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Showing posts from April, 2017

Hi Harlem #28

#28 Two Well-dressed Gentlemen Out on an April Afternoon

Sirs, may I walk with you,
I saw you throwing me a glance?
You walk so funny,
so dapper and rangingly.
You walk as if at any moment
you may break out
into a dance.
You’re so evident,
men who’ve been around
and still unbroken,
no, that’s too melodramatic,
you’re finally
comic,
entirely yourselves,
like the sun.

Hi Harlem #27

#27 The Birds of Harlem

The birds of Harlem are the birds
of America,
the brown nonentities
and the self-advertising glories.
They have returned from other lands
to a familiar bough
or the corner ledge of a brownstone.
To call them
the birds of Harlem
is to give spirit a local habitation and a name.
It’s a way of saying we belong
somewhere, a way of singing.

Hi Harlem #24 - 26

#24 Under the Elevated Railway Tracks

In the plant nursery a muscular Chinese man
balances on his right hand a tray of miniatures
as he walks among the cactuses and hyacinths
in the rumbling shadow of the scheduled trains.
He brings me back to Kunming, the acrobats
climbing up one another, the strongest lifting
clear the other two, a trinity exerting pressure
at every point and achieving a momentary rest.

I see him and I see you look at him, his shorts
round and covered in a pretty pattern of ferns,
his big arm lifting the greenly growth for home.
You walk ahead to sneak a peek back at his face,
I following. It’s a good face, strong and open.
Love, do you hear somebody call out for Adam?



#25 Leave from Harlem

Setting his triangular speaker on the train floor,
the man does not blast but croons into his mike,

making love to the dark glasses on a Roman nose,
the gold chain round a throbbing jugular, the phone

lighting up a face with radiation, the bandaged hand
resting on a hard case lug…

Hi Harlem #23

#23 The Man in the Gold Jumpsuit

Who are you, O, who are you actually,
man in the jumpsuit glinting in the sun?
Where are you going with the spray can,
gold like you to the squatchee of your cap?
Are you legendary King Midas who turns
a Red Delicious to its dumb weight in gold?
Are you an astronaut who shows us where
to find the stars and their transmissions?
Or are you the one who creates the stars
on the walls of schools, prisons, hospitals?

Hi Harlem #22

#22 The Classical Theater of Harlem

Downstage left, enter the Self in the making
of what we all must see, the busy and free crayon,
the things you can do with a piece of string,
then it gets called names, it calls others names,
one name rising above the others to stand for
the Self’s self, for whom one makes a bouquet
of involuntary thought and ventures beyond
the house, listening in the wing for the place
to come back on stage, for it loves the stage,
the strutting and the fretting, the figure it cuts
with its kitchen scissors around the play script,
understanding so much is pre-given and all one
 can do is to inflect a line or two in a particular
way, to hold the pistol with one hand or two,
to drop one’s head or hold it up, before moving
to the end, upstaged by the audience, and right.

The Singapore Writers Directory

Yes, I have strong objections to being featured in the 2017 edition of the Singapore Writers Directory because I've sworn never to work with the National Arts Council until they return their publishing grant to Sonny Liew's graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye and issue a public apology to the writer/artist, the publisher, and the Singapore people for withdrawing their promised support for a seminal work of literature, and until the National Arts Council promise to work with their counterpart the Orwellian-named Media Development Authority to revoke the restriction of Tan Pin Pin's documentary To Singapore With Love from public screening. Their letter:

Dear Jee Leong,

The National Arts Council would like to feature you in the 2017 edition of the Singapore Writers Directory, a print and online directory of Singapore writers in English profiling living Singapore writers from the four official languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil) and their works. The first…

Hi Harlem #19, 20, and 21

#19 American Sentence

Today I saw a cotton gin and learned how a machine expanded slave labor.


#20 Elegy

Black light, black light,
as still as the black train
is frantic, rushing the
black night. As narrow
as the black boulevard
is wide. Old as Cheops
and as the black olive
is young, blasted time.
Frequent as injustice
and as rare as equal
understanding. Sexy
as hell and as heaven
is detumescent. Tiny
as he, snorting, was big
inside after his white
boy had first opened
me up. As strong as
the curtains are weak.
As quiet as the siren
is alarming, arresting
never the black river.


# 21 Friday Nights

The movies have gone all weird on me.
The murderer, the victim, and the lawyer
are all white. The spy and his spymaster
white. The gay teen and his crush white.
The surgeon and his patient white, with
a black nurse or hospital administrator
thrown in for color. The poets, you guess
it, white. Nothing like the world outside.
My screen is not a window, it’s a filter.

Hi Harlem #18

#18 Reading Richard Wright’s Haiku on International Haiku Day

They take the measure of things,
spider webs, melons, a scarecrow,
a candle with the faint markings
of rat teeth. Written in France,
in the last 18 months of his life,
a number begin, just enough snow… 

Poem #17

#17 Strongman from Qinshi Huangdi’s Tomb

Against Rilke 

The head would have given the final expression
like a peacock’s tail feathers, had we not lost it,
and yet the body is too strongly modeled for us
to require a face. Rounded like high cheekbones,

the shoulders weigh two brawny arms, snakes
lashing within, holding what would have been
a great bendy pole, with a colleague, on which
an acrobat would swing and somersault and land.

