Copyright ÂŠ 2016 by Gian Lao All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without the prior written permission of the author. Cover Art by Harvey King. Layout and Design by Gia Banaag. Printed in the Republic of the Philippines.
ALL THE WINTERS of M Y B O DY Poe m s
G I A N
L A O
â€œWe look up at the stars and they are not there. We see memory of when they were, once upon a time. And that too is more than enough.â€? - Jack Gilbert
TABLE OF CONTENTS I. Explaining Summer 1 клементина 4 Biography 6 Reasons 8 The City in Which I Love You 9 Pittsburgh 10 The Voynich Manuscript 12 for gina: who is learning about science in stockholm university The Poem You Must Not Read 15 The Imagined City 17 A Farewell 19
II. December 21, 2012: A Report 25 Meanwhile the World Aches 27 The Far Storm 30 Once I Claimed Sorrow 32 Daytime 34 On a Long Drive 37 God, 39 After You Jumped Out The Window 40 Here, at your grave 42 The Pilgrimage Ahead 44 A Forgotten Dialect 45 Artists 46 To the Girl I Haven’t Met Yet: 49 The Places in Which I Imagine Us 50 Again in a Dream 51
III. Map 57 How I Got Here 67 Photograph (1958) 69 Back 70 Obscure Desire of Bourgeoise 72 In My Country 73 In Context: Her Sunday Afternoon 76 Political Economy 77 Bridge 79 The Dark 80 Company 82
IV. For When the Heart Tears Into Itself 87 Absence 89 There Is No Mourning 90 Above 91 Parting 93 The Night I Became Scheherazade 94 The Quiet 95 If You Died 97 Memories: A Reply 98 Unnamed 99
S L O W D A N C E S W I T H D I S TA N C E
Explaining Summer On the first day of existence, the sun chose us. That was that. He’s got a street address now and a delinquent tax record. Let me explain. I am lying to you because it is cold where you are. Cold and far and snow and darkness and chilly hands. Or maybe not. But such dichotomies are easier. And who are you to stop living multiple lives and occupations in the snowstorms of my mind? Teacher and farmer and secret poet. I need to tell you I don’t love you. I just need to stop falling in love with you each time a cool breeze rushes past the tips of my fingers. Or revising another novel I will shred in the hidden office behind my rib cage. As if my entire body were a mob front. But isn’t everything a front for something? How, in my world, cold weather is nothing. Only a history of you. Remember that talk? The gulls? The Baskin Robbins in winter?
I said: Anger is almost always shame in an existential crisis, writing poetry in a café, shielding its notebook from each passing stranger. Oh, I might as well be talking to myself. Besides, I theorize that you will only read this in one of a thousand possible universes. If not here, there. Or in the warmth of my skull. Imagine that: One goddamn poem for each world in which our lives intersected. Like hairs tangled in sunlight. What’s not to like? What person would say no to zipping from body to body on some madman experiment, taking notes on the many cuisines of love, giving each of them names like they were your children. “Instead of love, why not sky? A species of bird? Or the changing climate of the heart?” I give up. I am thinking of names now as a breeze passes and I do not love you. I am merely enjoying the cold in the national park of myself. As if the origin story of something 2
entirely unimportant were about to begin. A new sub-breed of sparrows. An alternative to happiness. Curtains raising to a new color of sky.
клементина A dress that—if it spoke—would sing summer, summer, summer and a gray cardigan was what she always wore her first time in the tropics. She was teaching me a lesson on grace and didn’t know it. Which, really, is the only way to teach grace. Under the warm Philippine sun she took off her cardigan and in her thick Slavic accent, said the sky looks so different here! And I wondered if people from her country had different dreams. Had no falling teeth, falling bodies, nakedness. I thought of how the sky changes what we believe comes after the long sleep. And we went inside. The air-conditioner humming a cold song. I felt like I’d brought her back for a moment, by the river of her city. I believed in weather and memories and she didn’t, the gray cardigan back on her. When I touched her I felt the lost human virtue of always being the same temperature, the smallest way of making the self
easy to remember. This is how I remember that lesson: Not everything you have written is yours.
Biography Russian woman in a dusty textbook, I am reading your biography— a paragraph in the middle of a history book— the part where words drown everything into something that happened sometime somewhere. Your name was Karenina and I wonder what your favorite story was. Your life was so familiar to me it was almost in English. Your husband must have been an Igor with the scent of the train and vodka. You must have made sweet Cyrillic love with your tongues and your genitals now just between the lines of some massacre in an unread book in 1792. Or is it just me? I believe everything is a story about love. My human concern concerns me too much. History becomes my story. This poem my biography. And the reader decides who I fucked and when, how. The gritty details of it hidden between these words. Look, a flower. This means something. I can’t tell you what. Just smile, let me be bigger than I was. 6
I am wishing for snow now. Just a bit. Some weather. Some clue. A place where I can tell you about death and its slow dances with distance and its unspoken lies without telling you.
Reasons I travel because those girls in Vladivostok asked me: “Is there no vodka in your country?” as if they really wanted to know why I had a basket of ten different brands, including the one infused with ginseng. I speak no Russian, but imagine I do: “Yes. We have vodka. But what I want is what your father keeps on your dinner table. What he swigs when the sadness in his mouth overflows, and he walks into the snowstorm to confront a bear. Warmer than his wife, da?” Was that too much? Breaking into their homes in my imagination? Still I want to walk to every city whose name I can’t pronounce. I want to silence every household with my knuckles on their doors and taste the dishes of mothers on days they are far too tired to smile. Because the church bells in Manila retell too many stories. Because someone in the outskirts of Nakhodka is changing a tire while looking into the familiar greenery, thinking: “The game is starting soon. And I am fucked.” Because there is vodka in my country but there is vodka in your country too. If it tastes exactly the same, isn’t that something we can toast to? Let me hoard the damn things. Let me photograph your sky. Let me breathe in the Vladivostok air, keep it in me as long as possible, and let out a Cyrillic sigh. Izvinite. Pardon. I don’t have a reason that will make you happy. They can only make you confused. Or if I’m lucky: sad and somber in the exact same way I am.
The City in Which I Love You After Li Young Lee For E. The moment you drew this city, it was lost, and you no longer held a sketch, but a map to lost thingsâ€”its crooked alleys and smudges from stray raindrops diverting the lover to different places, different topics, as if someone had told him a good apology, one that allows forgetfulness. Until he begins believing again that lost and gone occupy different rooms in the district of languageâ€” and lost finds itself across the corridor of found, which is why I continue searching this drawing for your fingerprints, why I rub them out before they can re-enter the empty room of my body: This is the only thing you have left me, and I do not think I can love you in any other city.
