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After we make love, I teach you
words I'm slowly forgetting,
names for hands, breast, hair, and river.
And in the telling, I find myself
astonished, recalling the music
in my grandmother's words
before she left this world—
words you don't forget, like a mandate
from heaven. She said, It's in the act
of cleansing that we kill the spirit—
ourselves; every culture's worst enemy
is its own people.
And so I teach you, to remind
myself what it means when I say,
hali ka rito, come here, tell me
the names for ocean, stars, river,
and sun—and you tell me
what you remember from the moments
in which the telling arose. You say
hair instead of river; you say breasts
instead of hands; you say
cock and cunt
instead of moon, sea, and stars.
From Mobil Gas he emerges
like a Mack truck from the desert horizon.
You might think of bluefin tunas
coursing the algid sea.
A man with a singular purpose
always walks with his best foot forward—
leans into dusk, moon heavy on his back.
Mauricio has punched out at the station.
If you happen to see him
you might remark on the butterflies—
the small cloud of yellow, speckled wings
fluttering like wayward kites around him.
You might even reconsider
your faith in miracles,
to comprehend the mystery.
You could be going to themarket
and have already made a list.
You could be as still as a tinsel tree
illuminated by a spinning color wheel
in a room of immobile silhouettes.
You could have your face
pressed against the windowpane—
your chest, a bodiless blouse
and puffy as our Winter faces.
You could be standing in a living room
full of boxes with your fears in tight little bundles.
You could be Mauricio Babilonia
on his way to a rendezvous, his hands
cracked and stained with axle grease,
black as the night gathering at his feet.
And butterflies, impossible and constant,
brushing against his cheeks
like a hundred kisses, the papery wings
of golden monarchs calligraphed
with untranslatable sonnets for one Mauricio Babilonia
on his way to meet his love behind a wall
he will climb, but not fast enough
for the bullet that would seek out his heart.
When the soul selects her own society,
she gathers herself like mist
from the rain-drenched earth.
She goes to Texas, orders a steak
with eggs and coffee, drives
a turquoise Cadillac heading for the gulf.
The angels of morphia want to make a home
in the dark cave of the soul's mouth,
they want to crawl
inside a word, which looks more like a road
covered with snow.
Once the soul lay down
on the snow to sleep. She was naked,
weary of making.
Her mouth is pumice white—
not snow, not Hiroshima ash—
but white as a room hoarding all
the neighborhood light,
white as a line of limbless blouses
and bedsheets running through the bluffs
beneath a pale Nebraska sky
where a girl with scoliosis shakes—
working a Hula-Hoop,
like light dancing through a painted window.
Winter nights in our neighborhood
you can hear the fire engines' wail
clear through the rib cage of every cramped apartment
with at least one space heater set too high.
The village idiots have given up,
tucked in moist blankets.
They've bought this night on credit
beneath great archways of apathetic buildings
with names fat with purchase
like Pillsbury, Madison, and Sutro.
We are recovering from Consumer Credit Counseling.
Our overspent lives read like a broadsheet of debits.
We've been told our future lies in Default, Pennsylvania—
in some trailer park with barking dogs
and corpses of old Chevies.
Could be worse. We could be like our fathers.
Or our great-grandfathers the good children bailed out
time and again from debtors' prison.
The old in our building are prisoners of good manners.
Besides being foolish for not wanting to leave
when the firemen finally came.
They hemmed and hawed, fought with our super.
The weaker ones, those who could no longer fight,
wept beneath their doorways and soaked
their sticky carpets with crocodile tears
when our super ordered all of us
to abandon our homes.
That night the cold swept across our slippered feet,
the fire engines warm and still, their fat hoses
uncoiling from the giant metal spool
as my anthemless neighbors and I stood
clutching our secret possessions pressed
against our breasts as if we were all
pledging allegiance to some cruel god
who stole us away from happy sleep.
after James Wright
When the choppers churned and swayed
the swift brown current like a field of cogon grasses,
we dropped a rope below,
but the native girl, no older than my daughter,
was too weak to hold on, and let go.
