Here are four of my poems.
1. Ghost Writing
It is with the deepest sorrow that I am writing to you.
A call received,
A favour asked,
“Did you read the paper today?
So you know what happened?
That was at one of ours.
We need a condolence letter.
Can you fax it within the hour?”
I remember the first time I learned about death—human death, anyways, God knows we went through pets pretty fast in those days—a couple of dogs, a cat, a bird, the maritime disaster in the fish tank—but with people . . . well when you’re flushing a dead guppy down the toilet you don’t normally think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. That was in Grade 10. “You may have noticed someone isn’t here today. I’m afraid I have to announce that Scott was killed in a car crash on Saturday.” I’d just been talking to him the day before that—probably the only real conversation we’d ever had. We were just walking together after school, carrying our adidas bags and hockey sticks, talking about nothing in particular. He stopped for the bus. I kept on walking. What if we hadn’t talked or if we had talked a little longer? Just another few seconds? Would that have been enough to throw everything off schedule?
It is with the deepest sorrow that I am writing to you to express my condolences to you and your loved ones
His wife will arrive in the afternoon to claim the body.
Leaving four children in Pakistan
To await her return.
The beginning is always the easiest part
Of a letter,
Of a life.
But after that there are choices,
I can’t think of what to type.
What is there to say to a woman I don’t know
About a man I never knew
And never will?
So I look to the right.
Stuck on the office wall
A JPEG image, printed out
Each pixel a single square of solid colour.
the squares together form
Of two children.
A wild girl with stickers of blue and gold stars covering her eyes
Holding her little brother,
His hair coiling down to his shoulders in a mane of ringlets
It is with the deepest sorrow that I am writing to you to express my condolences to you and your loved ones on the tragic death in the line of duty
What was he thinking
With the shotgun raised
His finger at the trigger?
Why did he hesitate?
I phone home
The starry-eyed girl is at kindergarten
The curly-haired boy answers
Then digitized and transmitted.
A stream of numbers,
Each a one or a zero,
But the numbers together forming
something that almost makes sense.
I listen for a while
To the flow of his voice.
It is with the deepest sorrow that I am writing to you to express my condolences to you and your loved ones on the tragic death in the line of duty of your husband, Zafar Iqbal Khan.
What will become of this letter?
Will it be torn up?
Will it lie untouched at the bottom of a box,
Will it be kept pristine in an envelope in a folder in a drawer
To be brought out when the moment is right
The folds on the page becoming sharper each time
As the words rewrite themselves.
A letter to a widow.
Nothing to it.
Nothing that hasn’t already been done a million times before.
I heard that Brian died.
He had been married to a friend
She lost her husband one last time
While her son regained a father.
A riddle it’s best not to ponder.
I didn’t know what to say
Other than “I’m sorry to hear…”
I didn’t know him well.
Saw him sometimes in the gym
He looked fit.
It was unexpected.
But expectation deals in averages.
Grief deals in specifics,
Each death leaving its own empty spaces.
Is there comfort in knowing his wife and children will cope
It is with the deepest sorrow that I am writing to you to express my condolences to you and your loved ones on the tragic death in the line of duty of your husband, Zafar Iqbal Khan. His selfless bravery, his immense respect for life and his desire to protect the innocent are an inspiration to all of us. Our prayers go out to you and your children.
Then there was that time about a year later—the summer between Grades 11 and 12. Sheer stupidity. I was cycling. To get my mind off something. Problems with a girl. So important then; so trivial now. So I’m going down Walkey and I turn onto Heron and just go cruising though the stop sign without thinking once let alone twice and right into the path of a Blueline taxi. Black Lincoln Continental. I can’t remember whether I saw it first or heard it—the squealing tires. I went up over the hood, my back shattering the windscreen. As I’m flying through the air, all I can think is “oh shit”, not very poetic I know, but probably common last words all the same. I blacked out for a moment, but came to and saw the sky falling away beneath my feet, giving me enough time to break my fall with an arm. If I had opened my eyes a second later. . .?
All it takes is that second
For a skull to be smashed
For a heart to cease beating
For a trigger to be pulled
A good man has gone
But his ghost remains.
