Whose Time Is Next?

This is the first version of “Remembering Li, a Tienanmen Activist”, published in Radius.

(Remembering Li Wangyang, a labour activist.)

He is gone.
His manner of death
does not add up.

Who in this nation
owns the time?
Who has the final say?

Not the people. Not him –
Blinded and half deafened.
He must also be ‘made dead’.

He’s been turned into a symbol
for democratic fighting.
Even the blind can see, deaf hear.

He hanged himself.
The official would have us believe
he tied his bed sheet into a noose

and improvised his death.
Whose time is up next?
Another who is not afraid?

6 June 2012

Squirrels | Nicholas Y.B. Wong in Anomalous Press

Nicholas Y.B. Wong’s poem “From My Window” is now published in Anomalous Press. There is also a recording of it. The second and third lines of the poem particularly caught my attention: ‘no squirrels fleeing from freezing / corners with their fleecy fur during spring’. First, Nicholas uses alliteration (fl/ f/ fr) well in these lines. Second, ‘squirrels’ made me smile. Earlier, I wrote the post “Reverse déjà vu (alert: contains strong language)”, which touches on their pertinent appearance in my poem (which is subsequently published in QLRS). Obviously I am not the only one who thinks of these little creatures! The quotidian details in the second last stanza, keenly observed, also made me smile with recognition.

See Nicholas Y.B. Wong’s Cha profile.

Rhyming ‘pass’ with ‘memoirs’

Back in 2008, the partner introduced me to a song by The Lucksmiths, “The Chapter in Your Life Entitled San Francisco” (click here to listen to the song). This love song is pleasant to listen to and the story is sad in a sweet way. You know the old story: boy loves girl, girl leaves boy, boy misses girl.
I like the lyrics. The first line “Is it April yet?”, bursted out breathlessly by the singer, immediately reminds one of T.S. Eliot’s everlasting condemnation of the month. I particularly like the instances when writing (or lack of substantial writing) is mentioned: “I went a fortnight without so much as an email / Then a postcard scant of detail”. And here: “Or will I never know the meaning / Of the lines you scribbled out / So that I couldn’t read between?” This is showing, not telling. You know the boy is trying to understand the textual remains of the girl. Why? Because she is on his mind. He misses her.
And the most impressive lines are: “Should it one day come to pass / That you sit down to your memoirs”. “Memoirs” is stretched long in angst. I have never thought of rhyming “pass” with “memoirs”. I like clever rhymes (“email” and “detail” (see previous paragraph) are good too), and it is obvious that The Lucksmiths are talented with words and apparently they are also quite serious about rhymes. It was said that they spent about two years thinking of a suitable rhyme for “San Francisco”.
In the end, they chose “go”.
Well, simple is good.
I like having rhyming lines in my poems, but unfortunately I am not very good at doing that. Some publications indicate explicitly that they do not want rhyming poetry. I never fully comprehend this prejudice. 
My proudest rhyming moments in poetry, as far as I can remember, must be the following lines from a poem titled “Deceiving the World”, which was first published in Envoi in February 2007: “Words are foolish, they signify nothing. / They sing” (3rd stanza) and “My bare feet feel the centre of your chest. / You know the rest.” (5th stanza). The first stanza (A man, a woman: / Rubric of a romance.) was inspired by Professor Kerr’s analysis of Pygmalion, Shaw’s celebrated play which we were teaching the first-year students at the University of Hong Kong at the time when I composed the poem.
I wish I could come up with something as good as ‘pass’ and ‘memoirs’ in one of my future poems.



Thousands of years of devotion to the dead.
Once newly-deceased, they receive everything:
pig-tailed paper maids, Gucci bags and the latest
gadgets, such as laptops and iPads. I create
an impression of the real with inflammable
and coloured paper; but everything inevitably
turns into ashes in the unabated furnace.

