Boey Kim Cheng
Boey Kim Cheng has published four collections of poetry: Somewhere-Bound, Another Place, Days of No Name and After the Fire. In 1997 he settled in Australia where he now teaches Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle. A book of personal essays called Between Stations recounting his migrant experiences and memories of the vanished Singapore will be published in 2008 by Giramondo.
weathered, indefatigable hands
that washed, sewed, cooked,
steered the family through dire straits
and kept the them orbiting around
her kitchen, her apothecary
of herbal and verbal cures.
She kept the children and children-in-law
together like thick sauce cementing
the conflicting ingredients
in a difficult dish.
* * *
Hands that I explored,
each craggy knuckle and crevice
travelled along as I lay beside her
my five-year-old body, my hand
roaming on her slumbering body
on the straw mat, riding the crest
and dip of the gentle mountain,
walking the wrinkled incline of her arms,
tugging the slack flesh at the elbows, reading
the ravines of the callused palms, the weave and cut
of her toil-and-strife-strewn life,
on her mottled skin a broken history
to be gleaned. First husband my grandfather, dead
soon after marriage, a ghost she never
talked about, except he was an educated
man, rare in the colonial days.
My father and aunt in tow, she washed
and cooked for expatriates, then
becoming a third or fourth concubine
to a shipping magnate who went bust
during the Konfrontasi
and abandoned her
with five children to raise.
The hands washed and watched
till the children had children.
* * *
My hand tied to hers, as I found
anchorage in her care.
My fingers travelled around
the jade bangle that she wore,
a wrist of deep green water
veined with milky echoes.
It cooled my hot hand
to twirl it round and round
and shimmy it up and down
the solid stem of her wrist,
a rope of emerald dream.
I tried to slip it off the vein-filigreed hand
but it was part of her, a deep vein
embedded deeper and greener
into her as the hands aged.
I trailed the ridges and the rifts of her sleeping palm,
kneaded the mound like lumpy dough.
The hands that scavenged
for scraps during the Occupation,
foraged for rice grains, sweet potatoes
like buried nuggets, hands that stayed calm
while friends were queued as targets on cliff-edge.
Hands that I clung onto
while she marketed, testing the fish
and weighing the vegetables, navigating
the slimy floor and dripping stalls
with a nose for the best meats
and prices. I loved the Teochew
and Bahasa, the glide between tongues,
the currency of haggle
and the slow passage through the wet
then weighing anchor to another stall.
* * *
In the kitchen the hands emptied
the rattan basket and fell to work;
a brisk cleaver working a staccato beat
on the solid altar
of the wooden chopping block,
then the percussive stone on mortar stone
as ginger, chillies and cloves
are worked with curry into a potent paste,
the kitchen detonating with a fragrant blast.
The hands disappeared into these deeds
and surfaced with heavenly curries
and soups, and dishes fit for a king.
When the dumpling season came
I watched those hands tuck
the bamboo leaves into cups for the sticky rice
and dollops of chestnut and pork,
seal with more rice and wrap and bind
and string from a pendant bamboo pole
in one seamless move.
Such deftly turned dumplings
you took pleasure peeling and stripping
them to numinous pyramids.
I gazed at their symmetry
and knew the love of the hands
that worked their perfection.
* * *
Then the hands started to quake,
became ghosts of themselves.
I saw little of them in their decline,
far from them in the new country.
Exiled from the kitchen, they lost
sight of the hands they once were, hands
that scrubbed, rinsed, fed and sewed
now retired, slipping away
into the place where no hands are needed.
I never made it back.
How did the hands
look in the coffin, were they
plastic as my father¡¦s, and shackled
with rosary? Did the jade
melt in death¡¦s fire?
* * *
Grandmother, I¡¦ll lay a straw mat
for us both and nestle my hand in yours.
It will sleep as it has not done for a long time
and wake to find the lost country,
the river of emerald dream
just a finger¡¦s walk away.
is discovering the sound of her name,
the new old country revealed under
her tiny preschool tentative hand.
