Saturday, December 27, 2008

Poem: Lachine Canal, Montreal

Lachine Canal, Montreal

To China through the northwest corridor,
through blasted passages, ice crusted tides,
xxxto reach the dragon guarded shore,
the argosy of afternoon light rides

and disappears. Upriver, the fur trade
boomed, and busted land agreements reached
xxxby bog trappers and royal maids
whose children pedal down in boats and, beached,

sleep singly or in twos. In my head, grass,
green toothpicks, pricks the back of my eyelids
xxxto picture this carnal bypass
aslant the clenched black rocks spitting rapids.

Bright Admiral, my expeditious force,
command this rented tandem kayak, share
xxxan hour of my eunuch course,
unscroll us through white arches of the air.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Poem: Taproot


His words desert him this morning for downtown Manhattan,
carrying briefcases, newspapers and coffee. They do not speak
to each other. They’re thinking of memos, faxes and phonecalls.
They do not look at him, a Chinese wetback waiting to be picked
for a day’s work. Tiny jaws gnaw at him and he wants Matt.
The spotted knapweed migrates fast,
decimating the bluebunch wheat grass.
You can identify it by its pink blooms
in black mottled bracts on stem tips.
He hurries past fat black women prodding snappers which gape
on beds of ice, past the row of crones blistering next to their red
talismans and Iching hexagrams, their faces cracked
like parched ground, past the old men hunched over their paper
chessboards, rolling a cannon across the river or retreating an elephant.
Small populations can be uprooted
by digging and pulling. If they’re established,
spray Picloram at point five pounds
per acre when the plant is a bud.
He passes a boy practicing a Yao Ming hookshot seen on TV,
two young men outside Kowloon Trading stacking empty crates
into a van, the New Land Arcade that squats a quarterblock
and catches the eye with its tall, electrified gold letterings,
and clones of knickknack shops that claim Little Italy.
The weed is not just hungrier. Its taproot
secretes catechin which triggers natives
to kill their own cells. It is not just lean,
as one scientist puts it, but mean.
He plunges, two steps at a time, into Canal Street Station.
In the car’s electric lighting, he looks for Matt
in the young white men and lurches into them. The train shrieks.
Fulton Street. The grid has crazed into a maze deadended
by tower blocks, to be traced with the red thread of a previous visit.
Trials are being carried out
to determine if bioagents work.
The weevil is a candidate. A species
of seedhead gallflies looks promising.
He pulls Matt, word made flesh, out of his standard chair, out
of the office and its mite dusted carpet into the men’s and locks
their mouths. He works his man’s belt loose and turns him
round. Matt pulls his tan shirt over his head and arms. The tenant bends
over his white boy’s blue veined torso. This is also his farm.


Putting Down Taproot

For some reason I thought I should imbibe some science while feasting on graduate writing workshops. At informal weekly seminars, in the spirit of continuous learning, the science faculty was giving brief talks on a subject out of their field of specialization. The talks were open to all. They attracted a modest but devoted audience, not a bad showing for a small liberal arts college. The free pizza might have helped too.

Was it a physicist or a chemist who spoke about the spotted knapweed? I don’t remember. It was a woman who found a new weed while gardening, and went online to find out more. I followed her lead.

My research turned up university and state department websites aimed at American farmers. The websites, with titles like Idaho’s Noxious Weeds or Invasive Plants of Wisconsin, were similarly organized: Description, Prevention, Management. Having just arrived in the States, and hoping to find love and work here, I was sensitive to the characterization of the spotted knapweed as an alien threat to native plants. The language of the description, so eerily similar on the sites, started me thinking about what makes a plant a weed, and what makes it a crop. Human needs, yes, food, clothing, shelter. But also cultivation, which necessarily implies human culture. The difference between weed and crop is, in a significant sense, a cultural distinction.

As I was writing at that time a series of historical persona poems, I tried to stuff the knapweed into the mouth of a straw man, the first three stanzas of which went like this:

An Immigration Official Speaks on Pest Control

The spotted knapweed has dispersed from ten
counties to three hundred and twenty-six,
reducing the bluebunch wheat
grass and re-routing the elks.
Thirty-five states index it an invader.

You can identify it by its pink
to purple flowers, at times white, settling in stiff,
black-mottled bracts
on tips of terminal stems.
It winters in a rosette of deeply lobed leaves.

From central Europe, Russia and western Siberia,
this Eurasian weed arrived in discarded soil
used as ship ballast.
Riding on undercarriages,
it migrates along highways, railway tracks, utility lines.

