For We Were Here Bent to the Soil You Did Not Want to Tend

                 And the beaches, when they finally empty
                         of human congregation 
Bridges whose curves will show
            from one abutment to another,
with only air threading through   
     cantilevered spans
                 And on the railroad tracks stretched
            like so much forgotten history from coast
to coast, the wraiths of those of us
     who drove their spades into the earth       
                 What spaces are there now where our bodies  
                         can go to find sustainment—
     with only clear wind, not bearing    
            virus taunts or streaks of spittle  

Blood Oath: Juan Luna Shows the Danger of Sharing Drinks Distilled from Biohazardous Material


- 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.



Seclusion Aria

When the old have lived their lives
almost to the end, you will find

almost all their teeth are either gone
or worn down to nubs as touch-sensitive

as the old-time keys of the vintage
Royal Crown typewriter sitting on top

of one of your low bookshelves. This
is what you think when you get the picture

sent by text message of your eighty-six-
year-old mother; she is now at an elder

care home in Baguio, sitting in a wheelchair
in the garden with a pink throw around her

shoulders. Today is the the last day of March;
two weeks ago, April seemed like a a very

long way away, until the quarantine order
changed to June. There are still planes

that cross the skies, though their contrails
sketch a looser trellis with each passing day.

Overnight, ships and schools and cathedrals
have turned into hospitals. Now you can only

bear to watch reruns of shows like Downton
Abbey
, and it no longer seems implausible

that the first floor of the wealthy family's
mansion is turned into an infirmary for

soldiers in the war. Who of them knew how long
it would last? Even the small army of hired

labor cooking and cleaning in the kitchens,
fitting out the horses and carriages and cars

could feel the world changing. How could you
have known how large this theatre of seclusion

would become, how it stretched from continent
to continent until the surfaces of every map

bristled with thousands of push-pin heads
signifying contagion? The old, as long as

they're alive, are not yet history. They want
to sit in the sunny garden and eat the breakfast

that the nurses bring, even if it takes a longer
time to chew and swallow. They want to raise both

hands as if conducting an orchestra and break
into song: some memory that's escaped confinement.




Good Fortune Cat

 
Every one of us still beckons from
the front counter of what used to be
your favorite Asian restaurant or take-
out place, now shuttered unless
your state still allows food service
for pick up only. Maneki-neko: my battery-
powered paw relentlessly rows the air.
Come in, come in, my name is not contagion.
I will sit in the doorway as I have done
for centuries, washing my face.


Neighborly

Cup of sugar over the fence; raking leaves, pine needles,
horrid gum-balls. Can you baby-sit the children while we
go to the movies. Will you watch my house while I’m
in California. The irises are out again in the corner of the yard.
Help yourself when you’re out walking the dog. I still have
the aluminum tray you brought to the cook-out. Do you
have any paracetamol? All we have is Motrin. My friend’s aunt
showed me how you can make at least three meals out of one
head of cabbage. Her grandparents who lived through the war
ate a lot of cabbage. We found a small abacus when we finally
cleaned out the garage. Your preschooler might find it fun.
I have extra gauze from when one of us had root canal surgery.
Can that be used to line homemade masks? It’s funny
how I got excited to find those two packets of seeds I got
in January from the library: chives and bok choy. It was “A Night
of Philosophy and Ideas.” All these groups of people in one place,
listening to lectures and poetry, watching artists make charcoal
portraits on the spot; students talking about the universe,
and love, and presence until 4 in the morning. Today I found
some soil and planted those seeds in pots. Our friend said,
if you tell the cashier at checkout that you need toilet paper,
someone will go to the back and get one pack for you.
No one knows what will happen. Things are changing every
day. But surely, things can’t just go back to being the same.

