Five Minutes

Five Minutes

by Brian Lam, 5 Feb 2017

These are five poems excised from a larger work, called Seventy-Five Minutes. They come out of a fall project where I wrote one per day. I had the idea of rhyming sonnets. The weeks went by and whittled them to fourteen free lines. I discovered in manuscripting that they take about a minute to read aloud. I hope you enjoy them. Five minutes, you might say, of my life. 



Kueh Salat. Photograph by Melissa De Silva

I see this ocean we now share, you say,

between us changing hue through days.

Deepening its blue, brightening violets

in bays until blossoming into sapphire

sprinkle everywhere, rainbow radiance

everywhere sunned blue can stun eyes

and stop the mind. This is a beginning,

you say, I have a feeling about this blue.

Well, I do too, the one part is turquoise,

one part paradise. We dance bunga telang

flowers in our archipelagoes and pandan

leaves and sweet through coconut cream.

We steam and we seep and we steam and

we seep—into glue of rice, indigo of blue.


The interlocutor is my girlfriend, Melissa. In these lines addressed to her are her own lines, reworked, unthreaded from their knit and put into a larger pattern. It was a joy to write in the incentive material of someone else’s words, making a sort of mirror and echo of the other. Taking the image given, then running ahead of it, streaming the sea scene with extra ribbons, and new wrapping paper the colour of kueh salat, a dessert she introduced to me.



Breakfast on the streets of Hong Kong

I see two eggs boiling in the morning.

They dance back and forth on a stove.

I let steam cloud my glasses and warm

my face by this shallow sauce pan, hot

on a range that sets water to bubbling.

Smaller bubbles, larger bubbles, funny

gurgles column from its metal bottom.

In them the curved shells huddle aside.

The whites squirm in the seething and

I open my eyes to the past and curdles

in another kitchen, a breakfast counter.

Grammy, you who are here, you whose

eggs jiggle on tray with bacon, tea cups, 

toasts and marmalade—it is you I plate.


My grandmother died almost ten years ago. She was a wonderful cook and loved a proper meal. I anticipated our visits with her, her lemon meringue pie. Perhaps the very best times I remember with Grammy were our Sunday bacon breakfasts, toaster grilling the air, soft-cooked eggs trembling in their boil. The quiet of it broken by fat snapping in the pan, the marmalade jar on the table cloth.



Bookseller on the streets of Yangon

I have courted you like lover, attend you                                 

my friend. You sit on my chest, heave in                                 

and up, as I sleep. You marinade in stain,                                

tea cup on a counter bumps. You, pages,                                 

are sniffable, gloss illustrated cat flat over                                

the coffee table. I stretch you wide in long                               

grasses out back beyond home and room,                                

tan you in waving suns. I pile you in bulky                               

backpacks (too many of you) for comfort,                               

there with me where I go. Where do I not                               

go in you, with you, because of you, book?                              

You hardcover bios, paperback fluff, stiff

spine slow and broken in time; you are my

spectacle in hand, my curled cord of lamp.                              


What have books not been for me my whole life? I come from a lineage of readers, bookworms of living rooms and bedrooms. What wisdom have I not found there first, and then in life? The places I have known in them. The solitude of discovery, these soundless voices confiding. How physical is a book, smelling, stained, with a history of being taken with you, sun-bleached, dog-eared, wet by the same rain. 



A typical Irish pub found worldwide. This one is in St Julien's in Malta. 

A muffling din sort of takes over everything.                  

Air in the restaurant prevents thinking, half-                    

pint paints my glass, sweats on paper caster,                    

foams in rorshach, jostles up to my cheering                   

lips. Game is on the big wall screen, colours                             

diffused and duller than in real life. Bands of                  

friends or out-of-towners shove up at unlevel                  

tables, popcorn in cheap baskets before them                  

popped and oversalted. We all blink and turn                           

and drink. I see how couples in corners stare,                                             

blank stare of commercial; they rim the spice                           

of noise over the white of their eyes. Once I                  

rode my moods with all this, young, all these                   

games. I see to my past in the beer and a fog.        


Sports bars fascinate me. The self-importance of the game, the blaring play-by-play pumped even into washrooms. The mutters, sighs and whooping there bring me back, help recreate that inner landscape of emotion and memory and fixation that team allegiance is. I used to care so much, watch so much. I care less now. I go back to those years and feelings when I walk in, sit down, order a beer and look up.



Life reaffirms itself everywhere. Here, trees grow from the ruins of temples in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. 

Every little thing has its growth, mildew                          

losses, little falls or trips into the rotten                  

part of backyard gardens. Brussel sprout                        

lies in my palm; finger-snips to the black                         

circle mold. Leaf falls off so cup-shaped.                        

She holds my heart in her far-off hands.                         

She holds my heart, she holds my heart.                         

She holds the little beaten thing, an egg                  

surprised in jiggled yellow eye. I am not                          

a shell anymore. How can I offer her my                                                  

long ago, my perfect shape? There are no                       

geometries of innocence in me, for hands                       

to hold, for her to hold. We cannot clamp                      

ourselves onto the past, but we may clasp.


I had been paring a bunch of brussel sprouts that day in the kitchen. Piling excess blotch rot into our old ice cream tub we use for compost. There were probably huddled halves of egg shells in the plastic container too. From there I drifted to what originals new eggs are, to what we throw away, need to cut away but can’t. What I once was. What I cannot be any more.


Photographs, unless otherwise stated, by Marc.