Overrun by the weed of excitement, I took the draft to my writing class, as well as submit it for critique @ Poetry-Free-For-All, an online poetry workshop. The draft was justly torn apart. Neither dramatic nor a monologue, it was, as Ted from PFFA nailed it, “a book report.” Its polemic was self-righteous and unimaginative; it does not question itself.

A PFFA exercise stimulated an overhaul. Challenged to write a poem with a mixture of different styles, I thought of weaving a personal narrative through the knapweed rhetoric, in alternate stanzas. I did not merely want to put a face to the debate, as immigration advocates would say, I wanted to speak of my desires—to write, to love, to take root—fierce desires that seemed to justify anti-immigration fears.

A narrative would also give a shape, a momentum to the poem, in this instance, the shape and momentum of a journey through lower Manhattan that climaxes in a reversal of stereotypes, in an Asian penetrating a white man. I was only vaguely aware of what I know now: the men I want to fuck are men I really like, and so, the apparent act of possession is, for me, also one of surrender. The clues to this lay in the last three stanzas of my next big draft:

In the train’s electric lighting, he searches for Matt
in the young white men and loves each one. The train sings.
33rd Street. He comes up for air, and wades
to the tower block. Stopped by a dark-suit,
he scribbles his name, number and address at the front desk.

Small populations can be uprooted. If not, spray Picloram
but not near streams. Experiments are on-going to determine if
bio-agents work. A species of seed-head attack flies seems promising.

He sees Matt hunkered down in his trench. He pulls
the fighter out of his chair, out of the white office, out of
sight, into the bathroom, and closes his sphincter-
mouth on his mouth. He works Matt’s belt loose and turns him
round. Matt puts a leg up on the china bowl. He grips
the shaft of Matt’s torso and plants his rice. This is also his farm.

The writing was still rough, but the two different styles, underlined by different stanza sizes, played off each other nicely, as Harry, Searcher and Autumn @ PFFA helpfully confirmed. Harry also suggested replacing “seed-head attack flies” with “seed-head gallflies” to lower the noise volume, a suggestion I accepted immediately.

Having banged down the slats of the narrative, I examined the selection of details in the poem. The knapweed stanzas still felt too prosaic and choked. I did not think of writing them in prose; the next thing that overran my field of attention was Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.” Also a poem that deploys two different styles, it accentuates the distinction through different line lengths.

xxxxxShe looked over his shoulder
xxxxxxxxFor vines and olive trees,
xxxxxMarble well-governed cities,
xxxxxxxxAnd shapes upon untamed seas,
xxxxxBut there on the shining metal
xxxxxxxxHis hands had put instead
xxxxxAn artificial wilderness
xxxxxxxxAnd a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
xxxNo blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
xxxYet, congregated on its blankness, stood
xxxAn unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

(from the opening of “The Shield of Achilles”)

The song measure orchestrates phrase and line, giving the story of Thetis and Hephaestos the appropriate classical grace and gravity. Though my poem was non-metrical, I thought I could lighten the knapweed stanzas by using shorter lines. Shortening the lines required weeding the stanzas, a very good thing as it turned out. I reworked the 3-line stanzas into quatrains, with one phrase to each line, and with a shift in the middle of the quatrain, like that of Auden’s octet. For instance, the first two knapweed stanzas:

The spotted knapweed has migrated to three hundred
and twenty-six counties, reducing the bluebunch wheat
grass and re-routing the elks. Forty states index it an invader.

The weed winters in a rosette of deeply lobed leaves.
You can identify it in summer by its pink to purple
blooms in stiff, black mottled bracts on stem tips.

became in the revision:

The spotted knapweed migrates fast,
decimating the bluebunch wheat grass.
You can identify it by its pink blooms
in black-mottled bracts on stem tips.

The stanza moves more quickly, at a speed more suggestive of the weed’s dispersal, and of the speaker’s panic. When I posted the revised poem @ PFFA, romac agreed with Lola Two’s assessment that “the italicized conceit is carefully phrased (it could easily have lapsed into textbook prose) and effective. An excellent example of ironic illustration.”

And yet. And yet. What if prose is the right form for the knapweed material which, after all, is written that way on all those university and state department websites? What if my revision of the knapweed stanzas was based on the wrong diagnosis of the problem? What if my creative writing teacher was right, the knapweed stanzas are overly intellectualized and emotionally manipulative, and should be removed? The field of possibilities. To turn once more to the conceit, how does one distinguish between crop and weed? The published poem once fed, clothed and sheltered me. It will not do now, but perhaps it may for someone else. Pizza, anyone?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Poem: What's Left

A day late, but here's the next installment from the book. The poem ends the first section, somewhat ceremonially.

