— for Charlene Winfred
In the land of our birth,
we wander by winding waterways,
measuring this parched earth –
we know our time will end.
Dusk descends. Denouement of days:
a parting, once more, of friends.
The koel is a genus of cuckoo found across Asia, Australia, and the Pacific. The Eudynamys scolopaceus, or the Asian cuckoo, is distributed across the Indian subcontinent as well as the south of China. One of the better-known traits of the cuckoo is that it is a parasitic breeder: a cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, particularly that of the crow; its young have been known to push the chicks of the host bird out of the nest, monopolising the attentions of the host bird parents.
The koel is a well-known symbol in Indian poetry, appearing as early as 2000BC in the Sanskrit Vedas, where it was known as ‘anya-vapa’: ‘what is raised by others’, a reference to its breeding habits. The name itself is onomatopoeic, deriving from the Sanskrit ‘kokila’. The young koel will mimic that call and behaviours of the host crow parents until it is ready to fly.
More recently, the koel as a formal verse form was likely invented by the Singaporean poets Desmond Kon and Ng Yi-Sheng. On their website Southeast Asian Poetic Forms, it states that the koel is a form that has its origins in the Japanese koan, with very specific formal restrictions: firstly, the use of tercets, end-rhyme between the first and third lines, and alliteration in the second lines. The poem is heavily reliant on patterns of sound to achieve its meaning.
My poem, ‘Singapore Koel’, was written to commemorate the launch of a collaborative project between myself and the photographer Charlene Winfred: Map-Making, a book of photographs and poems about Singapore, which was launched in a signed and numbered limited edition in August 2018. Like the koel (the bird), we both rarely felt at home in Singapore, our common place of birth, although we both managed to gain an education and some semblance of belonging in our formative years there.
Charlene and I have not lived in the same country for twenty years, and to be able to physically be together in Singapore to work on the launch of Map-Making felt like a strange homecoming. I have lived away from Singapore for twelve years now, and increasingly, I find that I can only write about it in fixed forms. I wanted to experiment with the recursive, invented form of the koel, while also echoing the tradition of the Tang Dynasty friendship poems in the vein of Li Bai and Du Fu; that is, the inevitable parting of friends on their separate journeys in the wide world.
Eileen Chong is a Sydney poet. She is the author of eight books. Her latest full-length collection of poems is Rainforest, from Pitt Street Poetry. Her work has shortlisted for the Anne Elder Award, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and twice for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award.
Her poem ‘Singapore Koel’ is featured in Pigeonholed (Going Down Swinging 39), available now. Go here to get your copy.
Image by Fahrul Azmi.