I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, Harold Said

Think this:
I never promised you a rose garden.
Oh yea it’d be a bed of thorns.
If that was what marriage promised
would anyone have said, masochistically,
yes? Of course not.
Because your lens isn’t rust-colored,
so what you saw was anything but
grayness; you saw cooing noises,
you saw almost pink faces and
letting out of joyful shrieks.

Harold said, we got married on
the seventh of July, 1951.
It was the happiest day.
Relatives and friends attended
though it wasn’t a grand affair.
They had their wedding mass at
St Joseph’s Church, at 8am.
Thereafter a small reception, with
cake and wine, at Rangoon Road.
Then a child, who got sickly,
and died. Harold sunk into debt.

He borrowed from the moneylenders
with heavy interest. Into despair!
His wife, Josephine, became ill
with tuberculosis. Meanwhile Harold was
balancing work, doing the ledgers,
and learning to type. His friend,
Anthony Phoon, would give him
small treats to lunch and coffee.
And Harold balanced the books,
so the auditors were pleased.
Soon a girl, their second child. 

Prompt: So tis the last day of submission. I’m sorry guys, if your poems weren’t selected. Don’t stop trying. Your poem’s got to move me in different, sometimes unexpected ways. Who said writing poems would be easy? But there’ll be a new issue coming up shortly, so you’ll still be able to submit if you wish. Whatever it is, if you’re a poet, you get to live a creative life, which isn’t quite what ordinary folks get up to. Other folks get creative in other ways of course. Dance for instance. Whatever you do get into the groove. Then you’d be happy. Meanwhile I’ve got to get changed and go for a musical. That makes me happy. Write a poem about what makes you happy.

Harold Recollects His Childhood

When I looked at those sepia pictures
thinking oh how backward we were,
gauche and gaunt, wearing floral
pant suits with frog buttons,
and tacky footwear, I recapitulated on
my blessings being born post-war,
not having to eat tubers and scoop
a handful of snails for supper.

Yet Harold’s childhood was idyllic.
His dad flew kites, twenty to thirty
of them, over at Siang Lim Park.
A battle of kites! With foul play
in mind, his dad pounded a glass bottle
mixed with resin, attached to the string
to bring down other fighting kites.
He’d lose ten to fifteen sometimes.

Harold would go to the pond to catch
fighting fish, kept in separate jars or
put two together for a fight. He’d collected
cigarette boxes, badges and bottle caps.
When there’s a party, Aunty May would play
the accordion. His younger sis, Helen,
danced and mom too, while he sat in
the corner crying, not knowing why.

Prompt: It’s almost the penultimate day to the final day for submission. How’s your mood? Are you in the mood for writing? For submitting? For not submitting? I’ve just finished reading Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris. It is set in and around Les Halles, the enormous, busy central market of 19th Century Paris. It contains pretty robust descriptions of a real-life market. For instance, pigeons being slaughtered by breaking necks and slitting throats. I’m old enough to remember how live chickens were slaughtered in the markets where I live. The theme of the story is in the final punchline: “What bastards respectable people are!” Respectability is a veneer, associated with prosperous living and the willingness to sacrifice truth, practice deceit, to preserve that at any cost. I also came across an article in which Pope Francis said that it’s better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Catholic. Hmmm. Write a poem about hypocrisy, either of a person or in general terms.

Harold Worked In An Airport Hangar

You made me sad, like those
Japanese soldiers who’d drank sake
after a dinner of rice and dried
anchovies, and a salted plum.
White band round their foreheads.
Ribbons trailing their wings,
their planes sought a battleship,
or aircraft carrier, only to dive
headlong into the war machines.

Dad asked me to plant a vegetable patch
behind the house, said Harold. Then
he told another story. A guard who’d
slapped him at the sentry, but
his protector, a Mr Shibata, was
less forbearing–he gave the guard
a good beating. Well, the guard, with
bloodshot eyes, had laughed nervously
and said sorry to Harold.

As usual, we’d like to seem bigger
than we are, more substantial.
It’s like a camouflage. Just like
the several planes made of rattan
and covered in green, just to fool
the Americans. We coiled into
whatever we’re feeling, those
salty thoughts, fibbing a little,
when all we had were husks.