I asked my father who believed that the world
could be constructed with paper, ‘We are serving
ghosts, are we not? But they will never receive
these dying ashes.’ He muttered something about
everyone ends with bones and ashes, or ashes
and bones. He was forever obscure, and single-
mindedly returned to the paper Rolex he’s holding
and added two arms to forge a fixed time.

Now burning this pair of paper scissors modelled
on his real ones, I realise perhaps he understood
the meaning of all this: what we do is more a
comfort to the irretrievably surviving. The most
enjoyable moment is when the eyes are choked
by the blinding smoke; thinking that he might
get the scissors and continue in his slow fashion,
one hand stretching to reach a paper book.

Today I am very, very happy. My favourite poem, “The Soliloquy of the Paper IPod Maker”, first written in October 2008, is finally published in the 4:3 issue of Other Poetry (p. 56). Over the years, I had put ‘MP3 Player’, ‘Kindle’, ‘Netbook’, etc. in the title. The latest version of the poem, which you can read above, contains ‘iPads’.

Winning Winchester

The publication of my very short poem “The Final Straw” in the March 2011 issue of elimae reminded me of this day-trip to Winchester. Read on and you will see why.
In March last year, we took a day trip to Winchester, a cathedral town and an ancient capital of England. Because of its history, the place is full of things to see. It also turns out to be quite an attractive little town and it was a nice place to spend a Saturday.
After we got off the train, we walked towards the city centre, passing by the huge Winchester Cathedral in which Jane Austen is buried. Along the side of the building, there is a charity book shop which raises money for the church. Like many small town second-hand book shops, you just have to leave money in a little box. We were surprised by the relatively large selection of books and many of them were in very good condition. Needless to say, I picked a couple including a history of English Literature and a book about Victoriana.
We had skipped breakfast so by this point we were getting quite hungry. We chose the Wykeham Arms. The pub has lots of character. Some of the tables in the bar are made of old school desks and there was a fire burning, welcoming the guests. However, we ate in a small room in the dining area, which was filled with Victorian paintings and prints. The food was terrific and I managed to eat a whole steak and a giant mushroom without any help from my companion.
After lunch, we walked by Jane Austen’s last home. We later learnt in the museum that Austen came to Winchester hoping to recover her health. However, within a few months, she died. From there, we walked passed the ruins of a castle; the only thing left is more or less some of the outer walls so the city has turned it into a football field. The River Itchen runs through the city near the castle and we walked along its pretty banks and over some bridges. Here, we saw two perfectly white swans, vainly grooming their feathers (see more swans here and here). One of them, pictured below, had been banded for some reason and it kept trying to remove the tag from its leg. It was such a sad sight, especially since it was clear that the tag would probably never come off. I am sure this swan was banded for a good reason but I still felt a great sympathy for the bird.
After the stroll, we returned to the cathedral and had a little rest on the grounds. There were many other people sitting there having lunch or playing games; it was very similar to what we saw in Exeter where the cathedral grounds provided a park in the middle of the city for people to hang out.
Near the cathedral is the Winchester Museum, a small but friendly institution. It is particularly aimed for families as there are lots of interactive games for kids. One item in particular stuck out: a Medieval face jug. As the name suggests, there are two faces on the body of the jug.
Lastly, we went to the Great Hall, a part of Winchester Castle from the thirteenth century. Although much of the rest of the castle is gone, the Great Hall remains. It is a huge airy room which must have been impressive in the Middle Ages. At one end of the hall is a huge table, which claims to be the Round Table of Arthur‘s Court. It turns out in fact to be not old enough to be the genuine article. Yet, it remains an imposing sight.
Underneath the table was a statue of Queen Victoria made for her Jubilee. It was interesting to see these two important British symbols together in this way. After the Great Hall, we walked back to the station and caught a train home to London as the day died. We got back home just in time to catch this beautiful sunset:

Reverse déjà vu (alert: contains strong language)

The poem alluded to in this post is now published in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.

