Stuck in traffic day by day
Clouds wrap ’round Mount Santubong
Try’s I might, try as I may
English pantuns come out wrong
So steep her slopes, so tall her trees
Morning mists around her clung
Our band set out, yes just us three
Son, Dad, myself, up Santubong
Fairies dance upon yon mount
Legend that’s been put to song
Dad ripped his toe: on that account
We could not crest fair Santubong
Raised above my commute each day
Face freshly painted: Santubong
My son and I couldn’t stay away
Try ‘gain out with some guys we hung
Full of strength, bright handsome face
My pride, my sun, anak sulong
Son at my side we walked apace
We reached the top of Santubong
English Pantun? S’pose you could
But Malay words kena tolong
‘Cause nothing rhymes so very good
When faced with Princess Santubong
Daun inai banyak getahnya,
Ambil segenggam pewarna kuku,
Wahai adik abang bertanya,
Apa obat penawar rindu.
Thick with sap run the henna’s leaves
Take some in hand your nails for dying
O young maiden, your lover asks you
What salve is there to heal longing?
Gadis ditegus lalu dikenyit
Baik perangai pandang tak jemu
Bagai kapur bertemu kunyit
Merah inai mencari kuku
A glance at the maiden leads to a wink
Moves so fine eyes can’t take their fill
Just like limestone chanced upon turmeric
Or the red of the henna seeking the nail
Photo: Lawsonia inermis, the Henna Tree, Pokok Inai in Malay.
Traditional pantuns courtesy of Malay Civilization.
A mimeograph of John Ciardi’s poem was waiting on each boy’s desk as we took our seats for the first class on the first day of 7th grade at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy. I nearly fainted. Amazingly, my mother kept the sheet of paper all these years. RIP, Wendell Hall: may God increase your reward with every word I write.
I wish I could teach you how ugly
decency and humility can be when they are not
the election of a contained mind but only
the defenses of an incompetent. Were you taught
meekness as a weapon? Or did you discover,
by chance maybe, that it worked on mother
and was generally a good thing …
at least when all else failed … to get you over
the worst of what was coming. Is that why you bring
those sheepfaces to Tuesday?
They won’t do.
It’s ten month’s work I want, and I’d sooner have it
from the brassiest lumpkin in pimpledom, but have it,
than all these martyred repentences from you.