a partial history
…and longer ago: a late sumatra
sidling up the coast, crackling and harmless
for as long as the red earth stood over us.
Along the toothy shore one could stand
in water calm as glass, or sand, as this queen
of storms came calling over the open sea
with freight from as far as the world seemed then,
king's yellow, ivory-black, lapis blue.
And still nothing would match its russet hue…
Write, Grotius: how they waited all night
in our shallows, drinking salt
as our swamps drove the Catarina to her loss,
how not one of us in our houses
turned to look, opened the windows even,
knowing our own mare liberum 1
had changed hands for so much smoke,
so much metal. Early the next
morning we saw her towed against the wind
trailing our finest incense behind
her, a cloud. Write: how much hung in the
balance. Our water. Our air.
(A premonition, then,
of what on earth would come, again.)
He called the house Tumasek, but of course
we came to know it by its address, Besar, 2
for it was larger than life, as he himself was;
large, also, of heart. Only years later did
we hear (too late) the echo of those cliffs
cut down to size, a rumble in his voice
that never went away, whose very ground
had been pulled from under him. It was this
he considered the greatest theft: wide water –
once visible from where he'd sit, holding
court – now beyond reach, and in its place
another port, its laden ships, their rise and fall.
East Meadows. The Glades. Country Park.
Eastwood Regency. D'Manor. Limau Park.
Costa del Sol. Parbury Hill. The Baycourt.
Casa Merah. Palmwoods. Stratford Court.
The Springfield. The Clearwater. Tropicana.
Urban Vista. Tanamera Crest. Tanamera.
Now everything comes from this the new blocks
draped fluttering red over their faux brick shade
the levelled lie of the land even the new terminal
where the sea pours in from over tall steel sides
also the school that has been built called temasek
the field that has taken over the swimming pool
so that not a trace exists of even that bleached sea
of learning to swim and through the sting, to see
in time perhaps even I will say I come from this
singing this orphaned soil the only tongue I know
from where the rain still gathers when it arrives
from where the earth rises still higher in my sleep.
1. 'The Sea is common to all, for it is so limitless that it cannot become the possession of any one.' – Hugo Grotius, Mare Liberum, 1609; after the Dutch East India Company's capture of the Portuguese carrack Santa Catarina off the coast of Tanah Merah.
2. David Marshall, first Chief Minister of Singapore and founder of the Workers' Party, lived at 48A, Tanah Merah Besar Road.
By Theophilus KwekQLRS Vol. 18. No. 4 Oct 2019