Pittsburgh We never spoke of bridges. But I remembered losing the way in the cold city, walking into you. Unspectacular sky, I am trying to recall the exact timbre of your laughing from this bridge in a city you wouldn’t imagine was alive. What rivers I’ve forgotten. What words I’ve mispronounced. What many forms of rain I’ve welcomed on the tundra of my skin, walking nowhere. To me, you are every form of being lost. How could I not talk of love? I know its snowstorms; its loud breathing against the window of us, and I know slowness, that sunsets remain in horizons for as long as you keep walking. But I am tired of all this knowing. Can’t I shut my eyes in peace
in the vicinity of a familiar sadness? Can’t I examine the wintertime of my body and say I do not love you? Sometimes I kneel in chapels and whisper a prayer only to myself: to meet all the versions of you, studying the shapes of sky on a hill. Imagine a life of reciting every name it’s ever been called. Then keeping still in the aftermath of history’s wisdom, sharing warmth in a world where all things feel a little too far from all things. Imagine telling a thousand stories and your voice echoing in my ears into a silence that is unquestionably yours. How I have nothing of you and everything.
The Voynich Manuscript “In 1912, the antiquarian book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich bought a number of medieval manuscripts from an undisclosed location in Europe. Among these was an illustrated manuscript codex of 234 pages, written in an unknown script… What is commonly called the herbal section fills about half the volume. It consists of page-filling drawings of single plants with short paragraphs of text written beside them.” – René Zandbergen, from “Voynich Manuscript” It was written by an Englishman who was sick of his language, or so a theory says. Another theory is it was meant to be read. Saying: This is how a plant was created. This is what God felt like. Each murmur a new name. How does one name a plant one’s never seen? Call it hoax like everybody else? Or sift through the grainy gaps of tongues and find that this is a reminder of nothing, or when nothingness still held the imaginable. Imagine a lake overflowing with ghosts. Describe what you see. Think about whoever invented the word ghost—translation: a thing visible only to some people. Can you feel the small hairs on your arms standing attentive to everything
that doesnâ€™t have a solution? Or the shaking of those hands that have long forgotten how to create fire from flint? It is cold. Here is a drawing of a blooming flower beside a lake. Beside it, the first man who ever lived, slowly vanishing from the frame. We call him ghost. And we call what we feel fear â€“ translation: the avoidance of the memory of being alone.
for gina: who is learning about science in stockholm university instructions for gina: fold this up and head towards Stockholm. and now that you are there, faithfully, unfold my heart into this letter and read. i imagine you on a footbridge, looking above the heads of those Norse Gods with flecks of snow on their hair. how does it feel to conquer something? i’ve read that the nights in Stockholm are cold—frigid, and that the mornings—that sometimes there are no mornings—so maybe now you are better friends with the stars, too—with the milky way—didn’t we both theorize that the galaxy was a cold place? was— because we learned in school that everything in the night sky is in the past. and now that you don’t see the sun as much—now that you are living half in evening, and half in night—are you catching up with the rest of the universe? because whenever i see the slide we used to sit on top of, i struggle thinking which of us is past, which of us is present—i am thinking now, still, blowing warm, cloudy smokes into space.
The Poem You Must Not Read I traveled an ocean for you. I wanted to hold your hand in that slow town with the Buddha where the seafood was delicious. By Japanâ€™s lone unruined coast, I wanted the obaa-sans and their loud grandchildren to see us and approve by smiling. Instead I talked and talked. Black sand and the future. Earthquakes and never having seen snow. Whatever keeps us far from one another, and therefore close. I wanted to discard distance. Throw it westward to Russia. I wanted an eternity of not knowing whether you loved me back. Unforgivably, I imagined the Earth moving different, the water reclaiming that province of temples. The gulls confused to find rubble where there once was love. That small difference in our differences. That change in the brisk weather of our hearts.
Birds scattered in several directions. Their thousand alternate beauties.
The Imagined City Northern sky. November clouds. The dim lamplight of sunset. And us, taking photographs in a city faraway, now sunken. Quivering punctuation mark in the paragraphs of our lives, written in a tongue spoken only in cold. These are the stories our children will sleep to. What almost occurred but didn’t. Soon enough, only synopses, inaccuracies. Narrating from our chairs with the illusion of an audience. Death having already forgiven us. Old whispers the only true accounts of that afternoon— that brief intersection of lifespans. A beautiful place: coastal town, an old man and his dog, mischievous crow. Who hasn’t liked such a movie? How could I not pretend to love you? How could I not begin writing a sad story then? The plot always inching toward that last short chapter. Leaving the listeners lost in the city of the mundane, and going back to the separate beautiful worlds of our everyday lives. Yes, the world is always beautiful. The sun is always sinking somewhere.
Itâ€™s been sinking for eternity. Always that immortal, fleeting question weâ€™ll never answer.
A Farewell I have dined with this cityâ€™s ghosts. Shot the breeze about the crowded Chuo screeching into the city sky. I told them about myself, the boy who sang a foreign psalm into his palms to keep warm on a windy avenue. I have said everything there is to say. Even that I fell in love with Eva who sat close to me and stayed quiet as we watched the gulls spell the Japanese word for Amber. Who could have prophesized that that world would end? The horizon was always moving. The waves, in some far country merging with the sky. Now, the world counts into forgetfulness. Hanging calendars in the chambers of every unsettled heart. The other day I did laundry in Koganei and sat in the December cold as the water slushed and the sun illuminated the box houses. It was like prayer. A whole country completing a tectonic shift to the past.
Its ended world. Warmth only a shade in the sky. I see it now. I asked only for silence, and received it.
ME ANWHILE THE WORLD ACHES
December 21, 2012: A Report Once, I believed the Mayans. An adolescent in his pajamas, dozing off to the Discovery Channel, past bedtime. At the age, precisely, when bedtimes were past their own bedtimes, and they were all sailing into that old horizon like the best of our unremembered dreams. That was the first I saw, too, of the country of desire—how there are places that can be close and far, both at once. A never-ending park that succeeds a never-ending sea. My greatest question was an old one: Will we get there before the End? Will I love? Will I hold a girl’s neck and kiss her and like it? Blessed, I feel, to be wrong. Where I stand now is not the brink of the discovery of love. I have lived in that city. Battled with its coin laundries. Passed out in its train cars. That city and its war of urban life has sunk. I’ve prayed at the grave of old loves that vaguely smell like that dog we all grew up with who we couldn’t pet one last time before they entered that cold room.
Look, the evening is sweeping the sky to make room for morning. What comes next is coming next. Here we all are. Loveless and newly young. Entire histories of galaxies unfolding above us. The world, repeating that trick it mastered only yesterday. Spinning.
