Surd

1. Reportage

Sun-dried beggars with cell phones, brand new
snack stores underselling their next-door competition by seven cents,

boys and their hair, careful and one-side banged, they touch up
every reflection they get, walking and rounding crowds
with the deftness of water

or the inevitable pinball, bouncing,
nudged to slant-shouldered edging in or past –

the city spills upwards, cascade of
skyscrapers that tower over glass-paneled vertical
malls and diner|office|home flats, and that bends
into the little-left of above-ground. Shooting up

along Nathan Road, these smog-black buildings embank the sky
diminutive and thinned depthless. 
This two-mile road that begins at Prince Edward district 
ends only because it has to

(buildings, too) at the TST harbor, where the sky is ocean hued, and the wind
the wind that traffic pulls together inland, hot into our faces. 


2. From Causeway Bay to TST, evening rush hour

The Blue Line train at Admiralty station arrives
every two minutes. The commuters from the Red Line
waist-slender their way, elbows folded to queue
where I wait, tucked in as if I belong, arms
unakimbo and not the turnstile bruising into others. 
When the train pulls in, we are tile-shuffled into familiar water

and wave I can’t find my way out of,
these spikes on a seismograph, cardiograph. 
Overhead announcements in Cantonese,
Mandarin and English, the maps and posters
need only two: alphabet and pictograph. 
If I look my part, I have to speak into corners
I didn’t know I cared about mattered. 

We jolt in unison when the train starts. 
Even if we had squeezed into the cart, touch necessarily
though for me not undesirably – no space 
to desire otherwise – some are left out to
wait for another train, bereft
and already passing in the window as scenery. 
Inside, those in couples or groups close into each other

and take from us the least space. 
I call my mother, tell her where I’ll be waiting:
outside HSBC across Nathan Road from Kowloon Park. 

It could have been Hang Seng Bank in the station,
but, bottlenecked everywhere, no building
is too obscure a meeting place. At Sasa’s
or Giordano’s there’d be air-conditioning. 
If it rained, any awning would do, or juts of buildings. 
I’d wait to be spotted, wall-lined, sweat-filmed in
single-rowed embankment with everyone else.

I show up at the wrong place because she’s not there,
and I can’t explain any better where I am.


3. I am mahjong-shuffled, pushed to the turnstile

exit to meet her, same short and grey the one-year-since crowding out her hair. 
Not much else, the midday dim sum, aunts full-circle,

my crescent nods and keeping my mouth full.
She and I the short phone calls without the phone, there is a tongue in my tongue

I fillet boneless and butterflied, fold back
imbricate and teeth-tied. I vacate to the crowd’s push-shove leaning-ins

nothing but the obligatory touches, body-hot linked changing from station to station. 
She doesn’t care the same way but

for the same round yarn, fat cheeks and more fat cheeks. If she could wait out
my waiting me out, I could speak her

one tile-tooth thing much else each time. 


4. How to love my mother

Elbows folded, we fill: the milling
interstices of buildings, dirty
undernails, light that brims
between our shadows. Out of our one flat

flat, breaking ground to subways
and overways as ports
of our zigzag footwork and pleated
bagwork, we sweat between our toes.

I angle my shoulders and cut
by indication the traffic, the plat-
formed tectonic waves I stutter through
because of her, top-bunked

and spilling so easily untucked in rain,
in umbrellas we ballerina around,
vertical flock of deflections
and the city blossoms. 


5. Stack up

Of four hundred and twenty-six square miles,
only one hundred is habitable. 
Buildings sprout even at the harbor, hold
up its growing from spilling into sea.

The stockmarket skyline makes promises
that our luck could change as soon as tomorrow
so that in every razed building, we place
vertical hope: cranes summoning upright

rebar, concrete walls, and signage, held up
by forests of dried bamboo scaffoldings. 

To set up mahjong, the four players must build
tiled walls – two high and eighteen long – and push
into the center as pinwheel. Each takes
sixteen to begin. For every tile after, 

one is discarded until someone wins or
the walls disappear. The walls are rebuilt
to play again. The night can last eight hours. 
It does for my mother. In that it keeps her

out of the flat, jobless boredom and fretting
over my brother, he takes to it too,

weekend blackjack at Macau when she’s home.
While he waits for his hand, he practices
chip stacking – fingers claw two equal stacks
so that when the middle finger flicks one

towards his palm, the chips separate, lift
alternately inarched and layering
into each other, fuse back as one stack.
He halves it, combines them, halves it again. 


6. To make room

I stay the night at my brother’s apartment, 
now also my mother’s who’s lose her job. 
What he had divided of the cramped spaces
and filled with furniture, she had to slice

into horizontal layers. 
       They purchased
a bunk bed and got good at stacking boxes
just out of the microwave’s arc, enough
for the door’s to slide through. 
              And when my brother

is at his usual swivel chair, 
       if I 
take the couch my mother moves to the floor,
says it’s cooler there, reads her paper. 
 She
announces bits of news, inconsequential

to our lives, bird chirps I acknowledge with
one-word replies, these insignificant 
annual visits I make. She can’t find jobs;
she breaks things when she cleans the flat – dropped dishes,

tripped up wires. I do the same; he says nothing
about my clumsiness; he doesn’t ask me
for more attention. He doesn’t sleep well.
I decline the top bunk bed, take the sofa

bed outside, unfolded but still too short. 
I can’t rearrange us enough to leave
none out – all stacked or all laid side by side – 
and keep, at this distance, from breaking things.

________________________________________

Shiaw-Tian Liaw is a recent graduate from the MFA program at UCI. His recent and forthcoming publications include Zocalo Public Squares and Witness. He currently resides in Southern California.