The Convent of Dreams

White and pure moons were their faces,
these mothers without children.
Unassailable in the armour of white that shielded them,
these were the nuns who filled my childish days.
They roamed the corridors, veritable ghosts with rulers,
waiting for the transgressor to transgress.
Convent brats do not forget, nor are we taught
that forgiveness comes without a price to pay:
a rap on the knuckles, or the palm, the long, hard look
that genders grief for all it says—and does not say—
of clouded disappointment, hopes destroyed,
“because you ran along the corridor,”
for ladies do not run …
How we recited such early mantras,
how nourished we were at their bosoms.
Perfect mothers, all sweetness and light,
these brides of Jesus, meek and mild.

Contradictions in terms and name, you were
the mothers who made us, and unmade us.
We were undone by your paradoxical selves:
your chosen barrenness against maternal love;
your femaleness, and your names …
for why was Sister Bosco “Bosco” anyway, or
“John” or “Henry” or not? We used to wonder
at your creation, were you once children like ourselves,
or did you just spring, miraculous, from the waves,
wearing your vestments and your smiles?
Or perhaps you were incarnations of the Blessed Mary,
descending on a heavenly cloud.

What would we have done without you,
sweet harridans who drove us mad? You
filled our convent heads with notions of eternity,
and made us fear the bloodedness of flesh; but
even you could not convince that knuckles did not hurt,
nor palms not sting from pain you meted out.
I learned to love you with a fear I could not see,
I know we all did love you in that way. Dear sisters of
the Holy Infant Jesus, your memory is a wash indelible,
a watercolour un-erasable in minds already old
with experience and age. And so we nightly
lay out our nightdresses, as pure, as white as you,
and remember in the darkness of our sleep how we must
sit, and stand, and walk, as only ladies could, and live
our sainted lives in sweet sublimity …
Yours is the convent of dreams that haunts us here,
you are our inevitable self. And every prayer is
spoken, soft and lisping: echoes of our long ago’s,
laid out to God within the walls of virgin days.

 

Moonlight, Pantai Cinta Berahi

I have seen this in the night
while the wild winds beat
and the sampans bobbed on the lashing waves
the moon shone in its whiteness
its light so sheer it looked
like
a papercut
with a rotund edgelessness
its purity so bare
it alarmed me
the viewer
entranced by its magic-speaking
face
I saw myself reflected

After the Rain

The sweetness of rain on grass
is too much to bear. We have to
kick up our heels in a dance just
because, because. The sun pours
out delight, drenching us in yellow
gold. Sheer music reaches us from
symphonies of weedy flowers
–how they sing!–
subtle and small, of blooms growing
fat in exotic hothouses, of mighty trees
and clashing branches, and of the
free wind ruffling across squeaky
green meadows.

Simplicity in motion, we’re children again.
We run wild in the fields, and shout at the
laughing clouds, as if too much lightness
in the air has made our minds
too clear for stillness,
too bright for silence …
after the rain.

 

The Hummingbird among the Hibiscus

A tiny dark thing,
I saw it fly among the red flowers.
Bold, its wings were strong,
flitting from flower to flower.
It did not sing,
perhaps it chose not to,
so intent was its beak looking
for the pollen.

It was on Sunday,
I saw it and loved the surprise
of it; for a moment, I watched,
unmoving. How could I capture
this gift, this liveliness
contained in a small, compact
bird?

It found the red hibiscus beautiful,
irresistibly sweet.
I felt the same about it, this tiny
beautiful dynamo,
so certain of itself,
as if all of living were just
the matter of flitting and flying,
and shooting sharp beak
into the fusion of petals that
dripped nectar.

 

 

To My Students

You are young in a way I never was,
and knowing in a way I never knew.
The gulf between us is uncrossable
and new, as if fresh centuries of
thought broke up the land just yesterday
when you sat, dumbfounded, at tutorial.
I remember how it was, when I sat as
you now sit, raw from the lines of text
across my brain. I remember the wonder,
too, how open-mouthed I often was at
things I never thought, described in
harshest words that left me hungry and
sad as they tore my horizons apart.
Does wonder overtake you, too?

I forge across the river metaphorical,
as if to reach the middle point of meeting;
the muddy depths are defeating, and
your eyes cloud over with brown water
telling me it is all over. I know the look.
A brooding emptiness falls across your
faces, and futile lines fill your books. I
hear your pens scratch the paper, resentful
of the words that hit you like stones, and
long to tell you to trust me, to let me hang
on to your eye, or hair, or hand, till you
see how, at the end of your pen’s long
scratch, there is a kind of lift, a surge
of thought, like growing water, that
moves and pushes in a great, grand rhythm
your mind, till mountains emerge, and roaring
seas break onto the shore, and fierce winds
blow into the crevices, empty before …
Till you look up from that half-numbed sleep,
smiling, ecstatic even, at the sudden light,
startled by your own intelligence.