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by R.A. Villanueva


by R.A. Villanueva


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In his prize-winning poetry collection Reliquaria, R. A. Villanueva embraces liminal, in-between spaces in considering an ever-evolving Filipino American identity. Languages and cultures collide; mythologies and faiths echo and resound. Part haunting, part prayer, part prophecy, these poems resonate with the voices of the dead and those who remember them. In this remarkable book, we enter the vessel of memory, the vessel of the body. The dead act as witness, the living as chimera, and we learn that whatever the state of the body, this much rings true: every ode is an elegy; each elegy is always an ode.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803276505
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 09/01/2014
Series: The Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 80
File size: 379 KB

About the Author

R. A. Villanueva was born in New Jersey and lives in Brooklyn. His honors include the 2013 Ninth Letter Literary Award for poetry and fellowships from Kundiman and the Asian American Literary Review. His writing has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, he teaches at New York University.

Read an Excerpt


By R. A. Villanueva


Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7650-5


From the beginning it has been end-conjuring. José García Villa, Doveglion


    We were well down the ventral axis
    when Father Luke noticed. Our cuts
    steady through the skin, our scalpels
    already through the thin give
    of the sternum. With each bullfrog
    pinned to its block and double-
    pithed by nail, he had by then
    talked us clean through the lungs,
    past a three-chambered heart couched
    in tissue and vascular dye. We must
    have been deeper among the viscera
    when he heard us laughing,
    not at the swarm of black eggs
    spilling from the oviducts to
    slime the cuffs of our blazers,
    but at a phallus, jury-rigged from
    foil and rubber bands hanging off the crucifix,
    hovering above a chart of light-
    independent reactions. This was nothing
    like the boys lowing through recitation
    their antiphon for the layman whose wife
    we heard was trampled by livestock
    over trimester break. Nothing at all
    like Sister Mary being made to face
    the bathhouse scene from Spartacus in slow-
    motion or her freshmen rewinding again
    and again stock films of chariot drivers pitched
    from their mounts, dragged
    to their ends only to float backwards,
    hands bound up once more
    in the reins. The Dean of Men confessed
    he knew of no prayer or demerit
    that could redeem such disgrace,
    could conceive of no greater sin
    against the Corpus. Transgressors, all of you,
    he said and closed the door behind him,
    refusing to look at us or the thing
    that seemed to shimmer and twitch
    with each frog's reflex kick against our forceps.
    He held us there far beyond
    the last bell, waiting for just one among us
    to want forgiveness or for a single boy
    to take back this mockery of the body
    our Lord had made.

    Life Drawing

    How she is quiet before his robe falls
    each week to his ankles. This man who sits, nude
    for my wife, whom she draws with Conté sticks

    and pastel pencils. Each page in her notebook
    is a parade of his torsos, galley proofs
    of breastbones and chests. She explains

    because these lines are my favorite
    and shows me, traces with her knuckle tip
    chin to sternum, jaw to shoulder, clavicle to cusp

    of the arm.
How in three passes
    an artist makes a place for a head
    to rest. Later, in blue and orange

    pigments mixed at the edge of a knife, thinned
    with linseed oil and mineral spirits,
    my wife will paint him on a canvas

    primed black. Again his body will end
    just above the pelvis, will fade
    into a fog of armrest or shadow, cushion

    or hip as if rendered in some fugitive dye.
    Because he is only the second man I have seen naked,
    in person. His, just the third I have seen in my life.

    When I tell my wife I want to write about her
    naked, sketch her back's faint taper
    as a class might to check perspective, describe

    the moles I notice on the underside of a breast
    as we make love, she says I can. And, in return,
    she will paint the whole of me, bare

    from the neck down as I pose
    in our living room. No one will even know
    this is you. The light will blank out your face.

    These Bodies Lacking Parts

    With raw sienna crushed by fist
    in mortar, umber ground
    to tender shadow to flesh,
    Michelangelo binds a body,

    mid-thrash, to the plaster,
    its death flex throwing a heel
    into the sheets, a bare arm
    up at the drapery tempered

    with cochineal red. In this Sistine
    pendentive, Judith and her hand-
    maid carry the artist's head away
    on a dish, buckle at the knee

    as if unable to bear fully the weight
    of a skull hewn from the whole
    of a man. On the mural opposite,
    Michelangelo offers his skin

    to the Last Judgment, hangs his face
    elastic, lacking eyes or mass,
    upon a martyr's fingertips. All
    around the Redeemer, bodies vault

    toward the clamor of heaven, plead
    with their thresh and flail to render
    themselves apart from the damned,
    rowed toward a waiting maw.