Driven to the ground but rising from his feet,
the enormous torso, of earth once trampled on
by trumpeting beasts, is not smooth like a smile
but frowns with clear cracks, in large fragments,

about the roof of the barbarous belly, the lines,
opening and closing, emanating from our mouth.

Hi Harlem #16

#16 From the Vantage of Harlem

A plane flies by my window,
and then another, very slowly,
as if to say, you can’t catch us,
poet, living the way you do.

Hi Harlem #15

#15 The Places I have lived in NYC Compared to Literary Genres

Brooklyn is a big novel.
Queens is a memoir.
Hell’s Kitchen is a play
by Tennessee Williams.
The Upper West Side
a film by Woody Allen.
Harlem, with your crazies,
your preachers and loafers,
you take the prose poem.

Hi Harlem #14

#14 Counting Song

This is failing territory, where we will die
of prostate cancer or sweet pneumonia,
after we hang our coats up in the broom closet.
This old man played nick nack on my drum.

Ambition, the devil, has descended to details
and every meal is eaten with Dissatisfaction.
Give, my Love, the long-dead dog a bone.
Paddy whacked, this old man rolled home.

Friends go before us—who knows where.
The doorbell rings for other men, our door
opens to the mocking grin of thinning air.
This old man played nick nack on my shoe.

Look, our eyesight is deserting us, o parody,
They say hearing, HEARING, the first to go.
Sans eyes, sans ears, sans smell, sans taste,
paddy whacked, this old man rolled home.

What have we left? The furniture of memory.
Dining table your dad made, the ghostly TV,
 the ghastly hooks of animal horn on the wall.
This old man played nick nack on my tree.

A house of sadness when we intend joy,
it will be a property, a prop, for tired feet.
After the drill square and …

Hi Harlem #13

#13 Their Eyes Are Watching God

The God of the Church of Scientology of Harlem, the God
of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the God
of the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the God
of worldwide socialist revolution, the God of the big black butt, the God
who made Ellington the Duke, the God of Malcolm X, the God
Asclepius hobbling out of the College of Podiatric Medicine, the God
racing another God down Powell in his souped-up go kart, the God
of waffle and fried chicken, the God of fried fish, the God
of the Harlem Renaissance, the God of the real estate renaissance, the God
of the big boom box, the God of small businesses, the God
of beggars, thieves and magicians, the God of children, the God
of Apollo Theater who is also the God of Comedy.

Hi Harlem #12

#12 Sleeping on Park Benches

Stretched out on park benches, these men
tilt their dark rumpled faces to the sun,
xxxxxlike sunflowers,
I could say, but they are really emperors
xxxxxof their time.

They remind me of retirees back home
in 80s Singapore, sleeping the day away,
xxxxxwhite ribbed singlet
their pauper disguise, returning at night
xxxxxto well-lit homes.

They have disappeared from public parks.
They looked unsightly to someone, or useless,
xxxxxso they are
clearing children’s trays, picking up cardboard
xxxxxfor the weight.

I don’t really understand why I’m thinking
of retirees while crossing Marcus Garvey
xxxxxon my run,
seeing in these men swathed in coats and jeans
xxxxxstone effigies.

Hi Harlem #11

#11 High Enough

Now I live high enough, above surrounding roofs,
to see the unimpeded sky turn ever so slowly to light,
the black church tower coming into sight with its bells,
turn in the spring evening to purple wash, into which
the water tank, like a squat rocket, catapults its icon
and flies without moving as darkness falls around it,
the shopping mall pulsating in the corner of the eye
with an unearthly glow, high enough to see all this,
unimpeded, I repeat, with only the sky looking in,
when the buzz-cut jock in the vid, left hand relaxed
on the steering wheel, master hand on himself, looking
back and forth between the motorway and her activity
 between her legs, passing pylons and twelve-wheelers,
brings himself off, oh my god, self-recording, laughing.

Harlem # 9 and 10

#9 Ordering Takeout in Harlem

Being a pedant, I told Empire Corner II
on the phone that it was Apt 5D, as in D
for Donkey. That didn’t sound quite right,
so I told Sottocasa Pizzeria that it was D
for Donald, before I remembered Drumpf.
Finally I settled on David, to the very fancy
Indian place, for Jonathan’s sweetheart,
the king of Israel, the dancer, the psalms.



#10 Harlem Haiku

Alighting
on a high branch of the tree
outside my study,
the silhouette of a songbird
chirps and chirps:
I know what branch will hold my weight,
I know what time to go,
what I know I know I know.