Meanwhile the World Aches For Aly Because I am out of words, I am writing you thinking all the while of windows and the croon of highway cars outside. Then I think: All thinking comes meanwhile. Always in the middle of a story in someone else’s life. I am thinking and an ambulance silences the rest of the night road. Thinking, and a hunchback knocks on a car window begging for change, startling a child, receiving only a mean look from a mother. Now I think of him and the kindest face he can make—the things that face cannot do—and how I sleep better at night knowing my own capacity for kindness. And as I think a young girl in Palawan is dancing under a streetlamp, playing in the outskirts of a barren road with her only friend: a dead dog. The flies in a rain dance. There she is, associating the stench of death with happiness; and here I am, writing poetry, because it’s what I do best. I wish I could let a poem happen exactly when it’s needed. Write a first line as the Habagat breathes into the city. But poetry doesn’t belong in the plot-twists of history. Only to its survivors. It helps them tell the truth as a collection 27
of minor lies. Do they matter anyway? The facts? Live long enough and doesn’t a story of sadness sound like every other story? I wish I could love you in a better world, where I am inventor of the word love; where it doesn’t mean what it doesn’t mean; where it means everything it must. Tell me such a place exists: where I can save what small part of the world I can before the drive home, before turning the lock on my door and writing an e-mail to the girl I am thinking of, and then step out into the evening as the smell of coffee wafts into the village from the factory up the street. There is no rain, no clouds, only a vast, starless sky. Look how the light pollution becomes peaceful, permeating the diminishing o-zone layer of my imagination. I cannot imagine you in a better world than this: the place in which I like you, where the invention of better words is still possible. I can do that and be happy with whatever mark I leave in the history book of minor countries. Gian Lao, who invented yet another word to describe the opposite of sadness. There is a list in me of words I have yet to write, all of which I will write with you in mind. 28
But for now, a poem. Meanwhile the world aches, and we are in bed, thinking: There must be. There must be a word for this. This enormous space. This vacant library of us.
The Far Storm After Yolanda No raindrops in Kyoto. Only mist. And yet umbrellas are blooming along the avenue; joy and the opposite of joy are in a chess match all the pieces the color of a flooded sky. My countrymen are dying in the meantime. Beside a shallow river a man sings a folk song and I hear the word for sea. How can I not wonder what the rest of it means? How can I not list all the sentences that could possibly contain the sea? Dog tracing a cove. The brief equilibrium of sunset. Arrival in the language of typhoons: landfall. I try to use the word death but I only remember: Iâ€™ve seen more paintings of sunsets than sunsets. 30
I do not know what to do with all this meaningless beauty. What I do know is this canâ€™t be another poem about rain. The world changes sizes as it pleases and we canâ€™t use the word tragic for everything. I wish I never learned to speak. That I could adopt a language of howls. Perhaps one of them will appease that ache in your chest and remind you: There are always women in temples somewhere, arranging flowers reciting to themselves the conditions for harmony humming songs with which their mothers once put them to sleep. Imagine that song is for you. It is probably not. But you need something warm, nameless and passed down. Not a poem. Think a can of something. A blanket. Think of a pot of flowers whose only keeper died yesterday that is beautiful because it survives. 31
Once I Claimed Sorrow Once I claimed sorrow greater than anyone else’s. The world was as it is. Corpses of children in trucks. Change only ever coming in narratives: Landslides. Gas leaks. But of course, a tornado matters more than a white room of cancer patients smelling faintly of chemicals. It matters what you’re dying of. LUPUS, for example, is a word no one wants on his gravestone. Better BRAVERY. Or a quote from some bearded European thinker, saying all we are is people. See, the first thing I’ll do when someone I love walks that beaten path is quarantine their closet. Then wear a new piece of their clothing each day while watching a sitcom. Or while walking Belle, my dog, who uses scents to remember who she loves. I hope death never blinds us. Because disappearance is always beautiful and flowers are always blooming. Once, my father said the great earthquake in Baguio probably swayed a daffodil continents away in the perfect direction, creating a beauty that can fill whatever fracture it made in our souls. Probably, he is wrong. The deepest sorrows are not fractures. And if karma exists, surely we cannot measure it. But earthquakes do happen in the context of flowers and daffodils sometimes bloom in minefields.
Too much happiness we can treat by imagining the man in the coldest place on Earth. But what can I say about too much sadness apart from how I cannot have it all to myself? The world changes slowly. Chances are this sorrow is rivaled by billions. I am important only when starlight passes through my irises after thousands of years of travel, and where I dispense it may be the only ripple I can manage in whatever great sea weâ€™ve been thrown in. This is not a call to be humble. I do not mean to empower anyone. This is only a prayer. An instruction to befriend your executioner. No. This is nothing but a howl. A cry. A gasp. A whimper.
Daytime These days sunlight is an ally, I think of what I forget: the clouds of smoke amid city buildings. The dust lifted into the air. And the voice of that toddler with no last words, though you know she was about to say something that meant “Please.” What does death do to our sunny days but make them feel as if there’s more aliveness to go around? All I know is when I die, I want it to rain. I want friends on my Facebook saying “I love you.” Even the ones I didn’t love. I want them to say that my last poem was sadder than my death, and I want the music of a thunderstorm conducted by the Lord himself. But I know I am just a descendant of boatmen, whose great uncle could have died of a toe infection. Meaning: I’m not getting any of this. I don’t know if there’s advice left for me, but at least I’m done sitting in the negotiating room with Death. He’s given me X days and the promise of a new name. All I wonder now is:
Is breathing bad for you? Do sighs kill? Is laughter an acceleration of life or a prolonging? I learned a lesson when my friend got shot. It was with the first girl I kissed after getting the phone call. I knew I deserved it. Not the death. The kiss. Live long enough and you know that sad canâ€™t be the opposite of happy. Itâ€™s about getting them in the same room and making sense of the sentences that donâ€™t go together: It is sunny outside, and a sailor prays he can make it to coast. Some gulls terrorize the harbor, and most terrorists enjoy good vodka. The smoke exits the factory chimney, and a child is licking ice cream in cold weather. And then they blindside you. The truly difficult. Thomas is dead and I am in love and no one in this Earth is tallying the days left; no one composing the song they will remember us by; the poem that can tell you everything is as it should be: There is no great migration 35
of birds. It is doomsday only for a few thousand of us. And we cannot yet count the people rowing boats in a lake with their children, laughing this very moment.
On a Long Drive I dreamed of a dead friend and woke up to the radio. The voice was talking about the weather. The sun was hiding behind a cloud, burning past their gaps. There was a dim house and a meadow, the smell of gasoline wafting in through the half open car window, hidden and strong. I remembered Thomas, who used to fight off bullies for me. I remembered his tongue and its truths like slaughtering knives, unused, kept in a high kitchen cabinet. I can’t imagine him saying what he said that night, before the gunshots. I couldn’t hear it. But I could see his hands together and his knees on the floor as if his last instruction to himself was to touch everything and himself. I wasn’t there for the funeral on a small patch of city grass. I heard his high school girlfriend Tiffany cried the most, wishing to have been the last thing he held. And everyone around quietly wishing for their own farewell. In my dream it was weatherless. They were in the same building as I
making criminal love in a room unlocked and dark. Thomas with his mouth open, breathing hard as if ready to be summoned by a love complicated like a clock before clocks, before numbers, before sand. Breathing as if telling the story of his life again and again. Each version violent, threatening to disappear.
