◀ LITERATURE ▶
THE PILLOW BOOK
JEE LEONG KOH
Book cover of The Pillow Book, Math Paper Press, Singapore, 2012
3. Well Organized Things
A dictionary. A rainforest. A supermarket.
A columbarium, a place to urn the dead, is organized for the convenience of the living. The Civil Service, a place to earn a living, is organized for the dead.
The passport office in Singapore.
A dragonfly. A quartz.
12. Things that Tilt
The Empire State Building in a snapshot. Rain. All the strokes of the letter W, upper or lower case. The fingers of the Bharata Natyam dancer.
To observe something tilt is not to be a part of it. An airplane takes off and I am pressed against the seat, towards the earth. I want to fly, which is why I bought the ticket, but my body obeys an opposite force. Leveling in the air, like on the ground, permits the attendant to wheel out the food trolley. This is necessary but not interesting.
Earthquakes. Turning forty.
20. Things Subtle yet Powerful
A muscular back. The fragrance of shaving cream late in the day. The outline of summer lightning.
There are things subtle but not powerful, like a woman’s voice. There are things powerful but not subtle, like a man’s opinion. Then they meet and tumble, drunk, in bed, and Sei Shōnagon is born.
Winston prizes delicacy. In music he prefers the tone poems of Debussy to Beethoven’s symphonies. I am drawn to strength, brimming but restrained by the lip of a cup. The restraint I learned from him.
The influence of a good teacher. That of a bad one. Freshly fallen snow.
26. Things Out of Place
A flute in a trumpet case. Red wine on white linen. Sprays of heath in a blue bucket outside a Korean deli. A cheeky boy among mourners at a wake. A beautiful man married to a woman. A Singaporean in New York. The Singaporean in Singapore.
The moon in a lake.
28. Japanese Things
Tamagotchi. The highest standard of living in Asia.
A third language offered in secondary school, if you are good in English and Mandarin.
Comics illustrating love between men, created by women for women.
Hugging pillow, also called a Dutch wife.
His cock still inside me, the man answered a call from his mother in Tokyo.
Suicidal sects. Asymmetry.
After the Japanese occupied Singapore, they purged the island. Among the men shot at Changi Beach were donors to the China Relief Fund, men with tattoos, and Hainanese. The death toll is claimed by some to be 100 000. The Japanese claim 5 000. The truth is buried in between.
The Red and White Song Competition. Akina Nakamori.
29. The old Chinese poets
The old Chinese poets composed a poem after walking just a few short steps. The closest I came to this was to write a lousy sestina in my head after walking up and down the Bronxville park bounded on one side by train tracks and on the other by a motorway.
Walking in a cemetery is charming when there is light. In the summer the headstones can still be scanned at eight, or even nine o’clock. In the fall the leaves litter the graves and give them a melancholic look of being forsaken. The bare branches in the winter bring out the grittiness of the stones. In the spring, when the trees put on their freshest green and the birds are almost intelligible, the cemetery turns into a sculpture garden like the Tuileries.
The deepest darkness I know is the long night marches during National Service, the battalion strung out in a single file, scraping over the humpbacked ground, wading waistdeep across a river as black as tar, pressing through impenetrable thorn. The worst thing that could happen was to lose contact. All that kept the line together was the blue Cyalume straw on the back of the helmet of the man in front, and of the man in front of him.
It is so comforting to walk along a familiar path. The mind returns from observing, deciding, and judging to itself. It is like wandering out and walking home at the same time. Doing just that along the East River this morning, I made up this tanka:
The sun casts shadows, and so why am I surprised that love makes darkness, as if
I am not in its way?
30. Things that Quicken the Pulse
Hurricane warning. Running the hand through a man’s thick hair. Merino wool cardigan. A wave of flamingoes taking to the air. Happening on Matisse’s Red Studio. The thought of an approaching quarrel. The restaurant door opens, and lets in a draught.