Jee Leong Koh is the author of four books of poems, including _Equal to the Earth_ and _Seven Studies for a Self Portrait_ (both from Bench Press). His latest collection _The Pillow Book_ (Math Paper Press) is being translated into Japanese and the bilingual edition will be launched at The Arts House in August 2014. Born and raised in Singapore, Koh moved to New York in 2003 to study creative writing. Now he teaches English in an independent school in Manhattan, runs his own small press, and curates the website Singapore Poetry. He is the co-chair of the first-ever Singapore Literature Festival in New York, to be held in October 2014.
by Koh Jee Leong
Strange how memories cling fast to a number.
They years spent trekking from one neighbourhood
of the old housing estate to another,
never examining the route until
the road is not travelled any more.
Brief Significance inheres in loss still;
all else is commotion in Singapore.
I am astonished by the human power
to carve a home out of a concrete block,
to decorate a space, to grow a flower
in corridor gardens, to boldly dry
underclothes on public poles in heat waves.
But equally I am astonished by
how we leave our homes like so many caves.
Is this the basketball court I grew up in?
Jumping zero point, playing tua-bei-long,
one day the police, the next the thief, catching?
Watching subtly quiet girls watching me,
looking up to that big boy, delirious
with living, admiring his healthy
brown body, to the whistle oblivious?
Was it from this room I left the City
Of Destruction, carried my own burden
and struggled with myself, proud and guilty?
Was it from this woman I learn the art
of living: how to handle fork and knife
at a buffet, how to trust, how to start
a chit-chat, how to assemble a life?
Everything in me wants to say yes, settling
the claims of the past decisively, and
borrowing fresh loans to see me through, crossing
the straits on rope bridges spun from before.
Are there straight lines in life, like in poetry?
Surprising how little I feel, as doors
are closed the last time on rooms clearly empty.
Poetry must help to remember, but can a
poem generate, like a power station,
a homesickness where there is none? Or be the
gravestone to which we make our pilgrimage,
a permanent sacred relic? Can we
build in stanzas prayer rooms for old age?
Poetry, perhaps, is then necessary.