Shape in the Tower

Toh Hsien Min

High on a rock, deep in a castle where
The Normans had fought, a half-imagined shape
Stoops in the darkness, soaked in hungry pain,
Stretches out both hands, rapt as if in prayer.
Even Coeur de Leon could fight in vain
To reach this tower; others have tried to escape;

Old men haver up and down the steps,
Fumbling in the thin light of the slit
That frames the ramparts and the fields below.
A low ceiling like cold reason traps
The tortured scream resounding like a cock's crow,
Giving away the will that will not submit,

While a woman's hysterical laughter mocks the hand
That slithers towards a puddle ringed with grime
Then starts rubbing a sore round as a plum,
Rubbing with the fire of the damned,
So that bigger and bigger it becomes,
To be the concept and its paradigm.

Inside the great hall crumbling tapestries
Squarely depict the prisoner breaking free.
Bent sticks awake the stories of their spring,
Feel the eruption and their injuries,
Watch the tornado dragging everything
Towards its vacuous centre: health, disease,

Wild deer, houses of cards and bridges of brick;
All fly up into the whirling cloud
But to be clutched and flung some other where.
The grey smoke rolling from a blackened wick
Concedes no time to fire off a flare
Yet leaves a multitude whose sighs are proud.

An oracle foretells a different end.
There will be fires, and phoenixes that build
Themselves from their own ashes. Sunlight falls
So pale through thin slits when their coats resplend.
Their beaks are knives, their hearts are girasols,
Their wings are unfurling oriflammes, both chilled

And fiery. Birds writhe like whips. Some die
In shadow, some in brilliant light of day
While stepping up the weak gusts of the skies.
But it is by them that men desire to fly
And with Icarus humbly sympathise.
Men climb the rock, to watch the ritual display

Of ghostly wings, those air-consuming wings!
Designs of rapture wreathing lucent air!
Yet traders in the marketplace beneath
Pat their pouches hung on tautened strings.
A grocer offers a huge red slab of cheese.
In response, a tinker touts his earthenware.

Published in First Words (1996)

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Toh Hsien Min