What’s Left
to my father

Some things leave us like a sigh. Your father,
puffing out his chest, with no fanfare,
walked out on your family for another.

When he returned to live off you and mother,
he filled our two room flat with his sour air.
Some things should leave us: a sigh like your father.

No one among your seven sisters and brothers
would take him in. For ten years, you took care
to leave him alone polishing, one after another,

his walking trophies—applying wax to smother
the golden tokens while listening in his chair
for something. Leaving us sighing, your father

tuned his battered radio to a voice farther
than yours, not once asking his son to repair
what’s left or trade the set in for another.

His funeral rounded up your sisters and brothers.
The women wailed. You were the only heir
of something leaving, like a sigh. Your father.

-First published in Crab Orchard Review.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Poem: Floor Tiling

Floor Tiling

We needed something to cover the naked floor,
delighted though we were with the concrete space,
having moved from a box shared by four families.

When Eighth Aunt was throwing out her linoleum
tiles, Father rushed us to her house. I carted
stacks of light and dark brown squares to the taxi.

With no plan in mind, Father tore the paper off
and stuck a tile in a corner of the floor. Stripes
lined up with horizontal stripes he improvised

before Mother suggested an alternating pattern,
a prettier line. By then, too many tiles were stuck
down. As a compromise, two designs coexisted.

We covered their room with light brown which ran
out, so the last four squares were the darker shade.
Tiles crawled out of line because of earlier mistakes.

Afterwards, faults in the floor, laughed over in
the fit of work, widened into permanent fissures.
That came later. When I pressed the last tile down,

Father walked out to the corridor to smoke and stared
through the doorway at the work. Then he went off
for a drink. I did not sleep until I heard him come in.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Poem: Swimming Lesson

Swimming Lesson

Like shiny well fed seals, two squealing boys
fought, over nothing, arm thrashing against
gold arm, spending their health extravagantly.
One dunked the other, held him down, arms tensed.

Their swimming coach, a man in his late fifties,
rose up beside them, water sluicing down
his sedimental torso. When he yelled
for them to stop and rapped one on the crown,

the rebel stuck out his tongue like a finger,
the other dived and slapped his own backside.
The coach threatened to tell their dads—they laughed—
and not continue teaching them, he lied.

They’d not have mocked him in those sunstreaked days
spent crawling long, interminable laps
under the watchful eye of champion trainers;
those breathless mornings when the colored caps

are stretched so taut they seemed ready to leap
off the block; the gunshots. He shook his head.
Squinting into the sun, he saw the glare
of light, the air, and something, somewhere, dead.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 7

1. The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity
2. The Scholar Minister Gives Career Advice
3. The Emperor's Male Favorite Waits Up for Him
4. The Taoist Magician's Last Address
5. He Bids His Brotherly Lover Farewell
6. The Connoisseur Inspects the Boys

7. Hungry Ghosts

My father took me picnicking in Hell
in Tiger Balm Gardens when I turned five.
Horseface and Oxhead flanked the door to quell

tourists, returning ghosts, recaptured live.
Small spectator of retribution’s drama,
I shuffled through the dark; I’d rather dive

in and out but the crowd before King Yama
passed as if shackled by the chains of crime.
Father explained to me the law of Karma

while a mirror screened a whole lifetime
in a flash. Jostled into Court One, I balked
at heads and arms and legs, in bloody mime,

stuck out from under giant slabs of rock,
impossible to tell which limb belonged
to which gory head on the granite block

(Father said, Unfilial boys, they wronged
their parents who gave them everything);
into Court Two where sinners had their tongues

pierced by long knives for lifelong gossiping;
in Three, the greedy were handcuffed and whipped;
the tax evaders, in Court Four, drowning;

one body blurred into another, stripped
of eyes or bowel, heart torn out with a hook,
and on a hill of swords a traitor was flipped.

It wasn’t me. It wouldn’t be. I shook
as if my bones, and not that man’s, were scraped
by sharpeners, for writing a dirty book,

my butt, and not his, by a spear tip raped.
Expecting the worst horror in Court Ten,
I imagined punishments nightmare shaped.

A blue wheel, painted on the back of the den,
displayed the paths for the purged souls’ rebirth
as insects, fish, birds, animals or men

depending on each individual’s worth.
The worst are born as hungry ghosts, Father said
and strode ahead of me out from the earth.

