Gilbert Koh’s “Not Home” [Read the poem here]
(First published in issue #4 of Cha)
Children can be so cruel. This is certainly the case in Koh’s “Not Home”. The cruelty of children often arises from their innocence of the world and self-absorption, characteristics demonstrated by the persona in the poem. In the poem’s opening, we see a young person playing alone outside: ‘I was eight, and alone. / Waiting in the garden I talked / to trees. Seeds sprouted. / Crickets sang’ (L1-L4). The whole scene is written to reflect the child’s state of mind. The lines are deliberately short and jump between foci, revealing a child’s short attention span. We also see a young person’s imagination at work in phrases such as ‘I talked to trees’. But it is the imagination of a particularly lonely child; one forced to take refuge in a make-believe world after being excluded from the real one.
The reason the child is alone (weather whether by choice or by adult instruction) becomes clear in the next sentence: ‘In the house / Grandma lay dying’ (L4-L5). The persona then takes his or her frustration out on a helpless creature: ‘Caught an insect, held it / in my hand. Plucked a leg off’ (L6-L7). This is not just blind violence but is an act motivated by a strange and disturbing kind of childish logic: ‘Plucked a leg off, / as I softly sang. Very cruel, / very bad. Surely Papa would / come home, if I were bad’ (L7-L10). That the persona’s aggression may stem from violence he or she has suffered is apparent in the suggestion that the father would ‘Make me hurt, for being bad’ (L11). There is a terrific unsentimentality and complexity here. The child craves the father’s attention; however, this attention is likely to be violent, suggesting that in some way the child wants to be hurt.
Despite the child’s wishes, the father does not return. The youngster, however, continues to torture the insect in hopes of attracting the parent: ‘One more leg then, and another. / Time crawled. I lost count. / Finally there were no more legs, / but papa wasn’t home’ (L12-L15). There is perhaps a lapse of voice in the phrase ‘Time crawled’ as it is unlikely that a child would use this expression. Regardless, its use proves apt, providing as it does a nice contrast to the insect slowly losing its own ability to crawl while its limbs are torn off.
Finally, the child gives up and drops ‘the useless insect / on the ground’ (L16-L17). Nothing, however, has changed and ‘In the house / Grandma went on dying’ (L17-L18). At this point, the distinction between the insect and the grandma is blurred in the persona’s mind: ‘On and on her body twitched, / till I crushed it with a stone’ (L19-L20). The ambiguity in the switch of pronouns from ‘her body’ to ‘it’ in subsequent lines is striking and unnerving. Is the kid’s attention flipping back and forth between the insect and his grandma, just like it switches between trees, sprouts and crickets? Or is it more unsettling? Is the child imagining killing the grandma while shattering the bug’s body? Or does the young person believe that there is a connection between killing the bug and the grandmother’s suffering? Or is the child simply unable to understand the grandmother’s death in any meaningful way?
The only person who seems able to explain the situation to the child is the father but even at the end of the poem, he remains absent: ‘Papa wasn’t home’ (L21). This absence is never explained. However, the fact that the line is repeated from L15 makes it clear that this absence is the source of much of the young person’s resentment. Regardless of his reasons, the father’s neglect of his offspring would seem almost abusive; particularly his leaving the child with a dying relative without support or explanation. Perhaps in the end it is parents who can be so cruel.
Gilbert Koh is a lawyer in Singapore and works in investment banking. His poems have been published in various anthologies and literary journals, including Yuan Yang, Dim Sum, The Drunken Boat, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Atlanta Review, Softblow, Love Gathers All, No Other City and elsewhere. In 2005, Koh was the winner of the NAC-SPH Golden Point Award for Poetry.