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Hilary Tham Goldberg

Hilary Tham Goldberg Hilary Tham, poet and sumi-e artist, was born and raised in Kelang, Malaysia. A graduate of the University of Malaya, she came to the USA in 1971 upon marriage to a Jewish American. She has been tutor to Malaysian princesses, health insurance claims review, Chair of the Northern Virginia Coalition to resettle Vietnamese refugees, president of her synagogue sisterhood and is the author of 5 books of poetry including Paper Boats, Tigerbone Wine and Bad Names for Women. Her 1994 collection of poems, Men & Other Strange Myths, Three Continents Press, featured her art with her poems. Her most recent book is Lane With No Name: Memoirs & Poems of A Malaysian-Chinese Girlhood, 1997, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado. Recipient of many Artist-in-education grants from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, she teaches creative writing in public schools and for the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She is the editor-in-chief for Word Works, Inc. a non-profit poetry press and poetry editor for Potomac Review. She   has been featured on National Public Radio, Radio Pacifica, and cable television programs. She is currently working on a book-length narrative poem: COUNTING based on her life in Buddhism, Catholicism and Judaism.

Contact Hilary Tham at Hilarytham@aol.com
Visit Hilary Tham's WEB Page


found a seat thankfully set down her bags.
Hot bodies jostled her: schoolgirls in blue,
women shoppers, salesmen, a Buddhist monk

carrying his alms pouch. A schoolgirl
near him struggled towards the exit.
She stumbled over Mrs. Wei's bags.

Mrs. Wei helped her up. "Why are you
leaving? You just got on. Are you
feeling sick?"

Eyes wide, the girl shook her head.
"No -- he -- the Monk touched me.
I'll catch the next bus."

Mrs. Wei rose in wrath, hissed to the girl
to watch her bags and began to bellow.
"Lecher! Animal! Reptile in saffron robe!

Secret Eater of Forbidden Meat!
Molesting young girls on buses!
I'll report you to your Abbot,

you vomit on Buddha's face!"
Eyes turned. Heads turned. In silence
he took the path that opened to the exit.

"Always carry a safety-pin," Mrs. Wei said
to the schoolgirl. "When scum like that
surfaces, stab it in the ass.

That jackal is going to be
a lizard in his next life.
May Lord Buddha have mercy on his soul!"

MRS. WEI and the THIEF

When I heard the rooster scream,
the hens in noisy panic, I knew
a thief was in my chicken house.

Grabbing a flashlight and a rattan cane
I ran to see a six-foot cobra,
patterned like woven grass, leave

with my best layer in its mouth.
It flowed swift as runnel water
into the cemetery behind the shed.

I followed, jumping over graves.
"Excuse me, please excuse" I said
to placate any ghosts about to rise.

I caught up to that jeweled spatula-head,
flailed it with my cane until
its gleaming eyes dulled,

then dragged its limpness to the road,
and stretched it across to be killed again,
its bright green pounded black

by passing cars, the sure way to kill
snake magic. Then I took my chicken
home to dinner.

Pictures at an exhibition of Old New England

1. The Marginal Way
(William Henry Lippincott, 1916, oil on canvas)

The artist hopes to sell this painting
to summer people like the two ladies
in white and pink gowns strolling down
the cliff path with bonnets and parasols
to protect their fairness. They are gazing,
as they never do at home, at sky,
at sea; the advertised green of countryside.
In the distance a man and a woman
do not look at what they see everyday.
The fisherman, almost out of sight, hurries
with rod and catch to sell, the woman trudges
with market basket, busy with thoughts of making
ends meet, dinner, babies.

2. Mill Girl
(Shoe Factory, Lynn, Massachusetts)

(Frances Benjamin Johnson, 1895, black and white photograph)

What draws the viewer is the girl's eyes, their sheen
repeated in the decorous pairs of boots on the racks.
Her calm face, pale from days spent indoors, black hair
piled neatly on her head, poised above the high collar
of her white blouse, her coarse cotton pinafore.
She holds a boot in her left hand, her right
wields a varnishing brush. She radiates serenity,
certitude: she knows what she does, she does well,
she knows what she does is worth doing, God is
in heaven and she in a shoe factory, glad to be here,
not home in the barn milking a patient cow
while her mother says, "Feed the pig,
the chickens, mind the little ones while I fetch
the chisel to your Pa in the sheep fold.
He needs to build up the stone wall.
The young ones keep trying to get away."

3. Granite Quarry
(Francis Colburn, 1942, oil on canvas)

A man looks at a mountain and invents
mining: chisels, pulleys, rock breaking drills,
turbines, dynamite, trucks to haul away
stone for memorials, mica for radio and the war effort.
Mountain looks down at ant-busy men
and dreams of glaciers, the singing of ice.

Man looks up at mountain and invents
leisure: hiking boots, para-sails, chair-lifts,
snow-making machines, ski-slopes,
bungee-jumping ropes, birding binoculars.
Mountain looks down at post-meteorite men
and dreams of dinosaurs, the singing of dust.

4. Spinning Wheel Chair
(Ca. 1890, Manufacturer unknown)

Everybody can't have a grandfather, nor things that came over on the Mayflower, and those of us
who have not drawn the prizes in life's lottery must do our best under the circumstances
--- Clarence Cook, 1881 on collecting antiques

This must be mad Captain Ahab turned carpenter,
stripping steering gear from his ship
to make a perch for his porch. But this chair
is made of spinning wheels, they never saw salt water,
spun always in one direction, they knew the secret songs of women
who sang in cottages as they turned clumps of wool into yarn.
Later, women trotted off to textile mills where turbine powered
machines roared and changed the rhythm of their songs.
And spinning wheels became chairs silent as dust
in the seldom used parlors of the middle class.

Summers, our family traveled north to New
Hampshire, driving through old towns, along rivers,
over covered bridges. The children yelled "Under!"
as sunlight vanished in shadow and tires clattered
on wood planks. We passed the Sugar River mill,
deserted now, a beached leviathan of red brick
with rusted padlocks, vacant eyes of broken windows, dead air.
The children hushed as if they sensed the chill of old shadows,
the aching absence of sun, light, life that was and now is not.

5. Island Funeral
(N. C. Wyeth, 1939, tempura on panel)

Funeral on an island without a cemetery, service
for a fellow fisherman they could not ransom
from the sea, they come to this
huge rock honest as grief,
hard as truth, bare rock, beached boats
lined up neat as ribs. More boats approach
the island, bright sails, frail craft
on darkening water that gives life,
and takes away; and these who reap the sea
must gather with empty hands for a burial
on this island brown as summer tan on outstretched hands.
They look at sea that swallows life,
mirror island in the sky that beckons,
clouds like sheep grazing light. The Lord is
my rock, I shall not fall, the Lord is my shepherd I shall
not fear, surely goodness and kindness shall follow me,
fall low me, fall owe me, fall oh me
all the days, daze, dares, Deus
of my life. Amen.

Copyright © 1999. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Duplication of this poetry and/or art without permission of the author/artist is forbidden under copyright law. Please ask permission if you wish to use for non-commercial purposes
  Big Cats in Snow Tuesday, July 11, 2000