The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Category: Prose

YOU NEVER MADE IT TO 26

photo_2016-10-27_08-07-07_pm

Hi.

I’ve been trying hard to smile extra hard for you, but it’s hard, you know. The stone that moves not, know not how to smile, but tries hard, for hardness is its nature upon which churches and houses have been built. But belies the surface is molten rock; undulating, unsettling, unsure, undone. To rest is to solidify into igneous rocks — glowing embers that ultimately fade to black.

Resting atop a rock lies a temple. In the temple, a pebble falls and clacks on the stone floors, stone-on-stone resounding off of the walls. Clack–clack–clackclack–whirl to a rest. A restive mood permeates the temple that stands on top of a rock. Within the temple lies the echoes of a hundred chants unsaid, mantras unrecited. “What if…” “What if…” “What if…?”

Wind scowls around, tendrils of air swirling around rough exteriors that exude toughness. Howls abound of “Happy Birthday” peel away at stucco and linger wistfully with the hopes of prayers that would never reach your ears. “There is nothing happy about this day,” I thought, picking at paint chips at wedge away so satisfying like scabs over wound. I take care not to bleed. On your wall, layers and layers of well wishes applied on by various people, each a different shade of “missing you” and well-meant love; all bereft. I chip away as they dry.

For my birthday, you got me a Toblerone and some white chocolate with coconut in it, to “share with friends.”

I chant, from beneath bedrock where glowing magma moves from within: “If only I could share it with you.” If only magma could become lava.

 

The Memorial

Great writers are immortal:
the names of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Frost
still live on today through their works,
through their words;
they live on in posterity.

Josh was a great writer, as we all know.
Anyone who has had the chance to know him knows that.

But we are here today not to celebrate his posterity.
We’re here to celebrate his memory, yes, but let us not forget:
we are here to celebrate all of you and this moment.

Great writers are immortal:
but what do we know about what made Shakespeare smile?
What do we know what jokes Wordsworth told his friends
— verily, who were his friends?
What made Frost weep?
What did Oscar Wilde whisper to Bosie when they lying in bed?

But we do know how Josh made us feel, made us laugh,
feel inspired, challenged, frustrated and how he loved us.
No one but us will have this moment where we can say we have
lived a life of Josh.
Even were his works to live on, no one but us could claim to have
danced with giddy abandon amidst fireworks,
no one but us could claim to have told him
our humblest, crippling fears.

In this room, we have those who knew Josh
not merely through his intellect but knew him
as a big-headed baby growing up, knew him
as an adventurous soul to the point of foolishness.
Knew him to have fought demons, so many demons.

Josh had many demons. Maybe that’s why he liked angels so much.
His mother’s thesis was about angels. And while he didn’t believe in angels in the Christian sense,
he believed a divine other that represented healing and all that is good.
He would tell me about what he did and what fun he had hanging out with his friends because
up until the recent end of his life,
happiness had always seemed out of his reach.
Every one of you represented an angel to him,
just as he was an angel to all of us.

[Speech: 30th July, 2016]

The Funeral

(This is post is backdated, written on 25th July, 2016)

The Service

Knowing Josh was always a learning experience and over time, one learns something about themselves or about the world around them. Josh taught me that it was ok to let my guard down, that it was ok to enjoy myself, because he was so full of life. Many of you will remember him for his goofy smile and his silliness, or his infectious charm. And because Josh cherished life so much, I would like to take this opportunity to achieve something he had desired very much when he was alive. He had always wanted to be forthcoming to his friends and perhaps even acquaintances about his struggles with depression and PTSD.

Josh was dealt a tough hand in life and he had to endure terrible losses. He felt like he was very much alone with his experience in life and could scarcely find someone who could understand his experience. As a result, he could never communicate those feelings of loneliness. But over the course of the past year, Josh made friends with people whom he realised shared similar traumatic pasts as he did. He would probably like everyone to know that extending a patient hand to those undergoing depression and hard times, as he did, even amidst his struggles, makes a whole world of difference. Very often, it feels like they have forgotten what it was like to be happy or how to be happy again. It may be hard to understand what they’re going through, but nothing matters more than patience and a kind word. I very much wish I had given him more of my patience and many more kind words.

We had learned so much from each other. He admired my knack for brevity, I envied his ability with profusion. He called me a robot, but I had to be to hold him strong as he poured strong, emotional feelings about everything. I was his zen, his rock, his pillar of strength, but he never realised he was my muse, my vase from which inspiration grew. I knew not how to grieve around other people, but he was not other people. He taught me how to weep. We had codenames for each other: we were NPYs. We were zed-fus. We did not make sense to other people outside a world of ours. And now, this world of we has been reduced to one of me.

