Oct 12, 2009

Not Home

"Not Home" is a poem of mine that was first published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. The poem also appears in my book Two Baby Hands which was released in June this year.

The poem is short but psychologically complex. I usually prefer to create simpler poems that are more accessible to the general reader. So Not Home was somewhat experimental for me.

      Not Home

      I was eight, and alone.
      Waiting in the garden I talked
      to trees. Seeds sprouted.
      Crickets sang. In the house
      Grandma lay dying.
      Caught an insect, held it
      in my hand. Plucked a leg off,
      as I softly sang. Very cruel,
      very bad. Surely Papa would
      come home, if I were bad.
      Make me hurt, for being bad.
      One more leg then, and another.
      Time crawled. I lost count.
      Finally there were no more legs,
      but Papa wasn't home.
      I dropped the useless insect
      on the ground. In the house
      Grandma went on dying.
      On and on her body twitched,
      till I crushed it with a stone.
      Papa wasn't home.

Interestingly, I've just been told that A Cup of Fine Tea has recently done a critique of the poem. The piece is co-written by Tammy Ho and Jeff Zroback. They have pretty much "caught" the essence of the poem. Here's an excerpt of their commentary:
Children can be so cruel. This is certainly the case in Koh’s “Not Home”. The cruelty of children often arises from their innocence of the world and self-absorption, characteristics demonstrated by the persona in the poem. In the poem’s opening, we see a young person playing alone outside: ‘I was eight, and alone. / Waiting in the garden I talked / to trees. Seeds sprouted. / Crickets sang’ (L1-L4). The whole scene is written to reflect the child’s state of mind. The lines are deliberately short and jump between foci, revealing a child’s short attention span. We also see a young person’s imagination at work in phrases such as ‘I talked to trees’. But it is the imagination of a particularly lonely child; one forced to take refuge in a make-believe world after being excluded from the real one.

The reason the child is alone (whether by choice or by adult instruction) becomes clear in the next sentence: ‘In the house / Grandma lay dying’ (L4-L5). The persona then takes his or her frustration out on a helpless creature: ‘Caught an insect, held it / in my hand. Plucked a leg off’ (L6-L7). This is not just blind violence but is an act motivated by a strange and disturbing kind of childish logic: ‘Plucked a leg off, / as I softly sang. Very cruel, / very bad. Surely Papa would / come home, if I were bad’ (L7-L10). That the persona’s aggression may stem from violence he or she has suffered is apparent in the suggestion that the father would ‘Make me hurt, for being bad’ (L11). There is a terrific unsentimentality and complexity here. The child craves the father’s attention; however, this attention is likely to be violent, suggesting that in some way the child wants to be hurt.

Despite the child’s wishes, the father does not return. The youngster, however, continues to torture the insect in hopes of attracting the parent: ‘One more leg then, and another. / Time crawled. I lost count. / Finally there were no more legs, / but papa wasn’t home’ (L12-L15). There is perhaps a lapse of voice in the phrase ‘Time crawled’ as it is unlikely that a child would use this expression. Regardless, its use proves apt, providing as it does a nice contrast to the insect slowly losing its own ability to crawl while its limbs are torn off ....
For the rest of the article, click here.

12 comments:

The said...

Wait a minute. Did you crush the insect or Grandma with that stone?

Mr Wang Says So said...

Jeff and Tammy write as follows:

"At this point, the distinction between the insect and the grandma is blurred in the persona’s mind: ‘On and on her body twitched, / till I crushed it with a stone’ (L19-L20). The ambiguity in the switch of pronouns from ‘her body’ to ‘it’ in subsequent lines is striking and unnerving. Is the kid’s attention flipping back and forth between the insect and his grandma, just like it switches between trees, sprouts and crickets? Or is it more unsettling? Is the child imagining killing the grandma while shattering the bug’s body? Or does the young person believe that there is a connection between killing the bug and the grandmother’s suffering? Or is the child simply unable to understand the grandmother’s death in any meaningful way?"

Anonymous said...

I like this poem

The said...

WSS - it is ambiguous all right - very much so. If you look at the comments in the Jeff and Tammy piece, you will see that quite a few thought the "it" refers to "her body" and not the insect.

Anyway, complex indeed.

Hui Kheng said...

A very sad but true poem, Mr Wang. Your poems are lovely and I truly admire your writing skills and talent. A counsellor once told me that a child will do anything to get his or her parent's attention, even if it's negative attention (e.g. physical abuse). That, to a child, is still better than total neglect. 'At least papa/mama still loves me.' However, don't you think that the excerpt should write 'whether (and not 'weather') by choice or by adult instruction'? Look forward to reading more of your poems and blog postings.

A Cup of Fine Tea said...

Thank you for pointing that out, Hui Kheng. We have fixed it.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Thanks, Hui Kheng. :)

Anonymous said...

wow. simple yet so deep. reading it once is just not enough to appreciate and distil the underlying tones and insights from the poems.

bravo!

Anonymous said...

A great poem that speaks alot, Mr Wang. Will go to Kino for Two Baby Hands.

Beracahvalley said...

I like this poetry. Could relate to it to a certain extent but I think both children and adults can be scary.

Anonymous said...

"The reason the child is alone (weather by choice or by adult instruction) becomes clear in the next sentence: ‘In the house / Grandma lay dying’ (L4-L5).
' Did you mean to say 'whether'?

alf said...

This is my fav of your recent poems. Devastating.