There are two squirrels in a recent poem I wrote roaming in the garden outside the kitchen. I put them in the work not because I have actually seen them in the garden. If authenticity was my goal I could put two black-and-white cats, for they are the frequenters of that area and in fact I think they think the place is theirs, judging from the extremely defiant looks they give me whenever I catch sight of them. Or foxes. In the past two years, I have seen foxes in the garden twice. Both times, it was snowing gently and the garden was serene with a sense of expectation. The foxes stirred the quietude and stillness when they trotted from one spot to another, displaying their golden fur. They did not stay long. I would like to think that they had a secret schedule and that they had to be seen by a particular number of good people (e.g. me) before the city disowned the snow and everywhere turned ash-grey.
Back to the squirrels — living in London, of course I have seen many of them, especially in parks big and small. The squirrels here are genuinely fat and they move leisurely. It is hard to imagine that the city is doing poorly if you gauge its economy by the largeness of the squirrels’ tummies. I put two squirrels in the poem, however, not to evoke a sense of place. I remember reading some writing advice about putting ‘insignificant’ details in a piece of fiction in order to strengthen its mimesis (i.e. l’effet de réel). I admit I do that every now and then. But I cannot in all conscience dismiss the squirrels as merely some unimportant information.
To tell the truth, in my poem, the squirrels are sharers of the lonely persona’s secrets. Confined in the kitchen that she cannot really call her own (read another Kitchen poem by me here and oh for God’s sake, I know real rabbits don’t lay eggs but my rabbits weren’t real, were they?), my persona projects some of her psyche onto the squirrels outside of her window. They are futilely digging some shallow holes for some non-existent nuts. I did not think that anyone else had discussed squirrels and secrets in literature. Otherwise, I would not have put the animals in my work. This is supposed to be a secret between me and my poem. 
Consider my shock then when I read the following lines in Emily Dickinson’s poem one evening when I was really already half asleep (it must be around 4:00am), drool on both the corner of my mouth and the page:
The Pleading of the Summer—
That other Prank—of Snow—
That Cushions Mystery with Tulle,
For fear the Squirrels—know.
I sat up. I read those lines again and again and again and again. OH MY FUCKING GOD (excuse my language). DICKINSON STOLE MY SQUIRRELS. SHE TOTALLY DID!
I assure you, I have calmed down now. My using the squirrels in my own poem, I think, is a case of reverse déjà vu. I know very well this is imprecise terminology. It is okay not to correct me.

(And yes, I know I will be informed of my ignorance very soon after this blog post has been uploaded. People will send me a list of literary works with ‘squirrels’ and ‘secrets’ in them. Go on.)

ADDED in December 2011: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence” (George Eliot’s Middlemarch, chap. 20).

Written in Snow

Picture courtesy of JP.

                                         –by t

We extinguished two glasses of port,
drained the lamp,
transfigured from dressed to undressed.

Both times were revelatory.
The way you spoke then did not speak:
everything was newly sparse–
more new than sparse.

I do not remember it all, now,
what we said afterwards:
The virtues of simplified over traditional,

But we kept the blinds two-thirds drawn
and from your warm bed
we caught slivers of tree branches
in soft toques.

The snow had stopped and the road was icy
when we left. What took place already seemed hazy;
even your steadying arm around my shoulder
felt different.

Friendly people, we commented
on irrelevant things: the barber shop over there,
the dog park. Then I saw phrases fingered on cars,
unconvincingly hidden in snow. The calligrapher,
in haste, had chosen simplified.

It doesn’t matter, I guess.
New snow may fall, cover the slate.
And given time, all words melt.