    * * *

    These are the men Vesalius halves
    and digs into: criminals fresh
    from the Paduan gallows, gifts
    of the executioner's axe. Unfolding

    the heads of petty thieves, he laces
    what nerves and veins he finds
    within their sutures into a crown
    shooting skyward. He figures

    a new man from their bared
    tributaries, writes of arteries
    as latticework. When the anatomist
    poses for his portrait, he instructs

    apprentices to draw him directly
    from nature, beside a body opened
    at the wrist, his fingers gracing
    the exposed vessels of the lower arm.



    Patron of the head
    freed from the neck,
    the new year's feasts
    and burials,

    martyr of good arms
    casting their stones,

    benefactor of scattered wheals
    like lagoons along the thigh,

    Saint Telemachus
    bleed for us
    into the arena floor,
    its crushed sand, its lions halved.


    After first Communion I pose
    by the sacristy, beneath a crucifix
    of unfinished pine. I am wearing
    a suit that rips at the armpits.

    My father parts my hair to the left,
    combs through with pomade,
    presses down with his palms.


    My father never heard
    of the Kill Sparrow War
    in his province—

    Peking boys each morning
    called to the nest-trees
    with trumpets, their slingshots
    aimed at the flocks,

    red banners tied
    to pots and spits. Knuckle-
    bones into eggs, ladles
    against prayer bells
    and the birds

    with nowhere to alight,
    all falling from the sky
    with little sound,

    their hearts damp
    fireworks going off
    in their chests.


    knew nothing of scars

    or the ramping boar, its tusk
    caught in his father's leg,
    above the knee just missing
    the bone.

    What he knows
    are tremors.

    His father's arms
    pressed into his
    before the Test.

    His father's voice
    a black ship
    sealed with pitch.


    My father and his classmates
    liked the air raid drills best
    and would cheer the sirens
    while they marched single-file
    beneath the schoolhouse

    posts. He imagined pilots
    passing over the Philippine Sea,
    scanning the open fields
    for resistance, checking masks
    for leaks, unable to read him

    there in the dirt, flicking
    anthills with his fingers,
    pulling up grass by its roots.

    Like when passing graveyards

    We made sure to drive the length of the landfill with the windows shut
    and the air circulation off. And each night we passed by these heaps

    on the side of the highway afraid of breathing in. Off the muck
    there was air Dad promised was safe. There were cattails thick like fingers

    from the marsh grass, gulls in riot above the headshunts and exchange tracks.
    At first sight of the Meadowlands, we sucked in through our mouths

    and pinned our nostrils up with our wrists as long as our lungs could hold,
    as though ghosts could seep through the soil, through coffins

    and funeral dressings up and free of the sediment into the open sky.
    Almost home, my brother told us about the Cemetery of the Holy Sepulchre

    cut in half by the Parkway, about the bus driver who paid toll with gaskets
    and reminded him to look out both sides, so he knew when it was over.

    Fish Heads

    Yanked free at the gills from cartilage and spine,
    these fish heads my mother cleans, whose bodies she scales, throws
    all into salt water and crushed tamarind. At dinner she alone
    will spoon out their eyes with her fingers,

    suck down each pair as we watch. See, this is why the three of you
    could never hide anything from me
—as though these organs
    brought her sight to be soaked through the tongue.
    When I tell her that I have tried to make this stew from memory,

    she warns, Don't waste what should be eaten. Reminds me
    of every delicate gift we have thrown away: tilapia stomach
    best soured with vinegar, milkfish liver to melt
    against the dome of the mouth. That after church,

    a bucket of chicken soon became a blessing of wing gristle
    and skin, dark meat no one else wanted to save. We refused
    to taste her gizzards and hearts fried in fat, mocked
    the smell of pig blood curdled on the stove, wished gone

    her tripe steamed with beef bouillon and onion broth.
    After my brother and sister push aside bowls of baby squid
    in garlic ink, gag at my mention of ducks in their shells, boiled
    alive in brine, my mother believes I was the only one to share
    in such things. Which maybe means, she says, in some former life
    you and I were seabirds or vampires or wolves.

