Hungry Ghosts

1. The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity

Dear Heart, you hear the gossip Lord Hu circulates
about how I begged the Emperor to castrate me
instead of quaffing down the poisoned cup, how base
I am to return a remnant of the blade to my father.

The slander passes in wine cups around the court
once every year. More often if the border’s quiet.
My name’s divulged to new officials as a joke
or else a warning not to defame the Son of Heaven.

Defame! Because I spoke up for General Li
who fought the Xiongnu brutes until he was brought down.
Each day my bowels twist nine times. The nights! So wrote
Zhouyang: Accumulated slander destroys bone.

Sweat springs from my cold hands and runs into the ink.
I have completed writing Records—all one hundred
and thirty chapters—from the earliest sage-kings
down to the present reign—more than two thousand years.

To the fragments gathered by my father for the work
he dreamt about but did not start, I added flesh
and bones, stitched them together into history.
The Master edited one Spring and Autumn Annals

which Records extends—Essays, Chronological Tables,
Hereditary Houses. Lord Hu’s father preens
in Chapter Fortynine, embroidered with such true
colors that his son’s balls, in his rich robe, will shrink.

In my Biographies, kings are threaded with assassins,
male favorites, butchers, turtleshell diviners, women,
whose names are commonly lost unless they cling like fleas
to a warhorse tail flying over bamboo strips.

My work will live and penetrate every house,
village, city, district, province, court and state.
The written word is sharper than the word of mouth.
It will scratch out my shame in Silkworm Hall. It will

revise my name. In Hell my father will have his book
though not his son. I chose, my Heart, a higher duty
when I begged him for my mutilated life. Burn
this letter in a cup of wine and drink to me.


2. The Scholar Minister Gives Career Advice

He has come to display his respect and so court my support,
this young scholar who topped the imperial examination,
like so many before him year after year.

Already he follows the fashion of snipping a sleeve.
Already he wears a fine powder to whiten his face,
accentuate his swallow brows.

He refreshes this ashen room like spring rain. A young bamboo
at once strong and supple, he flowers but yearns to buckle
his body in a public robe.

In my hands The Sayings—the graying calligraphy,
the bamboo ribs bound by a belt of twine and worn
by age and use. The sage’s words

are imperial edicts engraved on the heart’s bronze urn.
He’s repeating his question. I answer, Virtue is forged
             through loyal service to the court.


3. The Emperor's Male Favorite Waits Up for Him

Holding the mirror, I study my plucked eyebrows,
worry my fringecurl,
touch my lips with rouge.

He gave me this mirror. On its back, twin dragons
braid their jadescaled
bodies into sinew.

The Peach Terrace glints under the autumn moon,
pink as skin seen
through red silk gauze.

Are the lights in the Audience Hall still burning
or has he removed Heaven
to some other room?

I asked Eunuch Shu earlier for the Emperor’s mood.
The army has pushed back
the barbarians
, he said,

and recouped the loss of ten frontier towns
they took from us
a month ago.

A victory then. Another change. The wine has turned cold.
On the old coverlet,
the kingfisher molts.


4. The Taoist Magician’s Last Address

My followers, I am about to turn immortal.
After ingesting cinnabar for years,
I’ll soon become like Princely Qiao and Song.

You know the costs—I have spoken of them,
when I was stricken by the longing to live—
how longing broke and drove me out of me:

resigned from lucrative town temple posts,
slept in a different bedroom from my wife,
and even sent away the serving boy.

When lust sneaked past the bodyguards yet again,
I ran away to live in mountain caves,
ate aerial roots, blue stamens and stone ears.

The Master of the Bamboo Grove is right,
the musk deer grows fragrant from eating cedar
and so I drained my body of its swamp.

You know how many come to mock my work.
Armed with their science and senses, they joke,
Immortals must be good at lying low!

They see the worms on cusps of lips and think
death is the common lot. The fools! The fools!
To eke one living from the land and ache

over the scrimped allotment! So I leave
them to their fate and ready mine for change.
The thorny limebush crosses the Huai River…

 et cetera. I bequeath to you my scrolls.
Practice your breathing every dawn and dusk
and rest early. Preserve your energy.

Remember: don’t nail shut my coffin lid
but fetter me in a strong crimson net.
I’ll move through it to immortality.


5. He Bids His Brotherly Lover Farewell

Drained, you crawl up my flank and hear the flood
subside. This light on us is of the moon.
Again you ask me to explain love’s well spring
at Guanyin Temple lucky for rain prayers.

When you strode to the altar, how the men stared
at your unblemished skin, your torso snared
in a muchmended jacket made of goat.
The gods desired you, even the Jade Emperor.

Of all the powdered faces there, you spoke
to the plainest. Can you explain why? No?
Nor can I. Mother drank your cup of tea
and liked you, loved you like another son.

In that year, Xuanzong abdicated breath
and his son’s reign inaugurated our days
of picking pekoe leaves on rippling slopes
and nights of sipping tea. A week of years.

Don’t forget the presents for your bride.
I’ve packed and left them on the kang for you.
She’s gentle, pretty, with childbearing hips.
Your fathers must have sons to sacrifice

at the ancestral altar, offer meat
and wine, or else their ghosts get hungry.
As the dead sage dictates, a ruler should
be a ruler, a father father, a son son.

I’ve done my duty by you. I can do
no more. Oh, how pathetic that sounds!
I’m turning woman, so no more of this.
See, passion is a tide. My body’s dried.


6. The Connoisseur Inspects the Boys

My source informs me you’ve acquired a catch
of boys to staff Happy Establishment.
Yes, one may find a peony in a shithole—
quite right, I have a discriminating nose.

Not for me, or my friend here, the flower roll
billed in the Precious Mirror, wellknown boys
cultivated to sing, dance, and recite
Shakespeare to welcome, please, the foreign devils.

They are no longer Chinese in the most
vital sense of the word. Not virginal.
To be premature is to be perfect, you agree,
my friend? The wisdom of both East and West.

No locals I hope. They are like spit on the street,
everywhere. This boy from Anhui? Clean
and smoothskinned as Baiji river dolphins.
They swim apart yet surface together for air.

Observe the purple blot on the other’s neck,
the way it throws his bloom into relief.
So a defile makes a Guizhou rock sublime
and one never tires of admiring it.

Rarer still—an unspoiled Uygur just arrived
from Xinjiang. See, friend, how his thighs whipcord
as we speak of him. Centuries of horse riding
over highlands and deserts. A good mount.

You are embarrassed by my frank comments.
I will desist. See anything you fancy?
Your eyes have not strayed from that Shandong boy
since we came in. Your flush is very becoming.

Tonight I will break in that Uygur foal.
An opium pipe for you too, I presume?
Opium, China has learned, delays the rain
for an eternal sport among the clouds.

Sir, open up your ports, one for the young
Singaporean ship of state, the other
for old Europe, and bill to my account,
A. Winckelmann, two “n”s, not one, to “man.”


7. Hungry Ghosts

My father took me picnicking in Hell
in Tiger Balm Gardens when I turned five.
Horseface and Oxhead 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 nightmareshaped.

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 thirtyfive 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 snowpacked 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 blueballed.

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 laughingstock.
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 shock

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.

by Koh Jee Leong
from Equal to the Earth (2009)


SELECTED POEMS: an excerpt from “A Lover’s Recourse" >