<p>(but all I think of is the discounted sunscreen I’ve bought,<br />
whether it will be effective in shielding you from the heat of<br />
anger, fear, contempt, love, pride and shame.)</p>
for my dearest mother, Lee Ching Sung.
the tiles need shining today.
the hurting needs moving, to another day.
the news needs to be fed yesterdays.
the food needs to sit for much of the day.
too long, too long,
I open my newspapers
to render my noon nebulous;
the neck ache from a bad position on a good sofa
is a gain, a good bargain.
tell me something about your day
the laundry basket hasn’t already.
I read the soiled handkerchief
like an open book;
an experiment –
you left sweets in your pocket
again. I have told you not to,
I wrestle your handkerchief,
the cartoon patterns
glued together by sweet melted colours,
now I cannot tell
if you had been crying transparently,
and it makes my heart ache in the wrong places.
how many firsts has this square cloth been through
with you, that I have not?
How does pain always
your good days are chalked in the
residue of your shower. I notice
you scrub less when your hair
stays on your head.
I assume on days as such,
you don’t have too much on your mind.
It works out for me too. I don’t tell you
I don’t enjoy cleaning bathrooms.
you should be under the impression I am
working harder than I should.
then there are cups waiting to be filled.
sometimes soy instant milk powder
(clumps and glues to the sides of mugs)
sometimes tea leaves mixed curiously
(activates my godly intuition for ratios)
sometimes coffee black as an eclipse
(I take the cup away before
you see the remains and think it a prophecy)
an understood hum of edelweiss shared like
smoke between engines, coffee makers,
hand-painted tea cups, souvenirs
not sizing one another up,
simply relenting, revisiting Time
well-frozen in photos we wish to hole in forever.
sometimes I think, if I concentrate hard enough,
unblinking, will the sting of my eyes match the sting
of my heart? will we thaw from age, will we be little again?
forgive me if I should stutter one day, or flounder
as I recalibrate my caveat of hopes;
I have been strangled, puppet strings of patriarchy
have kept me in a domestic nutshell.
your education teaches you to rock the boat
but how can I, who’s never learned,
handcuff the oars that have
taken me to where I am today?
you tell me there is a sky beyond
the blues, clouds beyond the whites,
you tell me what I never dreamt of hearing,
that in biology, you learned heat maps meant
colour matters beyond our skin,
colour blooms despite our skin,
that though self-defense teaches us
to wear the sunscreen on our sleeves,
anything can be surpassed
if you have enough feminine will.
(but all I think of is the discounted sunscreen I’ve bought,
whether it will be effective in shielding you from the heat of
anger, fear, contempt, love, pride and shame.)
if I had known what I did now,
I would gather neon liquid forests –
pink, green, yellow, atop shaved ice,
and be generous with red beans and rice cakes;
it is your birthday after all.
(how old is too old for birthdays?)
my birthdays have never been too special,
but yours remind me why I am worthy of mine.
yours marks my success at being a true woman.
everything you need is right here
but you still need to go around and around
and around the world, (your best bet is
eighty days) to find
what you really want.
there is a chance people will call
you out at the markets, down
the alleys, in the dark hearth of night,
the goblin men may try to feed you praises,
but I am confident I will feed you paranoia enough,
hoping you will find it reasonable in a few years,
and feel my terror at the possibility of losing a child
to strategy and the absence
(I would let you out till the clock strikes midnight,
but you have no glass slipper, and I have no wand.
We must concede to who we are, under the cloak
foster the courage to avoid being in plain sight.)
your grandfather wears bald like a crown,
an ornament, and I don’t expect you to treasure
your hair like an accessory,
baby girl, no matter how you scream
agitated at the loss of Length,
(which you reveal in ten years, that it wasn’t hair but
femininity you’d lost, on those nameless floors)
but I will have you remember
that girls with long hair are messy,
uncontrollable, and Beauty is not something to
be fought for, not something you ought to raise your voice for,
not something you should be allowed to seek for,
until you are old enough to know better.
It is your hair, but it is my decision.
the first time I took you to
the hairdressers, you never wanted to
look me in the eye again; it was your first
taste of betrayal, I cannot tell you that
I regret it in retrospect,
or that I still cannot, have not learnt to tie a braid,
I was merely avoiding what I cannot control –
the unruliness of young hair, of hot-headed youth,
of the time which will never come again for me, that
lies ahead of you.)
I turn at every ‘mummy!’ as though a pet
reacting to its owner calling its name.
I wonder if it is relief I feel when I realise
it’s not you.
yesterday we were making cookies, and for a while,
it was just our clumsy hands, teaching one another to
knead the dough in different ways, (we had our own strengths),
it was as important to be soft as it was to be hard.
you picked up from the drawer, the mould we used
to make jellies, and I had to tell you those were not
made to make cookies. you said I wouldn’t know if I’d never tried
and I said I’d rather not burn the house down, trust me.
a few years younger and you might have puckered your lips
and sulked till I distract you with a lolly, but it was
getting harder to distract you,
when you have learned to distract yourself.
I watched you cautiously, still half-expecting you to burst into tears,
but instead you burst into questions and I couldn’t tell if
I would’ve preferred you cried instead, so I could comfort you,
instead of searching my soul for answers I have to sugarcoat.
why do people make things for this and not that?
why do people make certain things in heart shapes and
others in stars? why do we only have star cookies and heart jellies
but not star jellies and heart cookies?
essentially, what is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?
I told you someday you would be able to make whatever you want,
and no one will be able to stop you. (not even me.) (especially not me.)
you squirm and wriggle your way out of
nature, as soon as something foreign touches you,
takes interest in you, with all its six-legged bodies
and silent bites.
you listen for the songs of birds that are losing
their voices, their lives, their mates
and wonder why you cannot recognise their
cries for help before it was too late.
I tell you there used to be a cacophony of beasts
outside my window, feasting on the quiet of night,
and it wasn’t that I wasn’t afraid,
I just got used to having to fend for myself;
they are not your friends, but they are
not your enemies either.
we’re all trying to live here,
trying to stamp proof of our being here.
you like to ask me if I would have preferred a son,
instead of you;
each time as confronting as the last,
as I struggle to feel guilty and/or affronted,
as if you were saying I hadn’t done enough to prove
I love you more than you could imagine.
but I always realise after, that it was your imagination
that I could not rival, your uncanny ability to
imagine yourself as a son, you saying,
‘maybe grandma would love me more,
but as a boy, I could not love you as I did now,’
and seeing my blank face, adding,
‘or at least not be able to
show it. maybe I would only care about cars and
who has the best collection, and maybe that would
be a way of proving who had the best mother.’
I didn’t think the day would come so soon.
mothers don’t do well at airports.
but how to be a mother
without smothering your dreams?
how to be a mother
to an empty house, full of old skin and loose hairs,
your favourite perishable foods?
how to be a mother
when I have to stop myself orbiting around
your schedules, your secrets, your sanity?
how to be a mother,
may be the last of things I have to teach you,
you have to pause somewhere around medium-rare,
you have to push them out the nest
before they can feed themselves;
even if it hurts, you have to let the days take over,
let them take a stand, to foster, to flap, to flee
from being the pearl in your palms.
and one fine day, you might stand out
against the dying sun,
washing dishes by the assertive pink of dusk,
and find you couldn’t have done it without me.