This poem is now published in the March 2011 issue of Subliminal Interiors

Revisiting "For Godot"

In Fall 2008, Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Carpenter edited an anthology (3785 pages) featuring 3164 poets. McLaughlin and Carpenter did not ask any of the writers for permission to print their works. In fact, the poems attributed to the individual poets weren’t even written by them.
The anthology, needless to say, attracted much attention from the ‘featured’ writers, who were indignant, flattered or vocally indifferent. You can read some discussion on Harriet and download the PDF of the issue (3.9 MB).
Someone told me that if you are in the anthology, that means you have some sort of web presence. “How else did the ‘editors’ find you?” The poem I didn’t write was titled “A Marble” (it is on p. 3380). I rather liked ‘my’ poem, partly because it has ‘graves’ in it and they have capitalised the ‘M’ in my name.
A marble

Disconsolate crowns and monumental sealing-waxes
Grave marbles and dispiriting graves
Disconsolate as a
           diadem .
Like a diadem
                                      Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

Last night, J brought me a beautiful blue marble; it reminded me of the poem and the anthology.

One Imperative in Tokyo

One Imperative is on display in Shinjuku Station, Tokyo. The station is the world’s busiest in terms of people.

Three of my poems appear in this displayed issue of One Imperative. You can view/read the issue — themed “Play” — on their website

Proud exhibition

In May 2008, Florence Bamberger, a then second-year illustration student from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, contacted me and said she would like to illustrate some of my poems for her final-year project. In the end she chose three poems: “In a Restaurant” (inspired by a Chinese poem by my friend Ellen Lai and first published in Magma Poetry [UK]), “Minute” (first published in Muse [Hong Kong]) and “Newest, Hottest, Tallest, the Most London” (first published in Poetry NZ [New Zealand]).
Some examples:

Last night, I received an email from Florence and she told me that her Illustration-Poetry collaboration received the best mark in her class (95%) and that the project, resulting in a book, is currently exhibited along with other students’ works, in an exhibition in London until Friday 20th March 2009. If you are in London and have a moment, do go to the exhibition!
Now perhaps I can say my poetry has been exhibited in London? 🙂 Congratulations, Florence, for your good work. I am so proud of you!


Allen & Overy offices,
One Bishops Square,
London E1 6AD

*Open during office hours

This post was originally written on March 11, 2009

A handful of stone

My little poem about waiting for the train at the Charing Cross Station one afternoon in March is published on the lovely A Handful of Stones today (Tuesday 4th May, 2010). According to editor Fiona Robyn, ‘a small stone is a polished moment of paying proper attention.’

The poem has a second part, which I didn’t send to Fiona. In the second part, I imagine myself taking this miraculous train (it ‘breaks the March sun … like a devious God’) to meet a visitor who has come to London, ‘accidentally’, to meet me:

I took it to meet my accidental visitor
whose name I cannot remember but do not forget.
(What’s wrong with my name? He asked)
He visited me but was met.
I was visited but visited too.
(Nothing’s wrong. I keep it in my heart.)

I am generally intrigued by the thought that sometimes when you are visited by someone, you also need to take the effort to ‘go out’ and meet the visitor (literally and metaphorically). Indeed, both parties need to make the effort, although most only think that the person who is visiting is the ‘traveller’, the person who sacrifices. This is especially complicated if the one being visited is not really ‘at home’ where she is (she may be studying abroad?) but has to show her temporary ‘home’ to friends and family as if it is her own.

In the first part of the poem, the bewildered situation did happen in real life. Not that hard to believe, right? It is London and trains are not reliable, although I am not sure if other people also considered that single train ‘devious’. I want to convey through the experience that every journey, even an apparently small one (for example, from Charing Cross to London Bridge) could be difficult. Something unexpected could happen. Or something marvellous. Don’t take anything for granted: if your friend manages to meet you on a train platform, no matter how close that platform is to her ‘home’, applaud her. After all, she steps outside the comfort of ‘home’ to meet you. Otherwise, this may happen.
I have previously shown this poem to a friend who will be visiting me (on his way to another part of the UK) from France later this month (I will be in London then to meet him). How nice it is that the poem is published in the same month. I look forward to the meeting very much. I was also going to meet a friend from Hong Kong in June. Unfortunately, my trip back home that month means that we won’t be meeting in London.
(This post was originally written on May 4, 2010.)