Kwan Ann Tan

孤掌难鸣

gū zhǎng nán míng

(proverb. a lone hand finds it difficult to make a sound)

*

1952, my great-grandfather writes

salt-stained letters from across the sea

to my great-grandmother, left thumb-print

dragging ink hastily ground

on a gold/black inkstone bargained

away for safe passage, brushstrokes

dancing like the first breath

after breaking above water:

the revolution paints my fingertips red

but leaves my palms empty,

its hungry grasp reaches

into the gaping maw of my self

and trawls through my entrails

for the last leaves of autumn.

 

he escapes with two children to join

the woman who holds half his sky

for the next fifty-two years,

their palms pressed together.

he tells me years later of his dreams

of the revolution, of the swell

of the people’s hearts, the push

forward like the arc of a whip—

it crashes down just as hard

all bleeding fingernails

and bruised wrists.

 

2018, I watch myself hauled from

the ocean currents, pages of my

past self lost to the water’s

hungry clutch. let slip two reeds

onto the train tracks by the seaside

of my hometown, offer prayer

in the form of peeled mandarins

and hand-rolled dumplings to

the first generation to flee

beyond the sea. then celebration:

the trajectory of a firework

marking another year survived,

the gentle shuffle of cards dealt

and ivory mahjong tiles rolled along

a rickety table. good wishes doled out

in exchange for red packets, pinching

and shaking of my cheeks by those

recalling an echo of a child, the

greedy reach of children towards

the glutinous sweets on the table.

 

waving from the window as the

train-whistle blows, my aunt

presses a packet of faded letters

on me, voice lost to the smoke,

my thanks misplaced in a plume

of salt-spray. I unlace the letters,

thumb the crease, the browning ink,

my great-grandfather’s words to

his brother like a warm touch

on my shoulder: sitting in

the home we have fashioned, I play

with my great-granddaughter.

when she reaches towards me

she undoes the ache of missing

what we have left behind. how

can her tiny fingers bring our lives

into all of spring?

 

 

the ballad of the drowned

*

THEN King Arthur let send for all the children born on May-day, begotten of lords and born of ladies; for Merlin told King Arthur that he that should destroy him should be born on May-day, wherefore he sent for them all, upon pain of death; and so there were found many lords’ sons, and all were sent unto the king, and so was Mordred sent by King Lot’s wife, and all were put in a ship to the sea, and some were four weeks old, and some less. -Malory, Morte D’Arthur

 

*

all drowned, all drowned. we were sent off

with whispers, carrying the sins of the father

 

yet pure of sin ourselves. forgive me for my

cruelties— we drifted down the channel at midnight

 

under the eyes of a thrice-crowing raven, I do not

remember crying. my kingdom, my kingdom.

 

they say he kissed each of us goodbye, I say I lay

down this curse, recursive fate to do my bidding,

 

drowned, the throne saved. for what is a kingdom

without an heir? my greedy king, filling his seat

 

at the round table with our spectres, our stolen

adulthoods. I fracture, I deny. my dreams are filled

 

with half-formed faces. we are the first-born of a

long line of mistakes, Camelot’s roses built on

 

the sea-bleached bones of our slumber, knights

questing in the name of our dissolved futures—

 

and so I sing this song, very sad, about myself,

my throat breaking over black rock.

 

 


Kwan Ann Tan is a writer from Malaysia and a student at Oxford University. Her work has previously been featured in The First Line, Half Mystic, Porridge Magazine, and L’Ephemere Review, and she can be found on Twitter at @KwanAnnTan or at kwananntan.carrd.co

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