She prints the pictogram mu,
a solid vertical stroke like a tree trunk,
a horizontal across for the arms, and a sinuous
downward branch on either side. That is
the radical for wood or tree. And on its right
she prints mei, meaning every, made up from a roof
over the pictogram for mother, mu,
with its nourishing embrace. Grafted on
the tree, it adds up to the talismanic
plum, tree and blossom.
It has been years since I have written
my true name. Watching
it appear in my daughter¡¦s wavery hand
I am rooted, the calligraphy
performing strange magic.
No longer emigrant, foreign
but recalled home, and not to the country
left behind, but further back
beyond the South Sea.
Vague lost connections
somewhere south of the Yangtze.
Karst country, paddies
and mountains the color of jade
My daughter asks why the English
transliteration is Boey and not
Mei. I am stumped.
Many Chinese names
became strange or lost
in the crossing.
How did the first Mei, arriving
with his mother tongue in the colony,
find himself rechristened
Boey? How long did it take
him to grow into the name?
Did he shed it like his queue?
Did he roll it in his mouth, taste
its foreign plosive, swallow it
whole like a ball of rice,
and spit it out Boey,
the pig-tailed coolie in the new colony?
In a few years my daughter will press
for her family history and tree
and I will have nothing more to show
than the withered branch that is
her dead grandfather. So much
buried, irretrievable. It is too late
to ask my father about his father and the father
before. Broken branches. So little history
to go on. One of the homonyms
for mei is nothing. Mei as predicate
to another character erases
that character. The same rising tone
spells bad luck
which runs in the family, it seems.
Perhaps the plum will flourish
on this soil, like the white plum
in our yard, and transplanted,
my daughter can recover
what is lost in translation.
Perhaps she already has.
Last week, at the Queen Victoria Building,
we stumbled on an exhibition
of the life of Quong Tart, the Chinese
pioneer who made it good in White
Australia. A tea merchant,
he married a Scotswoman, sang
Border ballads and wore tartan kilts;
he fed the Aborigines
and played cricket with the whites.
The catalogue printed his original
name Mei, our clan. His face,
a replica of my father¡¦s,
high cheekbones and well-shaped jaw,
had the same charming look. It was my father
made Mandarin of the Fifth Order,
costumed in silk tunic and plumed hat.
Somewhere in south-east China
the clan lived in the same village,
and broadcast rice seed
into paddies of broken skies.
Straw-hatted, they bowed
over plough and mattock,
planted in their reflections
like their name. Then news
came of richer harvests over
the South Sea, the white devils
and their burgeoning empire.
Perhaps great-grandfather sallied forth
with Quong Tart on the same junk,
and disembarked in Malaya, while Quong Tart
continued south. Perhaps they were brothers.
I see the other life my father could have had
staring out from the sepia shots,
if our forbear had travelled on
down-under. I could not explain
to my daughter the déjà vu, but her hand
was already pointing out the Mei
below Quong Tart¡¦s portrait,
the tap of the finger
wiring us, connecting us
in a tremble of recognition.
She has finally learned
the character of her name.
at the mind, we drag our depleted bellies through
late-night Chinatown, sniffing out meals
fit for gods but going for a song, no longer
confident of weathering the night
on an afternoon¡¦s meager meal.
Fowls, all preened and shellacked, beckon
like centrefolds, and the lipstick red of roasted pork
smells almost like sex. Only the prices
give our purse the pause. Reasoning our bellies
down to humbler fare, we settle on
wanton noodles, exotic to you
at a reasonable three-fifty.
While we wait, the talk of things
spiritual, of Hesse and Hamsun, of the meaning
of hunger. Then my descant on the wanton,
an exegesis on the symbolic contours
of a dumpling. You look happy
with how the word means ¡§cloud swallow¡¨
or ¡§swallowing clouds,¡¨ your last dollars spent
on something so exalted and filling
as the wanton. Then the arrival of the clouds
and we are enveloped, the talk dispersed
in the wanton heaven. Voluptuous meat wrapped
in thin veils of flour. Nothing spiritual.
