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.

A child in your province
in the throes of war,
soldiers rounding up men
from the neighborhood
and shooting them against
the school fence; or sticking
their bayonets into babies
and pigs. This is the stuff
of old black-and-white
movies, of telenovelas—
except it’s all true. How
did you cross that endless
grid of paddies, those
years of steamed rice
and snails fished out
with the ends of safety
pins? Where did you learn
to hold your back so straight,
to cut and sew a perfect
princess seam? I have just
a handful of pictures where
your neck is the most elegant
thing against the landscape,
where drape after drape
of cloth clings to you
or bravely flies as a flag
does in its own country.
Tell me, what was it
that laid you so low,
that spun the wheel
again all the way
to the other side?

In college, teaching a lesson on coherence
and consistency, my literature professor held up

a copy of Richard Adams’ Watership Down and asked:
Is it better to have an impossible probability

or a probable impossibility? I suppose she meant
if these rabbits who have names and have formed

societies in this book suddenly begin acting
as merely rabbits instead of planning expeditions

into the unknown because something in the wind
tells them to fear for their safety— would it not

violate expectations the author has already given us
from the outset? Similarly, does it seem impossible

to keep placing our hopes in things that feel
like they could never happen in this life,

such as everything estranged and at war coming
together in peace and mutual cooperation— factions,

faiths, political parties, countries, obstinate
relatives? But someone has to make those leaps, do

whatever it takes for as long as it takes even if
the outcome is failure or looks like nothing at all.

I was told: it happens in more
instances than you could know,
to more people than you

can imagine. That we are not
the first to have in our family
a long-held cache of secrets.

I found out a little
about mine when I was helping
sort my father’s documents

the year after his
retirement. He was old
and ailing by then, no longer

able to take the long
walks he used to enjoy, no
longer able to relish what

former pleasure he used to get
from food and drink— meals
for the most part prepared

by the woman I’d thought
all those years was my aunt,
beloved to all in our extended

household, and famous to the whole
neighborhood and beyond for her skill
in the kitchen: piquant fish and

meat stews, molasses and coconut-
glazed kankanen and cookies,
the fruitcakes studded with nuts

and glazed fruit she made each Christmas
and also sold. As it turns out, the rumors
I’d heard sometimes in childhood

were true: that I was in fact her
biological child, though it was
her older sister who raised me

as her own and that I called mother.
As for my father, he was who he was,
as photographs will show: I have

the unmistakable shape of his brow,
the same way of smiling while apparently
not smiling, the way we pursed our lips

the same. But I don’t know how the two
women truly regarded him, though now
in hindsight finally I can understand

the currents of tension that prickled
up and down my arms and on my nape,
the feelings of being pulled this way and that

in allegiance, all through my childhood
years. I never knew until I found a letter
in faded blue ink, written by a relative,

tucked in a rubber-banded stack of legal
pads, dated the year after I was born—
There, at last I was named her child.

And there I knew that I’d been taken in, and she
as well. Before I went to preschool, she’d been
the one to watch me in the afternoons

as I napped, while she ironed
and folded clothes in a little room
in my parents’ house. She had a suitor:

the man she stole out to see
sometimes with me in tow, the one she
eventually married, and that she must have

also secretly invited into our house
those afternoons she was left there to do
the housework. And while it’s true none of them

can corroborate what I say here,
and this is mostly a story told from my
own point of view, I will never forget

how when she left momentarily— perhaps
to use the bathroom? perhaps to make
some food?— I felt the fingers

of the man she’d marry and that I’d never
in my life be able to call uncle, slide

cold beneath my clothes to dig and probe
between my legs. I was four the first time
this happened; it happened more than once,

until I was six. They married, went away
for a few years to live in a one-room shack
at the edge of the city, where her husband

had found work as janitor in a small
public school. But they came back to live
on the ground floor of our split-

level bungalow because her sister
was heartbroken at the poor conditions
in which they lived. She had three

children from that union, and she
took care of them even as she continued
to serve upstairs, especially in the kitchen:

most meals, and then in later years, the laundry
—as her older sister, the mother known to all
the world and to me, decided she’d go back

to school, be active in civic groups, look
to ways she could have a career outside
of the home; in my opinion, she quite

detested housework. It’s almost like the two
sisters were two shadow sides of mother: one
scrubbing clothes in a basin on the stoop

till her hands grew raw, taking a basket
every day to market, cooking and cleaning,
and doing it all over again day after day;

the other, getting up to put on makeup
and smart clothes, attending meetings
of the Women’s or Soroptimist Clubs

or going around the city passing out
brochures on family planning to women
in community centers, attending

parties and concerts and shows
with my father and with me…
And they had their little dances

of vitriol and forgiveness, days
and nights of cruel silence as well
as falling into each others’ arms.

They spoke of each other to me
in alternating accents of hardness
and of yielding. But I don’t know

to this day what love meant for one
or the other or the three; whether I
might have been viewed as constant,

living reminder of an incident of truth,
or of sin— whether what they did to and for
each other was the wages they imagined

thereafter must be paid for some moment that came
loose from the tapestry and that they’d dared
to touch instead of leaving alone.

In other languages
there are words for those brief
and evanescent moments that fade
in between and in and out of joy
or grief; for the first warm drink
you could have on the first day
of the season as well as the sudden
urge to shed one’s clothes and dance
in warm summer rain. And there are words
for the hundred kinds of moss that sleep
on forest floors without heed of what
passes through the centuries,
for the feeling that comes over you
and makes you want to stay indoors
and do nothing but make a cave of your body,
sheltered in sheets… So I want to know
where there is language for this feeling
of being hollowed out from the inside,
of the heart aching to find the fix,
the cure, for what ails the one
who does not know from what spell
she stands transfixed in rain or sun.

What would you not
take with you if you needed

to go away? What would you keep?
A photograph, one dark blanket

embroidered with tiny seeds that mimic
the flowering of stars? A broken teacup,

your heart a sieve brought repeatedly
to the mouth of the sea— If only

you could remember what it’s like
to taste yourself in a basin

of shy leaves that pull away
at the slightest touch,

what the clean unlined sky was like
before you started to write

in order not to forget, before it filled
with rain and wings and glyphs.

 

In response to Via Negativa: Nation of immigrants.

“mi ritrovai per una selva oscura…”
(“I found myself in a dark wood…”)
~ Dante, Inferno

Today is a mixed bag.
In one sense you are hidden, yet
in another way you are conspicuous.
If you are in mid-life, stay chill
and don’t get sucked in. Hormones
aren’t the only big picture! As long
as you’re aware, enjoy schmoozing
with others! If you’ve started the day
single, never fear: the sun activates
your involvement chart. Be honest. Admit
you want to achieve more. Be daring. Your new
love could sweep you along or be the lone figure
contemplating ephemeral egg white sculptures
in the gallery. Radiate your gossamer wings.
The planets are always boasting about who
has the bigger pull: grade this retrograde,
baby. Wear shades and go without makeup—
pretend you don’t see them stumbling
down the avenue like talent scouts
wasted from yet another after-party.
Go ahead and plan, pitch and promote.
Be your own agent; this is your sign.

I knew when he’d gone out on the porch,
I knew when she’d locked the door
to their bedroom.
From my window I could see
where he sat with his forehead cradled
in his palm, the edge of his nape
milky in moonlight.
I wanted to shout Stop
being so dramatic! Stop making the air
so heavy with your sad misunderstandings!

The glistening barbs thrown
before breakfast was even on the table,
the knives and forks and fruit
whistling through the air like compact
missiles. No one paid attention
to the narrowing orbits of the stars,
or whether spiders fell from the insides
of open umbrellas. I sat under one
wishing for a telegram to come from overseas,
for a hand to pluck me out from under
the bathroom sink where I crouched.
When they didn’t, I discovered I could break
through the skin of my silence. I discovered
words which could plow through the earth
and start up with the sound of an eighteen-
wheeler, to drown out these little hells
and their tiresome ping-ponging
back and forth in space.