Hey guys there’s about a week left for you to submit to our Fall/Winter 2016/2017 issue. Submissions close on 25 February. The theme is, The Heart Knows. Knowing is terribly important, is it not? In Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, the prince had met a wild fox who’d asked him to tame it. Once you’ve tamed the fox, he won’t be just a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. He’d have become your friend, the only one of his kind in the world. Same thing with roses, said the fox. “It’s the time that you gave to your rose that makes your rose so important,” he said.

“People have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible for ever for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”

That’s why the prince had to die. So that he could return to the only rose on his planet. And thereafter the narrator would always think of his friend, the little prince, when he looked at the stars.

The secret, said the fox, is that “you can only see clearly with your heart. What’s essential is invisible to the eye.”

See if this quote inspires a poem.

Harold’s First Child

Innumerable times I had felt you.
Like hot pepper. Yet you were gentle
as a lamb. But full of wild odors.
Bound to make a crossing
as Lerny did.

In a thick cigar voice, he was
as patriarchal as you’re not.
She couldn’t stop crying, would
take out her compact power
and then cried some more.

What a rogue death was.
Ripped Lerny who was queasy
as a child. But that was before you
and the rest came. She was
lugubrious for a while.

Prompt: It’s almost the end of the season for our current issue. Some of you might be looking forward to the next issue and wondering what the theme might be. I’d say, whatever it is, themes all kind of overlap one another. Love, loss, lies, spies, and the process of making art. So you just feel deeply whatever your godhead is, and write from that place. The theme would be one that’s familiar. I just defamiliarize it by putting a name to it, that’s all, marking a new season of spring/summer. If you are in reality in the fall/winter of your life, look back on your spring/summer. The second time round (you wish) would be just as sweet.

Harold’s Love Story

I would call it a stiff account.
Maybe the narrator’s omissions
made it so; at least give the reader
the opiate of facts–that his mom,
Rose Samuel, had died young,
and her body carried off.

It was truncated. Ten years,
he hung out in Katong. Then
Harold got invited to a tea dance,
sought a partner, was introduced
to a girl–Josephine–it was
love at first sight.

Well moistened by memory,
at the exhumation your grandfather’s
grave produced a shirt sleeve,
a gold tooth, and femur bone.
But here he was, meeting Harold,
his daughter’s escort.

Two years later a wedding plan.
Harold’s letter to Mr Vitalis
asking for his daughter’s hand.
Josephine, bringing back liquor
for the wedding, from RAF camp
in Changi, caught in a race riot!

Harold’s father, Alfred Lawrence,
got drunk at the wedding.
Mass at St Joseph’s church.
Dancing and presents, in a
summer’s wedding. Fifty years
later, their golden anniversary.

Our sons, free-wheeling under
tables and balloons. She’d put on
a golden dress with hat and gloves.
In the cab she’d dabbed her cheek,
resplendent. Post mini-stroke.
Earth-mother, that’s Josephine!

She had on that dress in
the open casket. Loving kisses.
Her life in prayer, a full canvas.
She’d be in heaven now.
Here we are carrying a memory,
in between places.

Prompt: Everyone has a life story. What if you had to write a memoir? What would you tell? Would you list down events, expositional style? You know, the “and then” “and then” way of setting things down. Someone had said life has three great events: birth, sex and death. Would those be the hooks from which you’d expound your mini stories? Someone had also asked, what three things would you remember most about a person. Perhaps you’d try and answer that, as if your narrative is really an attempt to paint a character. Character is all. If someone remembers you as kind, curious, and has a sense of humor, would you be happy? I think I would. Your prompt would be to write a familial story.

Harold, My Boy

I’m a forever rookie. Perhaps you are
(stifles laugh), as well. You’d given me
a task. Bleached orange of a book, deep in
the grain, scrawled in neat handwriting.

He’s quite the raconteur. By the pen,
I suppose. Harold sat in the corner, and
“our boy ate quite a pile of acid one time”,
his world had turned green. Not quite that?

He squatted by his mother, pounding
chilli paste, with mortar and pestle,
grabbed mom’s sari, squirmed in scent,
exulting like this, over and over.

Prompt: Write a poem about mothers. I got inspired by this exchange.

Boy: Mom could you iron my shirt please?
Mom: No. Why?
Boy: Because you’re my mother.
Mom: OK.

Another one bites the dust.

Then take out the volume of poetry you’re reading, and quote one line from one of the poems. Why? Me: Because this is how poetry works. You: OK.

My quoted line, “our boy ate quite a pile of acid one time”, is taken from August Kleinzahler’s poem, “Green Sees Things in Waves”.