Wanton is a wanton word. Still the clouds
dissolve like enlightenment¡¦s flash, flushed
down to the lower regions, leaving the bowls
looking like immaculate blue skies.
Gracing the bill are two cookies.
Yours reads: ¡§You are analytic, calm, able to reason
through the night of confusion.¡¨ All of which
we are decidedly not. Mine: ¡§Long-absent friends
are soon coming back to you.¡¨ I am happy
with that, satisfied with the belated truth
of the forecast, thankful that a friend
whom I¡¦d thought lost, held out her hand of peace
this morning. I am satisfied that the truth
will wait for us, James, in some Chinatown
ahead, that the clouds of some design
will gather us again for a wanton meal.
No better words said, no better
resolution made, than this tiny truth sealed
in flour to crown our last meal in Frisco,
before you go broke, and I head back east.
hunched in the rain,
bivouacked on a hill,
lifetimes away from home,
from what we wanted to be.
Our helmets, houseful of sores,
were poor proof against
the lashing rain. Below
a Taiwanese village drowsed
fitfully while over the ridges
and the troubled sea
the other China waited.
You took your helmet off,
inverted it and gingerly shook
the last cigarette out
from a waterproof pouch.
The dark flinched for a spell;
our hearts warmed to see
the trick work.
It was a solitary joy
in our damp universe,
miracle we drew on,
taking turns, prolonging
each tendril of peace.
Marched out of the cold
down separate ways, we wear
different headaches now, wear
out new weathers. These days,
when I tire, I sit and wait,
listening for the strike
of a match, when evening falls,
and feel between my lips
a proffered cigarette.
In the exhibition poster stands J.S. Bach,
dusty and grimed, but unbroken, unscathed,
in a poise graceful, his air baroque,
as if the bombardiers wanted him saved
and sound, his lofty airs singing in their heads
as they unleashed the bombs to severe life¡¦s frail threads.
Alone he stands, lord of the rubble world
unperturbed, his heart the stone his body
is, his wig secure, his vision unblurred,
but oblivious to the century¡¦s cacophony,
to music assembled out of broken things,
to sounds made with hands on barbed strings.
Intrigued by the poster¡¦s jarring notes,
wondering who, the day after, with steady hands
could hold a camera with unshattered lens
to record how Bach survived the shots
while Leipzig toppled like a house of cards
in God¡¦s unerring sights, I join the weihnachtmarkt¡¦s
jovial throng. Another Christmas, post-Berlin Wall.
A season of forgetting and remembering
marked in the east by signs of renewal,
as sunken monuments rise again, and those standing
now look respectable and clean. But Bach still wears a smear,
though the cathedral behind has a new veneer.
Verwendungen is the exhibition¡¦s stark title
staring from the new town hall. On the balcony
four old men grind sad tunes, a reminder
in the festive air of Leipzig¡¦s past agony.
Turning from the carnival I climb the winding stair
eager to learn the history written there.
Scenes of before and after lead the tourist¡¦s walk
from Leipzig¡¦s baroque bloom to the Weimar¡¦s cabaret days,
coming round slowly to the hour of shock
when truth and beauty crumbled in the blaze.
Whole streets lost their names in the eye¡¦s wink.
A charred child and doll make even post-Auschwitz men think.
After the Nazi parades on the wide screens
and the Führer¡¦s tempestuous speech,
I read an account of a girl in late teens,
how on her birthday she went to teach
and came home to four corpses in their seats
ready to spring on her the birthday treats.
Then a battered door on which is etched
the silent screams of one who lived it bomb by bomb;
each day of rage, each siren cry in detached
cuts in wood. A door whose house is now gone,
preserved like the shells for public eyes,
tells the tale better than art which often lies.
A little shell-shocked I rejoin the Christmas throng.
Seeing Bach there I understand the faith
of one who said Music is beyond bombs after a Grieg song
performed while the rounds on Sarajevo rained, though in truth
trumpets have also brought walls tumbling down
and at the world¡¦s end again shall be blown.
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