Under a raintree’s shade, he laid out bread,
ham, apple juice. I still didn’t feel well.
Eat. Don’t waste food, Father said. We fed.


I’m turning thirtyfive today at Soul
Mountain, Connecticut, USA,
a Writing Resident on foreign dole.

Winston is coming up for my birthday.
I’m walking with a black dyke poet called
Venus, along the river’s snowpacked way.

I tell her, smiling, I must have been installed
as an emperor’s favorite boy in a past life
after I schemed to pleasure those blue balled.

I was a Taoist priest who left his wife
for Mount Tai to achieve immortal fire.
Such hunger turns fruit to flame, nuts to knives.

I tell her my book rises on dammed desire,
a book my father would have called dirty.
Last summer, tired of being damned a liar,

I stopped Father from switching on the TV
and announced to my parents I am gay.
I talked too much. He didn’t look at me.

When I wound down, he mumbled, It’s okay,
and flicked the TV switch. In bed, that night,
he consoled Mother that every family prays

a secret sutra that is hard to recite—
a crippled son, retard or murderer.
Mother repeated to me his insight.

He treated Winston to a satay dinner
at Lau Pa Sat and tried to make small talk.
He has not asked me about him ever.

The air nips us. Venus cuts short her walk
and retreats indoors to make a late breakfast.
I’m left standing beside the golden stalks

of cattails tall as I am, gazing across
the river to trees branching spears and barbs.
A deer noses the brown scrub. Then a burst

of knocking, from the thicket, the smart stabs
of a woodpecker tapping in a bowl
of bark. I should go. Winston’s coming up.

*First published in Boxcar Poetry Review.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 6

1. The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity
2. The Scholar Minister Gives Career Advice
3. The Emperor's Male Favorite Waits Up for Him
4. The Taoist Magician's Last Address
5. He Bids His Brotherly Lover Farewell

6. The Connoisseur Inspects the Boys

My source informs me you’ve acquired a catch
of boys to staff Happy Establishment.
Yes, one may find a peony in a shithole—
quite right, I have a discriminating nose.

Not for me, or my friend here, the common flower
roll in the Precious Mirror, well known boys
cultivated to sing, dance, and recite
Shakespeare to welcome, please, the foreign devils.

They are no longer Chinese in the most
vital sense of the word. Not virginal.
To be premature is to be perfect, you agree,
my friend? The wisdom of both East and West.

No locals I hope. They are like spit on the street,
everywhere. This boy from Anhui? Clean
and smooth skinned as Baiji river dolphins.
They swim apart yet surface together for air.

Observe the purple blot on the other’s neck,
the way it throws his bloom into relief.
So a defile makes a Guizhou rock sublime
and one never tires of admiring it.

Rarer still—an unspoiled Uygur just arrived
from Xinjiang. See, friend, how his thighs whipcord
as we speak of him. Centuries of horse riding
over highlands and deserts. A good mount.

You are embarrassed by my frank comments.
I will desist. See anything you fancy?
Your eyes have not strayed from that Shandong boy
since we came in. Your flush is very becoming.

Tonight I will break in that Uygur foal.
An opium pipe for you too, I presume?
Opium delays the rain for a longer sport
among the clouds, as the Chinese have learned.

Sir, open up your ports, one for the young
Singaporean ship of state, the other
for old Europe, and bill to my account
all expenses—Winkelmann, two “n”s to “man.”

*First published in Crate.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 5

1. The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity
2. The Scholar Minister Gives Career Advice
3. The Emperor's Male Favorite Waits Up for Him
4. The Taoist Magician's Last Address

5. He Bids His Brotherly Lover Farewell

Drained, you crawl up my flank and hear the flood
subside. This light on us is of the moon.
Again you ask me to explain love’s well spring
at Kuanyin Temple lucky for rain prayers.

When you strode to the altar, how the men stared
at your unblemished skin, your torso snared
in a much mended jacket made of goat.
The gods desired you, even the Jade Emperor.

Of all the powdered faces there, you spoke
to the plainest. Can you explain why? No?
Nor can I. Mother drank your cup of tea
and liked you, loved you like another son.

In that year, Xuanzong abdicated breath
and his son’s reign inaugurated our days
of picking pekoe leaves on rippling slopes
and nights of sipping tea. A week of years.

Don’t forget the presents for your bride.
I’ve packed and left them on the kang for you.
She’s gentle, pretty, with childbearing hips.
Your fathers must have sons to sacrifice

at the ancestral altar, offer meat
and wine, or else their ghosts get hungry.
As the dead sage dictates, a ruler should
be a ruler, a father father, a son son.

