Two poems by Esther Vincent Xueming

Two poems by Esther Vincent Xueming

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I surrender my body to an ancient art, skilled hands marking
and wounding, needles entering layers of the psyche, transforming pain

into healing. The tattoo artist’s hands rest on my right thigh as he bends
and labours over his art, my body, bringing me towards my becoming.

First, he shaves my skin, then carefully transfers the template,
tracing the black outline. For six long hours, the intermittent hum

and whirr of metal on wet flesh, lemon cake and toilet breaks.
Shading for depth and colour, which shocks and sears

my back, nerves writhing and pulling with each precise dip.
One learns to stay calm and breathe. One learns to ride the storm.

The body as a map to be written and read, navigating the shifting tides.
This is the path I have chosen, to chart a course into the open

with a purple compass, sea green anchor, frayed rope and the blessings
of two sea birds, wings outstretched, circling.

Inheritance

At thirty-two, I am beginning to learn
that my story is not my own,
my body a birthing of inherited sorrow.

Pointing at a woman in a faded photograph,
my mother tells me great-grandmother was a cripple.
I see the wooden stump peeking out

from light blue cotton pants, where warm flesh
should be. I ask my grandmother about her.
Grandmother speaks in the lilting tones of Cantonese,

slurring her vowels. My mother mediates
our broken speech, something about stepping
on a rusty nail, the rot and swell of gangrene.

Great-grandmother’s body maps a loss
my grandmother now inherits, both legs tethered
to a wheelchair. Once, during the Occupation,

grandmother’s legs carried her across the Causeway,
her little brother on her back. She was only seven.
Those legs would never return

to her childhood home, but take root
here, as she walked from door to door in search of work
that would leave my mother at home, alone.

Now, my mother sits with her legs stretched out
beside mine. Spider veins like purple tributaries web
her calves. Skin like parchment from neglect.

Her left foot rocking to the steady tap
and hum of her vintage Singer, pedalling
her love into the seams of my dress.

Beside her, my feet are overgrown, marked
by rivulets of green. My right foot learnt to move
to a different kind of rhythm, my heel a pivot.

The step and release on the faded brass pedals
of my second-hand K. Kawai,
my feet a muddy echo of my mothers.

Fingers trilling black and white, I turn
the page, keep time with the metronome’s steady
beat, tapping live, live, live.
**

Esther Vincent Xueming is the editor-in-chief and founder of The Tiger Moth Review, an eco journal of art and literature based in Singapore. She is co-editor of two poetry anthologies, Poetry Moves (Ethos Books, 2020) and Little Things (Ethos Books, 2013), and has read for Frontier Poetry, The Brown Orient and Eastlit. Her debut poetry collection, Red Earth, which was a finalist for the Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize 2020 (New York), is forthcoming publication by Blue Cactus Press (Tacoma, Washington). Her poems have been published online and in print anthologies locally and internationally. A literature educator by profession, she is passionate about the relationships between art, literature and the environment.