Somewhere in the pixels that form the starry-eyed girl
Somewhere in the sound waves from the curly-haired boy.
Somewhere in the code of all things.
Our prayers go out to you and your children. We pray that his soul is at peace and that his courage will be rewarded in heaven as it will be remembered here on earth. We pray that as his children grow up, they will always carry with them the knowledge that their father was a great man who revered life. And we pray that they will inherit his bravery and his dignity.
It is with the deepest sorrow that I am writing to you
It is with the deepest sorrow that I am writing to you
This poem is about a real event—the shooting death of a security guard in a bank (in case you are not familiar with the term, ‘ghost writing’ is when you write on behalf of a person who is then assumed to be the author). I wish there was a lot less pain in the world. Yeah, I know, ‘we need the pain to truly experience and appreciate the joy of life’. I just can’t help but think that the balance is off. We don’t need that much sorrow, do we?
2. Field Exercises
I haven’t written any poems for a while, so after asking all my students in one class to write a poem for a competition (they could choose between six different themes), I decided I would have a go myself. I wrote two poems on the topic on the environment (one of the topics). Here is one of them
Four men slip between the pines
Treading, careful and alert, towards the shoreline.
The dawn sky begins to lighten
Revealing heavy grey clouds
That muffle the forest
Leaving only the faint footsteps of
Leather boots atop pine needles
And the lapping of waves against the shore.
Camouflaged figures emerge from the shadows of the tree line
and step out onto the small pebbled beach
Taking care not to scatter the stones.
A dense low morning fog
rolls over the surface of the placid lake.
One man speaks
Just loud enough to be heard through the gas masks
“Anyone hear the all clear?”
A shake of the head,
The four men stand slouching a while longer
Cradling their sub-machine guns,
Pausing to take in the
Shimmering shades of silver and grey.
Spoiler Alert: I wrote this as an example of a 1) a simple description poem and 2) writing from experience. While in university, I did some training in the armed forces reserves. This poem is simply describing a scene during one of our field training exercises. The environment there was breathtakingly beautiful, yet there we were all carrying weapons, wearing gas masks (just to add an extra challenge to the training) and practising warfare. If you are wondering why we all had sub-machine guns instead of rifles, it is because we were training in a medic unit and that was the weapon for medics (small, light and useful for defensive suppressing fire).
3. A Fisherman
Hi, if you are looking for a more general poem about a fisherman that you can use for someone you know (the poem below is about a specific person and is a little negative in some parts), try Trout Fishing by Eunice Lamberton. This is a poem about my step-grandfather. I didn’t know him as a young man (and only barely knew him as an old man), so it is not an accurate picture of him, just an impression of him late in his life. This poem was originally published in Outloud: An anthology of poetry from Outloud Readings, p. 111. (2002). XtraLoud Press: Hong Kong.
My grandfather was a fisherman
No, not in the Christian sense—a fisher of men
But a man with a rod and a reel, a line, bait on the hook
I hate fishing.
Did you know that a worm has five hearts?
And then there’s the cleaning.
I’d stay in the bedroom—
and try not to hear
the scrick scrick of scaling
the flubbup of guts on the table
How could one not love fishing?
He was a fisherman.
And a word alchemist
Instead of transmuting lead into gold
He changed fiberglass
It sounded like a mistake,
But we could never be sure
He told us of
His phonographic memory
Had he mispronounced a word
Or could he really remember every thing that he’d heard?
He spoke of radical tires.
At first, we thought ‘radial’
But wouldn’t radical tires better suit
A man with a certificate
In offensive driving
And that we knew to be accurate.
He wasn’t a driver.
He was a fisherman. He was a word alchemist. He was a builder
Cottage, boat, dock, deck
If it was made of wood, he could build it
He knew how to handle a hammer and a nail
A saw and a carving knife
a hook and a scaling knife
He knew the skills of sharp things
To sever relationships,
Cut away the deadwood of family and friends
To hammer down trust to a thin sheet of tolerance
I saw him last year.
My mother drove us up to the nursing home.