Wasn’t there joy, wasn’t there appetite
and expectation? Weren’t the jets of steam

from the laundry a welcome veil on the skin?
Wasn’t the stucco on the wall a way to keep

the sugar trails alive longer? Didn’t the ants
crowd every baseboard and the geckos plummet

like dark green weights at dusk? Wasn’t the blown
glass lamp an ochre pool that wings papered,

night after sultry night? And wasn’t there a bed
with sheets of cotton, surrounded by nets of gauze?

Didn’t the water flower crimson in the basin
and the child open its mouth to the moon?

Here’s the quote now made famous in
the Disney movie: “Ohana means family;
and family means nobody gets left behind
or forgotten.” And no matter how cheesy,
I can’t erase it from my head, nor

the moment when the alien adoptee
recreates in the child’s bedroom
the scene, to frightening scale, where
Godzilla stomps through San Francisco,
terrorizing the people, chewing up cars,

tossing suspension bridge pilings aside
like so many pretzel sticks. And of course
he doesn’t know he’s only acting out
what some psychologists have called
the Theory of Abandonment: how,

given the trauma of neglect,
emotional or physical detachment,
the psyche responds with fear
or lashes out in rage especially
when the sphere of the intimate

comes to bear down again to make
its complicated claims on him. All
I can think of is how in my ohana
(so close in sound to the Filipino
tahanan) circumstances have made it

so that I’ve physically left my children behind
enough times—for school, for work, to build
a new life and relationships— I wonder if I’m not
the sole cause of their own difficulties whenever
that sad, dark beast comes down from its lair

to rampage through their lives. At such
times I can’t see, blind through my own griefs,
but to follow in their wake: holding out my arms
even as I step sideways through the pile of broken
toys, and the shards the hula girl lamp has become.

I’ve heard that phrase, The Angel
of History
; have read about it in works
of both poetry and philosophy, accounts
of wars after which, naturally, the dead

wind up entombed or buried in the soil,
their gravestones adorned with carved
cherubs or soot-stained angels with somber
faces— their heavy wings plume downward,

as if never to fly again. The angel holds
its hands aloft: as if to annoint, as if
to gesture at the immensity and utter
inaddressability of everything that’s

taken place, that’s been done to you—
which is why it’s often easier to still
the lips into silence, easier to stand
through the years as if made of stone,

as if stone doesn’t crack or break.
Has the Angel seen everything I’ve
always wanted so badly to know, but
no one will tell me? Has it witnessed

how and where two bodies made the seed
sown into the soil of my becoming? In every
photograph I have, my father’s brow is mine;
but I can’t tell which parts of mother’s

younger sister’s face I can claim, whether he took
it in his hands, if he was gentle, if he was rough,
if he demanded some show of loyalty that could not
answer back except in surrender, in the belief

there was no other choice. No one ever talks
about such things, and so the specifics are
lost to me; but since history is even then what
has happened, can the Angel therefore be held

complicit? Is the Angel the sponsor who must have
looked on without stopping any of what it saw:
in a back room, in a bathroom stall, in the kitchen
when no one else was at home? I don’t have feelings

for the Angel. I do have feelings for the people
it turned into my kin; for the bonds it multiplied
in ways they also strained to wear through the years
they lived together, fiercely guarding secrets,

loving and hating and fighting in the same space.
They are who they are, in the end: their portraits
thumbnailed into every side story, their skin oils
part of every bit of furniture in which they rested

their bodies; their blurred reflections haunting me
from the bottom of every pot into which I’ll ever
cast my gaze. Love and Duty, Love and Hate, Honor,
History— I want to say Enough, but the Angel isn’t done

with whatever it thinks it wants to do. I want to say Tell me
everything exactly as it happened, tell me what it means
;
but then I realize there are secrets they’ve taken
to the grave that even the Angel could not know.