Haven't we seen their eyes follow our mouths forming around words; then wait to hear how or when we might trip or break? This is the way we learn that to speak is always revelation of our sacred silences; the tongue making its way through mine- fields and graves, its care mistaken for deficiency or meaningless delay.
Though there's no known antivenom for its bite, of course the African bush viper won't hesitate to sink its fangs into your flesh. Trouble the waters, and reap what its boiling flings upon the sand. Near-naked bodies of hermit crabs scurry to find the shell of some abandoned bunker, cell, or cathedral. It's how we are under the straitjacket— all soft, exposed flesh; the need for prime real estate and mid-century modern. The deals we'll make in the night with ourselves; the way one side opens a wary eye while the other sleeps.
I was told my name means light stops me in my tracks. I shield my eyes as if I'm tired of trying to keep them open, when in truth there's nothing I want more than to be done with the constant interrogation, even while it seems so easy for others to forget I am there. I was told my name means that my roots have thickened; that my body grafts itself to place and now lives inside the undulating current. If it knows my name by now, why can't you remember?
"Our nation has found herself confronted by a great problem dealing with a people who neither know nor understand the underlying principles of our civilization, yet who, for our mutual happiness and liberty, must be brought into accord with us ... through the common schools." ~ Adeline Knapp, one of 530 American teachers who arrived in the Philippines in 1901 aboard the USS Thomas; quoted in Jonathan Zimmerman's Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century A name is a bright line you can follow. The tiniest flying creature leads out of a wood, winking. You have no recollection of how you got there, but you trust it completely. Commit its outline to memory; understand that certain precious things have to be hidden for centuries in order for their shine not to blind unopened eyes. Under the trees, in a make- shift schoolroom, a teacher writes letters on a slate; but what is a bat that isn't a body with wings opening like a fan? What is a ceiling that isn't a sky ornamented with unchanging directions? Wind bells a different diction, passing beneath the honeysuckle. Smoke from a wood fire carries the grammar of our prayers from this world to the afterlife. There, even if our names have been changed, the ancestors will know how to call us.
September: you make your way between your mother's thighs. That is to say, indigo profusion of salvia on the periphery, bats flying at dusk over the army hospital close to the Pasig River where someone typed in names on a blank birth certificate form. That is to say, somehow you are a parcel conveyed from one set of arms to another even before cords of the birth stump wither on each end. This, after all, is a country of a thousand secrets carried carefully in women's throats. Even the backs of moths have eyes that look like doors. Once vivid, blood dries to the color of wilted hydrangeas. The only way to avoid being pinned to the windmill or torn like a kite is to let someone else inhabit this story. Bend your head over the font of holy water; mouth the shape of your new names, the sounds of their splitting and reconstituting. Hold the hand that leads you away and into the rest of another life.
There are stories about people who, at the edge of some extremity, somehow find the audacity to hail the future— I don't mean that the hero turns around at precisely the moment the firing squad releases a volley of shots just to say Hey or There will be more books written about me than there will be of you. I mean, is the future a straight line that intersects with the horizon or does it know there are interesting little towns along the way, where in a thrift shop one might find the kind of old-fashioned alcohol stove where a folded note might be hidden after the ashes of the fire have cooled? I mean a poem, certainly, could be a kind of letter to the future. But I mean I don't always know what to say or if I should say anything from inside what feels like a woefully banal moment. And should that even be delivered into the time we hope will survive us, our bad habits of procrastination, our love for sugar, our petty materialisms? But I'm a sucker for fountain pens and inks with names like Armada or Piloncitos; so when I read All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the tree, I can see the gleaming wash of water over paper: how streams of color find their way, how the tip of a brush fills in outlines of shapes that look as though they've always been there. How some moments are really envelopes, holding the very message you need and that you find when it finds you.
List the places mothers shouldn't aspire to be if they want to make sure their children don't turn out failures, forgers of checks, degenerates; prone to violent outbursts followed by year after year of exponentially increasing unhappiness. One of these days; mark my words, said friends from work. They didn't mean take a piece of chalk and draw a circle around every other one. They were talking about children: mine. Which means they were also talking about me. Certain ruin was the curtain with which they wanted to darken the view from every window. Inside, trained birds lisped the impossibility of joy. But I'm tired of feeding animals dried kernels of sorrow, or tearing hanks of bread to throw into water that should reflect lIke quicksilver— a surface that doesn't break up the changing light into points as much as it proliferates like spores.
One of our fathers, as a boy, went to school without shoes. One of our fathers did not like school at all. He bit the arm or ear of whoever was taking him to school then ran away to hide in the fields. One of our fathers lived in that other part of town. One of our fathers lived in a house circled day and night by horse- drawn carriages. During the war, one of our fathers was sent to look for frogs and snails in shallow ditches; and one of our fathers walked for days with other men to a garrison where they would be kept as prisoners of war. One of our fathers had nothing much to lose but was unsure of what he might gain. One of our fathers gave up driving when he almost ran over a woman on the street. One of our fathers had only a sweet yellow fruit to offer as a gift to the woman he'd wind up marrying. One of our fathers felt he was almost past his prime. One of our fathers nearly drank himself into oblivion each night if not for the thing that he said finally saved him. One of our fathers liked late night shows and barber- shop shaves. One of our fathers who liked to refinish his own furniture and floors also liked telenovelas. One of our fathers lies in the ground on a hillside that used to be latticed with trees. One of our fathers has a plaque over the urn that held his ashes; surrounding that, the clipped and carefully tended grass.
obsessively check your grammar, makes you come back with updated lists of why you shouldn't be demoted or fired, nonrenewed, disinvited, sent back- to-square-one-do-not-pass-go. (When nothing more can be found wrong, proofread for mechanics.) What doesn't kill you makes you cover one more hour or one more shift or one more long weekend—shouldn't it be compensation enough that it didn't kill you? And what doesn't kill you makes you harder to break the next time around, unless the sugar binges and emotional eating have made you dangerously soft and bloated. What doesn't kill you sometimes makes you do rash or foolish things like shout I quit! in the middle of traffic, or run away from everything you think your life has become without knowing where the hell you're going in the middle of the night— just that your lungs are about to burst but you feel alive in the cold, exhilarating air.
You come into the light drawn by copitas filled with water, gold flame of candles, our mouthed prayers; banners painted for protest marches in the aftermath of your deaths— For years to come you'll eat the offerings we leave on makeshift altars: spaces cleared on top of the TV stand, the tiled counter next to the sink— When a butterfly When a bird of a different color When a residue of ash forms the hand- drawn shapes of your names When a pattern of lifted fish scales makes a trellis on the body— Memory makes a silk knot in the vein. Memory rushes away, sure of its going; escort now to the migratory flock. In the wood, the trees only appear identical. The moon when it rises scatters words of mother-of-pearl. Memory finds the rusted padlock and the boarding pass. Notice how a blade of grass, held against skin, is both soft and sharp enough.