In the void deck we sat quietly at little white islands of being,
death’s grey waters lapping gently at our feet. Now and then people came,
then left, leaving words and wreaths. The sun was white hot, then orange,
then blue, the time of low tides and of marine revelations, of sand dollars
and biscuit starfish and pink warty sea cucumbers. I am sitting
there, at the intertidal, watching something float from island
to island, and finally to mine, when suddenly I am holding
my brother’s new baby, just two months old, just hours
after I’d held my grandmother’s hand. With the waves
there are things that arrive and things that stay,
also things that leave. Beside me, my father says something about the baby
being born just months before his mother’s passing, just as
I was born shortly before his father’s. He stops there,
not quite sure where to land. Before long
the tides will rise, but for a moment all I want
is to hold her, this young life, in the way that, all those years ago,
my grandmother, a new widow, must have held me.
— Mok Zining, 2022
Writer Mok Zining nurses her obsessions through words—first came her encyclopaedic book of poetry centred on orchids, then her enigmatic project-in-progress exploring sand. Finally, for Vogue Singapore’s ‘Rebirth’ issue, a poem situated at an intertidal, the subject of which has far more to do with grief than coastal waters.
Mok’s grandmother passed away in January this year from COVID-19 complications. “When you’re deep in mourning, words can help to surface feelings you can’t otherwise express,” she muses. “Writing this poem gave me a chance to revisit that moment and hone in on what it felt like.”
The resultant work is poignant, atmospheric and deeply intimate—introducing characters from Mok’s family as observers and reflectors of her grief. Her father, hinting around the irreverently hopeful notion of reincarnation; her new-born niece, a defiant symbol of life; and of course, her beloved grandmother, whom Mok feels—in some ways—more close to than ever.
Here, the poet opens up about the inspiration behind her work, the journey of writing her way through grief, and the slivers of hope that trail alongside.
What were the first thoughts that crystallised in your mind when you were given the theme of ‘Rebirth’?
First of all, I’m really glad that I warned you beforehand that the final poem would probably not be anything like what I had initially said I would write. But the first thing that popped into my mind was the idea of an afterlife. It was something that I had been thinking a lot about at the time, since my grandmother’s passing.
That must have been a difficult time.
It was very hard. When the end is near, you want your loved one to feel surrounded by love. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 restrictions, we couldn’t visit her together. When the doctors said that she was in critical condition, we could really only see her one by one. But I’m still very glad that I got to say goodbye. Actually, I was there when she passed away.
“I really wanted to focus on the sensations of grief, where you’re sitting there and time is just passing”
Learning how recently it happened certainly adds a layer of intimacy to the piece. Was writing this poem a way for you to cope with your loss?
I don’t think it necessarily was healing. But I do think that it was special to have a chance to pen that moment down and make it something beautiful. I’m not saying that we have to aestheticise painful moments, but writing this poem gave me a chance to revisit that time and hone in on what it felt like.
It also allowed me to think about how the moment can be remembered. Each time we remember something, the memory changes a little bit based on our current state. This poem lets me remember my loss in a slightly different way.
Could you walk us through your usual process of writing a poem, if you have one?
My process is usually super chaotic and takes a really long time. (Laughs) It’s a very open, messy journey, and I take weeks, months and even years working on something. But for this piece, because there was a fairly tight deadline, I just wrote down all the thoughts that were circulating in my mind and started putting them, even when it didn’t feel like the images I had in my mind necessarily matched. And suddenly, the poem was done. It is one of the fastest things I have ever written, and I’m very glad I took on that challenge. I never knew I had it in me.
Well, thank you for being so timely. I’m really glad it materialised the way it did. If there is one person you could share this poem with, who would it be?
The first person who pops into my mind is my grandmother—but then immediately, there are also these logistical questions. My grandma only speaks Teochew. She doesn’t even speak Mandarin, much less English. So there is already that huge linguistic gap. But I wish I could explain to her what I was writing about, in words that made sense.
I have no doubt that she would have cherished it. Is there a larger goal you had with the poem, in terms of what you hope readers will take away from it?
This is a poem that is very public, and written about something that is quite relatable. Everyone experiences grief, everyone experiences the death of a loved one. A big goal of this poem was to record what grief feels like. I really wanted to focus on the sensations, where you’re sitting there and time is just passing. And you’re distracted, kind of out of it. Suddenly it’s night-time. You’re numb for a long while, and all of a sudden there’s this huge emotional wave. I wanted to evoke that feeling of fresh grief—where you’re not quite sure what’s real, you know? Everything feels so surreal.