I’ve done my duty by you. I can do
no more. Oh, how pathetic that sounds!
I’m turning woman, so no more of this.
See, passion is a tide. My body’s dried.


Saturday, November 1, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 4

1. The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity
2. The Scholar Minister Gives Career Advice
3. The Emperor's Male Favorite Waits Up for Him

4. The Taoist Magician’s Last Address

My followers, I am about to turn immortal.
After ingesting cinnabar for years,
I’ll soon become like Princely Qiao and Song.

You know the costs, I have spoken of them,
when I was stricken by the longing to live,
how longing broke and drove me out of me—

resigned from lucrative town temple posts,
slept in a different bedroom from my wife,
and even sent away the serving boy.

When lust sneaked past the bodyguards yet again,
I ran away to live in mountain caves,
ate aerial roots, blue stamens and stone ears.

The Master of the Bamboo Grove is right,
the musk deer grows fragrant from eating cedar
and so I drained my body of its swamp.

You know how many come to mock my work.
Armed with their science and senses, they joke,
“Immortals must be good at lying low!”

They see the worms on cusps of lips and think
death is the common lot. The fools! The fools!
To eke one living from the land and ache

over the scrimped allotment! So I leave
them to their fate and ready mine for change.
The thorny limebush crosses the Huai River…

et cetera. I bequeath to you my scrolls.
Practice your breathing every dawn and dusk
and rest early. Preserve your energy.

Remember: don’t nail shut my coffin lid
but fetter me in a strong crimson net.
I’ll move through it to immortality.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 3

LinkPosting this a day earlier than usual, because I'm heading to Philadelphia for the ALSC conference.

1. The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity
2. The Scholar-Minister Gives Career Advice

3. The Emperor’s Male Favorite Waits Up for Him

Holding the mirror, I study my plucked eyebrows,
xxxxxxworry my fringecurl,
xxxxxxxxxxxxtouch my lips with rouge.

He gave me this mirror. On its back, twin dragons
xxxxxxbraid their jadescaled
xxxxxxxxxxxxbodies into sinew.

The Peach Terrace glints under the autumn moon,
xxxxxxpink as skin seen
xxxxxxxxxxxxthrough red silk gauze.

Are the lights in the Audience Hall still burning
xxxxxxor has he removed Heaven
xxxxxxxxxxxxto some other room?

I asked Eunuch Shu earlier for the Emperor’s mood.
xxxxxxThe army has pushed back
xxxxxxxxxxxxthe barbarians, he said,

and recouped the loss of ten frontier towns
xxxxxxthey took from us
xxxxxxxxxxxxa month ago.

A victory then. Another change. The wine has turned cold.
xxxxxxOn the old coverlet,
xxxxxxxxxxxxthe kingfisher molts.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 2

1. The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity

2. The Scholar Minister Gives Career Advice

He has come to display his respect and so court my support,
this young scholar who topped the imperial examination,
xxxxxlike so many before him year after year.

Already he follows the fashion of snipping a sleeve.
Already he wears a fine powder to whiten his face,
xxxxxaccentuate his swallow brows.

He refreshes this ashen room like spring rain. A young bamboo
at once strong and supple, he flowers but yearns to buckle
xxxxxhis body in a public robe.

In my hands The Sayings—the graying calligraphy,
the bamboo ribs bound by a belt of twine and worn
xxxxxby age and use. The sage’s words

are imperial edicts engraved on the heart’s bronze urn.
He’s repeating his question. I answer, Virtue is forged
xxxxxthrough loyal service to the court.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Poem: Hungry Ghosts 1

The new book opens with a sequence of persona poems called "Hungry Ghosts." The speakers are Chinese, and are fictional where they are not historical. The inspiration for the sequence came from a Chinese history and fiction course I took with Ellen Neskar at Sarah Lawrence College.

1. The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity

Dear Heart, you hear the gossip Lord Hu circulates
about how I begged the Emperor to castrate me
instead of quaffing down the poisoned cup, how base
I am to return a remnant of the blade to my father.

The slander passes in winecups around the court
once every year. More often if the border’s quiet.
My name’s divulged to new officials as a joke
or else a warning not to defame the Son of Heaven.

Defame! Because I spoke up for General Li
who fought the Xiongnu brutes until he was brought down.
Each day my bowels twist nine times. The nights! So wrote
Zhouyang: Accumulated slander destroys bone.

