Luisa A. Igloria

Poet Luisa A. Igloria (Poetry Foundation web page, author webpage ) is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world’s first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. She is the author of Bright as Mirrors Left in the Grass (Kudzu House Press eChapbook selection for Spring 2015), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (Utah State University Press, 2014 May Swenson Prize), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she cooks with her family, hand-binds books, and listens to tango music.

To pray, I no longer rely
on the language of the memorized,

on the round of mysteries made
by pressing thumb and index finger

around a carved wooden bead,
then dropping to the next. Now

and at the hour, to pray is
the whole shattered vessel

of the body’s need; and the spirit
propelling it forward on its knees.

 

In response to Via Negativa: Scientist.

Our science teachers told us to find and bring
old rolls of undeveloped film— then showed us

how to pull the strips out. They made a somehow
satisfyingly crisp sound as they cleared

the revolving sprockets. Each of us snipped
two squares from the reel, which we separated

with scissors and taped to cardboard windows
we then could hold before our eyes to shield them.

We’d go into the playground to witness how
the moon slid into position directly between

the earth and the sun. We were warned: the sky
would go dark even in broad daylight. The dogs

would howl, the roosters in their cages crow
in confusion. We were not to look directly

at the sun, or its concentrated rays could damage
our eyes. Another teacher said, if we filled a pail

or basin with water and set it on the ground,
we could look into it as into a mirror to see

this heavenly passage that would not come again
for maybe fifty years, or a hundred. We learned

the names for those cone-shaped shadows and the one
that superimposes its dark body upon an aura edged

with light: how it’s darkest at the center
where the source of light is completely occluded,

how the area released in passage shades off into
an almost or nearly dark. How in the old days,

the people beat their drums and gongs in a frenzy,
believing the god of light had been eaten by a beast.

and monuments, especially those erected

by leaders with a somehow smaller than normal
sense of self worth, that they must compensate

for what they couldn’t sustain in their tenure
—the love of the people, undoctored praise

in history books, acknowledgment without
coercion of the great, magnanimous vision

that allegedly brought their nations forward,
out of the pitiful darkness of the past

before they came along? Before its destruction
two winters ago, Mao’s gold-brushed statue,

36 meters high, sat on the desolate bit of farm
country hardest hit by the great famines of the ’50s

and ’60s. And what of the thousands of stone
or marble likenesses of Stalin and Lenin

that used to dominate parks and squares all
over the former Soviet empire, periodically

toppled by angry citizens and revolutionaries?
Like the one pulled down in Budapest in ’56:

after the fall of Communism, over two hundred
thousand workers dismantled Lenin’s bronze

statue, leaving only his boots, in which
they planted their flag. His stone head

rolled upon the boulevard, where it was marked
with insults. Along a windy stretch of highway

in Tuba, Benguet, a 98 foot bust of the late
Ferdinand Marcos was built. The Ibaloi who were

displaced from their homes and land smeared
the blood of sacrificial animals on the dictator’s

stony visage. Who knows if these are connected?
but in 1989, rebels blew open his sculpted face.

In 2002, treasure hunters chipped away at what
was left, and birds flew in and out of the hollows

that once were cheeks. This weekend on the news,
people pulled down the Confederate Soldier’s

Monument in Durham then surrounded it, some
spitting and cursing as if it were alive—

and in a way it’s true: so lifelike, carved stones
entomb almost mystically whatever part of our

human nature we’ve relegated. Cult objects,
they bristle in the glow of headlights;

they glimmer darkly in the sun, holding flags
that should have been rent to pieces years ago.

“…how many possess a cry
and never a body” ~ D. Bonta

You can usually tell what kind
of person you’re dealing with from the way,
for instance, they treat the people cleaning up for

or waiting on them. This observation, from my youngest
daughter who started working summers as a hostess
in a Japanese restaurant— though she wound up

being made to fill bento boxes with salad
greens and cherry tomatoes, and the pitchers
with ice cold water; roll the silverware

in napkins, and often, help wipe down tables
with a wet cloth at the end of the day. Oh yeah,
I know what she means; I’ve seen and heard it myself—

The demeanor and voice changing to one of peremptory
command, the not even looking into the eyes of those
whose hands bring you soup, refill your water

or tea; take the bowl back to the kitchen
just because the angry customer didn’t listen
or realize the item marked with four out of five

bird chillies on the menu means really spicy.
And the racist insult scrawled on the guest check
instead of a gratuity: “Ching Chong, if you can’t

speak English, maybe you should go back
to your country.” And whoever tells you
it’s about borders or soil or territory

doesn’t know or has willfully chosen to forget
our common and shameful histories. One apartment
we used to rent in the Ghent neighborhood

had some kind of electrical outlet
right in the middle of the dining room floor.
I couldn’t figure out what it was, until someone

explained it was likely from the old days,
when servants or slaves lived on the lower floor,
and could be summoned by the master or mistress

of the house to bring more iced tea, more mint
julep and deviled eggs, or take away the dirty dishes,
simply by pressing a buzzer with their foot. This week,

I read that a husband and wife in Quezon City
have just been convicted to 40 years in jail
for having repeatedly punched their maid, slammed

her body against doors; even pressing a hot iron
against her face, which caused her to go blind.
In Hong Kong, there are maids who press their bodies

into the space between the stove and the refrigerator
at night: these are their sleeping quarters. In Colorado,
a couple are now in jail for having starved and abused

their own blind, autistic son for over a decade. So much
anguish and pain, but we must recognize it by name—
Look it straight in the eye and not away, not pretend.