Aftermath of a Singapore Election

The sun rose, as it always did, but one would not have noticed it. It hid behind a haze, some say the courtesy of Indonesia, but I know better. Hanging thick in the air was a calm that belied people’s true feelings from the frenzy of live tweets, climbing numbers, excitement and disappoint and clamour the night before.

An elderly Chinese man, pushing his bicycle along the foot of a HDB flat, walks up to an elderly Indian man. “Ehhh! PAP ar?” the Chinese man said, shaking the Indian man’s hand. “Ya,” replied the Indian man as they both shared a laughter, and then they parted ways.

The kopitiam was divided. Laughter and merriment rang from some tables, while nearby sullen tables glanced angry sidelong glares, with some shaking their heads.

Wa lau eh, why like that?” piped one.

Bo pian, what can we do?” said another, showing characteristic Singaporean spirit.

“Well, at least Lee Kuan Yew got what he wanted before the ghost gates closed. I guess his spirit can now return in peace.”

“Eh, I ask you ar, do you think his spirit went to heaven or to hell ah?”

Aiyoh, you think leh?”

“…aiyah my GRC no fight one lah! But then hor, I still voted opposition anyway just to show them what for!”

“I know it’s not going to make a difference, but I don’t want the PAP to become too complacent mah. They cannot keep on doing what they’re doing without answering to anyone right?”

“But even if you did that, got change anything meh?”

“So you stay up until how late last night?”

“I stay until 12 midnight, then I buay tahan liao. Anyway next day wake up see the results, see on the spot, also the same what.”

“So what you think? Who did you vote for?”

Aiyoh I tell you then still call elections for what?”

Nearby, an incense paper shop owner gave instructions on how to burn the offerings as the Hungry Ghost Festival drew to a close.

And Singapore lived through another General Elections.

We danced, we laughed, we skipped around. And then we were twenty-six.

 

 

I wish you good luck.

I wish you good luck.

Captain

We became friends, and we were friends, and then one day, friends no more.

What does one do when a friendship, whose tethers are time-worn and frayed, comes loose and slips away? Time ebbs, and the vessel departs, do I fling myself to reel it back?

Or do I set it alight and let it go, in a Viking’s funeral, remembering that it once burned, with the last memory of its light in sight?

And now that I find myself aware of all the ropes around me in varying stages of decay, do I darn them, mend them, let them be?

Lines

“Let it go,” it says. “Let it go. It is the way of life. Two parallel lines may never meet, but if they differ enough, will remain close enough that they merge for a really long time. But eventually, they will depart, and then it is time to go.”

“But why does it have to be that way?” I ask. “Our lives are not simple straight lines. We meet by circumstance, but it is by virtue of entanglement that we remain hurtling through space bound; entwined.”

“All things tend towards chaos,” it says. “And in chaos squared, tangled lines come unwound, and come free of each other. That is the very essence of life. A static line is a dead line.”

Inexorable

We must grow up, but must we grow apart? Perhaps part of growing up is learning to let go, perhaps part of letting go is to know — when to say hello; when to say good morrow; when to say good bye, and say no more.

Perhaps one day, I will hear from you again. Until then, fare thee well, I’ll keep these memories.

shaf

100 words

Making every word count is hard when you are on a deadline. No time for adjectives, no time for descriptions. Each word will be so vital, that deleting one causes everything to destabilize. When you have 100 words to live, what will you say?

Perhaps you would speak of your fears, having to live in fear of running out of words to say. Perhaps you would bemoan having to cut the excesses in your life; writing meagerly.

I, however, will celebrate the opportunity of being given the chance to say 100 words, and when I run out, I exit happy.

[100 words, 100th post]

Extracting meaning in nonsense

Image credit to Wikipedia

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

— Lewis Caroll, “Jabberwocky”, 1871

This is one of the most well-known nonsense poems in the English language, and yet, as Alice in Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass says

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate’

Even though the words are nonsensical, we still get a distinct sense of their meaning. How is that achieved? What components of the words in this poem contribute to their meaning? From Wikipedia, it says “The poem relies on a distortion of sense rather than “non-sense”, allowing the reader to infer meaning and therefore engage with narrative while lexical allusions swim under the surface of the poem.” What that means is that when we see the words and hear the sounds of the words, the components draw upon our existing knowledge to draw parallels to words and meaning we already know, and extrapolate the meaning onto the poem.

