Agnes Lam's Poetry selection

The apple

The apple

glistening with dew --

it has not sinned

and belongs to paradise.


The echo of your footsteps

Earth and dust,

I do not presume to touch

the sand moved

in your walk

through the yard,

the corridors, the many rooms,

I can hear

the echo of footsteps

tapping through the silicon chips,

with every stroke lapping the water,

jumping on every grain of rice as it is fried,

chasing the children as kites fly.

Why should I need

to see you face to face 

if I can trace 

the echo of your pace?


The flowerpot

“It must have been

very cumbersome

for you to carry

such a big parcel

when you must have 

so many other

things to pack in.

He really shouldn’t have 

bothered you.”

I had thanked

your friends, the couriers...

And now,

it stands before me,

unwrapped from layers

upon layers

of gold and blue

Wedgwood paper--

this Greek flowerpot.

What shall I put in it?

Even a cactus can die

with me --

It seems too valuable,

in any case,

to soil with plants.

Will not the black dirt

lodge itself

into the soft smiles

and loose locks

of these Grecian youths

and maidens?

What if the loam

stains the airy garments?

Earth tarnishes

this ancient imagination? --

And where shall I place it?

The top of the cabinet

is too austere to match.

Next to the telephone,

it may fall in shatters.

If on my table,

files will bury it.

And on the desk behind,

it will be forgotten --

Not knowing what to do with it,

I place it carefully

back into the wrappings,

cradled against the box,

crumpled for its protection,

and lock it safely

in my drawer...

Only I will know it is there --

this Greek flowerpot

from my little brother,

one year my junior,

who now earns enough 

to send me this gift,

when once I had to subsidise,

with my tuition money,

his navy wintercoat,

needed for teen attractions.

My brother,

now a father

of a four-year-old,

smiling at me

from my noticeboard,

beaming as he was

in his rabbit suit

upon graduation

from kindergarten.

My brother,

responsible for 

safety belts in Hong Kong,

representing the government

in London,

and I,

married to another country,

half a world away,

never meeting

on our visits home,

by a month or two,

except in this flowerpot

held briefly in his hands,

now cradle in mine--

let it hold 

what it already holds

and be placed

where it has always been.


The road taken

Many routes can take me 

home -- Singapore is 

so small, so round,

you cannot be more

than five kilometres off

or four dollars more by cab.

So why not choose 

the road I like

where driving is freer,

trees greener, sea breeze clearer,

memories dearer,

though it may be longer?

So many other things

in life -- you cannot choose. 


Woman to woman

I had met them,

got to know them

as people with offices,

telephone extensions,

bookshelves, tutorial chairs

and notecards

of scrawly handwriting,

people with husbands

and a son or daughter,

who goes swimming,

takes lessons of sorts --

pictures on Kodak paper.

We had exchanged

smiles and greetings

in the corridor,

the pantry

or over the phone.

I had lunched 

and dined with them

at the canteen,

the clubhouse

and the hotel restaurant.

And then I read

their poetry ...

lizards slithering through running sand

crying to escape falling into caves

subterranean  rivers

gushing through buried treasures

the mummies are sleepy

in the early morning

conches glisten with coral dust

proffering the sounds from the deep

all the barracudas have evaporated

and the whales are expecting

a generation of orphans

not yet menstruating walk the city

while women in pain with first babies

labour beneath rubble

and the crocodiles are crying

... woman to woman

What can be said 

in the corridor 

as the cleaners pass

or over the phone 

between classes?

Yes -- that was interesting,

wasn’t it?

the workshop -- 

And how was the poetry

competition you judged? 

I saw you on TV last night --

Oh that -- more exciting

than the conference,

I must say --

there was this man

who just kept asking questions --

okay -- talk to you later --

I have to go --

meeting my publisher --


“I’m not coming home

for dinner.”

“It;s okay.”

The toilet bowl

needs disinfecting;

algae on the bathtiles

are colonising. 

It’s time to change

the bedsheets

and the underwear

has to be soaked

throughout the night 


Let me die at home

Promise me

when I grow old, if you are

still alive, you will not

send me to a hospital

to die -- a strange place

with unknown faces breathing,

voices walking in the air.

Let me die at home

in our own bedroom

with my seasoned pillows,

faded sheets,

my underwear

in neat cupboard piles.

Let me lie at home

where photos scatter

in different drawers,

magazines open

across the rug,

cushions fall.

Let me stay at home

please , no commotion

after the late news,

nervous calls, loss of tempers,

ambulance admission till 2 AM-

not for you, not for me.

Don’t give me

an operation,

however large the growth,

no brain scan, no endogram,

no drips of nutrition,

no oxygen. 

Don’t move me

from hospital to hospital

in search of best surgeons.

Consider my age,


and let me go.