Sweat springs from my cold hands and runs into the ink.
I have completed writing Records—all one hundred
and thirty chapters—from the earliest sage-kings
down to the present reign—more than two thousand years.

To the fragments gathered by my father for the work
he dreamt about but did not start, I added flesh
and bones, stitched them together into history.
The Master edited one Spring and Autumn Annals

which Records extends—Essays, Chronological Tables,
Hereditary Houses. Lord Hu’s father preens
in Chapter Forty-Nine, embroidered with such true
colors that his son’s balls, in his rich robe, will shrink.

In my Biographies, kings are threaded with assassins,
male favorites, butchers, turtle-shell diviners, women,
whose names are commonly lost unless they cling like fleas
to a warhorse tail flying over bamboo strips.

My work will live and penetrate every house,
village, city, district, province, court and state.
The written word is sharper than the word of mouth.
It will scratch out my shame in Silkworm Hall. It will

revise my name. In Hell my father will have his book
though not his son. I chose, my Heart, a higher duty
when I begged him for my mutilated life. Burn
this letter in a cup of wine and drink to me. Qian.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Poem: Little Men

When I was a child, my parents would shop regularly in Chinatown, in Singapore. Yes, even in this country with a Chinese majority, there is a Chinatown. It goes back to our colonial past, when the powers-to-be decided to cut up separate neighborhoods for the different races. The strategy not only divided and conquered, but also co-opted communal leaders to govern their ethnic communities. And so, besides Chinatown, we now have Geylang Serai (a traditionally Malay neighborhood) and Little India.

Chinatown, back when I was little, in the 1970's, was a mishmash of the old and the new. Among derelict shophouses bloomed modern shopping malls, or at least they felt very modern at that time. My parents would shop in the fancy departmental store, OG (with escalators!), and, since I hated shopping, would deposit me in the tiny books section, and collect me when they were through.

In that corner of the store, I discovered the picture book series, Little Men. The books were far too easy for me, but I loved the solid colors of the characters. I loved the pattern that governs the series, and the variations of that pattern. I loved the idea of serial development. And while my parents brought OG shopping bags home, I carried off with me, like a prize, another Little Man.

Little Men

They behaved just like their names. Mr. Happy
was always happy despite the cloud in the story.
Mr. Tickle learned when not to tickle but tickled
every other time. And when friends righted him,
Mr. Topsyturvy turned wrong side up again.

Chinese names, unlike Mr. Lazy’s, aim
too high. Yang Yang plays for glorious glory.
Swallow Peace, my sister, flies her temper.
And mine raises the stakes: Jee Leong
shoots for (don’t laugh) universal goodness.

What disappointments Chinese children are! What
a hoot to find out adults are like old cartoons.
There slinks Mrs. Divorce. Here comes Mr. Knife
in the back smiling. And at her father’s funeral,
radiant Miss Sun dries her eyes on the flowers.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Poem: Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting

Razminovenie, or Nonmeeting

Though I dream all the time of union, cold air
aerated by air, coursing water saturated by water,
I’ll imagine never meeting you, my imaginary love.

Perhaps you are in the apartment above mine,
hooked up with my neighbor, cursing softly, and I wish
you could read, here, the entry of your voice: fuck.

Perhaps you are not so near in time and space.
On a planet dried of air or water you survive
by reciting poetry from memory, a line of verse—

you’re exerting a force equal to the earth’s—
a capsule taken, paradoxically, by spitting it out.
This is not so ridiculous as some may think,

for didn’t Tsvetaeva and Pasternak live like this,
not on one planet, but on two hurtling asteroids.
We have nothing, Marina wrote Boris, except words.

A poet’s boast, carried by neither air nor water.
But, oh, we can live for months by howling
the medial syllable of razminovenie: no.


The poem was inspired by Rachel Polonsky's book review in the TLS.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Poem: Glass Orgasm