God, of the many words for you, I only know of this and Dios. And I know your Church would never consent to Bathala. It is much too late to name you again. But God, sometimes I think, before we had a word for territory, you were the ocean. Then sometimes I think you are the air, that I remember you only when I travel, when I find there is so much of you to breathe in. God, I read in a book once that you don’t have a name. But I think you have too many of them, that there are so many people who resent you but love you too, and don’t know it. And so many people who think they love you, and don’t. God, I love you, but I think I miss you more. Sometimes, I drive alone with no music on the radio. Only the sound of a faraway shore to serve as a map to the beach, where every wave is a visit from a different part of the world. Where I dip my hands into the water and feel, then, like I’m finally getting to know you. 39
After You Jumped Out The Window I remembered sixth grade: school afternoon, the teacher’s mouth open, leaking what I recall only as gibberish. You tapped my shoulder to ask me just how wet vaginas got. I don’t know what I told you; but we laughed exactly the way two kids should after discovering how they’re entitled to the world’s every pleasure, every height. Did you think the snow would break your fall? Does winter cease the flow of womanly fluids specifically in Canada? High school for us ended the brotherhood between pens and phonebooks. Now I cannot know the weather that took your last breath. We only shared happiness, which is sad when you think about it. But Adrian, even if your face never frames itself in my head when I have sex, whenever I order
a beer in a place colder than common, I think of the goodness still promised to both of us, and I remember some old discoveries: How true it is, dear friend, that life happens so wellâ€” how before we know it weâ€™ll be holding cocktails in some placeless balcony, telling each other how life is good and so is sex; and how if you do it well enough, it almost feels like falling.
Here, at your grave I am thinking what we would have been in China. Farmers? Perhaps a family of poets? Would we write about the largest plains in the country? Or even walk it? I think we could have been so far from water, which I know flowed into your lungs and killed you. But in our story we are home; we are walking through the farms of Fujian, and here, grandfather, you are my favorite poet. In our story you are teaching me patience: Let a poem grow like a plant; do not use too much water and you hold my hand, help me write a Chinese character only you understand. In our story I say here is a poem and your face does not change. This is the day you teach me about silence, tell me to look at the distance between two hills, tell me to write about it. I cover the sun with the back of my hand, and light slips through the spaces between my fingers, I realize I am here, at your grave, listening to you recite a poem about silence. And here is a poem: A short one, at first, but there is far too much water in this country, far too many stories growing out of nowhere. Thus, to you, grandfather who is nothing
but another story: Here is a poem about the distance between two hills.
The Pilgrimage Ahead I see the cobblestones and the walking shoes. I see the steps I take in multiples of two. The hundred kilometers of questions. Tell me, God, what you intend. That each of us to walk far enough to graze the skin of this world? By the way, who am I? Removed from my office shoes, having erased the people I love from whatever logbook the heart keeps, what do I mean, had I been born in a country that curses the cold weather under the fog of their breaths? Once, I was told that survival means taking only the downhill paths. But isnâ€™t that a bit too beautiful? Maybe. Maybe not. My feet are beaten. A week without a shower tracing these Galician hills. This is all I want: movement and laughter. Yet does it ever prepare us for those modest servings of being inescapably human, and still always plotting an escape? Look, for 400 years, builders have carried their tools and climbed the pillars of that church to clean the faces of saints. And maybe their descendants persist in these cold winters. The man who poured us wine in the hostel and told stories of his daughter, who will one day return to the candlelight of home. The old woman who took our photographs and spoke to us only in secrets. Even her ex-husband who once in his life must have helped a driver change a tire, who may have just misinterpreted what it means to love, as we all have. I want to believe we can all be right. That all this is right. How the toes on our tired feet are etching perfect questions into the soil, addressed to whichever divine being overlooks. I apologize for believing in the beautiful. Iâ€™ve begun walking without direction. May I not be mistaken.
A Forgotten Dialect “…as I go out to get more water from the well and happen to look up through the bright stars. Yes, yes, I say and go on pulling the long rope.” -Jack Gilbert Again, I have waited for an old man to die before beginning to speak. Always to a night and its moon and to the vibrations of passing trucks on the highway. Easy to remember now what Jack said: We do not need stars. Only the memory of them. Is it a rite of passage to disagree? It must be my youth, somewhere at the tops of my knees, uneasy and alive. I pace endlessly and wage war with old questions trying to escape my mouth. The answers already on the page: All the sky is a memory. That thing you call sadness too. They come from nowhere. The world is an open mouth. A wound in the soul of God. That nameless ache is a boy in the outskirts of Pittsburgh, pulling.
Artists You are painting a field; a rice field that stretches out into the blankness that begs for your imagination. It’s been three weeks, three weeks sketching blades of grass; studying their movement in the park down the street; having them sway back and forth. It’s been three weeks looking at the wind, drawing it with your pencil. “What color is the wind?” I am writing a poem—a poem about things that don’t change. I write in bed, beside unfinished paintings; colorless sunsets and faces without eyes. I begin: “It was a tree,” I end. I begin: “a chair; hands groping at its arms,” I end. I cannot begin; it’s been an hour; I tear several pages; it’s progress. “What are things that don’t change?” I make a trip to the grocery, you ask me to buy cup ramen for the night. We can’t cook. I buy beef, chicken, and seafood, four of each for good measure. I take a side-trip to the bookstore and buy a new notebook. I tear too many pages. We boil hot water and pour them into our cups, and it strikes me as it does everyday: We are living together. It is the sound of water filling a cup that tells me so. You’re having chicken tonight. “How do they make these?” We finish. We’ve got television and each other for tonight, as always. You will dream of your field and how you want your sun to land on the back of the earth. I will dream of things that do not change. Before sleeping, I attempt to write again. I begin, “Under the rusty fan,” I end. I begin, “You drew a decaying city,” I end. I go to sleep. “Where do dreams come from?” I wake up in the same jeans I slept in. It’s raining. “The weather’s changed again,” I think to myself. I decide not to wake you up; it’s one more day without the sun for you, there are blades of grass waiting to be drawn. It’s cup ramen for breakfast again. I ponder writing about soup in the rain, about those strange little things that can seem profound. I decide not to. 46
“Why does soup taste better during rain?” You wake up and go straight to the bathroom. The paintbrush isn’t the first brush you hold today, and paintings aren’t the first work of art you make. The rain disappoints you, but you draw your blades of grass faithfully, as you did when you began three weeks ago. You put folk music on the stereo to remind you of sunny days. “What’s music got to do with the weather?” I look at your painting and you ask me what I see in the blank areas. I told you I saw your sun and your sky, and more of your faithful blades of grass. You’re frustrated. I say again how I could describe them as a poet would, but I refuse to do so. “How does that make any fucking sense?” We have afternoon tea. You used to think it was pretentious until you had your first cup and found it relaxing. We discuss how we don’t make sense; how the wind does not have a color; how everything changes; how they use MSG and other additives to manufacture the cup ramen we pile shamelessly into our stomachs; how dreams are a result of R.E.M.; how the relative warmth of soup increases during cold weather; how our heads process the musical notes and relate them to past experiences. We discuss how we ask questions we already know the answers to; how the answers have never properly explained things to us. We conclude that we never grew up. We draw on walls, tear pages apart because of bad ideas, watch the wind and eat cup ramen everyday. We’re nuts. You ask me what I see for us in the future. I say that I used to see a painting of us getting married in that field, under your sun and your sky, but as I saw how rapidly things changed I tore that painting down and now I see nothing but your blades of grass sprouting up one after another every day. Everything else is a blankness that begs for your imagination. You giggle and call me your “little poet boy.” It gets dark and I begin wondering what tomorrow will bring. 47
Maybe tomorrow you’ll finish your blades of grass and start with drops of rain, or maybe you’ll erase them as you do sometimes. Maybe you’ll see the sun tomorrow and finally start sketching, and you will definitely paint your sun and your sky, and I will tell you that I knew they would look the way they will all along. As for me, tomorrow things will change again and I will be closer to giving up on my poem. But perhaps things will change, and I will get to finish it. Tonight, I begin: “You are painting a field; a rice field that stretches out into the blankness.”
