Hungry Ghosts

My father took me picnicking in Hell
in Tiger Balm Gardens when I turned five.
Horse-Face and Ox-Head flanked the door to quell

tourists, returning ghosts, recaptured live.
Small spectator of retributionís drama,
I shuffled through the dark; Iíd rather dive

in and out but the crowd before King Yama
passed as if shackled by the chains of crime.
Father explained to me the law of Karma

while a mirror screened a whole lifetime
in a flash. Jostled into Court One, I balked
at heads and arms and legs, in bloody mime,

stuck out from under giant slabs of rock,
impossible to tell which limb belonged
to which gory head on the granite block

(Father said, unfilial boys, they wronged
their parents who gave them everything
into Court Two where sinners had their tongues

pierced by long knives for lifelong gossiping;
in Three, the greedy were handcuffed and whipped;
the tax evaders, in Court Four, drowning;

one body blurred into another, stripped
of eyes or bowel, heart torn out with a hook,
and on a hill of swords a traitor was flipped.

It wasnít me. It wouldnít be. I shook
as if my bones, and not that manís, were scraped
by sharpeners, for writing a dirty book,

my butt, and not his, by a spear-tip raped.
Expecting the worst horror in Court Ten,
I imagined punishments nightmare-shaped.

A blue wheel, painted on the back of the den,
displayed the paths for the purged soulsí rebirth
as insects, fish, birds, animals or men

depending on each individualís worth.
The worst are born as hungry ghosts, Father said
and strode ahead of me out from the earth.

Under a raintreeís shade, he laid out bread,
ham, apple juice. I still didnít feel well.
Eat. Donít waste food, Father said. We fed.


Iím turning thirty-five today at Soul
Mountain, Connecticut, USA,
a Writing Resident on foreign dole.

Winston is coming up for my birthday.
Iím walking with a black dyke poet called
Venus, along the riverís snow-packed way.

I tell her, smiling, I must have been installed
as an emperorís favorite boy in a past life
after I schemed to pleasure those blue-balled.

I was a Taoist priest who left his wife
for Mount Tai to achieve immortal fire.
Such hunger turns fruit to flame, nuts to knives.

I tell her my book rises on dammed desire,
a book my father would have called dirty.
Last summer, tired of being damned a liar,

I stopped Father from switching on the TV
and announced to my parents I am gay.
I talked too much. He didnít look at me.

When I wound down, he mumbled, itís okay,
and flicked the TV switch. In bed, that night,
he consoled Mother that every family prays

a secret sutra that is hard to reciteó
a crippled son, retard or murderer.
Mother repeated to me his insight.

He treated Winston to a satay dinner
at Lau Pa Sat and tried to make small talk.
He has not asked me about him ever.

The air nips us. Venus cuts short her walk
and retreats indoors to make a late breakfast.
Iím left standing beside the golden stalks

of cattails tall as I am, gazing across
the river to trees branching spears and barbs.
A deer noses the brown scrub. Then a burst

of knocking, from the thicket, the smart stabs
of a woodpecker tapping in a bowl
of bark. I should go. Winstonís coming up.

Jee Leong Koh, born in Singapore, read English at Oxford University and studied Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. His poems have appeared in Singaporean anthologies and in journals such as Crab Orchard Review, Gay and Lesbian Review, Shit Creek Review and Mimesis. His chapbook, Payday Loans, has just been published, and is available on his blog: http://jeeleong.blogspot.com. He lives in New York City. (jeeleong.koh@gmail.com)

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761