Glass Orgasm

Dishwasher safe, the glass medical grade,
the dildo is hand blown
from the same element as brandy balloons,
milk bottles, picture tubes and silicone
implants; in other words, it’s made
of prose. The form is poetry.
It jabs as hard as Japanese harpoons
or, callipygian glide,
curves like the spine of the sperm whale,
so slick and sleek a slide.
The fired figure’s ribbed with filigree:
a tree trunk ivied by plump veins,
a caterpillar’s burrs,
carelessly rocky road or studded Braille,
or else it’s scored by ruts and flutes.
(For Puritans, the glass also comes plain;
for Quakers, terse.)
More than mouth pleasure, the lacunae gawk
at lattachino work, the twists
of lemon, gold and blue
inside, not painted on, the shoot
of fiberglass; the mists
compressed to chalk;
or the dichroic head unveiling two
blushes when viewed from different spots,
G or prostate.
Van Gogh’s The Starry Night may wet one’s thighs
but it’s too rectangular and pastethick for a shot,
unlike the borosilicate.
Stars and moon etched on its glass eye,
it probes the ocean, a mammalian fish,
foraging for supernovas.
When it finds and swallows one—O, sweet jehovah
of light and heat and life and death and wish!
It passes—the light dims—out of the ass—
the heat cools—and so decompose,
though shatterproof, though in demand,
to soda, lime and sand,
the poetry and prose,
cut glass.

First appeared in Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Poem: Cold Pastoral

I wrote the first draft of this poem for the PFFA Apprentice competition. It is the first poem I published in New York City. Miriam Stanley heard it at the Pink Pony Express open-mic at Cornelia Street Cafe, and asked for it. I sent her this poem and "River Blindness," both of which appeared in her "Rogue Scholars Collective" online journal.

Cold Pastoral

I hear a man jerking off at the Met
and straightaway remember you, O, Jack.
I'm flushed with sympathy, to tell the truth,
to hear him groan in the next stall for beauty
captured in voluptuous sculptured stone.
Who is this restroom seer, lover, man?

From hog farmers of Iowa, a man
aspiring to meet his muse? Instead he met
his fate of stunning listeners into stone
at Bowery Road Café. Blind, he jacks
off Perseus, in his mind, asserting beauty
in holding forth the Gorgon’s heady truth.

Or someone more acquainted with the truth
of streets: a skinny kid, almost a man,
from Harlem, pricked by the white muscled beauty
of Ugolino and his starvelings met
briefly in school? I hear him whimper, Jack,
inside his Tower of Hunger, beat off stone.

Or seeing Andromeda chained to stone,
the monster squeezing her in coils of truth
sprung from the sea, does he forget he’s Jack
afloat, on shore leave from his merchantman,
imagine flirting chance and courage met
to petrify the beast, rescue the Beauty?

Or a priest, drawn against himself to beauty
curled in a Cupid, who rebukes the stone
in flesh, the flesh in stone and, having met
himself, confesses to himself the truth?
Or, sick of buzz-saw talk among hard men
and licked by dancing Pan, a lumberjack?

Or is he one like me (unlike you, Jack),
stirred by a torso's mutilated beauty,
an echo of the whole, sufficient man
for him to recreate the missing stone.
His moan as he comes, if you want the truth,
excites me more than any man I’ve met.

I’m telling you, Jack, it's fine to gaze on stone,
but far more beautiful, far more truthful,
is the groaning man, unseen, unmet.

First published in The Rogue Scholars Collective (October 2005).

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Poem: Blowjob

Here's another poem from the book. I wrote it a year or two after meeting up with a childhood friend again, in Singapore. The encounter never quite left me, but I found the words for it only during my MFA, when the thought of his job sent me reading up on oil-rigs. The poem gave me the title for the book.


Are you a survivor who, on touching land, shine
your torch into the sea or are you a rock warning?
Like a light seen across wide waters, your cig glows
in the dark before your face appears out of the fog:

the boy, now a man, who described to me a blowjob,
what I already knew but let you go on and on
for I saw you enjoyed drawing from me the filament
of illicit thrill (your wiry dark limbs were my thrill).

The wink of your dare beckoned me whenever I heard
of you knocking about from job to job—a surf
instructor on Thai beaches, short order cook
in Hanoi, coowner of a canoe shop, part time guide,

and now a roustabout, a proper job this time,
you explain, despite its name. You raise offshore oilrigs
against seaquakes, steel the derrick and crown from which
roughnecks slam the toothed bit into the ocean bed,

pump mud into the pipe to grease the bit and prevent
cave ins and blowouts by equalizing bore pressure
with the earth’s. You master the force compressing bones
to crude trapped in the domes of the earth’s scrotum.

Months you slave at sea, then retire to your rented space:
a chair, video machine, opened tins on kitchen shelves.
The bedroom is the most done up, with kingsized bed,
vanity table, woman. Your girlfriend of three years.

Oil rigging is hard work, you flex your arms, but it pays
for this and trips to Bali, six months combing the beach.
You show me, from your window, the oil refinery glows
in the dark, with glimmering towers, balconies and spheres—

your Atlantis. I think of my sterile office with its unforgiving
light; each night I leave it and swim out into the sea
where you already have someone to traverse the girders
of your thighs, her mouth a valve to regulate your gusher.