To the Girl I Haven’t Met Yet: I love that summer dress flowing down your body like a waterfall in the sun. And when you curse in the morning before the coffee’s done brewing. The way you wear a hat in the store as if it were your own. I can only love women who look stunning in hats. I love your smile. How if your city held a pageant for its top five smiles, you’d be up there on stage, answering a question on how the world can come closer to not hating itself. To hell with “killer” smiles; I’ve always wondered why men don’t fall for smiles that can end wars. I can only love a woman who can launch a thousand ships back to their dark, stormy harbors. I love the way you photograph. If there is an afterlife, I’d like to spend it stranded in a photograph of yours, waiting in a coast, counting the barely visible stars. I can only love girls who spend eternity making the world stop, and thus, only girls who are eternal. I love that thing you do with your nose and keep wondering how you breathe when you do it. I wonder, too, how you calm yourself when you sleep, and how you are most beautiful in the mornings. I love that story you sent me and how it reminded me of the bananafish, and I love how you love the bananafish. I love that song on repeat in your room, somewhere behind the hundred doors of my body. The one that has no words, that makes me feel like I’m on a train headed for another train, and another. But most of all I love that song you keep whistling while your back’s turned, your hair tied in a bun, as you’re dealing with the latest morning of your life, frying eggs.
The Places in Which I Imagine Us For Aly I’m not sure how many of them exist. Only that cabin in an unexplained clearing in an island off the coast of Nova Scotia. The fireplace singing like a page of sheet music being eternally crumpled, as if to say to us: Sit down. Read a little. The bed is made and we’ll make a bet to see who gets to ruin its serenity first. Then maybe I will kiss you. Then maybe I will step in the shower and explore the lengthy chapters of the book of happiness. Then maybe I’ll get out and lie down and whisper to you the thousand feelings I cannot name zipping around my body like molecules. I will ask you to tell me a story about your childhood, or ask you to look outside at all the trees we don’t recognize. All the colors we didn’t know existed. All the while I cannot say where you are in the cabin. Or outside of it. I have stopped trying to imagine the entirety of you. Or at least trying to fit it into a poem. But still on rainy days I catch myself dwelling on the drifting island of my heart, imagining that somewhere, you are practicing all the words you know for longing, as I am doing in the language of poem, very rarely spoken outside its country of sorrow. But maybe happiness as it is, and longing, and love, can make it. Can make a good poem. Or maybe you have ruined me exactly the way I wanted you to.
Again in a Dream For Aly Walking alone and slowly to my room in an old style hotel, I take a wrong turn. A hall of paper doors is sliding open to the ocean. Battleships moored to concrete pillars. Japanese children naming all the birds. Hato, tsuru, suzume. Every person was a coast. Only I get to decide what this means. All of it is beautiful. The rooster too chasing a scared child around the tatami room. I drop my bags onto the sofa in wonder: How fast I have gone from being lost to being where I desired. 51
I have no reason for telling you this. Only that I once read a poem in a pier for you. And that was the only plan. Not the rain. Not the Chinese drunks laughing about business in the hotel bar. Not falling in love with you again and again, as if we were empty bookshelves in a library: metaphor for our hope for all the five-year olds sitting calmly by the shoreâ€” that they will all have something meaningful to say one day. Some days, I think my lifeâ€™s been a map. Whatâ€™s left of it only a long revision. One morning I will wake having completed the book of everything 52
I know. Laughing at boring old stupidities and you are beside me. I am telling you of the peacefulness of birdsong or how everything is only suspicion. Even the meowing of the bedside kittens. Then maybe I will tell you, as I do, about all things I donâ€™t know. A life of only questions as the sun climbs the cloudscape, and we are tangled up in morning, revising and revising and revising.
THE BRINK OF LOSS
Map There is no sky in this city. You wave that dissenting finger but that’s the goddamn truth. No God. Or no compassionate God. Only a miserable office worker of a God and his calloused, shaking hands. Enslaved artist of a God, molding a child for each of us who makes love the right way, breathing out small heavy rainclouds. No forsaking here. Only a long, immortal failure. The bottomless pit of his love and mercy.
An old man on a street corner whistles a folk song, having heard it from his papa. What’s it called? No name. Only a song. Each new note added by a generation of jailbirds. Everyone knows it’s about aloneness, about the unwritten history of beggars. Look at those alleys of lost cultures. Every shack in this city creaking a hallelujah. Isn’t this what we all fear? Not death. Disappearance. A universe. The empty street. The flickering light scarier than darkness.
ď ˇ Sound travels faster underwater. The garbled voices. The million dying breaths on their airless journey. Somehow reaching me, with my head in the ocean, listening, listening, and only then understanding: How death takes language. How breathing deeply is the only way to die. All of us grieving our inescapable nature to escape. ď ˇ
ď ˇ If you had to leave a message under water, what would you say? Imagine an unsuspecting Russian boy wading in a coast. You have five seconds. ď ˇ
ď ˇ Once I heard from nowhere: Life is just a long conversation with the heart. Lost, lost heart. ď ˇ
I like to whistle. A tune, after all, survives. A whistled song more so. Even the happiest ones sound like the lost love songs of Atlantis. That unattainable place. Songs and their great prophecies. The joyful notes, and the ghosts of notes—the rests. I’ll take a few seconds to whistle about the life that goes until it can’t.
A life of many short chapters? Or a life of a few long chapters? It changes nothing. Only how you, reader, note the significance of that fly that landed on my knee one day across the smoking area. How I didn’t move so it could keep me company. Only minor details like that, revealing the psychological state of the persona, or perhaps, simply, his glaring aloneness. Moments slammed shut into their meanings by the thick, unreadable life story surrounding them.
ď ˇ Will I ever tire of trusting the Lord? I ask myself in a pedestrian crossing, or in the shower. The answers change each time, lost and echoing in a great, disappeared city. ď ˇ
A sentence that would fit in your life story: Meanwhile, the world is spinning. The lamplight is still flickering. The snow is still falling. The man is still consuming a darkness you recognize and glowing. That’s his soul. Right there. That aurora-like ghost around his body. You don’t know what to call his song? Call it whatever you want. But know there are songs that are more beautiful when nobody’s listening. Tell me: Don’t you recognize that song that’s in your head, right this moment? The one that’s pushed civilization past its dark, snowy mornings and into centuries of discovery? That song repeating in the ocean
that all its creatures know? You’ve sung it in your sleep. All of us have sung it. It’s how we understand the word holy. It’s the sound you only remember when you hear it. It’s the way home.
