A Poem in 12 Strokes

We Are Not Yet Free (For Josef Ng)

A Poem in 12 Strokes

I (My friend Josef)

Josef, I am twenty-one this year.
The army has left its muddy dandruff

On my scalp, though now I have
A full head of hair. You were also

Twenty-one then, and you had shaved
Your hair so close to your skin

It was a dare to those who demanded
A map to the geography of your skull;

Of conspirational caves, guerilla jungles.
They wanted to know what you were thinking

As you laid down strands of your pubic hair
On white tofu flesh like the faint

Combustible handwriting of a lost people.
I know what I am thinking now

Divorced from the polemics
Of art and vulgarity, from the

White-hot panic of the censors.
This is what I am dreaming:

Of drowned hair clogging the drain-hole,
Each one inseparable from the rest

A strand of hair between the pages
Of a diary salvaged from the cinders

Hair crinkling in the incinerator
Of the secret forensic laboratory

Or the hair of that dead Japanese child
That grows by inches through drought and snow

With the thirst of the roots of a bulb in winter
With the dreaming of those who refuse their burial.

II (The Newspaper Article)

In the New Paper
The report highlighted one minute
Of your twenty-six minute performance.

I was one of those
Deceived into believing
That the obscenity was in what

You did, and not
In the hands of that one in the audience
Who decided to frame you in a photo--

Graph, thinking of a headline,
Settling on 'Pub(l)ic Protest'. You,
Facing the wall, with your hands on your

Crotch, it was as if you knew,
As if you had posed for them, the image
Of a man clutching his privates

As a camera zeroed in like a scalpel on his back:
Re-assembled his body to a cluster
Of dots on a page, the dark tampered evidence.

III (The Interrogation Room)

I imagine they took you to a room.
You were led to a chair
And there might have been a table.
There was a pen scratching
Or a tape-recorder spool twisting
Your words back on itself.

"Are you a Marxist?
Which hand would you use
To hold the Constitution?
Do you talk in your sleep?
Which of the stars
On the national flag
Represents death?
What kinds of friends
Have shared your cigarettes
Or rolled over in bed
Stretching his or her hand
To find you absent,
And believed that
You had been taken away?"

You swallowed your trembling
With the help
Of a cup of coffee
They had placed
In your trusting hands.

You finally cleared your throat
As if pushed
Onto a funeral podium
To deliver a eulogy
For a man you did not know.

What is a word?
A needle's ballet
Stitching the chasm
Between a yes and a no.

IV (Felix The Cat)

Forum Theatre. Josef was one of the actors. There was no script.
audience was invited onto the stage to take on roles. What is the danger? Why did they pull out all support and funding for Forum Theatre? There was no script. This opens the gates to lunatic evangelists, people who keep coals under their tongues, agents of mass
hypnosis, pathological liars, scandalous confessors and citizens ignorant of the teachings of Confucius. The audience will riot. They
will tear up their seats and run amok in the streets. The National
Library will be burnt down, karaoke lounges looted for their bottles of
XO, they will urinate copiously into the holes on golf courses in country clubs and mutilate the private parts of prominent cabinet ministers. Even the Zoo will not be spared. Enclosures will be dismantled, a lion will leap from its cage, utter a roar, and will be
immediately shot down by the police for an unscripted performance without a license.

V (An article by another newspaper)

"12 men nabbed
in anti-gay operation
at Tanjung Rhu"

I do not say
That they were innocent.

I do not question
What right anyone had
To be there.

All I can say is that
When their faces and names
Were published in the papers

I doubt
That a crystal sigh
Rippled through
Midnight estates
Bandaged in peace.

I doubt
That there were boys
In the heat of self-abuse
Who substituted fantasies
Of swimming pool buddies
With nightmares
Of the lallang's serrations
And the handcuff's click.

I doubt
That records were shattered
In the department tabulating
Indices for Moral Health.

I doubt
That men walked the streets
Assured that their genitals
Were in the safe hands

Of the police.