Thus, the frications, the hisses and lullings of the tongue bring about certain images and parallels to words we already know. A modern example would be the word:

Professor Severus Snape

from the Harry Potter books. It’s a very simply usage of the visual and audio clues as to the kind of person a character with that name might be. From “Severus,” we can break it down phonologically — the repeated sibilant ‘s’ draws upon hissing sounds, starting and ending with an ‘s’ makes the word sound harsher, and the the labio-dental ‘v’ sound draws the speaker’s mouth into an involuntary snarl in order to pronounce the ‘v’. Orthographically, “Severus” looks like the word “severe,” and the “-us” suffix lends it the gravitas of faux-Latin, adding a touch of snobbery and sombreness. Similarly, for “Snape,” phonologically, it leads with an “s” sibilant, and the “SN” consonant cluster makes the reader involuntarily sneer. Ending the word with the plosive “p,” and a released, aspirated one at that, adds to the ideas of a curt, no-nonsense character. One can plausibly imagine Severus Snape (with Alan Rickman as him, of course) saying the words “Get. Up.” with an extra hard release of the final “p” sound. Orthographically, “Snape” looks like “snake,” contains the word “snap” in it, and words that begin with “sn” have usually a slight negative connotation to it. (Snide, sneer, snap, snore, sneak, snoot, snarl, sniffle, snark)

So we’re incredibly able to draw so many allusions just from a person’s name via its sounds and its sights, now imagine extending it to the entire Jabberwocky poem. Let’s just examine the first stanza of the poem:

  1. ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  2. Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
  3. All mimsy were the borogoves,
  4. And the mome raths outgrabe.

And see if we can annotate it with relevant information that we know.

  1. It was brillig [N? Time of the day? ADJ? Brilliant?], and the slithy [Definitely ADJ. Slithering and lithe] toves [Definitely N, because of following line]
  2. Did gyre [V. Plural object-verb agreement (“toves gyre”). Gyroscope] and gimble [V. Gyrate and tumble? Rotating movement] in the wabe [N. Wet, plus extra wet connotations from “slithy”]
  3. All mimsy [Adj. Whimsy? Whimper? Miserable?] were the borogoves [N. Borrow-dove? A bird? Mangrove?]
  4. And the mome raths [ADJ-N, because of the following V. Home? Mope? Moan? Wrath? Rats? Moths?] outgrabe [out-grab+PAST? Gripe+PAST?]

Wikipedia compiles a possible interpretation of the words, which mine seem pretty close to.

The human mind is incredibly capable, almost desirous, of pulling meaning out of words, such that people arguing about semantics when they disagree with words used by other people seem almost silly. Previously, I have written about how the grammaticality we’re obsessed with contributes little to the understanding of meaning, and people who advocate and insist on a gold standard of grammar are quite misguided. Similarly, we see here even semantic-correctness seems secondary, if the words used have no semantic distinguishing from another, because they are not words in the lexicon in the first place, yet they contain content and semantic meaning.

Does it matter if I say, “The amalgamation of hydrogen and oxygen atoms yields water,” and “The combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms yield water,”? There will be semantic purists who insist that the act of amalgamation is subtly different from a mere combination; that perhaps amalgamation is more nuanced.

Of course, I don’t deny that there are certainly words that are more nuanced than others. There is certainly a different between the words “happy,” “delighted,” “glad,” and “ecstatic” — they align differently on the superlative scale where one might construe “glad” to be the most slight and “delighted” and “ecstatic” to be on the other end. But even between these words, how is one to distinguish the semantic difference between “delighted” and “ecstatic,” where one is full of delight and the other full of ecstasy, that one is more superlative than the other other? Does ecstasy trump delight?

As such, insisting on absolutism for certain terms is imposition of one’s views on another. Splitting hairs semantically, like grammar-nazism, contributes nothing to the discussion if the intent of the speech is clear.

To end off, I’ll try my hand at “nonsense prose,” to see if I could, without using lexical words, tell a story.

“You seem morried,” Alex said, as he kriched up a klatch, and lit his smube. He took a long wheg. “Is everything milly-willy? Surely nothing fellish happened?”

“I’m afraid I’m a little tatchet,” I said, my shoulders smished, my haiths swanged.

Alex poff-poffed, for he whegged one too big. “Sorry about that. Come on, tich your bin up, kellyvale everything.”

I hished my feet, “You know what my pairrows are; they have viddied not an inch. Every burrise I wake, the same ol’ nubs, the same ol’ tracherns. I am still without work, and my time here is plivered. If I don’t get a job immish, I’m fanade I’m going to go wallyfaloo.”

“Surely it’s not that sapper,” Alex kippered, “You have your tumms around you, being snorm and glideful. Surely that clappas your situation?”

“I’m grateful for my tumms, yes,” I said, “But they can only clappas por piti. It’s been four yardas already, Alex, and the best I’ve bainaged was this mopstep.”