How I Got Here Let’s not answer that question. We are in the immediate café, quieter than any library. An unsaid agreement to be silent among the lonely. The monsoon looking on, banging on the glass windows like an abandoned dog. Futile to compete with its noise. So we pay attention only to the coffee on our table the smell of alimuom in a distant continent. Oh, only we know of the land’s secret breathing after the rain; even their undiscovered mountains throb. I must be one of many visitors to this imagined origin of coffee. Today is Tuesday and the world is undressing slowly with every drop of rain; and we its willing virgins, the way we keep to our notebooks, to our faith in weather and change. Look, God is taking time and doing nothing with it, stirring in his coffee cup another East Pacific wind, another question of His: asking
us to sit down; strike the ground of our hearts again; dig ourselves further into truer selves.
Photograph (1958) We were happy with unhappiness, wearing our daily scowls, top hats covering our hearts. 3, 2, 1—Explosion of bulbs. Who could have believed that it wouldn’t steal the soul? To smile was to provoke the Lord of Light. Besides, isn’t the truest, lasting memory of life that permanent sun in the warless pages of history? Happiness a mere welcome aberration. Now, the couple at the next table smiles for a photo then returns to the disappointing carbonara, mascot of their relationship. A different name for that, please; that unquiet joy to which we kneel and pray when we are most unhappy. Alcoholism of smiles, the off-brand sugar in the deep coffee cup of existence. On the count of three, they say. 1, 2, 3—Bulbs gone. No climax. Only a shutter. And the world’s shortest song bearing all the gifts of forgetfulness.
Back in the city that taught me longing, I am across the student library, where I spent a silent hour each day. All nine floors of it smaller now, less wise, as time does to every book and parent. The credit card in my wallet where my student ID used to be and all the possible hollowness of a filled space. Where air is, surely, emptiness follows, whistling the heart’s forgotten tunes like a flute. That’s that. Empty. No true story of how it was in my time. I just look them in the eye—youthful strangers entering the building, taking their turn in the ride. They’ve lined up long enough. There’s the undecipherable magic of schools: change in small increments. Every season. Every year. Soon enough we are ghosts in the hall. The buildings and professors remain like historic terrain—mountains, valleys, witnesses. And I say here I am, old institution, back and answerless. Students walking past. Here I am with the same cup ramen, the same apple juice, speaking the language
of the habitual cigarette, on the same table on which I first expected departure and longing and undervalued their significance. Here I am with my final report, which is simple enough, on how it is to be a little bit older and still learning, a little more prepared to die.
Obscure Desire of Bourgeoise said the woman’s tote bag in the Tokyo train on my way to Odaiba. And appropriately, later on I’m sitting with a bacon burger looking out the window of a Hawaiian burger place, admiring the world’s most colorful bridge, thinking of home. My friends here must be sick of it: “In my country… we have a phrase for how we stay silent and chow for a while when we are hungry and food has just been served.” Obscure for envy and homesickness to get in bed like that. Meanwhile, the hula music in the restaurant carries a thousand unknown words, all secretly meaning “vacation.” So I stop writing for a moment to take a picture already taken by millions of other tourists. And now, the bacon burger beckons. So excuse me, I am hungry and I really just want to eat it. That’s the best I can say.
In My Country I say field and you think heat on your back, or flood hugging the throat of you and crops and coconuts falling on a field. Of course, when I say country and mine, you might think yours and snow and breeze and golden hairâ€” but I mean warmth unmoving. Warmth tucking itself into itself like a fever, people in an endlessly twirling tongue. When I say home I mean trap.
I mean a province and a farmer and the growth of Abaca in a field. When we say together we mean knots. Several and unseverable knots. When we say move we mean water and postage. People who know us accuse us of avoiding the word love. How I love you in our language always sounds like an argument. How we have no phrase for Iâ€™m coming. But when I say commute I donâ€™t mean to merely move. I mean eyes at each other and hands and words spoken in unnecessary places. 74
Like sorry. Like move. Like look at that bird, and then into my eyes. We try to tell things and we try not to. You canâ€™t learn subtlety in our language. It is not spoken.
In Context: Her Sunday Afternoon From across the street, a woman is sweeping (de walis ting-ting) the pavement (‘yung papuntang kanal) [and you wonder if it’s really possible to wade through water with a broom]. From around her is the sound of a radio, on full volume [from your side of the street, it is faint]. A love song (‘yung kinanta ng Nexxus) is played, one (Superman ng Five for Fighting) after (You’re the Inspiration) another (Iris ng Goo Goo Dolls). The woman knows the words (ikinopya sa likod ng listahang pampalengke ang liriks) to all of them. On this side of the road is a man smoking (Fortune, ang bagong champion), wearing a wifebeater (sando). He looks towards the woman and calls her attention (PSHHHT!). She thinks to herself “Bahala na, Linggo naman e” and smiles.
Political Economy Here’s a theory: We are poor but only because the seasons have ruined us. The amassing snow only in cold latitudes. Here, rain and the lack of it: clouds of differing colors and a question of water or light. I read once about sorrow unfolding only in winter. Everything moving slower. Even sadness. But take a minute’s silence in this city and it continues like a clock. Think of the salesman, loveless and counting coins in a crowded jeepney. The lady in a mall spraying citrus cologne on strangers, considering the rising cost of garlic and the nameless ache in her soul. Here’s one definition of wealth: There is a magnitude of hunger that vanquishes all grief. But it does not loom upon Manila as the storm clouds do. Perhaps in a city of greater warmth and fever. El Azizia. Marrakech.
Inelastic is a word economists use for things that don’t change. Like proxy wars and misery. Like trade sanctions for tyrants. There is an entire world of closed fists because we can’t agree about happiness. Isn’t that simple and difficult? Meanwhile the sun licks the city pavement and we leave umbrellas in our backpacks. This is the only truth. All clouds are dark at night; all men need shelter; and all of us invented shelter because rain is only beautiful when it crashes.
Bridge The plan was to watch the sky darken in silence. Yet to my left are schoolboys shouting, pelting rocks into the bay. This was the exact scene of a dream I once had. I was wearing a coat of light on my feet and spoke loudly. I can’t remember of what. Those particular sentences perhaps being washed into a future dream. These past years I have learned nothing but patience. About anything else, I was probably wrong. The boys’ arms are worn now and they are not talking. Only breathing. They don’t have to know they are a form of sacredness. I just want them to remember the sunlight. How easy laughter will always be. How the world, sometimes, decides to be just a little warmer. 79
The Dark Suddenly, hands are all you have to pull the draped curtains of the room apart and greet the moonlight. What is certain becomes clear with only streetlamps and the spaniel tied to a tree, barking two houses down: too much light blinds us, or at least fools us into thinking we cannot look the great Answer in the eye nor conquer it. We can. So whisper to the wind embarking on its return to coast: how you like the moon reminding us that at night, it is knowledge that pursues us. Easy to look with a clear mind. To commit to memory this room— this small box of table and chair and bed—or those laughing children outside who you can’t believe are chasing each other at this hour (strange how no one has ever thought that a ghost may be happy; but forget it). Easy tonight to think of the Milky Way as a new map to study. Regress into a time when light didn’t travel—when we knew
that when we looked at constellations they could look back at that very same moment. Let go of the curtains now; step back into the dark. Be careful of the furniture; You are a giant here.