 



Pick Up

At a party where I've only just met you,
your conversation gambit has the words
maid and Hong Kong
or maid and Saudi Arabia. At the mail
room where I'm making copies, you stop
and ask me how my people are doing;
and how awful it must be for them
in the aftermath of the latest natural
calamity. Looking through the grocery's
refrigerated section for eggs, I hear
you say something-something-maganda.
I don't even turn my head. I walk
toward the dairy and yogurt section,
even if I don't need anything from there.
On second thought, something icy. Dark, cold,
bittersweet. No glass noodles, no egg rolls.

post-apology

the house smells of rosemary
and cambodian pepper—

they don't necessarily
induce nostalgia,

but i don't need to smell
or taste to remember

those yearnings banked
tight behind the grate.

you are convinced i took
my heart out of my chest,

and that is what made it
possible to leave you

all those years, and travel
to this land of forsaken winters

where, left to myself,
i only read books and did

nothing consequential.
you are convinced i can't

put it back in place again;
or that i don't want to

anymore. nights, when the wind
howled and rattled the ice

ornaments worn by trees,
i didn't bother with plates.

i scooped rice directly from
the pot to my mouth. it usually

took a week to eat all the way
to the bottom. nothing i say

can convince you of the depth of my
longing. I suppose it's hard to see what

a body has to do to keep alive, or
what time has shielded from it.

i suppose it feels like a sea
emptied of all its whale songs.

there are bands of moving shadow;
perhaps boats are crossing the water.








Artifacts of Loss

 
One is an image someone has posted on FB:
       in it, rowboats and swan-boats and sea-
                horse boats have been laid over 
with every brilliant filter. Blooms 
       on the bottlebrush trees that fringe 
                the lake look yellow instead of red.
But the beggared mind can’t choose. 
       Another: creased and oily, a certificate 
                that records the day but not 
the time of birth. When does the butterfly
       know how to rip through the tent
                 of its own misgivings? The language
of goodbyes can sound like a language
       of warnings: wait, stay, next time. I saw
                 a footbridge printing itself as it was built:
or rather, the arm of a machine was visible,
      out of which molten filaments dangled
                 in the air before hardening in place.
       
 

Science says

 
simultaneity is the relationship 
between two events assumed to be

happening at the same time within
a given context. Science says camels

and civets, ferrets and bats, have all
been non-human hosts for coronaviruses.

Science says a non-pathogenic version
of COVID-19 jumped from an animal

host—some say bat, others say pangolin—
to a human; and then developed quickly

into a pathogenic strain. A pangolin
is kind of a large, scaly anteater.

Curled up into itself, it looks like
a shuriken or throwing star, something

a ninja could send flying with a flick
of the wrist, before you feel it lodge

in the side of your neck and the carotid
artery supplying blood to your brain.

Did you know it is the world's most
highly trafficked non-human mammal?

In some countries, there are beliefs
(not science) that decoctions of its meat

and scales can cure excessive anxiety
and hysterical crying in children, or women

thought to be possessed by devils
and ogres. Science says there's no known

cure for the pandemic raging in all
the nations of the world right now.

Science says it's reckless and dangerous
to tout so-called cures that haven't been

clinically tested or verified. Science
knows how human behavior, pushed to

desperation, has been shown to defy logic.
Science knows why the man who took

chloroquine phosphate died; it can also
hypothesize about how he might've thought

it was identical to the anti-malarial with
a similar name. Science takes pictures

with electron microscopes, showing each
virion crowned by a halo. From there,

it's possible to make the leap to that other
image in close-up: each round cluster, clad

in red-tinted caps; and tiny white letters
spelling something lethal above the brim.



The Most Anticipated Movie of Summer

In that awaited version, all the people
we lost return to their village with lungs
unscarred. All the doctors and nurses
and emergency personnel stand on the steps
of the capitol to receive a standing ovation.
The markets teem again with produce, but all
the wild animals have been returned to their
original homes. The children who were fed stones
in captivity have grown wings and go around
teaching others what it means to apocalypse:
which is to say, they have become the instruments
of revelation. Every bricklayer, carpenter,
food server, trash collector takes their ease.
And the petulant and inconvenienced? They sit
in long, low schoolrooms, instructed to reconcile
sums: everything they took and took for granted,
all the leaves they turned for personal gain;
all the seams they lined with ill-gotten
light. Their souls writhe at their feet,
unable to wear flesh again like protection.
The national guard patrols each row. No credits
roll; only the lion lifts its head and roars every so
often, and a firing squad idles under the willows.