“I can’t movome back, Alex. That finta is unbelfortasible to me; I didn’t swarvvy thousands of loons and cross ninan lashes to come here, only to have to gallivog home. There is no syfe for me there, Alex. Although I have tumms and revelas back home, to have to be washorled by all that sikthorn and snurling pekvork will beshoy me. I’ll sooner slax myself than movome.”

“What are you going to do then?” Alex said.

“I can only prish it will be wingwag, Alex. I can only pope.”

Looking at the person beside you by looking away

ref

We got on the same car together, via different doors. We were on different benches, but our reflections were on the same window. There was no one between us, but it didn’t matter: even though I was not facing you, I could look at you through your reflection on the window on the opposite side.

Even though I could turn my head to look at you, I could only bear to do so by staring ahead, away from you, looking straight at your reflection.

Were you looking back at mine?

We spent the next fifteen minutes in this way, both reflections apparently raptly staring into the same inky blackness of the window.

The train surfaces from the depths for a shot of fresh air and sunshine, as it clangs and rattles on the Manhattan bridge. Daylight flushes the inky blackness of the window away, and your reflection with it, as people around us clamour for their cell phone at this brief respite of phone service. Neither you nor I moved, just sat on our benches silently staring at the dirty window ahead.

The train plunged back into darkness, and you were there again.

I tried to study your features, but you were so far away, seated in that other ethereal cabin. I wish I were my reflection, that I could sit next to your reflection, but he would probably be thinking the same thing, and staring at you instead.

The train pulled into Canal St, and you and your reflection got up, and left.

I could then fall back into repose, into sweetest coma again.

Let me read your writing

Friends, let me read your writing, let me read your blogs,
let me read your diary, let me see your thoughts.
When we speak, we speak frankly,
directly, quickly, without much care
for how the words come out
save for how they’re wrought.
But in your diaries,
you edit, censor, redact, and scratch out
offensive lines and statements that would have left you
seeming anything less than pristine
because writing is posterity
because writing makes it so.

So let me see your way with words
and the way you write your tales,
and the way you leave your trails,
let me see your red ink
and read your silences, ellipses, spaces.

Smelling without your nose

Poetry and prose these days are very good with conjuring metaphors and images and the such, and they are very expressive. But I feel that modern poetry lack a sort of creativity in their use of the language. True, the images conjured are very strong and vivid, but in the reading the poems, one mostly appreciates the effect of the images and not so much the language. I would look at my own writing and think that the content is strong but were I to look at the words used alone and how they relate to each other, they are nothing special.

I think it’s because we’re too used as writers to acutely represent and display our senses and what we think and feel — we are able to show readers what we see, what we hear, and feel, through our similes, metaphors, analogies, onomatopoeia, etc. But these uses are expected and staid, after a certain point; there is nothing surprising about using a tapping dactylic meter to represent galloping action.

What if we were not allowed to see with our eyes, hear with our ears, smell with our nose, taste with our tongue, or touch with our skin? Just as a blind person sees the world differently, with his hands, surely we must be able to write about our experiences with the world through our immediate mediums?

With that, I bring to you the challenge of writing about smelling without using your nose.

I will try to write one paragraph about two topics about smelling, introducing that I am smelling something, but subsequently never using any word or phrase that is associated with the nose, or typical flavour words with which smells are associated. Let’s see if I can succeed.

The smell of fried chicken

The very first thing whenever I cycle past the Crown Fried Chicken shop in my neighbourhood is that I always smell the fried chicken on my face first. That wafting, hovering film hangs waiting in the air, waiting to arrest anyone who passes by in hopes of tempting them in for a piece of fried chicken. But that wafting, hovering film also hangs onto my face as a perceptible cling of grease that whets my appetite, even as I salivate from the thought of the crunch of batter-on-skin, the ooze of juice that washes down the side of the tongue, and the slight but oh-so-delightful burn from the steam that escapes the meat as teeth sink into yielding flesh. In but three seconds I would have already cycled past the shop, but I have left my stomach behind on the side walk, peering longingly through the filthy windows, wanting to be filled up with fried chicken and fries.

The smell of rain

I find the smell of rain after it has rained unpleasant — that scrubbing it does to the inside of my nose as it evaporates off of the side walk, that tugging feeling as it roils off of your arms and face. Had I wanted to smell mould, I’d have gone to the basement and stuck the green patches festering slowing up my nose, not to be assaulted by liquid decomposition and acidity that hangs around after the event like an unwelcome customer. Nobody ever smells the rain too much as it is happening, for they are too preoccupied by the sounds, the spectacle — the most people get is a sense of wetness in the air. But after-rain rain reminds you that it had been here, and sticks its proverbial armpit in your face, in my face, in its humidity and the awful contractions it leaves on my tongue.