VI (Forum Theatre: The voices banished from the stage)

"I once dreamt that I will die without
saying anything in my Mother Tongue
and be buried in a valley of wildflowers"
"I have lost my job after fifteen years
and I want to shake hands with all of you
so you can tell me if they are still fit for work"
"My son was shot by a stray bullet
and I do not say he died for his nation
I say he died because they let his friends
play with guns"
"My husband beats me in front
of the children and the television
when it is screening the News"
"When my lesbian daughter calls
from Vancouver she always asks me
what sound is that in the background"
"I want to tell him
to stop living in his memoirs"
"Within 24 hours a person who dies of AIDS
will have to be set on fire, as if
he was a bag of toxic waste"
"I read the afternoon paper because
it says exactly the same things as the morning one
and this can only mean that we are safe"
"Silence, too, is a form of violence"
"Once I woke to the smell of burning
and realised it was only my country"


There will be someone
Who will say:
"Sooner or later
They will discover
That they cannot
Run away from the truth."

And there will be someone
Who will say:
"Yet sooner or later
We will discover
That they can run away With the truth."

And there will always
Be the third one
Who is silent
Who is smiling
And wondering
Which of them
Is speaking the truth.

VIII (12 Crimes of the Counterfeit Artist)

When he started his visits to Thailand, it was with the intention of
learning from the esteemed surgeons there the methods in which he could
separate the Siamese twins of the government and the media in his own
His self-immolation, when he stubbed a cigarette on his right shoulder,
was an act of violent defiance. It is the work of a body arsonist. And
who does he think that body belongs to? Death is an act of God as cremation is an act of the State.

When he pulled down his briefs and showed us the top of his butt-crack,
he was saying 'Please bugger me.' Although we used different implements: the zoom camera, the vibrating panic-dildo of the censors
(adjustable: quiet, quieter, mute), and finally a heretic's stake, he
did not once utter a moan of pleasure as a token of gratitude.

He has peripheral vision and thus refuses to admit that the suicides,
exiles and hermits of conscience at the margins of his sight are hallucinations.

His silence is dangerous because it does not convince us of the sincerity of his guilt; his voice is dangerous because it does not
assure us of the sincerity of his recantations.

When we shine the searchlights on his body his scars aim their searchlights back at us.

We do not know what he sees in parentheses when he reads documents; we
have not been able to secure committed quotes on what he thinks of the
Go(go boys)vernment, the (real e)State, the (kay)police, the (sodo)military, religion(anism), human(datory death sentence) rights
and the (golf umbrel)Law.

They keep mixing him up with that other guy who drank his urine on New
Year's Day; this clearly makes him an impostor thirsting to claim credit for something he did not do. Is it not transparent enough that
we are dealing with someone who is willing to betray his fellow artist?

He has sympathy for homosexuals, which is infinitely more tricky than
simply being one.

It is rumoured that he has dreams in which the latest delicacy sweeping
through the homogenised heartlands is fried beancurd with garnishing of
pubic hair (black for local varieties, blond, brown, and red for imported ones).

Being the charlatan he is, we found him guilty of peddling miracle
cures for diseases which we have no desire to diagnose and for which we
have no names for yet.

It is important to know that we call him a counterfeit artist not only
because he is a fraud, a con man, a knave, a cheat and a phony. When we
held him up against the light, like counterfeit currency, we saw nothing, nothing but the inky shadows of our own fingertips.

IX (The Journalist Reflects on What he has Done)

He comes home to a house
Where an old woman
Watches television.

There are books on his shelves
And plates in the dish rack.
On the tablecloth a pattern
Of unidentifiable yellow flowers.

He slips the triangular toothless
Mouth of a clotheshanger across
The length of his trousers
As if smoothing cement.
A stain around his collar
Like a burnt crust; he frisks
The pocket for bus tickets,
Dollar notes, discount flyers.

Then he lies on his unmade bed.
The books are not breakable.
The plates are not combustible.

Outside, he hears the old woman
Snoring on the sofa
As TV images flicker and slide
Across the wrinkles on her dress.

"What use is my voice
If I do not use it
To preserve this silence?"

He lies on his bed
Staring at a ceiling
An inch closer than yesterday.