What animals are these, and how are they related to us?
What are those cries they emit out in the streets,
in the square, their fists raised in terrible salute?

 

In response to Via Negativa: Casualty.

It’s surprising how often I’ll dream of poop— hallways
littered with it, or me looking in vain for a bathroom.

My mother used to say: a dream of teeth fallen out of your
mouth is a bad omen, but poop’s okay. Detained in the bathroom,

my father liked to take his time reading the paper or Sports
Illustrated
. From his stash, I might have seen in the bathroom

that picture of Bo Derek rising out of the water, her hair in tiny
braids; everyone’s fantasy goddess and fevered dream. In the bathroom,

he put aside his magazine for five minutes so I could rehearse my school
elocution piece. With the door open a crack, he listened in the bathroom,

correcting pronunciation. The piece dramatized Satan’s temptation of Christ:
the final “Begone!” perfectly timed with toilet flush in the bathroom.

wondering about the life we’ve forgotten—
how we could get up each day and walk
to work or take our children to school
even before dark had lifted, knowing
no fear other than from strays that slunk
in the alleys, occasionally baring their fangs.
And the blackbirds that roosted in the trees
and power lines did not yet look
like a congregation of undertakers,
waiting for our bodies to fall in order
to take them away. Some say that to look
at the past is to cultivate a purposeless
nostalgia. Some say it was foolish of us
to believe we could leave the side doors
unlocked, the lamp shining, for the one
with the late night shift; while we climbed
the stairs and went to bed. Outside, on the curb
near pools formed by rainwater, geese hunker down
amid the green fern. In a neighborhood near the beach,
we heard hundreds of them were carted away in trucks
to be euthanized, because they populated the roads
and vehicles could not pass. This is what I mean
when I ask about where we were before this
moment. Maybe only twice in the last decade
have I experienced falling short of what I owed
at the till, and having the cashier fish out a few
coins from the tip jar to make up the difference.

Who knows what kindness is anymore,
what is compassion? The streets fill

with those who have forgotten who
they are. They’ll burn torches

at midnight and high noon, plant them
on lawns; tear down doors, break dinnerware

on the counters, shred clothes in the drawers
and on the line. In the pitcher, there is still

water cool as the wells from where
it was drawn. On the board, enough bread

without need for asking. The owl shreds a small,
quivering thing in its talons; the vulture skulks

among the rocks— we call this blind nature,
but this is not the same. The water is cobalt

with sadness, but nowhere like the terrible sadness
boiling in the streets with incoherent fire.

 

In response to Via Negativa: Day of the dead.

I go out and look straight up at the sky
and the clouds, at the dizzying height

of buildings that cast their shadow
as we walk through the streets. How

are we lucky to get this patch of blue,
to dodge death’s mushroom cloud today,

to slide for the time being past the Reaper’s
attention? Dandelions by the fence don’t yet wear

an invisible halo that sets off clicks in a Geiger
counter. Chain links vibrate as children catapult

their bodies higher in park swings. Who has a basement
underneath their apartment building? Who has a shelter

lined with provisions under a gum tree in the yard?
The deer run deeper into the wood, upturned flags

quivering from the white smoke of danger. Weren’t we
standing in this same spot less than a hundred years ago?

After rain, water collects in the cistern. For the moment,
it can still sing its green toward my unbearable thirst.

 

In response to Kissing gate.

Once I bought a cookbook purely because
the author’s first name was Fuschia,

just like the color. I mean I also like that it
focuses mostly on Asian flavors. Almost all recipes

in it have beguiling instructions like Heat
some oil in a pan, smack the white parts

of spring onions with the back of a cleaver,
finely chop some garlic and ginger; throw

these in and stir until wonderfully fragrant.
Now every time I stand at the stove I try

to conjure that wonderfully fragrant cloud,
try to blanket the sauce and garnishes prettily

over the fish. And at the drugstore, waiting
for a prescription to fill, I like to amuse

myself walking through the aisles, reading
labels on beauty products. Nail polish, for instance:

Playing Koi, Udon no Me, Smoke and Mirrors, Queen
of Hearts, Angel Food
. After my father-in-law passed away

last winter, my husband and I decided to throw in
a downpayment for a share in the family plot tucked

in one grassy section of a sprawling cemetery in Niles.
Here, just now, I must tell you I debated on the use

of graveyard vs. cemetery, until some quick research
showed that graveyard historically refers to a much smaller

burial ground annexed to a church. Also, grave comes from the early
Germanic graban, meaning to dig; while cemetery comes

from the Old French cimetiere— it means burying place, but
also hails from the older Greek koimeterion or sleeping place—

This makes me feel a new fondness for cemetery, which previously
I thought merely grey and serviceable. I started wondering

about the costs of dying today, and Googling led me to various online
catalogs of coffins. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising

to find styles like “The Buckingham” (solid polished hardwood, fluted
corner pillars), “The Hainsworth” (pure new wood fibre with true green

lineage), “In the Garden” (variety of painted themes including Monet’s
garden), or “Seagrass” (woven, made from sustainable and biodegradable

materials). Why shouldn’t we care about any bit of beauty we can take
with us until the very end, before slipping into uniform darkness?

 

In response to Via Negativa: #amwriting.