Sago Lane, Singapore
In the workshops carpenters plane teak slabs
by hand, cut away notches, file down cavities,
and mallet the parts together with dull thuds.
No nails are used. Upstairs are the tenements—
beds stacked upon beds line corridors
that snake the length of six shophouses.
Here, the consumptives, their coughs and hacks
a ragged chorus punctuated by globules
of mucus and blood dribbled into spittoons.
There, the lepers, open rot crusting skin
to stained linen no-one will bother to wash.
There are more ways of dying than this.
In another street, children craft pale shadows
of worldly goods, fingers smudged into rainbows
by cheap paper and rice-glue. A girl wraps
silver foil around wire for a mirror. Two boys
mash wet paper into stiff servants. Next door
you can buy a copper coin to place under the tongue,
or a disc of jade to seal the lips. Ten dollars
will get you one female mourner and seven sticks
of incense. Each night, before you go to sleep,
you knock on wood to call for death. Live
too long, and lose a coffin for a mat you weave
from strips of straw that flutter like moths in the dawn.
You write your name clearly, black ink on white,
write the names of your ancestors, back to back.
You carry this beneath your underclothes, next
to your heart. It will be the last thing they take.