No Pretty Words

There are no pretty words
for hunger.
Only the thin white dribble
squeezed from a cracked nipple,
the hoarse constant cry
of a baby who does not know
what it means to be full,
the sharp, angry tug
of an older child on her clothing:

There are no pretty words
for hunger.
Only what thuds from the mouth,
flat and ugly,
like rice, fish,
sweet potato -
words to roll around in her stomach
or burn in her throat
when her husband comes home
with nothing.

She screams.
“The Japanese,” he protests.
Been out gambling.
The day her breast milk dries up
there are no words at all.
She gathers her silence
and goes to the small dark kitchen
where she grinds it together with biscuit
and mixes it with water.
This will be the word for milk
from now on.

Miriam Wei Wei Lo
First published in Against Certain Capture (2004). Wollongong: Five Islands Press.

Searching for Words

Our bedsheets never really needed washing before. Could have had them on for months and they wouldn’t get as dirty as they do after one day with David. Sand. Biscuit crumbs. Bits of banana. When he has a cold, smears of snot. As if our bed were a giant handkerchief. A catch-all. Like the Chinese term for bib: 围都都 [wei dou dou], which means, literally, to cover or protect everything, to enclose or surround. Except it’s colloquial.

The term. Can’t find it in the dictionary. It’s what the Taiwanese lady at the local fruit and veg calls a bib, in her language alive and kicking like the baby in her belly. She smiles as she stands on a crate, reaching up for the cucumbers, stopping to shift the tomatoes, the hands that lovingly lift soft fruit sometimes coming to rest on the bulge beneath her shirt, as if she were patting it into place, like some strangely quivering melon. There is an art to arrangement. Ripe peaches on top. Grapes sit next to bananas, and beside the bananas an embankment of navel oranges.

I think about this as I survey our garden. To the right, the neat order of the semi-circular bed, clipped hedges of box, everything trained into symmetry. To the left, the madcap riot of the vegetable patch, feral watermelon threading its way through the mesclun lettuce.

Perhaps it’s colloquial. Most of the vegetable seedlings brought in from the shops get chewed up by slaters or snails. What survives comes up from the compost. There must be a word for this. Something specific to a time, a place. Something idiomatic. Like the precise shape of a pregnant woman’s belly. Like the state of our bedsheets after David’s been in them on Thursday afternoon, sand, biscuit, banana, and snot in cunning arrangement - an unforeseen gift, given with the grace of reckless abandon.

Miriam Wei Wei Lo

First published in Meanjin 63.2 (2004).

Bumboat Cruise on the Singapore River

Rhetoric is what keeps this island afloat.
Singaporean voice with a strong American accent,
barely audible above the drone of the bumboat engine:
“Singaporeans are crazy about their food.
They are especially fond of all-you-can-eat buffets.
Why not do as the locals do and try out one of the buffets
at these hotels along the waterfront.” The Swissotel looms.
The Grand Copthorne. The Miramar. All glass
and upward-sweeping architecture. Why not do
as the locals do. Here in this city where conspicuous consumption
is an artform. Where white tourists wearing slippers and singlets
are tolerated in black tie establishments. Dollars. Sense.

How did I ever live in this place? Sixteen years of my life
afloat in this sea of contradictions, of which I was, equally, one:
half-white, half-Chinese; the taxi-driver cannot decide
if I am a tourist or a local, so he pitches at my husband:
“Everything in Singapore is changing all the time.”
Strong gestures. Manic conviction. “This is good.
We are never bored. Sometimes my customers
ask me to take them to a destination, but it is no longer there.”
We tighten our grip on two squirming children and pray
that the bumboat tour will exist. Nothing short of a miracle
this small wooden boat which is taking us now past Boat Quay,
in its current incarnation, past the Fullerton Hotel

to the mouth of the Singapore river, where the Merlion
still astonishes: grotesque and beautiful as a gargoyle.
The children begin to chafe at confinement. My daughter wails
above the drone of the engine. There’s talk of closing the mouth
of the river. New water supply. There’s talk of a casino.
Heated debate in the Cabinet. Old Lee and Young Lee
locked in some Oedipal battle. The swell is bigger out here
in the harbour, slapping up spray against the sides of the boat,
as if it were waves that kept it afloat, this boat,
this island, caught between sinking and swimming,
as I am caught now. As if rhetoric mattered.
As if this place gives me a name for myself.

Miriam Wei Wei Lo

First published in Westerly 50 (2005).

Cullen Late Harvest Semillon 2012

I open the pantry door
and find, to my surprise,
that the children have left
three squares of chocolate
wrapped in golden foil
in the corner of a zip-lock bag.

They are as sweet
as the bottle of wine
you left in my bicycle basket.

Miriam Wei Wei Lo

First published in Cullen Wines Poetry Collection (2014). Margaret River: Margaret River Press.

Poetry Books


Against Certain Capture

To purchase, contact miriamwwlo@gmail.com


No Pretty Words

To purchase, contact miriamwwlo@gmail.com