Number 13 — Inauguration weekend poem

I’m trying to get into the habit of writing new poems to read at each event I participate in as the Poet Laureate, and I knew that for my inauguration weekend, I wanted to read something that acknowledged the Poets Laureate who have come before me.

I decided to write an acrostic using the surnames of the 12 previous Laureates. I’ve found that the acrostic form has forced me to write more linearly than I usually do. Thus each line revealed itself one by one over a couple of months as I chipped away at the poem. The final result is part homage and part manifesto, a testament to the power of poetry to change hearts and minds.

Number 13

Must be the way a poem kickstarts a world into being that

alters how time leans into itself. The rise and fall of oceans

never felt so slow or sticky on your skin, salt crusting between

heartbeats. The delicious moon—all-seeing and all-knowing—

inches across the night sky while sad songs crackle on the

radio. Must be fire and flood swooping in to play their part when

everything is bent beyond recognition. Pray for the good old days.

The before times. The once and once more. We have a habit of

U-Turning when faced with not liking where we’re heading. Oh

wicked, stubborn fate—who’s to say that we can outpace the

hardest of truths? That we are fallible. That we are fools for

attempting to chart our own lives. Poets will ensure that these

revelations are broken to us in the kindest way, like a parent

easing their child into a bedtime ritual. The mind wanders,

skips over crucial details when recalling a memory

made at our most vulnerable to scarring. Are those made

in usual circumstances worth holding in the eternal vault?

Take dreams as an example: there is nothing unusual or

humbling about sleep. Most dreams aren’t memories worth

entertaining. And yet, I have a recurring dream in which

RuPaul asks, ‘What would you say to 10-year-old Christopher?’.

This is the trope I hate the most: tricking my inner child to

unpack intergenerational trauma or make peace with what

returns to sting me when I let down my guard. If I only had

nerve to excoriate the judges for this scripted farce, but I can’t

escape expectation. I’ve been thinking about legacy and

royalty—arrangements designed to make us feel like we

belong to some powerful chain. Link by link we forge

ornamental pathways backwards and forwards, left and

right—words whistling in every direction in search of

new ears to fall upon. A poem is a key, is a map, is a

hidden place filled with the answers to questions you

only ever ask yourself when you’re alone. There’s nothing

lost between a poem and its reader—an open mind and

derring-do will take you far if you hand yourself over to

the invisible strings of each melodious line. If gravity were to

loosen its grip you might find yourself melting into the

eventide, echoes of other worlds ushering you onwards,

grief-stricken by what has been, or empowered by what is

granted a spotlight in your fantasies. I still long for utopia

or at the very least a future where we no longer need to

teach children how to hide from mass shooters stalking

their school corridors. I have excavated and polished all

my fears and frustrations to display in the world’s most

complicated museum exhibition. No amount of hurt can

quieten my overachiever Asian gene or deny my status as an

unreasonable artist with many obsessions to nurture until

everything is about race or gender or queerness. I want an

easy life too—hands free to caress the world in its velvets,

not to obsess or fret about the sharp edges that catch my

wild tongue. A pattern must be broken. A heavy heart needs

emptying to make room for courage. So I listen to Robyn’s

‘Dancing On My Own’ for the thousandth time to feel something

deeply—to unearth a memory loaded with the most powerful

emotion that will transform my simple words into a paean to

our shared joy. In the future, our desires will be soundtracked by

sadbangers—we will cry and let our cathartic tears crystallise

under our feet as we dance ourselves towards the blinding

light of better days. We will sing; we will lift our arms and

levitate, enraptured by the possibility that poetry holds.

If this is the path, if this is the way forward, let all our

voices be bold. Hear me: I am the Poet Laureate and I

approve this message! Now is the time for poetry to

nurse our crushes until we all die of embarrassment. I’ll

stand tall, facing the past, and instruct everyone to keep

tipping the scales in our favour. Assume the position—

ease our bodies against the tide that roars at us, “No

Admission”. I believe in our strength; I believe in self-

deprecation and letting poetry ruin every party it crashes.

Must be the page turning or the world tipping on its

axis, tradition glazed with the woozy afterglow of poets

reciting verse to manifest rebirth, a murmuration of

starlings filling the vast attics of our futures. If there’s

harmony there must be a chorus, voices matched and

etched into the walls we are learning to scale with ease.

Give me neither poverty nor riches; give me myself again.

Give me love and give me hope; give me myself again.

Line by line and brick by brick, build something that will

equip us to change the world. I am sentimental for a 

time that does not yet exist but that I know is somewhere

out there—a half-beginning, a half-sense of something

not entirely out of reach. Must be the way a poem can

tell you where to stand to see every crack or where to

start a fire to light the way for others. Describe what you

expect to see on the other side. Tell us how you want to feel.

— Chris Tse

Smiling chinese man in a green suit holding a carved stick.
Chris Tse (the 13th Poet Laureate) holding his tokotoko carved by Jacob Scott.
Photo by Rebecca McMillan Photography. All rights reserved. 

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