the city breeds:
Kampong Soo Poo,
Nam Lock Street,
and a name in Cantonese
(eternal? southern? dragon?)
my grandparents excavate
from the sinking heap of memory.
I am unable to find it anywhere in the records.
“SABOTAGE BID ON MERDEKA BRIDGE.”
The wrong date. A flawed fuse.
Hearts sapped white by fear.
An ill wind. The missing benediction
of History herself.
A confrontation delayed, we slink back east.
(Bung Karno will have our balls.)
This bridge, falsely named Freedom, remains.
The lions stand to guard another day.
We’ll be back, have no doubt,
to blow apart this faithless, feigned state.
But today, today will just be another day
in this island’s diminishing annals.
You complain about the haze, but even then
we breathed in smoke, and more. Now: the spent fire,
exhausted, grumpily clogging our lungs,
a lingering, scratchy shroud over the city.
Then: yes, thick black soot, but also
mothballs, rotting eggs, nightsoil,
decaying flesh, the dung-scented promise
of fresh meat. Nothing like our present
homeopathy of smell.
Most of all, the fear infusing our waking
and sleeping moments,
the fear of everything kindling,
the fear of the samsengs,
the fear of sickness robbing wages,
the fear of the government,
the fear of the lack of government,
the fear that the future might unbraid
our loosely knotted joy.
The fear that all our dreams
were built on gas: ephemeral, airy,
and easy prey to flame.
All events have a secret history:
not conspiracy, refuge of idle minds,
but personality, time's own way
with each of us, the infinite
occult whispers whose echoes seem
one grave voice.
Thus, what he really remembers of that day
is the slow knotting of his calves
the abyss in his belly,
the weight of a weeping future on his clavicle
and his gasping prayer to Guanyin,
who listens to the world's cries.
Not who was fighting, and why
(even the historians demur)
not what happened after
not the sequence from there
to Separation, and a Prime Minister's tears
just the running, the foul wind
lacerating his ears, the future
melding into the general smoke.