Company I am in this room full of things that own me. I have lost everything that has remained mine. I have found a dictionary with only words for feelings Iâ€™ve never felt. I want to discard it and begin speaking in words. I spoke to a man, once, who lost a father and I thought of a bed and all the hopeless sunlight coming through a hospital window. I spoke to the birds and saw in their eyes the many things I will never see before I depart this world: A home in hues of blue. The stratosphere. The sunrise from behind a cirrus cloud. I want to speak in words that bear the weight of our passing through this world. So before I die I will have memorized the name of every flower in every language. The dead dialects of their beauty. Then I will rename the human soul so that one day, when I think of you, I can climb a cold mountain and breathe and come down. I can sit in front of a fire to sing a song with my eyes 82
closed, trying to keep the heat in the palm of my hand, imagining nothing.
ALL THE ROOM FOR NOISE
For When the Heart Tears Into Itself I donâ€™t know when, nor am I meant to, but there was a time when the remedy was to sit down with the evening and decipher the syllables in the sky. But know that I am not making a wish. I know the Old World has been shelved by some nameless God of libraries. Each small thing named and numbered. Gone are the days one can trace a cloud to the middle of a body of water and feel the prescribed amount of displacement. Even desertion has been overcome. I did not ask for this, but no use complaining. What other way but to want what we have: cruise ships, jets, and all the inherited inventions made to enclose us together in a single world. People no longer lost nor powerless, only human, and therefore silent in the courtroom of the possible world. Because we know it will never be enough. Whatever it is. Already there are machines in the sky meddling with the code of stars. There is the expanding universe, and the self, willfully shrinking into the yearning grave. There are sciences. And poems about everything. This is the world we have broken. Too easy to live and die. To have, in the right books, answers to questions that have never been asked. Yes. That library is sinking into the core of the Earth because its architect neglected the weight of knowledge. Yes. That shuttle burst to flames, silent, in cold, soundless space. And Yes, goddamnit, that meaningless girl in that meaningless story in that old book loves you back. We are beyond the finish line now, 87
beyond the industrial beating of these old hearts weâ€™ve been born withâ€”their unchanged engines blowing the steam of century old questions, asking the still-vast atmosphere for all the old answers.
Absence All the heart does is beating. Apart from this the body knows little— blood and working parts and hiccups. I speak between my breaths and cross-examine the cockatiels floating their birdsong into morning. How, in the splattered ink of history, did it come to this? When did we invent the word enough? That I can’t sleep naked in the woods and be my own version of chirping at sunrise? The Japanese say Kokuhaku: confession of love. It means returning to whiteness. Passion smears the soul with an abundance of color and it only leaves through our mouths. I apologize for loathing absence. The truth is I don’t know what longing is. I wish only for softness, not hermitry; for song, and not the silence after. All I want is all I want: the yellow of beginnings, the black of your hair in bed sheets, the bleeding red-orange of dying.
There Is No Mourning Ideas float you away into the welcoming shores of Oslo But it is still colder here The February wind that funnels through my hollow heart And the starshine that burns your name into my skin Like a prison tattoo They become familiar: Like your skin romancing with my calloused fingers Like our lips, not locking, but dancing before wrapping each other up In essence, the cold reminds me of your warmth But then in many ways Iâ€™ve pondered and squandered finding Not one answer to my prayer When you come home wearing the dull Norwegian cold.
Above I was waiting for the sky to darken. For our particular world to slow into a ballad so I could listen to the wind and the many verbs for it. How it funnels past the gaps in our fingers. The same gust once caught in a sail, blowing a nameless explorer into more water and more wind. How can I not think now of the world’s minor inventors? Take the word brisk and the joy that comes with watching our existence acquire a tiny sliver of precision. I don’t think we have a choice. The world is a beautiful place and we are overwhelmed by default. All that’s left is choosing which parts of it to carry into death. As for me, I need this night and its winds like another man needs sparrows. I need the silence and the quiet combustion of stars. Tell me: How can anyone speak confronted by this sky, this splatter of cosmos? What can we do
but count the holes under the heavens and never finish? The world is tiny and brisk. We are all alone.
Parting How tragic to fall in love with the past. Or to believe the past is writing you letters, handwriting in an old English script, letters smudged, but readable enough to hold you hostageâ€”because what is the sound of something lost? Outside, a cricket sings a single syllable to the night, which must be like falling in love with a pile of borrowed books, exhaling into it, dust floating before leaving. It must be like finding yourself groping the space where the covers of returned novels used to end, like sighing into a harmonicaâ€”lightly enough to keep the silence, only crickets, and the invisible notes of sadness.
The Night I Became Scheherazade My body was made entirely of holes. Each of them a story. I thought maybe if I kept talking we would forget to sleep. Or sail from one island of slumber to the next, a sky of only our breathing. When else have I prayed to some tired deity, some treacherous djinn, and wished for the entire Earth and its motors to slow? My philosophies were carved on stone: Happiness is a fleeting thing. Joy is only the first and loudest echo in the valley of contentment. But the legend speaks of a woman who told stories for one thousand nights. In those two and something years who knows if they learned to talk only with eyes? If they saw in one another eternities of stories abridged into a smaller eternity of stories? If they simply let the warm night dot the constellations of what never happened?
The Quiet “Happiness is above the clouds; happiness is above the sky” - 上を向いて歩こう, 坂本 龍一 For A. The other night I walked beneath the clouds and got bitten by mosquitoes. The same path we took when we wondered about the lights in the neighbor’s windows as the rain fell like half notes of an old Japanese ballad. It wasn’t the place, but the path. Sometimes, in my hours of sleep, I take footsteps within myself; sometimes I hear your voice reading a sentence I can’t understand; sometimes I stand outside all the places I was a little too late for: a locked up café in the rain, a secret show coming to an end, the tired and lonely placing beers on the sidewalk, saying “show’s over, show’s over,” the final words of your favorite song finding no place to echo but the sky. I wish I went away too. But for now I have only the starless Tuesdays of this city. The greatest lie is that you are not here. What was the wind whistling as it swished past the buildings near my office? And what of the table where we opened notebooks from decades ago, solved physics problems, and sketched our possible life? 95
The song calls moonlight both shadow and light, and sorrow dwells beneath it. Did you know that? Did you know that all this quiet is your quiet? That in every place in this lightless city, you are all the room for noise? The ghost sleeping in the doorway to forgetfulness? Those times we sailed through the evening with only our breathing, I built a crumbling empire of happiness. The trains running on time and always empty. The coaches always lit, the windows always windows to fields and the constant sway of leaves. But the map room in my skull has only thumbtacks and names of flowers. The heart has nothing to do with how you feel; the rib cage encases only a machine; the eyes are only avenues for light; and the hands are only for tenderness, not love. All you are now is in my head. All I am doing is thinking of you.