    In Memory of Xiong Huang

    who disappeared from Shanghai and whose body,
    his brother believes, is now on display in New York City
    in an exhibition of plastinated cadavers

    In some province a hemisphere from here
    you tapped at your grandmother's kneecap, her elbow
    crooked in bags of bok choy, bamboo shoots,

    and rapeseed oils. You shouldered her skins
    of bean curd all the way back to market,
    offered coins from your pocket up

    toward a farmhand she paltered for bargains.
    Of you and that day, your brother remembers
    this most: how your diaphragm shook as if sorry

    for the quick of her tongue. How each capillary
    and joint grieved the reach of her teeth. And he swears
    he sees your red wince in the subway ads,

    this bus stop poster where you have become a mannequin
    of tendons, a mock Thinker pumped with tinctures
    and phosphorescent balms, cured,

    desiccated in silicon gas. Your flayed fist
    against a mandible, your brother lays hands
    on your knuckles. He traces aloud

    the syllables of your given name. Imagines
    the sound of a boy's now ossified heart.


    What the rains bring are trains, shorted, held fast
    to bridges between stops, boots, fireworks
    called off again. They say the city—mist-
    figured, flood-drummed—has wanted this for weeks
    and point to maps, cold sweeps, shifting pressure
    along the Arthur Kill up and out to
    the Sound. But Friday was free of thunder,
    wind, downed lines. You smoked on the front stoop
    and she walked her dog and I felt a sting
    at my shin from the salt and sweat in my
    stitches. We talked too long about small things—
    prom nights, driftwood, punch lines to jokes poorly
    translated—and had to remind ourselves
    why we were here. That sky. Your son. Those grins.

    * * *

    We are here because of that sky, those grins
    and grudges our sons will inherit if
    not for us. Beneath Chambers the walls
    are made with eyes, cracked tesserae of
    sight lines dusted gray. Above, my wife walks
    to work past picket-men, Gadsden flags, boys
    arm in arm, posing beside full-color mock-
    ups of Memorial Voids and storey
    15 cradled by fog. Everyone stares
    at everything else. It is what we know
    now, how we tell each other we survive
    upright in an America we own.
    But suppose I'm given no piece of your
you say—suppose your "home" smacks of war.

    * * *

    You say: There was no time when home and war
    could be kept apart or held untroubled.
    Take how each drive out in the Pinelands would
    feel like crossing the Mason-Dixon or
    how the white kids massed in pickups with their
    empties and ropes, barreled into town dead-
    set on catching her with him, hand-in-hand.
    Now when I think about it, my mother

    is who I see. She spent her nights brushing
    my hair, tracing my eyes. In the mirror,
    she pointed, I named: "black," "almond." Mom made
    sure to add "blessed," "lucky," and I believed
    her then. I've learned my son is still too young     to wonder where we're from or what we are.

    * * *

    And before you ask: I've learned what we are
    is unwanted, marked by sighs and curses
    like some new kind of rot. Each summer since
    and every floodlit, bone-shaded Never
    Forget has arrived dressed with teeth, flags, their
    sight of me that night below Myrtle, fists-
    in-pockets, unsure of where to run. Boys
    that drunk mean what they promise and could care
    less about the color of your passport
    or where you call home. Fuck remembering
    their way. If we let them, soon all we'll have
    left are anthems, this looping montage of
    eagles and bugles and smoke. Remembering—
    I need you to know—takes names, faces ghosts.

    * * *

    I need you to know I've tried. To name ghosts,
    to face them, dark as they are, slurred in with
    the city's glossed clots and fresh buttresses,
    that earthworks' trill we've let pass for rebirth—
    it's to ask mercy from all that survives
    us. And, yes, it's how we'll skin their myths, right
    those mouths rhyming "bruise" with "brick," "break" with "leave."

    Last night, stalled near Rector, I thought about
    the sound of particulate matter and
    burnt bone upon glass, about my brother
    who refuses to shake it off. My hands
    fell, emptied. I thought to knuckles, sutures,
    "Go Home" cut into cheeks, how—weighted by
    their marrow—flightless birds want the sky.


Excerpted from Reliquaria by R. A. Villanueva. Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Part 1,
Life Drawing,
These Bodies Lacking Parts,
Like when passing graveyards,
Fish Heads,
In Memory of Xiong Huang,
God Particles,
Part 2,
All Souls' Day,
Blessing the Animals,
On Transfiguration,
Part 3,
In the dead of winter we,
As the river crests, mud-rich with forgotten things,
Drifting toward the bottom, Jacques Piccard recalls the sky,
What the bones tell us,
After this, Loving Kindness and Asanga flew,
Mine will be a beautiful service,
About R. A. Villanueva,

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