- after Juan Luna's "El Pacto de Sangre"
("The Blood Compact"), 1886
A year after he finishes the famous
mural showing two dead gladiators
being dragged from arena to spoliarium,
he paints a few more big-ass
canvasses. Actually he needs to paint
only one in return for a scholarship
that pays for his studies and the cost
of living while in Rome and Madrid.
But like almost all expatriates or immigrants,
even with gold medals won from arts expos,
he feels the need to do more; be extra. And so
in this painting, "El Pacto de Sangre,"
once more the focus is on history—canvas which
by nature shows how miniature the scale of
human effort against the long drag of time.
The artist understands: it's no accident
Datu Sikatuna is the only one with his back
to the viewer— though he has the rippling,
tattooed, muscular arms of a warrior, a gold-
threaded vest fused of carabao horn and chain
mail, a dagger tipped with precious metal. It's
1556: the scene is meant to illustrate
the triumph of diplomacy: according to
the conquistadores, the skin on each man's
chest was lanced to draw a little blood for mixing
with water or wine. Drinking this cocktail
symbolizes alliance akin to blood brotherhood:
each one supposedly rendered equal to the other.
But the scene, generous with shadow, instinctively
raises questions about that ideal. The knuckles
of the indio's right hand tense above the blade.
Both hold a cup filled with mingled fluids.
Who is vessel, vassal? In 342 years, more ships burn
in the bay. The Datu's descendants are sold as
easily as a cup is passed from one hand to another.
Poet Luisa A. Igloria (Poetry Foundation web page, author webpage ) was recently appointed Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia (2020-2022). She is Co-Winner of the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Competition in Poetry for Maps for Migrants and Ghosts (Southern Illinois University Press, September 2020). She 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 What is Left of Wings, I Ask (2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Chapbook Prize, selected by former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey); 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 is a member of the core faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University which she directed from 2009-2015; she also teaches classes at The Muse Writers’ Center in Norfolk. In 2018, she was the inaugural Glasgow Distinguished Writer in Residence at Washington and Lee University. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she cooks with her family, knits, hand-binds books, and listens to tango music.