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Poetry Corner: SCRABBLE

Introducing a new series of poems by Julian Matthews. Julian is a writer and Pushcart-nominated poet published in The American Journal of Poetry, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Borderless Journal, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Dream Catcher Magazine,  Live Encounters Magazine, Lothlorien Poetry Journal and The New Verse News, among others. He is a mixed-race minority from Malaysia and lived in Ipoh for seven years. Currently based in Petaling Jaya, he is a media trainer and consultant for senior management of multinationals on Effective Media Relations, Social Media and Crisis Communications. He was formerly a journalist with The Star and Nikkei Business Publications Inc


By Julian Matthews

It’s late in the Scrabble game
My father-in-law is in his sarong and his striped shirt
the one with the holes — it’s his comfort-wear
He is the master of the three-lettered word
He’s pushing a 100
I’m slightly more than half his age—
yet slightly less than half the man

He came to Malaya at 19 from his beloved Ceylon in 1938
He lived through World War 2, the Emergency, the Confrontation, curfews, racial riots, death
On the wall, is a black and white photograph of him
in a shiny suit, slicked hair, receiving an award from the Sultan of Kelantan
As a government hospital assistant, he saved lives
As a medical man, he embodied the principle:
First do no harm

He is hunched over, scrutinising the board like a surgeon
He plays fast, laying down words even
before I can add up the last score
He eschewed two hearing aids, defaulting to
selective hearing—
only listening to whom he chooses
Glaucoma sacrificed one eye,
Dr Gill saved the other
So he can still read the daily newspaper
with the aid of a magnifying glass
Still see the glow of the young faces of his five grandchildren
through lit birthday candles
Still make out the yellowing, rosewood tiles on this board,
the red triple-word scores, the blue triple-letter scores—
in the hardscrabble of life
he plays to win

We still make trips to the Hollywood barber in Ipoh
His hair still outgrows his youngest, a full head of vintage ivory on top, his moustache silvery, his beard like stringhoppers, sans sodhi
After each cut, he humours me with a smile for the camera, purses lips to hide his missing teeth, knowing full well the photo’s social reach
He has relatives from New Zealand to Norway
Much of this countryman’s DNA courses through the veins of the many in Germany, France, Italy, Canada, England, India, Singapore, elsewhere
His humility and love had no borders—
Nations may divide but we are all connected
in some way

He has outlived his son, his wife
All his siblings back in Sri Lanka have now passed
Prabakaran is now dead, though he may not believe it
The war is lost, but the fight remains
Never fault a tiger for his endangered convictions

I pull the remaining tiles from the bag
And the letters on my rack read E-M-P-A-T-H-Y
There is no space for a bingo on the board
No way to connect with words left unsaid
No place, this late in the game,
to settle imagined
old scores
Words are just words
None are meant to hurt

He puts his three tiles down
Looks up at me with a satisfied grin,
his eyebrows upturned,
then reaches into the frayed bag
which is now empty—

And I am lesser for it.

Note: Remembering M. Devasahayam, Nov 18, 1919 ~ Apr 17, 2021
Published in Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Washington DC, USA.

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