Quietly I came into this world --

my father was fishing in dawn waters --

let me gently leave.

Just hold me as I lie in our bed,

my lips on your fingertips

and I will softly go


while my red bougainvilleas 

wait for next pruning,

flowering in some two weeks,

a single stalk of golden showers


in evening mist.


What the body needs

1998 is a bad year.

It began with the bird flu,

no chickens for Chinese New Year.

Then came the red tide with dead fish,

speculators on the Hong Kong dollars.

Unemployment has climbed to 4.8 per cent.

Property prices have almost halved.

The Hang Seng Index goes down and down.

A few million lost on paper,

I am spending money as usual,

hoping to boost the economy

with my little expenditure.

How can I complain?

I still have my job and pay

and someone to welcome me

when I open the door at home.

Whether it’s a Mid-Levels’ apartment

or 400 square feet in old Wanchai,

it’s only three feet by six

that my body sleeps on.

Whatever the feast on the table --

abalone, shark’s fin, sashimi,

what I can eat is limited

by the size of my stomach. 

However we may dream or lust,

bodily needs are fairly constant.

But it’s easy for me to be thankful when

what I have is already someone’s heaven.

If my family were swept away by Yangtze waters

and blisters began festering on my legs,

if I were raped as my home was burning,

would I be grateful still for the breath to utter a prayer?

Perhaps I know what the body needs.

But do I know what the body can endure?

God, the girl in Indonesia raped with a broom--

did she wake up in heaven?


Empress for a month

Did you know,

our Empress Dowager,

when you were insisting 

on taking funds

from the national treasury

meant for the protection of the people

to build the Summer Palace

for your personal treasure 

that one day

the fruits of your labour,

or at least your imagination,

could be enjoyed

by anyone? 

They can sleep where you slept,

bathe where you bathed,

gossip in your covered walkways,

frolick in your lake,

smell your flowers of every season,

chase your butterflies or their descendants

and eat a reproduction 

of your thirty-course dinner

even for lunch...

For a certain fee,

so I heard,

anyone can be imperial.

No questions about lineage or

nationality will be asked.

But at twenty thousand a month

(or was it ten?)

even in Renminbi,

the Money of the People,

it is still 

not quite for the people,

the Chinese people. 


Smell the roses

East campus, west campus,

everywhere I walk in May,

roses are blooming.

Blood red and crimson,

fiery orange, lipstick pink,

violet, blush and white.

Long stem roses stand tall,

proud as an English garden.

Low bushes hedge pavements.

Large petals unfurl one by one.

Pon pon clusters fall in confetti.

In shallow cups, yellow centres glow.

No other flower seems to grow

for fifty years on this Chinese campus,

only roses of every fragrant colour.

But everyone is reading on benches,

cycling to classes, rushing for meal times,

listening to the Voice of America.

No one is stopping to be

with roses, except me, 

a visitor.

When I leave

tomorrow, who will

smell the roses?


Vanilla in the stars

When I was a child,

I used to gaze at the stars above

our garden of roses, jasmine and lingzhi by the sea,

wondering how far away they really were,

whether they were shining still at the source

by the time their light reached me …

I was told that everyone was born with a star

which glowed or dimmed with the fortunes of each.

I also heard people destined to be close 

were at first fragments of the same star

and from birth went searching for each other.

Such parting, seeking, reuniting might take

three lifetimes with centuries in between.

I had thought all these were but myths …

Now decades later, I read about the life of stars,

how their cores burn for ten billion years,

how towards the end, just before oblivion,

they atomize into nebulae of fragile brilliance –

ultra violet, infra red, luminous white, neon green or blue,

astronomical butterflies of gaseous light

afloat in a last waltz choreographed by relativity,

scattering their heated ashes into the void of the universe …

Some of this cosmic dust falls onto our little earth

carrying hydrocarbon compounds, organic matter

able to mutate into plant and animal life,

a spectrum of elemental fragrances …

Perhaps on the dust emanating from one ancient star

were borne the first molecules of a pandan leaf,

a sprig of mint or basil, a vanilla pod, a vine tomato,

a morning frangipani, an evening rose, a lily of the night …

Perhaps our parents or grandparents or ancestors further back

strolling through a garden or a field had breathed in the scents

effusing from some of these plants born of the same star

and passed them on as DNA in the genes of which we were made …

Could that be why, on our early encounters, we already sensed

in each other a whiff of something familiar, why when we are near,

there is in the air some spark which seems to have always been there,

prompting us to connect our pasts, share our stories even as they evolve …

… till the day when we too burn away into dust

and the aromas of our essence dissipate

into the same kaleidoscope of ether light

to be drawn into solar space by astral winds …

… perhaps to make vanilla in a star to be

before the next lifetime of three?

Agnes received the Nosside International Poetry Prize (Special Mention) in 2008.