X (The Counterfeit Poem)

This poem is a counterfeit poem.
You have been warned.
Hidden between its lines is an agenda.
Maybe two, perhaps more, who knows?
This poem operates on the universal
Perception that the alphabet is innocent.
You are reading at great personal risk.
One day you will be hauled onto
The witness-stand and your words
Will be recorded. Someone's future
Will be at stake and it could be yours.
You have to decide now whether
What you are reading is a poem.
It is not too early to make a judgement.
You have already read almost half of this,
Under most circumstances it will suffice.
There is no need to reach the end.
You might change your mind then, thrown
Off by a single phrase, a word even,
Or the vulnerable wink of a punctuation mark.
Perhaps at this stage you are still not convinced.
Perhaps you will read this poem again,
Under different lighting, variable atmospheric
Conditions, perhaps you will read it aloud
After a shower, or an argument or prayer.
Perhaps you will read it, backwards, where you
Are most powerful, in the sanctuary
Of your own bedroom, surrounded
By all that is solid: lamp, pillow, books with spines.
Or perhaps you will read it in a train station
Scanning the words, as you yourself are
Being scanned by the eyes of passing strangers.
This poem speaks too plainly and it disturbs you.
How about a few of these then: "That which exists
Between two words is not a vacuum but friction:
This is the meaning of meaning." Or "Memory is not
Threatened by forgetfulness, but by memory itself."
Or a few images, perhaps: "Dusk descends across
His eyelid like a bruise; from his silver eyelashes
A teardrop slithers: mercury from broken glass."
You can free yourself from this poem before it is
Too late. Take a stand. Announce your verdict.
You can destroy a whole poem with one word. Yours.

XI (The interrogation room, revisited)

I do not know
What kind of victory it is
For me to say that I am able
To write only this much
Not because of fear

But because of my ignorance,
Because nothing has been written
Or imagined except these:

A room




The bitter coffee

Burning your bitter tongue.

XII (The phone crackles when you are far away)

A phone call from you. You are in Thailand. I am not. You sound happier
and I am also happy for you. You are now doing your art without anybody
hassling you, without the need to apply for licenses or having to erase
your name from blacklists with water sleeves. You once taught me dirty
words in Thai but I cannot remember any of them. I wish I could say
them now, so I can hear you laugh, although there is no need for any of
this; you are already happy.

"It is easier to live this way, this is a body and nothing else, this
country is a collection of rocks and concrete and grit and nothing
else. We do not need what keeps on leaning towards an idea of paradise,
that which does not even question why we would need paradise. Some
people would call this a soul."

Josef, I want to tell you about what I see outside my window: National
Day buntings in front of the Police Post, children with giant schoolbags mechanically looking left and right before crossing the
street, a girl at a bus-stop balancing a closed file on her lap, I want
to tell you that I am also happy. Last night I dreamt of the day you
left, the wheels of the aeroplane disengaging themselves from the runway, its upturned nose nudging the clouds, calf-like, you gazing out
of the window at your own reflection, which has always looked the same
and yet can never be the same again. But my dream could not follow you,
the thin cord between us snapped like a line of spit between two lips
and I awoke to my baked bed and the sunlight's sudden bounty on my

"When I say silence is a form of violence I am saying that inaction is
complicity or that deliberate ignorance is the malnourished conscience
or even that the man who said 'yes' to the death-sentence is the man
who turned his face away and muttered to himself, 'This is something
else, somewhere else. Or I am'."

Josef, I feel my nerves are like the strings of a musical instrument
turning slack, men in power are fondling tuning knobs with invisible
fingers. They knew what you were doing, so they twisted your actions so
hard with their gloved fists that they snapped your strings, one by
one. You once did this performance art piece where you asked members of
the audience to hit you with a violin and if they did not you would run
down the hall and slam your body against the wall. One of them, enraged
at his powerlessness, smashed the violin on the floor. But you took up
the unbroken neck of the violin and asked another person to hit you
with it. This could have gone on until the violin can no longer be
called a violin, yet you would still insist that someone push a splinter through your palm or rub the sawdust in your eyes.

"I am not a Marxist. Tell me what is a Marxist."

Josef, over the crackle of the telephone I will speak to you these
words: Thailand. Happy. Paradise. National Day. Dream. Aeroplane. Sunlight. Silence. Fingers. Music. Money. Marxist. One of these words
will describe the country that you left. One of these words will describe the country that abandoned you. One of them means the soul in
a destroyed language.

Copyright Alfian Bin Sa'at 1999