You are not a lighthouse for passing ships. You loom,
a derrick, stapled to the ground, drilling and drawing oil
till it dries. Seen under stars, you are exerting a force equal
to the earth’s and burning its fuel for a little heat and light.

published in Mimesis, and Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia.

Monday, September 1, 2008

"Brother": Poem selected for "Best New Poets"

Chloe suggested that I post a poem from the new book to give a smidgeon of taste. So, here is "Brother," which begins the fourth section of the book. The poem was selected by Natasha Trethewey for the Best New Poets 2007 anthology, published by the University of Virginia Press.


In mother’s womb, we started as a pair of lungs,
sea slugs hanging on to a reef. We grew toe rays,
brain sponges and gonads relaxed by the liquid song.

The Doppler ultrasound echoed our submarine
and found us one. The truth was monozygotic—
we sucked each other’s nub of thumb inside the brine.

When, headfirst, we were unceremoniously expelled,
we were halved like an egg sliced with a line of hair.
A beak plucked at the cord and knotted my navel.

Mother never speaks of you although I know
you were with me at sea. How else to understand
my panic playing hide and seek, the cracked canoe,

wet dreams of touching a man, waking up, a curse
crying, not knowing why, like a turtle washed ashore,
a lacquered carapace—these shimmering absences?

First published in The Ledge Magazine, Best New Poets 2007, and Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ambition, Contests, Self-Promotion, Self-Publishing, or Not

This morning I mailed off the signed book contract to my publisher Roxanne Hoffman (Poets Wear Prada). It is a landmark of sorts.

When I came to the States five years ago, to begin my creative writing MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College, I aimed to to publish my first book of poetry within a year of graduation. Three years have passed since then, and those three years saw much hope, disappointment, and self-doubt, not a downward slide, but a frictionless oscillation of feelings. From writers, readers, teachers, strangers would come words of encouragement, but the words did not translate into the Word. I stopped submitting my manuscript to first book contests since the enormous number of entries, the unaccountable taste of judges, and the baseless thrill of anticipation combined to give the contests the flavor of a lottery. The winner is truly lucky, favored by the gods.

Three years is not a long time, for those with Job's patience. For me, if I didn't curse god, rail at the powers-that-be, I would have fallen into myself, and this entire enterprise--coming to America to write a book, to make a life--would have become absurd. I have the egotistical ambition to be non-absurd. 

True, Payday Loans was published in April 2007, but that is a chapbook, and, much as I still like the 30-sonnet sequence, it does not contain my best work. I saw it partly as a kind of promotional trailer for the full-length movie that, as 2007 slid into 2008, did not get made. Why weren't the hordes stumping their way to my door to beg me to let them publish me? (Three first person pronouns in that last sentence, appropriately.) To continue with the film metaphor, I don't want to be a one-minute clip on Youtube, but to be a summer blockbuster in multiplexes across America. 

Perhaps I am not getting the new technology, and the new reading and viewing culture. Certainly I still don't have a handle on traditional literary publishing in this country. Curious, and with time on hand, I started a blog, Song of a Reformed Headhunter, at the end of 2005. Then I signed up for Facebook. Then friends like Roxanne invited me to join Linkedin and Goodreads, and other professional and book marketing groups such as Poets & Writers Registry, and Book Marketing Network. Then videos became the in-thing, and there was a rush to post videos of poetry readings on Youtube and MySpace. Alumni associations jumped into the act, and I received emails urging me to set up my own page on their website. Now there is something as specific as a website to rank poetry blogs (called, you guess it, Poetry Blogs Ranking), and I've joined that. 

When is enough enough, or is it never enough? One can spend every free minute on the Internet, sharing, promoting, connecting, and still feel more can be done. What happened to the good old days when writers wrote and publishers published? Those good old days are, of course, more apparent than real. Many writers published their own stuff, out of necessity or choice, and became their own salesman and bookseller. The Internet has made it easier and cheaper to do so, and so a lot more writers are getting into the game. 

After reading about such self-publishing print-on-demand services like Lulu and Amazon's CreateSpace, I was drawn to the possibility of controlling the entire operation from writing to selling. Having such total control is godlike, but it also seems to me a full time job. I will have to spend hours learning how to design and format a book, to set up and advertise an e-store, and to deliver orders. More crucially, the operation will take time away from writing, my reason for doing this in the first place. That is why I decided to go with Roxanne finally. And why I'm so glad she wants to publish my book.