river in November light between bare woods and mountain
All our passports have expired.
I stack them at one end of the table
in plain view, a reminder to fill out
reapplication forms. When and why
did this become such a procedure,
for those who truly have nothing
to declare? Last spring we wanted to buy
tickets for a train that goes nowhere except
around the foothills, starting from some town
in Virginia. Just as the trees began to stipple
with color, you might sit and look out of clear
picture windows, drink champagne and bite
into triangles of cheese while listening to a tour
guide narrate history. All this as if to say, why
should the destination always be about place?
There's still that deeper country to explore,
the one we carry with us everywhee we go.

First Portrait

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
Before I turn three, my parents hire
a photographer from a local studio to come
and take pictures of us.

We've just moved to a new city, to a small
apartment behind the post office,
and are waiting to transfer

to a proper home—that's what my father says.
I don't know why they want to memorialize
this time. I only remember

the terror of the flash
bulb going off above my face—a rip in the air,
before the moment our faces are fixed on film.

In the one where it is just
me, I press a clutch of dry flowers to my chest.
I have not yet learned how to properly smile.

To Be a Fly on the Wall of History

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
What was it like when the donkey cart bearing the once 
powerful to their execution by hanging, by garrote or
beheading, made its way through crowds pelting spit or stones
or eggs which, when they broke open, dripped like viscous
mucus down the once impeccably powdered face of the woman
who scornfully wanted to throw pastry at these peasant
tormentors? I wasn't there, but I remember the EDSA Revolution
of 1986: thousands poured into the streets—nuns and civil
servants, holding hands with activists at the frontline. For days,
my literature teacher made hundreds of sandwiches
to hand out to all, including armed and mute-faced soldiers:
soggy tuna salad on white bread, fakely pink rounds of
salami and cheese sweating in their cellophane wrappers
in the electric heat of that day. While crowds scaled
the palace walls, the dictator and his family scrambled
into helicopters to be airlifted to Hawai'i; exiled.
People poured into their previous fortress, losing
themselves in wardrobes and closets; a horde of bees
stunned inside a forest made of thousands of shoes, hung
with useless tapestries of gossamer and pearl.


river in November light between bare woods and mountain
What is forever, when we live 
near the water? Sand-shifting dunes,

cords of seagrass. More inland, the soil
beneath is latticed with roots. Dampness

and heat give way to spores. When was it
that planets aligned like beads on a chain?

At the hinge of the year, we're eager again
to look for portents. A decades-old ban on

psychic readings has just been repealed in Norfolk.
Now I can look for someone who will run her finger

along the lines of my palm and tell me something
I don't already know. She'll turn my hand sideways

to count the ripples along its edge. She'll pull an oracle
card and light candles that smell of salt and driftwood.


river in November light between bare woods and mountain
How lucky that they grow despite our seeming lack of effort:
the lush fig tree in the yard, a stand of hydrangea pushing out
planet after planet of deepest blue. Beside the front steps,
gardenia—rosal—unfurl and perfume our recent comings and
goings. Children are like that too, though we try to be more
faithful to their care. I remember how, before he was two,
my grandson didn’t know what sugar was—the kind you spoon
out of a jar and sprinkle on cereal or toast, though fruit
was fine. In their own childhoods, I watched out for my daughters’
every elbow scrape, every tumble; tended their fevers with cool
cloths. Isn’t a certain steadfastness asked of mothers? That we make
of ourselves a home to always return to. That we keep
our hands on the rudder, bear them through the narrow channels
so at the end, they might open up to embrace the sky.


river in November light between bare woods and mountain
On the radio, the man waiting to die 
explains what he is doing to feed
the stories of his life into a computer
program. The more stories he can tell
before his cancer claims him, the more
information the program will have
to search through, so any family member
who has a question can hear an answer
in his own voice, resembling one
he might give, were he still alive.

