My father took me picnicking in Hell
in Tiger Balm Gardens when I turned five.
Horse-Face and Ox-Head 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 thirty-five 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 snow-packed 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.