Tuesday, March 28, 2006

"The Almond Tree"

All the way to the hospital
The lights were green as peppermints.
Trees of black iron broke into leaf
ahead of me, as if
I were the lucky prince
in an enchanted wood
summoning summer with my whistle,
banishing winter with a nod.

Swung by the road from bend to bend,
I was aware that blood was running
down through the delta of my wrist
and under arches
of bright bone. Centuries,
continents it had crossed;
from an undisclosed beginning
spiralling to an unmapped end.


Crossing (at sixty) Magdalen Bridge
Let it be a son, a son, said
the man in the driving mirror,
Let it be a son. The tower
held up its hand: the college
bells shook their blessings on his head.


I parked in an almond's
shadow blossom, for the tree
was waving, waving at me
upstairs with a child's hands.


the spinal stair
and at the top
a bone-white corridor
the blood tide swung
me swung me to a room
whose walls shuddered
with the shuddering womb.
Under the sheet
wave after wave, wave
after wave beat
on the bone coast,
bringing ashore - whom?
minted, my bright farthing!
Coined by our love, stamped
With our images, how you
Enrich us! Both
you make one. Welcome
to your white sheet,
my best poem.


At seven-thirty
the visitors' bell
scissored the calm
of the corridors.
The doctor walked with
to the slicing doors.
His hand is upon my arm,
his voice - I have to tell
you - set another bell
beating in my head:
your son is a mongol
the doctor said.


How easily the word went in -
clean as a bullet
leaving no mark on the skin,
stopping the heart within it.

This was my first death.
The 'I ' ascending on a slow
Last thermal breath
studied the man below

as a pilot treading air might
the buckled shell of his plane -
boot, glove and helmet
feeling no pain

from the snapped wires' radiant ends.
Looking down from a thousand feet
I held four walls in the lens
of an eye; wall, window, the street

a torrent of windscreens, my own
car under its almond tree,
and the almond waving me down.
I wrestled against gravity,

but light was melting and the gulf
cracked open. Unfamiliar
the body of my late self
I carried to the car.


The hospital - its heavy freight
lashed down ship-shape ward over ward -
steamed into night with some on board
soon to be lost if the desperate

charts were known. Others would come
altered to land or find the land
altered. At their voyage's end
some would be added to, some

diminished. In a numbered cot
my son sailed from me; never to come
ashore into my kingdom
speaking my language. Better not

look that way. The almond tree
was beautiful in labour. Blood-
dark, quickening, bud after bud
split, flower after flower shook free.

On the darkening wind a pale
face floated. Out of reach. Only when
the buds, all the buds were broken
would the tree be in full sail.

In labour the tree was becoming
itself. I, too, rooted in earth
and ringed by darkness, from the death
of myself saw myself blossoming,

wrenched from the caul of my thirty
years' growing, fathered by my son,
unkindly in a kind season
by love shattered and set free.

Jon Stallworthy

A longer poem this time, and one that means a great deal to me. I was so moved by it that I learned it by heart and have carried it around in my head for over 30 years. I love it both for its emotional weight, and for the richness of its imagery.

It tells a story and one that any reader can relate to: a father rushes to the hospital for the birth of his son, and is told that the son has Down's Syndrome. Stallworthy calls it the most straightforwardly autobiographical of his poems.

Look at how the emotions shift from stanza to stanza. As the father drives to the hospital, there's a real sense of elation as he contemplates his son's birth and the passing on of new life down the generations. (I love the image of the blood running under arches of bone - a river of life, flowing from father to son across the ages.)

By the end of stanza 4 I'm all choked up when I reach this expression of love: "Welcome/to your white sheet,/my best poem." What more fitting tribute from a poet! (Stallworthy later said that the words were an unconcious echo of Ben Jonson's elegy, On My First Son):

But then there are the doctor's words to shatter his joy. "How easily the word went in -/clean as a bullet/leaving no mark on the skin,/stopping the heart within it." These words bring home the emotional impact of the news.

Isn't it just so true that at the moments of greatest trauma we feel distanced from our physical body, as if we are observing ourselves from a distance? Stallworthy compares himself to a pilot treading air after being ejected mid-air, and watching the wreck of everything from above. Part of him dies at that moment: "This was my first death".

In a sense too, there's a bereavement that he has to handle. The son of his hope and imagination is drifting away from him, to be replaced with someone who will never speak his language (in a metaphorical sense). But from that pain grows transformation and new awareness. And he realises that he'll learn a different lesson of love from his handicapped child.

Just as physical objects become invested with greater meaning at moments of emotional crisis. (We seem to notice things in much greater detail.) The blossoming almond tree outside the hospital seems complicit in everything.

I seldom reach the end of the poem with dry eyes. Stallworthy is as powerful a story-teller as any fiction writer.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006



A mouthful of language to swallow:
stretches of beach, sweet clinches,
breaches in walls, pleached branches;
britches hauled over haunches;
hunched leeches, wrenched teachers.
What English can do: ransack
the warmth that chuckles beneath
fuzzed surfaces, sweet velvet
richness, plashy juices.
I beseech you, peach,
clench me in the sweetness
of your reaches.

Peter Davison

I chanced upon this poem quite some time back, and immediately thought of keeping it for this ‘project’ which has been in incubation (and procrastinations for far, far too long). This beautifully crafted poem is as much about peaches, as it is about the sheer delights the poet takes in language.

