Hsien Min Toh

Hsien Min Toh is editor of QLRS (Quarterly Literary Review Singapore), an on-line journal. Hsien's poems have appeared in a number of places, including the papertiger CD-ROM series in Australia.
Home Improvement

Sunday was the day in my estate for home improvement,
for it seemed that every man in every household
rolled up his sleeves and got the paint-rollers and step-ladders
and painted the wall that a dark patterned fungus had adopted
or fixed the fluorescent light in the balcony that didn’t work
or put up rattan blinds to filter out the light of the tropical sun.
I was not one to fix up anything that hadn’t been broken
twice over, but two weekends into the replacement home
brought in a contractor recommended by the jaga.
It did seem a little odd to me, like a gaping-hulled boat
beached in a desert, the water snatched from beneath its keel.
There I had been, the previous month, declaring how much I loved
my old home, with its high ceilings, interior spaces and spiral staircases,
and moaning that it would all be torn down, and here I was,
in Gilstead Road, where once a glass pane on the 1960s wooden
folding doors had held up a long crack like the break of tides at dawn,
countenanced their removal for a set of aluminum sliding doors.
The pang only hit me when I saw what a warzone the living room
became in its wake, with old splinters and clumps of brickwork
strewn all over the tiles. Maybe I didn’t love this home enough,
after the cruelty of the previous loss. Once you have truly loved one
it’s hard to love another. Or maybe, if you could hold two convictions
of opposing force in the one mind, this was my revenge,
my symbol of resistance to all those who would change things.
I would change enough to change things. If it is true that loss
is entirely contained within change and memory is the assertion
of that loss, then we can only remember by applying new force
to the other, precipitating wreckage to high-water-mark the sand.

Mourning cloaks

It’s spring again, and suddenly
I notice melody lines of mourning cloak butterflies
(nymphalis antiopa) pass our patio to and from the woods,
even though they have been around all winter.
Mourning cloaks have short stumplike outgrowths on both wings,
and their purple black robes are fringed with an irregular yellow border,
guarded by a row of iridescent blue spots.
Sometimes I stand in a field and raise my arm toward the sky,
and a passing mourning cloak would land on my fingers,
surveying its territory. It feels on top of things,
and at that moment so am I.
Mourning cloaks prefer oak or willow sap;
they trot down the trunk to the sap and drink,
head downward. They also feast on rotting fruit,
and rarely on flower nectar.
I’ve seen mourning cloaks
lapping up the secretions of tree-clamped fungi, then falling
off the tree and lurching about on the ground,
wings flapping in an undirected fury,
too uncoordinated to fly.
After wintering out, it’s a relief to lie
down in the grass-prickle, watching the world
spinning around two beating, unbalancing slappers.

Preparing Fish

First take a pair of scissors, trim the fins.
Next, scale the fish by running the blunt back
of a knife from tail to head. A pithy rinse
Can keep the scales from scattering like flak

Around the kitchen. Make sure to remove
Every last scale. Then with a sharp knife, cut
The belly of the fish in one smooth groove
From the anus to the throat. Proceed to gut

The fish by pulling out the innards slowly
From the backside to the gills, which you
Then cut. The gall bladder is fragile, wholly
Bitter, so don’t break it, whatever you do.

Last, scrape the kidney out: it’s the dark patch
Deep in the cavity. There’s no more I
Can say. You say there has to be a catch.
But we have all too many fish to fry.

Drive Home

Worn out by driving and your navigation,
culminating in a spark igniting
more than the petrol of the distillation
of our days together, we weren’t fighting
by the time I put the gear in neutral
and we hauled our luggage through the door.
We may have been unpacking in our mutual
silence, but I didn’t know you’d store
the balance of power swinging like the shift
of weak light in your bedroom as a car
whooshed by out in the groping sightlessness
before dawn, headlights drilling through the drift
of catseyed camber, like a steel caress
on weeping hillsides or a shooting star.

The Wealth of Nations
The production of children requires expenditure of money, effort and time, just as in the production of any good or service.
– Associate Professor Euston Quah, The Straits Times, 27th May 2004

After two years of high-level wooing,
our free trade agreement granted me
untrammelled access to your economy
except it was me doing all the screwing.
I injected speculative money
once you let down your capital controls,
and didn't have to invoke Black and Scholes
to make hay while your stock exchange was sunny.
However, once we started automating
the process, under pressure from the City
to reach our target productivity,
our interest rate began to fall, until
your gross domestic product came to fill
your days, made you wish we were only dating.

The Old Railway Line to Jurong

”You take that different track at your own peril.
The main line leads you all the way to Keppel -
After the pirate-ridden Straits: a safe harbour.
But if you take this other side-track, where’ll
You end up? It dies out where a barber
Cannot trim the foliage, where an apple

Sways upon the tree like such temptation,
And salamanders spin their mountain leather.”
This my father said with such a straight face,
I was almost going through immigration
And admitting this was all a late phase
Of post-adolescence, not worth a feather,

Till, on a whim, I ambled down that track,
Bashed through the jungle, beat a muddy trudge,
Then reached a pipeline cutting off the rails.
It wasn’t that there was no turning back,
But I had come with such unbalanced bales
Of expectation that I couldn’t budge.