She warned us . . . he has this story. If he starts off on it just pretend you’re listening. Don’t bother to interrupt, because he’ll just keep on going until he gets to the part about the doctor laughing. It always starts the same way . . . I never worked in the factory.
Ten minutes later
I never worked for the factory you know. Not in the factory. Not for Dupont. They just put that down to keep the books right and proper. Keep the pencil-neckers in line. I was a guide—a fishing guide. I knew all the best times and all the best spots so when business fellas come up from the city, I’d take ’em out. They’d catch their fish, and they’d be happy as clamps. That’s what they paid me for. I was a fisherman. Now this one day, I take these three fellas from Tronna out on the lake. First thing happens is that one of these fellas is casting, and you can tell he doesn’t know a rod from Adam, and what does he do but cast his hook right into the top of my head. He tugs on it a few times and I holler at ‘im to stop tugging. So he stops. But the hook is stuck in my head see. Right here. You can still see the scar. I pull it out and the other fellas turn all white… guess no one bleeds in Tronna. So one fella says “we better get you to the hospital” but I say, “no, I’ll be just fine.” I hold a rag to my head and stop the bleedin. It hurts like bejeezus, but I have a flask of whiskey and I take a sup from time to time. We were out on the lake all morning. The fellas caught their fish and went back to Tronna. So when I get to the doctor he tries me on once for size and says: ‘looks like I’m gonna have to stitch that up. Better give you something for the pain’. And I just take another sup of whiskey and says, doc, you go right ahead and do whatever you gotta do. I ain’t feeling much of anything right now. And he laughs and he says to me ‘that so, well I wouldn’t mind a little of what you’re havin.’
Laughter-snort of vitality-dissolves to a sob
And then he finds what he’s been looking for.
He starts again…
I never worked in the factory you know. Not in the factory.
He’s found it again.
His phonographic memory is skipping
He died a few days later
His life distilled to single morning
A fishing trip becomes a career
But in the end, he was
I won’t begrudge him this
After all, how many of us
Can read the clouds and the currents
Can understand the shallows and the depths
Can find the perfect spot?
4. Just One
one name to skip at roll call
one desk to be taken away
one question lacks an answer
one hope has gone astray
one past is now but memory
one future has fallen apart
one action ripples outward
and breaks so many hearts
I teach at a secondary school in Hong Kong. Last week a colleague told me that a female Primary Six (Grade 6) student at one of our two feeder schools had committed suicide by jumping from her apartment building. This poem is a response to that.
Hong Kong does not have a particularly high suicide rate, and contrary to sensational press reports (e.g, https://www.timeout.com/hong-kong/en-hongkong/the-shocking-rise-of-child-suicide-051916), the rate of child/teen suicide has remained constant over the last couple of decades. However, this doesn’t take away from the individual tragedy of each life lost. How can a girl with her whole life ahead of her choose to die? What desperation drives her to leap from a building?
The reasons why children and young teens commit suicide is never very clear. Growing up can be stressful in the best of situations. Setbacks that to an adult seem trivial can be emotionally crushing to a teen. Hong Kong has a pressure cooker atmosphere that only makes things worse. At home, it is quite common for a family of four or five to share a 400-square-foot flat (At one point, my in-laws moved in and there were eleven of us sharing an 700-square-foot apartment), so there is not much personal or private space. Some parents demand success—tiger moms expecting their house cats to be tiger kids—while some don’t seem to care at all. Problems at home, even the mere fact of living in a single-parent family, are often considered a source of shame, so many young people may keep negative feelings bottled up.
At school, Primary Six is an especially stressful time as students need to apply to secondary school. Local secondary schools here are divided into three bands based on the students’ academic ability. The strongest students are allocated to Band One schools while the weakest are all lumped together in Band Three schools.As Chinese culture places a strong emphasis on education, there is often great pressure on primary students to perform well enough to get allocated to a ‘good’ secondary school.
In short, sources of stress are all around. This is why my favorite quote is from Ian Maclaren (though it is often attributed to Plato):
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
I don’t usually write poems that make use of a regular meter and a regular rhyme, but I wanted a very simple feel for this poem—something a young student could easily follow and understand. Also, through the simple style, vocabulary and structure, I hoped to evoke a sense of innocence.
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