Perhaps it is better to spend the time
left to you, like this. Perhaps the sorrow
is too much, staring at a hospital wall or
out a window at lake water crisscrossed
with shadows of ghosts. Some people
don't wish to be burned when they pass;
some want to go into the earth simply, without
wrappers, so they can grow back as a tree. None
of us know what it really means to be immortal.
You only know you want something of you to go on.


river in November light between bare woods and mountain
All these years, I've looked for a pattern:
on painted ceramic plates, blue spatter of a willow,
deft foliage reflected in blue waves of water on which

a single boatman is traveling. I've seen
that footbridge leading to a house in the mountains,
a wall of stones shoring up an edge of earth—

And then, every detail in miniature, as if
a careful hand laid them there against the moss
for someone to marvel at. I can see

a figure in an upstairs window, but I don't know
if it is me or you. I don't know if there is a bed in that
room; or if we are old or older, since we can be

only those things now. Spring or fall, different
colors enter the world and bind themselves
to the books we're making. Summer

or winter, we decant clouds of light and dark.
I think I know how the story ends, how it always ends;
but the woman singing in the hills has other ideas.

“Elephants Call Each Other by Name, Study Finds”

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
Who's been a parent and, from years
of raising children, has not sometimes
addressed their partner mom or dad?
I don't mean intentionally, like the former
Vice President who calls his wife
Mother in public, and reportedly never
eats dinner alone with any woman
other than Karen (his wife).

I mean, doesn't hearing
the sound of your name in your ear, said
by your beloved, make the phone a richly
carpeted corridor in a hotel lined with moss-
colored wallpaper? Outside the balcony
doors, the wind touches every ancient
magnolia tree along the avenue
as if it knew them,

which it does. Owls
signal through the night; frogs submerge
their bodies in water to amplify the sound
from their throats. Elephants call each
other by name, and humpback whales
weave intricate messages of song
through the deep.


river in November light between bare woods and mountain
It is the middle of the year
and we are waiting for the first
ripe fig of summer. We are waiting
for stalks of yucca to point
the way toward a sky hiding
blunt edges of rain. We are waiting
for a pause in the air, that hour
between the golden-leaved
light of afternoon and the moment
the blue-black shade unrolls.
We are waiting for the matchstick-
struck lights of fireflies to radio
the location of stones, to signal
that it is time to draw one more
oracle card—here is a bee
and here is a hummingbird;
and here is a cormorant
with a fish in his mouth, larger
than he could swallow.

Radioactive Histories

river in November light between bare woods and mountain

The year I was born, a third
Philippine TV station was launched,
which I guess didn’t immediately matter
because we didn’t own a TV until I was
nearly ten. Unless they were reported
in newspapers, would we have known about
the first male chimpanzee put into a rocket
and sent to outer space; that Barbie was getting
a boyfriend named Ken, or that the Soviet Union
detonated the world’s largest nuclear device
over a test site in the Arctic? I wasn’t there,
but in the year of my birth, The Beatles first
performed under that name at the Cavern
Club in Liverpool. While children giggled
at the animated series about a house
cat and a mouse, prime ministers were hung
in public squares by soldiers. Before the year
was over, American helicopters landed in Saigon,
officially beginning the Vietnam War. It wasn’t
until I was in university that I learned how Bob
Dylan’s lyrics on answers blowing in the wind
pertained to that war, as much as to revolutions
fought on the streets in Manila—until finally,
the dictator was taken down. He and his family
fled to Hawai’i, butterflies with torn wings
still trying to haul suitcases stuffed with pearls
and dollar bills in their wake. Perhaps that’s one way
the past can drag you down; but mostly, we don’t even
see its invisible ripples, and how far and wide
they reach. I was twenty-five and a new mother
when, in dairy farms all over Europe, cows
eating grass ingested radioactive substances
in the fallout after Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor
exploded. I can remember how I broke my favorite
honey-brown platform sandals that year, but I can’t
remember what I did with unopened cans of imported
Birch Tree powdered milk in the pantry. Even now,
there are still reports of milk products testing
positive for above-normal levels of radioactivity.
Sometimes I wonder if my or my dairy-loving daughters’
shifts in mood are due to a gene trait far back in our
own family line, or to one of many buttons deployed
by history, ticking surreptitiously in the background.