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The rich red grapes hang on the wall,

Too tall for me to get them.

I cannot fly so high up there,

Much wiser to forget them.


I’m sure, you know, those grapes are sour!

The power of hope is cheating.

The dream so gleaming fair above,

Proves sordid in the eating.


And we may dine well without wine,

And if our lives be plainer

For passing up the cup of lies,

Then we are all the saner.


But still the grapes hang on the wall,

Inviolate, in beauty.

And as we pass below their light,

Their presence blesses mutely.


MONSOON   (1965)

Rain on me, mercy of God,

And flood my deep and driest place.

Pour through my soul,

Thou torrents of grace.


Make me the gully

Of trash and leaf swept free

Fill me to overflow

Until I pour forth Thee.





(1979. for Su’s birthday)


            How old is a coast of coconut trees?

            How old is a phosphorescent sea?


In some far twilight, when day is waning,

to your weary spirit a thought shall come:

that still on those beaches the waves are breaking,

the tide is flowing and the wind blows strong;

and the sky and the sea sing one song together,

which lasts as long as the world shall turn.


Let no grief come upon you when you remember!

Don't think of yourself as time's victim, of brightness as lost.

Somewhere, a you who is ageless stands, still wondering,

watching the seas on those murmuring coasts;

you are a part of that ongoing music for ever.

This will not die, while memory lasts.


Or even should memory fail, if the oceans dry up into mud,

Yet in eternity, that song endures.

Somewhere wind always blows on those beaches.

Somewhere it is night with a sea full of stars,

and the lines of fire fall blazing and crashing,

though no one stands on the darkening shores.





O fire that burns and does not kill --

O pain that sears and still goes on --

speak to our lives.

Speak to the man drowned in flames

from the tumour in the bone

To the woman twenty years burning

in deadly marriage;

and the mother who drudges,

and the daughter serving unthanked,

and the father walking his office treadmill:

Hardly aware of the embers smouldering through their days


speak to us, bush that burns unconsumed,

each twig transfigured, filling the desert with light.

Say to the suffering, I am here:

in the burning and fire behold Me:

when no comfort is left -- (take off your shoes) --

when you bear what cannot be borne, in the limitless





Listen, Linda,

 to the whisper of wind

Across the parched land.

Cool rains are falling again

And the blades of grass spring from blackened earth,

From the bitter sand.


Listen, Linda,

To the song that is sung

Beneath the dark sky.

Young hearts are dreaming again

And the bough that was burned puts out shoots of green

Where the ashes lie.





Aged hands plucking my heartstrings

playing cadenzas of guilt across my soul

She who built the instrument

with innate artistry

renders her virtuoso performance


and I am paralyzed

and I want to run a thousand miles

I am held by the gripe of wrinkled claws

deep in my gut


Locked ...


No escape for player or played

but to deconstruct,

to disconnect

to spend a lifetime unbuilding

a lifetime's building



it is all loosened.

Strings unfastened.

Everything quiet.

There's only a frail old woman

fumblingly pressing keys on a dead keyboard.


In the unechoing chamber, a new note sounding

(a song I always wanted to practice)

my heart's own music,

a gentle lullaby

for my mother.



 (These verses written before 1980, pre-dating the clean-up of Singapore’s rivers, and containing perhaps the first literary reference to the emerging haze.)


I.  Newton

The site of the old cemetery might have got flooded

So the planners built a water-lily pool.

There might have been ghosts lurking in the dark shadows

So (instead of vainly decrying superstition)

They put lots of lamps to light every corner.

The soil is fertile and flowers and trees all flourish.

Truly the wise man is he

Who knows how to turn evil to good.


II  Orchard Road

Madwoman walking in Orchard Road

talking to herself in the shopping mall.

hair lank eyes blank

wandering through glass panes.

People get upset to see such things.

Men in blue arrive in blue car,

hold her arms, talk to her nicely, squeeze her into the car;

she pleads and threatens to tell Mr Reagan.

Car speeds way down Orchard Road.

Silence should follow this tragic scene,

The stage stay empty.

But your compassion is hollow..

You may sneer that a hard-boiled state

Neatly tidies its cripples away:

Neither does your sentimentality help her.

No memory holds the spot;

Pedestrians resume their flow,

Not wondering why, by the road,

 Lies one plastic slipper.



III  Rochore

Here two tides pause against each other.

One onward-pressing from our much-used seas,

one from the close-built stacks, off concrete and tar.

No eddy turns, not the drowned fowl or the bloated rat …

on the black mirror, gold cassia-leaflets hang

like stars in space;

At  Rochore, poised waters balancing.

But though moon moves rain flows only down.

Tide turns at last and stream forward runs

Out to an ocean not now boundless, not unpolluted,

Yet a wider shore.


IV Market Street

At Market Streepiuitary of the city

At ten on a sunny Saturday morning

When the sea-breeze flutters the skirts  of typists

In the gutter a gulp and a gurgle

Subterranean chuckling ..

water is flooding

UP through drains ..

High tide rising along Market Street,

inky water, not merely muddy or turbid,

black as  your Mercedes, as sin and loneliness,

welling into a dusty road

under a bright blue sky.

Side streets are canals.

Guy who parked his car in the lane

finds his Citroen’s four wheels up to their hubcaps in water:

“How the hell am I going to get my car?”


V Shenton Way

Now not seldom comes morning misty in Singapore.

Haze hangs low over Shenton Way,

muting to coolness the first sunlight,

 blurring the towers of Kuan Yew’s city.

Seems I remember,

Skies were bluer once,

Sun rose more golden, shadows were sharp;

The skyline was lower, we were simpler then.

Cast back memory.  Now these canyoned streets

are windier than the streets I remember.

Breeze whips tourist ladies’ skirts;

dust devils rise

(pillars of whirling air, with no paper to play with).

Fresh winds blow around us, strong and reviving.

This is something new.

We have forgotten the tropical somnolence,

the swampy heat which used to surround us;

we have forgotten, in the greening of the city,

how dusty it used to be.

Verses - unplugged

Verses Unplugged
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