Just as a peach is a mouthful to bite into, so it is with the word ‘peaches’. The poet then engages in a verbal play with words. Clearly, the almost arbitrary list of words and phrases that follows is like the savouring of the rich sweetness of a peach, enjoying the oozing ‘juices’ of language in the mouth – its sounds and its sensuous suggestiveness created through internal rhymes in the assonance of the sounds ‘ee’, ‘each’, ‘unch’ and the alliterative ‘h’, ‘b’. The ‘tightness’ in the mouthful of language to swallow is suggested in the lines about the pulling up of one’s britches up to the waist.

Next, the “hunched leeches” connotes the sucking of the blood of language (not negative), just as ‘wrenched teachers” struggle over the mastery of language. Indeed, the freshness of this poem masks the painstaking craft behind it: in tying or plaiting up the “pleached branches” of words. At the end, as one savours the art and language of this poem, it ends off in the last three lines in pure ecstatic pleasure. As a last note, I will just add that these lines may perhaps be suggestive of the ‘o’ word, which I shall leave to your imagination.

(the wonderfully irrepressible Sharon will be up next week :)

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New to poetry? Too shy to comment?

[Dedicatory note: This blog is dedicated to all poetry lovers, but it specially goes out to fellow Malaysians, particularly those who never had the chance to read poetry]

Well, I am actually a very, very late-comer to poetry, and very much a novice still. I was only introduced to poetry while at university, and though I had a very hard time, I gradually found myself falling in love with it. From my experience, reading poetry requires patience... lots of patience, but the rewards in the sheer delight one feels when a poem moves and speaks to you is just wonderfully magical.

My suggestion then, if you are new to poetry, is to take your time reading aloud the poem that has been posted. Read it a few times and don’t rush to make sense of what it is trying to say. Let the words, its sounds and its rhythm slowly flow over you. Gradually and slowly, a certain word, a particular phrase, image, idea or even sound might catch your attention. Linger with it and take your time thinking and feeling through what it suggests, evokes and conjures up. You will probably get a ‘sense’ of this poem now, and to delve deeper, go through the other parts of the poem, and something will emerge and come alive for you.

No doubt, it is not always the case that one ‘catches’ a poem. Many a times, I struggle for days over some difficult poem, and yet it doesn’t seem to yield anything. Sometimes, there is a missing ‘link’ or context that needs to be filled in to understand it; and at other times, it is the difficulty of the style and nature of the poem itself. So, no one should feel bad if they don’t ‘get’ a poem. Moreover, if one does go back to the same poem at a later time (weeks or months later), the poem might just suddenly come to light then. :)

The write-up we have is our way of sharing our enjoyment of poetry with you and among ourselves. It provides a guide of how the poem might be read, but it is by no means an authoritative or definitive understanding or interpretation of the poem. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts and comments, participating in the discussion of the poem that is posted. Write anything that strikes you, whether it be a particular word, phrase, symbol etc…. We would love to hear (and learn) from you!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

What’s puisi-poesy about?

[We do not know how well this project will work and how long it can be sustained, but here’s what we hope to do during this short trial]

As mentioned in the blog description, this would be a place to sembang-sembang – the malay word and local phrase for meeting up for chit chat - about poetry. The other word, mamak refers to open air, roadside stalls that sell a rich array of wonderfully delicious Malaysian food from evening to the wee hours of the morning. It’s a place where Malaysians meet up and socialise with friends and colleagues, while having copious amounts of drinks, especially the sweet, frothy and pipingly hot teh tarik (loosely translated as pulled tea). Mamak has since entered the local idiom, and when one says ‘let’s mamak’, it means, let’s go to a meet up for chit-chat and some food. This food metaphor which aptly captures our Malaysian love for food would hopefully be similarly translated here into a love for poetry.

Each week, as our time and schedule permits, one or two contributors will put up a poem he/she likes or have recently read and make some observations on the craft and ‘meaning’ of the poem. Being informal, we unfortunately won’t delve deeper into the context, tradition and the different aesthetic, thematic development (movement) of specific poets and their periods. To a significant extent, the interpretive distance from our largely Asian cultural referent and ‘location’ will cause us to miss some of the greater nuances and specificities of the poem, but we trust that as lovers of language, we will be able to distil and approximate some ‘meaning’ from the poems.

We hope that these simple, feeble efforts will help stimulate and encourage the reading, appreciation and ultimately the writing of poetry, especially among fellow Malaysians – our chief audience, but obviously all are more than welcomed to share their love and expertise of poetry here. In fact, we would love to have as many comments as possible from anybody who loves poetry, and look forward to reading and learning from the ideas and discussions put forward.

Please do leave any of your valued thoughts and comments for our posts. :)

Why the name puisi-poesy?

Poesy is, off course, another word for poetry, one which is derived of Greek and Latin origin, and puisi is the Malay word for poetry. The doubling of the two words, which essentially means the same thing but expressed in two different languages, is a common linguistic phenomena in Malay, sometimes denoting the plural of the named object, or at other times, changing the meaning of the word altogether.

In a sense, the name of this blog puisi-poesy is reflective of both our global citizenship and hybrid heritage as Malaysians for whom Malay, the official national language and English, a British colonial bequest, are among the two dominant languages we share and speak among many other languages.