The Diaries of Harold

I looked at a title “Green Sees Things In Waves”.
And yearned for “startling images”.
Even I, the most theoretical one, would
wave goodbye, tipping a pilot’s cap,
at your dad, steeped in his accounts,
a smoke trail then kamikaze into
the oratorical sunset.

Your dad would grow despondent but
elliptical. Coralling self into service.
You in diapers, falling into vegetables.
I will leaf through his diaries.
By the fall, though distracted,
and moody, I’ll be done, sire. Then
he too, will leap through air.

Prompt: Howdy. Been a while. I’ve been too far away from poetry. And when I brush up against it, like a furry thing, it gets deep. Sometimes it’s too deep. It matters who you’re reading. Some poets are accessible and others not. So not that it’s easy to get distracted. But I’m gonna try. I’ll keep you guys posted. In the meanwhile you could try reading up a poet and then reference the title you’re reading. Like what I did. Mine’s “Green Sees Things In Waves” by August Kleinzahler. His work has been described as “experimentalist”, “angular”, “precise”, “chiseled”. Wish me luck as I drink from a new oasis.

Truths Lie As Extraordinary As Grass

Rain kept me in watching bougainvilleas.
Tap water’s ice cold, not as chillin’ as cold
elsewhere. We’re finished, with what?
Bare mood sunning in one’s own bastion.

Poem drowns old beliefs. I’d watched them gasp.
Cheap as you’d say. They’re dirt, beliefs,
mounds of them. The rain, unstoppable!
Truths lie as extraordinary as grass.

I’d been rock solid, haven’t I, as someone
who’d served out of the system so you’d
believe, believe and believe all that stored
ammunition like gold within hummocky love.


I’d just read a very thoughtful essay by a student from Trumpland. I get it. Last evening I’d watched a documentary about Trumpland. Down to Ku Klux Klan beliefs about white supremacy, it’s about beliefs isn’t it? I believe therefore I am. Everyone’s beliefs are differently shaped by their geography and circumstance. At the end of the day it’s all about survival isn’t it? Like the student who wrote the essay I hope for a middle path. Extremists on both sides of the divide represent their truths. Truths are more complicated than that. Just like the white woman who doesn’t get the women’s march, which grew so epic yesterday, is it because she is speaking from a position of privilege? Having grown up in a sanctuary, how would she know the other’s truth? Society fought for women’s rights back then, but those rights continue to be violated and is it so wrong that women, in solidarity, refuse to be silenced? If you remain in silence, then you’re complicit. Didn’t someone say that poetry doesn’t simplify these truths? Be glad for poetry–it gets a bad rap, and continue to be berated for its uselessness in a world that privileges economic truths above all else. Write about your truth, sure, but then know that it’s not somebody else’s truth. So what is truth, friends and frenemies?

In the courtyard her lover skulked

She settled for a smug silence.
In the courtyard her lover skulked.
The deities grew treacherous.

What sort of penance is this,
she wondered. She had grown into
what she was.

God I can’t go back to where
I’d been. She sat there thinking
listening to pigeons.


Hello there, still sharpening your word skills? I guess if I’m a character I’d be falling into love with wordsmiths. With words we invent a world. With words we perform rites of ceremony, of magic, of declaration. With words we woo. With words we regularize what is at hand. “Trump’s America”! That’s at hand. Anyway you go make up a world with words in a poem. That’s what you do right? Do it right.

Tessa, Margot’s A Dancer

Margot was aloof and of course
contemptuous. When we didn’t make
those quick, sharp moves,
she’d rolled her eyes.
She’d tried, snorted.

Oh, we are the worm in her apple!

At night she’d lay down smoking
one cigarette after another and
looking at the tin foil moon;
steeled herself thinking
Jesus loves you.

She’d been through lean rigors.
Saving herself up for romance?
Whatever it was she did feel,
forever inviolate.
Singed by dreams.


So what were your happiest times? My son asked me. Think back and you’d find that those were the periods of new growth. Then usually that came with some disappointments. It’s as if once you’ve gained something you’d also lose a couple other things. Or perhaps it were those years when the future seemed full of promise and you were swanning around carefree and all. But you’d changed when, for instance, you fell in love. To be enthralled with another is perhaps one of those happiest times. Then when you’d gotten to the hard bits, had your heart broken, or whatever it was, you’d figure out the various ways in which you can be happy under your own skin, with whoever you’re with, however your heart dances. Perhaps you’d like to write about real happiness–what’s your theory on that?