From the archives (March 30, 2015):
The Disappearing Suite
by Boey Kim Cheng
They hover on the edges, their voices haunting
the blue hour when the tide of memory recedes
and forgetfulness returns, washing over the ash-prints
of their passing, so faint, yet so fresh you can’t tell
if the moment is disappearing or about to happen,
if something is being written or erased, your body
still alive with the touch, the echo of their breath,
their absence a faint shiver in the curtain and you wait
in the silence between words, between forgetting and remembering.
Between pages, books, stations, between one life
and the next the list of the disappeared grows,
a book writing itself, a ledger bulging with absences,
a map where the empty quarter spreads, advancing sands
erasing the traces of the disappeared, and you are on a floe
shrinking with each vanishing, each face and place
sunk in your Atlantis, and you make of the empty page
an ark, a craft you shape with the words they left you,
and load all the absences onto its leaking hold.
All the absences add to an invisible freight, a ballast
keeping the living afloat on the sea of dying,
a blank page keeping them waiting with the candles
of wakefulness and images of the missing in their arms,
for the word that will complete the story and let the last spade
of the remembering earth fall, so that the tired hands
will be relieved of the weight of waiting, of holding
the emptiness like an icon that shines with a dead light,
so that the living can go on with the business of dying.
Dying notes in the mirror, on the keys, the music
of the disappeared, what keeps you playing, improvising
soloing to the notes of one no longer there in the trio,
like Evans hunched over the black mirror of his piano,
playing in the wake of La Faro’s going, tuned to the bass
chords, the silent music that the disappeared leaves;
how the fingers dance to weave the lament,
the bridge over the blue silences between songs,
the track the dead travels between here and the other side.
They have gone like scouts, crossed over to the other side
and return on fleeting visits, like emigrants, emissaries,
stealing in, leaving again under the radar of words, announcing
with their ghost-scent, their breath of silence, their arrival,
a taste of otherness, as they slip into the room in your dream
so quietly that it feels as if they have never left, your father
who had already disappeared out of your life, out of his own,
before being completely gone, now sitting next to you,
a book of absence and pain whose pages you can’t read.
Over and over we write the book of the disappeared,
chanting the sutras that open up the realms
and give them free passage, the disappeared ones,
afraid to freeze them in their tracks as they vanish,
afraid too to free them, dispatch them to the place
where they can’t disappear anymore, and, once and for all,
release them from the no-place where they hover
and haunt, in the long corridors of the poem,
words wandering between the living and the dead.
The afterlives of the dead will never change, framed
in lost time, snapshots forgotten or lost, their faces
wearing the sheen of perfection, a sorrowful beauty
beyond reproach, sleeved in the salt of memory, yet
something is going, slipping through between forgetting
and remembering, the aura draining from the images,
the absence on the edge a vacuum sucking in the colours,
the living features, the strip of light between Rothko’s grey
on black panels fading so slow you think it’s staying.
You set out, a search party of one, on the fading
trail of letters, the emails, tokens, memories like tracks
fading fast, the memories, souvenirs, a disappearing trail
in the snow, in the shifting sand, from phrase to phrase you
play along, the ghostly song, and they are nowhere
and everywhere in the air, the images of those gone,
like the backpacker in the Rishikesh hills, his face multiplying
on notice-boards, his face an icon echoing with rumours
of an afterlife beyond the trails above the treeline of words.
In the room that you reach at the end of the poem
there is a mirror that shivers with an afterimage,
a tremble in the curtain, a whiff of a forgotten scent
on the dust-sheets drawn over what has survived.
Outside the window the last chord of memory goes
diminuendo over the disappearing city, its streets losing
their names in its wake, as you turn to the page
marked with the tracks of the disappeared, and trace
their passage, your hand still alive with their touch.
Reprinted with the author’s permission, “The Disappearing Suite” appears in the collection Clear Brightness by Boey Kim Cheng (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2012). Boey Kim Cheng has published five collections of poetry and a book of essays. He teaches at the University of Newcastle in Australia.