Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé


Ah Cai had received Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters from Eric, who liked to regift books he’d actually unwrapped and read, even scribbled remarks in the margins, as if new readers would then scour other pages to engage with a previous reader-turned-writer rather than the book author itself. Ah Cai liked it that Eric had put his paw prints all over, even if this was the first poetry book he’d ever read, let alone owned.

---- Oh boy, Plath must have made him real mad here, went one margin comment. The comments were written in every direction as if always ambivalent and thinking it better to stay out of a domestic matter. Did Hughes really think her empty, that her dreams were empty? She made Hughes feel like a big chair, like furniture, like she was the Antarctic sea between him and her girlfriends, that’s why Hughes needed to write that stanza.

These were the sort of notes along the margins, an editor’s quiet ideas sounding through the rain. For Ah Cai, they meant a conversation, between two men able to think out loud, thoughts into words. A conversation that was remarkable, time-consuming albeit seemingly much fuss about nothing. But remarkable on this humid day nonetheless, the three buddies spending an agreed-upon day-off at Kenneth’s.

Ah Cai put on a fresh pot of coffee, yanked the Heinekens from the fridge, and opened the two boxes of mee goreng and beef horfun for everyone to dig into. There were no plates, only styrofoam cups, chopsticks and the plastic bag the food came in to throw everything out in. The air at Kenneth’s was at once dry with powder like a low fog and dank with the wet sink and buckets of slip and glaze.

The studio apartment was a mess, pointless to do any cleaning since it doubled as Kenneth’s ceramics workspace. There was an electric kiln just yards from the washing machine. The kitchen cabinets housed older clay sculptures, the larger stand-alone pieces taking up much of the living room. The books, unpacked, had no more shelves, and sat in tall piles along one long wall.

---- Hughes would have wanted one of your pieces, Ken.

---- If only, Ken replied, not looking up from his wheel. Really, you think?

---- Yep, he must have needed something for his rabbit stews, Eric said being a bit of an ass. Or something about Dante or Brontë or King’s Cross. Ken looked up and gazed at Eric for a bit, not at, but just beyond as if to say “nice idea, never thought of it”, but returned quickly to his pot with thinning walls. His technique was excellent, Ah Cai always admired, his long arms able to pull up pots almost half his size. He seemed to look down into the clay with such calm intensity, as if it were Hannah, and he had something important to say to her.

---- Could you grab that sponge for me, Cai? Yeah, the flat, round, brown one. It’s Hannah’s. I only use her powder sponges now once she’s done with them. They’re really smooth, well-made.

­---- He really loved her, y’know, as much as he loved London. Eric had swiped Letters from the couch, reading one of his own scribblings. The way he describes her goading the all-laughs taxi-driver, American girl being so American, that’s what Hughes says, in her frenzied chariot-ride, that’s what he wrote, frenzied as if she was happiest being unlaced and untethered, to run free, all the way from Rugby Street to Fetter Lane.

Ah Cai walked over with the sponge and fettling knife in a small tub of clean water. He could second-guess Kenneth, what playlists to pipe in depending on what was on the wheel being thrown or altered, what dinner to get for Hannah when Kenneth didn’t have the time to cook, and what beers to bring over when the guys hung out. More than twenty years being buddies, they’d become good at it.

---- What clay is this? Seems tougher, not like the usual. Is it a mix?

---- Y’know, maybe you should try doing this some time, Cai. You seem at home with the material, seem to have the technical mind for it. Kenneth stopped the wheel and looked straight at Ah Cai. It’ll help you take your mind off Feiyan and her granny situation and work situation. And really, you need to get past wedging clay and cleaning tools.

---- Feiyan and I know it’s better this way, to keep things at arm’s length.

---- We can start you on basic stoneware. I’ll teach you coil or slab.

---- You really think I’d be good at this? Cai gathered the cups and dropped them into the boxes. Eric?

---- You won’t find out just asking questions, and it sure beats beating yourself up over a good woman you’ll never get to love. Eric looked at Kenneth, pausing just in case he’d crossed the line, and Kenneth merely shook his head in mock despair.

---- Y’know, Kenneth started, Eric’s right. Even a pinch pot can really get you going, make you love ceramics the way I do. It’s like keeping the whole world close to you, wet earth between two hands and right next to your cheek. It’s about finding something precious to hold.

---- Okay, Ah Cai seemed convinced, I’m game. What about I make something from this poem? Something from this book, from Hughes? Cai raised Letters above his head like an old trophy and waved it like a flag, as Eric registered a big grin, then a small smile.

---- Which poem, old friend?

Ah Cai flipped open the book, wanting to simply decide on the first poem the book opened to, but started browsing, then reading, moving past the various bookmarked pages, Eric’s copious notes, sometimes oblique messages, till he settled into one page, and began to slow down his read.

---- This might be the one, Ah Cai said, in a soft but firm voice. “As you flew / They jammed all your wavelengths / With their criss-cross instructions, / Crackling and dragging their blacks / Over your failing flight, / Hauling your head this way and that way / As you clung to the sun – to the last / Shred of the exploded dawn / In your fist – // That Monday.”

---- Sounds as good a pick as any, Kenneth said warmly. Title?

---- It’s “Night-Ride on Ariel”, Eric said. I can see why you picked it. Don’t get me wrong, I mean I think I get your choice, our wavelengths always in step, in sync and all.

---- It’s an excellent choice, Eric closed off his sentiment. Reminds me of another poem. By the other Hughes guy. Langston, yep, Langston Hughes. When he wrote “Troubled Woman”, a poem that began and ended with her standing in one place. Heartbreaking stuff.

Eric saw the book on the shelf behind Ah Cai, and moved forward to pull the book out from behind him. He scanned the list of poems, and turned pages to the poem, its one zig-zag stanza.

---- Here it is, that’s the way he saw her, framed her. Like a picture. “Like an / Autumn flower / In the frozen rain, / Like a wind-blown autumn flower / That never lifts its head / Again.”

Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé has edited more than 10 books and co-produced 3 audio books, several pro bono for non-profit organizations. A recipient of the Singapore Internationale Grant and Dr Hiew Siew Nam Academic Award, he has work forthcoming in Blackbird, Copper Nickel, Ganymede, Pank, Pindeldyboz and The Writing Disorder. Also working in clay, Desmond sculpts commemorative ceramic pieces for his Potter Poetics Collection, some of which can be viewed here. These works are housed in museums and private collections in India, the Netherlands, the UK and the US.