Summer. Avenues fill with ragas plucked across the washboard of their abdomens, sustained vibration multiplied by tymbals. They come from wintering inside the ground, trailing these labyrinths of low sound. Bulbs of grief grow long-stalked then break upon the first stony edge. The husk: tearable as paper though it kept you for years.
Consider the leaves of the young lime tree which drop by the handful in heat after being assaulted by rain; and consider the idiom of moths depositing eggs in the crevices of plants in order for the worms to multiply among the green. If it is so much work to stay alive how much harder is it to writhe free of this palimpsest in order to become a shade in the underworld? The air at sundown, caul still humid from the fire we burn inside us: each one wanting to write just one more beautiful book.
~ after Kathleen Graber America, you were the cousin who joined a beauty contest the year before her visa application cleared so she could be a nurse somewhere in Rochester, NJ; she didn't think a roll of sheepskin inked with her name and St. Louis University would be enough. Soon after, she sent pictures of the doctor she would marry. America, we like to think there might have been love and not just the green card; we hear they're still together in their dotage. America, you were another cousin slowly dying from cancer, alone in an apartment in Maryland. I knew her only by name and the photographs she sent: her stylish bob, her cigarettes and drugstore-bought dark glasses. The patent leather Mary Janes she sent one Christmas, the walking doll with flaxen hair, white lace bib and pinafore, the vacant eyes that opened and closed (and give me nightmares even now). And you were a certain smell before we even began to understand what you really were—synthetic and abnormally clean, like Chlorox or Windex with a bottom note of soda left open in the sun. It wafted up from a box that took two months to ship from your flank or your hip or armpit: wherever it was people like us found neighborhoods where they could rent walkups whose stairwells overflowed with steam from rice pots. America, we can shine and scrub your floors without a Hoover or a Roomba, then punch holes in the bottoms of fruit cocktail cans so we can grow bird chillies and tomatoes on the veranda. We let a dentist in our old hometown pull out all our teeth so you wouldn't get the chance to do it and charge us triple. There is a fish we like to eat whose belly is soft and sweet and full of fat; but every bone in its body is a tree that bristles with more than a dozen spears. Like you, America— if we're not careful, we could choke on even the smallest mouthful.
The first time was when I confessed to doing something I guess I shouldn't have done: drawing 2 clumsy shapes with a blue BIC ball pen on a lampshade. I was trying to imitate the repeating print of Mondrian-like squares, thinking they would blend in so nicely. Another time was when I stomped my feet, refusing to play the piano for her friends who'd come to visit over tea. I know there were many more times but none as startling as the first when she hissed, Do you want me to return you to where you came from? I was only in second grade but knew vaguely how babies were born. I stared at the space where a tiny belt cinched pleats around the tiny waist she was so proud of. I couldn't understand what that kind of return might mean; or if I'd shrink bit by bit until there would be nothing.
"Love means you breathe in two countries." ~ Naomi Shihab Nye I have very few pictures from there but now and then I look through them to see how light falls like a wound refusing to heal. Sometimes I think sepia must be the color of love: that means the length of a breath quickening the distance between this moment and all the ones in which we haven't yet made our lives harder than a rusk of bread to crumble in a cup of coffee. Now, I find an insomnia of stars buried in the flesh of fruit. I pick at the white pith that spreads like a net across a globe I can hold in my hand. But is it always going to be too late? A month before you were born, I walked the hills by myself in a heavy sweater, watching my breath write unreadable letters in the air. I still can't figure out whether they spelled time or estrangement or anchor; or were merely random shapes of a future refusing to be read.
When the city fell around us: sounds like breaking crystal and buildings imploding into ash, followed by staccato of helicopters. Airlift was a word passed from mouth to mouth, runner gaining ground. And yet, where could we go in a field bounded by aftershock and lightning strike, our mouths stuffed with sawdust? How could we leave the stones that marked the birth- place of our bodies and where we went to sleep at night? If you want to learn our history, walk among the rows of our dead, neat as books shelved in a library guarded by the arms of cypress and pine, end-papered in moss.
To describe a future that isn't coy anymore about showing its face, we need to begin the massive labor of corrections. Once, monks and their acolytes sat at long tables in the scriptorium, day after day extracting bright minerals from plants and insect bodies, tracking silverpoint across vellum plates, dipping the ends of brushes into wells of goldleaf. Now we begin to dismantle elaborate overlays of luster, grand networks of erroneous facts. Magellan, whose name was given to those dark- blue straits across the Tierra del Fuego, did not circumnavigate the earth; the honor must go to his Filipino interpreter Enrique. Columbus did not discover the Americas: hundreds of nations were in place before he crowed about finding rhubarb and cinnamon and a thousand other things of value, before he laid down a trade route for cotton and silver and slaves, as many as they shall order to be shipped and who will be from the idolaters. Peer into mirrors and see villages decimated by fire, valleys from which creatures fled toward forests of glinting knives. From smoke, collect precious blood. We can't stop until our cities gleam with the shine of our stolen names.
Go, they said. We'll help take care of the children. That first winter, I buy padlocks, a flashlight, a disposable camera at the drugstore so I can take snapshots of the snow on the way to campus. Don't go out with damp hair, I'm told; or they'll snap like brittle icicles in cold air. Before I find an apartment shared with other grad students, I make my first calls from public phones in lobbies. I clutch a paper bag of coins in one hand and listen for the warning tone. The day of departure loops in my mind: my mother and two older daughters rising before dawn to board a cab for the airport; we all decide it will be a mercy to leave the youngest, still asleep, with our katulong. What words did we say exactly and what sort of embrace :: before the doors sealed themselves in place between us. Year after year and it is a decade :: then two :: then three. You make a litany of what I've missed for which there never will be a good enough answer. I can tell you about the blur of nights but not about the sounds of longing I'm told escape my lips in sleep. I could tell you that my life, narrowing more toward that cold museum bend, will never amass adequate redress :: this body and its relics incapable of righting all the scales.
Philippines, March 7, 1906 From the archives— a photograph taken on the crater rim of Mount Dajo after assault 272 men of the 6th Infantry 211 men of the 4th Cavalry 68 men of the 28th Artillery Battery 51 Sulu Constabulary 110 men of the 19th Infantry and 6 sailors from the gunboat Pampanga In the foreground a child's foot rests on the brow of another A body away could that be his sister Her dark hair still neat in its ponytail A whole village in the ditch— Softness of homespun garments their tattered elegy A pale breast and smudged throat tilts toward the sky like some marble goddess defaced I cannot look at the white men standing above them with their officious hats Their cocked knees and overheated guns Each one's the crooked bow of elbows Each one's the nonchalance of war This is the Bud Dajo massacre where more than 900 Muslim Filipinos were killed defending a settlement where they'd retreated to plant rice and potatoes weave mats from forest fronds 18 Americans lost their lives For every white soldier here a calculus of 50 native bodies
White-throated bud, pinched tight in the morning: an exploded whorl at dusk. Or, every consequence often begins in understatement. Or, is its own pursuit of something to call an aftermath. We want to assign cause or blame: stain on the white napkin made by a mouth that can't stop eating too much red fruit. Singed air above a pit where bodies burn down to only their elements of bone and ash. One can buy sorrow more cheaply than wine or bread. Trading it is a different story.