We had to leave her to refuel, though we knew
what the river would do. When my duty was up,
I chose to come here, for humid sheets over bamboo beds,
for some honey in a slip—
a ninety-pound rice cooker named Ronda
and the soap dance she's known to do. But hardly for love,
as I wait with this man bent in my arms.
When the Coca-Cola truck hit this pedicab driver,
you could see his rubber slippers fly
all the way up to the second-floor window.
His body thrown five meters from his cab.
I imagine the Lord Jesus descending from his cross,
a good marine saving the dead in limbo.
But on this god-forgotten street a crowd gathers,
crows peck and gawk, and name me "Joe."
Their faces tell a separate story, each one
ending with the sweet by-and-by, like the girl
whose hands slipped at the end of my rope
dancing above the fury of a bloated river.
A man in a suit slouches off, whistles for a cab;
a flotilla of rubber slippers converges on a two-inch lake of rain.
A pair of white hands, mine, reach for his limp body.
And from the swollen streets, an ambulance calls,
draws closer, louder. And I hold on,
listen to children chant "Joe" in the rain.
At 12, Lita acts Imeldific.
She bats her eyelashes, waxes her lips,
and examines the arc of her mouth
when she says Oh.
Her black hair falls over one eye
as she dances on a platform
above a sailor from Norfolk, Virginia,
who will not recognize the hopscotch girl
at the elementary school by the PX.
These night streets are lit by fluorescent
fog lights from platinum jeeps within
a strip, which resembles the flash
of a pinball machine. Street vendors
clang their wares, jarheads in loud
short-sleeved shirts careen toward massage
parlors with two-way mirrors,
women in heavy makeup
wait in well-worn dresses.
In a nightclub, Lita worries
about tomorrow's lesson when
she must conjugate the verb
My beautiful, unlucky brother is a deadbeat,
a scofflaw, a veteran of foreign wars.
When the Vietcong god sent him back to us,
my mother prayed to the Virgin
in repentance for her threat to disown him
when he considered Canada instead of the draft.
In Khe Sanh my brother bivouacked through rice paddies,
though I picture him in rubber slippers
along rice terraces in the Ifugao,
in villages beneath a corrugated sky.
When darkness shut into the dark,
he spied the enemy through his nightscope,
marching like a trail of black ants,
loaded down with light
mortars, scant provisions, and their wounded.
After his tour,
I found a snapshot I wasn't supposed to see—
a captive boy, his ankles held up
by a smiling soldier while another is slicing off his balls.
When my brother had arrived at his manhood,
he called me. It was after the neighborhood boys
gathered before Goteng, a part-time
healer and collector of discarded glass.
Circumcised, my brother, slumped on his bed,
his cock wrapped in guava leaf, and bleeding.
In his hand was a gift, the blue marble,
the one he named the Conqueror.
Once there was a bridge
that sagged to the river and beckoned him
to drown with all his gear.
And all the women he had ever loved
would take up his bags and bless his failures,
unpack his last clean shirts—white
like his mestizo skin and delicate as his sisters'.
Beautiful, unlucky brother,
sleepwalking amid the ruins, I call
you back to your desires
along the rim of terraces, back
to the shallow water flourishing with young rice.
Drivers at the Short-Time Motel I
In Language Mauricio's Song White Blouses Winter Fires Saint Joe Subic Bay Ruin
"Where the Feeble Senses Fail"
Song of the Pillar Woman The Maid The Driver Conrado's Penitent Life Drivers at the Short-Time Motel The House in San Miguel
For the Dead and What's Inside Us On Mission Road Iron Man Milkfish The Whisper Nocturne: Two Versions Sisters of the Poor Clares
Pan de Sal
Elegy for No One
Palawan Rizal's Ghost News of Pol Pot's Capture Sweet Talk Palm Sunday Carlos Bulosan White Flower The Buick
Posted January 22, 2001