Candles for a Local Osiris

For the maimed and the dead as partisans.

Encourage your heart to forget it, making it pleasant
for you to follow your heart’s desire whilst you live.

– Song of the Harp Player


The sea pulls back from its mangrove edges,
from the houses subverted into mud.
Upon tendons of the wind’s throat, vestigial
and rasping against the bared roots feeding on
the mud rows, the drowned play out their dream—
phosphorescence, creatures and driftwood.
And here, growing urgent upon the smell 
of the soul’s disaster, I confront your death.
The flares strung out to the jetty’s end
burn for your death, burn for a sick consciousness,
the wharves where debris of old crates and wagons
smoulder with its hurt, for the great ship
crawling out across the water, towards the islands,
towards the sky, as you leave these tides to beat upon 
estuaries new to this gathering dark.


To be forced back by the undertow
that swells in the tide among the channels
and a rising wind, to be washed adrift
upon the mystery of your going beyond those islands
is to come back not wholly intact—to return,
the body awkward with its old certainties,
conscious of a sickness to which all are open
who suffer the first wounds breaking
of the solitary.
                        Overtaken in the closing darkness
that comes after uncertain hint of knowledge, 
I am oppressed by dream
of the many savaged within their sleep.
Murdered into a kind of waking, they make
no lament for dismemberment. 


Whenever the night is troubled with the wraiths 
of rain that haunt our roofs, stirring the senses
and, in the blood, a carnivorous waking
only to the reek of the city’s promises,
I think of your death. A god, that day you stalked 
your quarry till a sudden clearing in the woods
happened on you and its changes of climate 
coursed through your veins. The flowers
you found here were furry and green
and could not bloom. In the undergrowth, the thing
you surprised had the look you did not understand.
And when remembrance of what you had done
or left undone could no longer hurt you
like a wound, under the leafy shadows,
you were made ready for death.


Out by the back way past closing time,
I make for the road. Through worn soles the loose stones
hurt. My toes feel moist from pressing into slush.
Raw trash on a chill wind… Out here my disquiet 
spreads, infests the mounds piled high, fermenting
in the wide-mouthed municipal bins. Whatever moves,
moves among greased cans, bruised tomatoes, and things
spilt from plastic bags…
                                        Only once have I sensed it—
high above the roadway, above the sodium lamps that light
the nearby intersection, hard against the sky, adrift—
drawn from the sea by rankness of these breeding grounds.
With savage beak and claw, you would have wrought
much havoc, cast terror before you,
as you slipped into the plunging bright arc of your descent


The city, which whitens before mid-morning
into the furnace of the overhanging sun,
is place of your absence. All is adrift—
mazes of short streets, sudden intersections
where the traffic stalled, is laid out in miles
of fuming junk; lopped trees, steam hammers blasting in
more certainties for the spreading landscape
of towers, bridges, car parks, overpasses… Dust
swirls in the clear, hard fire of the small noon sun.
Your absence leaves this city to the governance
of men who know no surprises in their waking dreams—
or touch of sun. So, in the happy hour, the rush
begins of massed vehicles pressing for the outer darkness
or westward to the suburbs among low hills
set hard against the soft, red, gigantic ball of fire.

VI. Song

I hesitate at the gate, the moonlight
tindery, as the garden of my certainties
would crumble at a touch
and the land return to silence huge as thunder.
I hesitate at the gate, bearing your death,
the season’s wound, as nightjars 
lodged in the trees make
peculiar comfort of their round burden of dumbness,
afraid to enter though the flesh
is loud elsewhere with its dying;
as I would not meet in my narrow bed,
the savagery of the heart
howling in a dream of quiet towns,
of fallen bridges, where the water
passes in coils of its own dark will.

VII. Shrine by the rail track

The tiles fallen about you, the whitewash
peeling around the cheeks, the eyes set
and blind with meaning, thinking on your face,
O Lady, makes more real the glitter of disaster
about the brittle grass and upon the trees
which shadow the pathway to your shrine
from the rail track, its white stones explosive
under the sun…
has a hint within your blindness
of the soul’s horrible journey
into its metamorphoses.
Held in granite is a kind of waking,
the stir of a god’s limbs
across a field of rising waters… 
and in the soft earth, glistening, the insects… 


The first signs would almost go unnoticed
like the bruised flowers, the crushed stalks
in the chrysanthemum beds discovered mornings
under the window. In hours of the lightest sleep,
there had been something opened the garden gate.
Your coming has always been an unease in the bone.
When the time breaks, the house dog will whine
and whimper upon the hour. There would be those
would sense you behind the woodshed in the stand 
of trees in the falling light, waiting. Nothing would help
stanch the gathering smell of our mortality.
When the time breaks, we will need to come to terms
with you, hungry from burial in our local earth,
look out without terror on the darkness thick
behind you, as you make your way in by the gate.

IX. Envoi

Though there be little comfort, you will tear your hair
and groan upon the ground after you lose your nerve,
and things you call up turn into monsters
clawing in the folds of your clothes, their snouts
crazed at the scent of your dying, begun in the mind.
The light upon a common landscape hurts your eyes 
when the caul is ripped with which you would cover
your mortality. There is something escapes you
about the stranger whose face is leprous under the road lamp
and his hair clogged with new earth,
or else you may still make the trees to lean to you
and still the murderous smoking yellow behind the eyes 
of gigantic cats. Too long about the same spell,
wearing it thin, leaves you an evil-smelling,
unwashed prophet railing at bus-stands at indifferent crowds.

by Wong Phui Nam
from Remembering Grandma and Other Rumours  (1989)


SELECTED POEMS: "Spring Night in the Imperial Chancellery" >