If You Died Those months you breathed in all my joyfulness through the interstate of your body and sent them into silence I was thinking of the momentary space between songs, the birds chirping from the trees behind the church as the violence of the world happened each day, and the other quiet afternoons of your slumber, your disheveled mattress hair in my mouth, myself studying the sluggish strands of sunlight through the blinds, and instructing myself not to die. I didn’t die. But I survived not by faith in myself, but by faith in girls from warmer cities, who hold their hands up by instinct when they see a camera, whose eyes have mastered the manner of saying “don’t shoot” without voice. I am not trying to forget you; I am trying to remember others: Those boys rescued from terrorist camps—who spoke only vowels, who must have observed a more punishing sunlight, whose lives, too, were entire afternoons without end, who, over a decade had forgotten their own names. That, too, is silence. But it isn’t love. It isn’t counting the number of birds on the roof. It isn’t the thousand other things I thought of, waiting for you to awaken. It is only sorrow. Not greater than mine, but deeper. That certain words exist is a miracle. There are sentences we’ve never needed: Don’t shoot. I didn’t do it. Don’t leave me here. But here we live in entire cities with entire words and entire poems. Toward the end I divided you into parts. I believed your voice and your hands, distrusted your eyes, and enclosed myself in your warmth. If you died I would have slept each eternal night in love with you, knelt down in front of each cat in the street in love with you, spent each quiet moment remembering other quiet moments in love with you. But all I have now is listening to the quiet in love with you, and eventually the clouds will shift and I will be kinder and the echoes in the valley you’ve carved in my rib cage will ring out eternally until your name is just a soft voice lost in my body, a resident of my warmth, a possible soul, a new form of sunlight.
Memories: A Reply Dearest, this is how a picture fades: slowly. That sometimes I forget the importance of a good memory. When we loved each other in the time before photographs, I remember my hands committing to memory the perfect faults of your face, observing which parts of it disappeared first. The nose. I forget how your nose looks. Or your eyes. Your lips, the way you speak. I forget the shape of your chin, the fragility of your neck. There is nothing left to justify your beauty but your hair. I remember still the color of your hair. If only you could yellow elegantly into the past like a photograph, or an important letter. In this letter you sent is your handwriting, dying remnants of your left hand, from the past where we were both less forgetful than we are. Without reading it I smile. In another time I think I am capable of remembering you. I think: Faraway, there is a beautiful woman who is thinking of me. You are beautiful, still, without a doubt. Always beautiful like any flower, any sky: without question, without need for memory. And despite this, what I have learned all these years is that the past is a place that everyone grows tired of. But everyone ends up there in the end. We are old. We will be gone soon. Dust in the ground. And thatâ€™s where Iâ€™ll find you.
Unnamed Ocean is a beautiful name. So sufficiently small. But letâ€™s not talk about names so soon. I was imagining stealing you from your bed one morning as the moon cloaks behind the panning light. Us driving in a strange cold to be closer to the water. There, I tell you: See. Later I may talk about words and what they are, but see is the only important thing in your life now. It means to take in the light and think. Or sea, a body of water so vast that the death of anyone seems inconsequential. Look. Thatâ€™s another word meaning use your eyes. Though in our country it is only another accumulation of water. Look, I do not know
the depth of wisdom. Nor what exactly I wish to mean. I just wanted to hold your hand after the first time you said Word. Or Water. Or Look. Ask you to repeat it then write a letter about why cloud sounds as if you could sleep in it. You could have lived with me along a stretch of coast. Where each day vastness conducts an orchestra of lessons. A childhood of seeing. Of breathing it in and holding a sunset in your lungs as long as you can. Of finding balance in this spinning sphere of matter, looking for a graceful way to pass. But I know that is possible without lectures. All of us have been doing it since that first, quiet heartbeat. Holding on. Trying not to fall off.
Happiness I think it gets in the way like a road sign in Vladivostok saying остановить. I don’t know what it means either, but I imagine myself lost in some Russian street not knowing where to go. As if everything in the world were equally far apart and lovable. I’ve never been to Russia, but look, I’m sitting down on a curb, writing down the opposite of my feelings because I am there, I belong there. I am the type of person who wears his pants inside out, then outside in when they get dirty. It’s a balancing act of the heart. Some people call it a Russian Reversal and use it for comedy skits. I think it means much more. That it works on some philosophical level explaining why I treat sadness in reverse expecting much more than one word. Not knowing what’s been created.
ACK NOWLEDGEMENTS This collection goes out to everyone who has meant something to me. To Fioretta Lao, Wilfredo Lao, and my favorite brother, Liam Lao; to the Laos the Tius the Brons and the Ngs; To those who have never aged in my eyes: David Yulo, Justin Fabia, Robert Siy, Darren Cheng, Ian Yao, Justin Syling, Charleton Yu, Casey Lim, Jazz Zamora, Harvey King, Kenrick Nocom, Gregory King, Kenneth Yu, and Agi Go; Cam Anton, and Davey Alba; To friends from the internet and real life: Gia Banaag, Danielle Lingat, and Paolo Kalagayan; To those who blessed me with their wisdom: Larry Ypil, Ina Santiago, Susan Lara, Joel Toledo, Thess Nebres-Ladrido, Wilhelmina Casuela, among several others; 生涯の友から: Emma Sayers, Ophelia Groth, Naohiro Hayakawa, Francisco Gomez, Takumi Yamazaki, and Demetri Psyllakis; To siblings in literature: the 49ers, April Sescon, Pepito Go-Oco, James Soriano, Walther Hontiveros, Marie la Viña, Petra Magno, Martin Villanueva, Wyatt Ong, Panch Alvarez, Carissa Pobre, Dre Levinge, and Cedric Tan; to the blackouts and conversations in Ateneo: JP Mercado, Allan Alicer, Ansel Santos, Soh Kagimoto, Hiromu Shiohara, Baptiste Sablon, Love Basillote, Brian Porcheret, Lilia Cornelio, KJ and Kaye Reyes and everyone who played Smash Bros. with me; To comrades in rough times and in good: Ali Sangalang, Charles Tuvilla, Hermund Rosales, Tina del Rosario, Mikael de Lara Co, JC Casimiro, Yol Jamendang, Iman Tagudina, and Manolo Quezon; Toni Potenciano, Nash Tysmans, Panch Alvarez, Macky Blanco, Smile Indias, Sandi Suplido, and so many others;
To the meanest girls I know: Mia Ochoa, Kate Paredes-Ricard, Raymond Ang, Rico Cruz, Amanda Cruz, Michiko Soriano, and Denise Santos; to those who always remind me of the possibilities: Paul Bograd, Cecile Dominguez, Carlo Flordeliza, Ian Lim, Daniel Estropia, Cholo dela Cruz, Deniece Acosta, Kaan Cornelio, Marilyn Murtos, Hart Ang, Ayana Tolentino, and Louie Cartagena; To those who kick my butt: Fritz Gatchalian, Alex Cruz, Ram Morales, Mark Entrata, Don Yonzon, Leinil Yu, Yai Maniquis-Yu, Ma Niq, and everyone at Team Valores; To the lost: Thomas, Tak, Howell, Adrian, Sean, Justin, and Justin; And to my two great loves of this past decade—you know who you are—I was very, very happy. And to everyone who’s given my poems the time of day.