Artless Art

The beauty of Akhil Sharma's novel Family Life lies in its understated style. The sentences are simple but delicately weighted. The metaphors and similes, born of close observation of ordinary life, are highly original. Throughout, the hopes and fears of migrating from India to America, and then the effects of a tragedy on the family in the new land, are evoked with painful honesty. This is not an easy book to read, for it deals with the devastation of happiness, but the style holds up the devastation to the light with wit and grace.

*

WL recommended that I watch Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) when Kristen Stewart came up in our conversation.  I'm so glad I did. It's one of the best movies I've watched in the past few years. Directed by Olivier Assayas, the movie stars Juliette Binoche as an aging actress (Maria Enders) who returns to act in the play that launched her career but this time as the older woman, not the younger one. Stewart plays the personal assistant (Valen…

Hi Harlem #8

#8 Was It Known as Mount Morris Park Then?

You used to live in Harlem,
back in the 90s,
and cruised the boys in the outdoor pool
to the north of the park.
Not in the sex clubs,
which you likened to shooting fish in the barrel.
You always have a way with words.
I can see you
chatting up a young buck, one yourself,
while children thrashed about on floats and parents
shouted instructions,
then heading for the changing room,
you first, and then your accomplice,
to finish up the confab.
I can’t wait for summer,
if the boys at the gym are anything
to go by,
when the pool will be filled with water
and the park with the sour cherry,
which the website tells me is
self-pollinating.

Hi Harlem #7

#7 Sisters Caribbean Cuisine

They are an allegory, these two elegant women,
chicory brown showing between the flaming red
of their origami turbans and long flowing dresses.
They move with a slow stateliness that yet owns
a required quickness for plucking a child from a river
or a flower from a stem. Unmistakably sisters,
they have a brother (or is he a husband?), succulent
as goat curry with collard greens and candied yam,

who is not always there. They manage without him.
Once, someone threw a rock through the window
and made off with the cash register. It was empty,
one sister told me as she swept up the fallen glass.
(One speaks English, the other, however, does not.)
The restaurant is on the rougher side of the park.

Hi Harlem #6

#6 I Don’t Believe in the Long Arc of Justice

In the Martin Luther King Jr. Senior Center,
a dozen Martins and Martinas doze and drool
in front of the Baptist preacher on cable TV.
 They know better than to take him seriously.

Sure, they sometimes wake at night, blurred
with heat and sweat, and cry out for a savior.
But in their better, which means less fearful,
moments, they see through cataracts the truth.

No one will save them from slow deterioration
or a heart attack. No words will do. Sure, it is
far far better to have brave words than harsh,
but the time for words is almost over, so they

look forward to their children coming for them,
after a hard day’s slog, to bundle them into coats
and wheel the feebler out to the open chariot,
paid for by monthly installments and rough hands.

Hi Harlem #5

#5 Sea & Sea Fish Market

How does Sea feel, knowing that there is another Sea,
that he, or she, or they, is not unique?
Not just in a Psyche and Echo way,
not just in the coincidence of a common name, like Smith,
nor in the past and present tense sense,
not even in the fashion of the replication of a gene,
like two daughters from a mother,
or two poems from the great Polish poet Wisława Szymborska,
but exact copies of each other in alternate universes
except they live in the same one
where together they set up a Fish Market,
selling Atlantic Salmon, Red Snapper, Large Whiting, Sea Bass.
How do the Seas feel? We can ask Jee & Jee
of Harlem and Harlem.
Or we can ask the fish.

Hi Harlem #4

#4 Revolution Books

You are Ngugi wa Thiong’o! You are my O
Level textbook, the river between Nyambura
and charismatic Waiyaki.

When you rejected the oppressor’s language
in favor of your native tongue, Gikuyu, you
made this would-be writer

sweat over if he should follow your example.
He couldn’t, for he received praise for his As,
Bs, Cs from his teachers.

Good-bye, Ngugi. He’d thank you, if he could.
He is a young man still star-struck by authority
sanctified by sacrifice.

I’ve locked him up in solitary, so he can’t speak
to others, starved him, beaten him once or twice,
but he won’t die. Nor I.

Hi Harlem #3

#3 M60 on Monday

For the stretch of 125th Street, these American children,
on the bus with luggage racks, dream of summer and flying

to Dakar, Port-au-Prince, Lagos, and Charlotte Amalie,
until the driver snaps to a stop, just before the flyover,

and lets in a cold blast, filthy piles of snow, oily slicks.
Then we know we’ve landed on the wrong landing strip.

Hi Harlem # 1 and 2

We've been in Harlem now for two months, so I'm going to try writing about it for NaPo as the newbie that I am to the neighborhood.Yesterday's poem and today's.


#1 NYC Best Grocery Corp

The church
across the street
 says you sell
stale bread
at exploitation
price. Pot calling
kettle black.


#2 Aims 99 Cent Store

The men shooting
the breeze outside
aren’t going anywhere
on the rental wheels
or the bikes brought
in for repairs. They
are going everywhere,
everyone, on their
mouths, traveling,
and doubling back,
setting up a hoop,
3-pointer, cheap shot.