Phenomenology of Pain

~ after Remedios Varo, "Tiforal" (1947)

In this calcified Eden, it's still possible
to recognize shapes from a time when you 

freely named things in the world. Arches
and discs still glow with the milky sheen 

of untroubled intermissions. Among these
silver-grey terminals, a turbaned 

neurosurgeon sits in the mahogany-paneled 
dark of his office, tenting his fingers. 

I am trying to remember what he said 
about the complexity of pathways, about 

the root and the sheath and the vein.
Radiant: a burst of heat or light emitted

from a center. But also, how spokes 
of them might be delivered to a place 

where all beams meet. See how the tongues 
of leaves bend in one direction; how

silhouettes distill the teeth and hair-combs 
of lightning. The underlying mechanism for wings; 

the points of beaks, a crown for starfish. 
Pilgrim, you walk this stretch carrying only

your drinking cup. Do you remember learning  
water from pure hammered copper always tastes

colder in the mouth? A body registers the force
of any shock, well beyond the first encounter.  


Study: Interior; a weekend in New York for the CBA Letterpress Chapbook Prize Reading; and 8 years of writing at least a poem a day!

Study: Interior

~ after Remedios Varo, “Icono” (“Interior”); Óleo y nácar incrustado/madera; 1943

Of the insides, we know only
the feel of invisible pulleys,
the ways those tethers feel
connected to the milkiness
of moons or doors that shut
and open according to
the quality of light or
landscape. Light pours
down a stairwell tinged
with the green scent
of fields and farms. Where
are we in that checkerboard
of overlapping days and nights?
There are windows and doors;
wheels, elaborate contraptions
that are more than just wings.
Light, air, motion, the density
of darkness: even in this world
we’re made to succumb to the laws
of physics— to land a machine
that’s clearly made for transport.


Today marks the 8th year of my daily writing practice— I’ve written at least a poem a day since November 20, 2010; and Dave Bonta has generously shared space on Via Negativa, where I’ve been free to post and archive the earliest versions of these poems, which at the outset I wrote in response to Dave’s posts at The Morning Porch. I also use what I read of Dave’s posts here at Via Negativa, and everything else at large, to help jumpstart poems. At least four full-length books of poetry and three chapbooks have come out of this daily engagement with words and poems.

After all these years, I think I’ve found a working and comfortable rhythm to my daily writing practice. I look forward to that part of the day when I can write my daily poem/s— it is time that feels like a reward I give myself, and it gives me the incentive to try to finish up as many items on my To-Do list in order to get to it more quickly.


Some of the most valuable things I’ve learned are simple, but they’re not always easy to do: learning to write against the “noise” of everyday life; learning to write wherever and whenever I can find even a precious half hour relatively free of work and other distractions; learning not to obsess about those “perfect conditions” that we sometimes think are the only moments when writing can happen. Writers, and I am no exception, are always wrestling with things like that “impostor syndrome”— which is really rooted in the idea of some supposedly higher standard against which one is made to continually measure oneself and one’s achievements in order to feel validated or “true.”

This past Friday, I was in New York for a reading and the launch of my chapbook What is Left of Wings, I Ask. During the small reception, one of the audience members asked to see my book The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Midlife Crisis (which I’d also read from), then one of the poets there asked if it was my first book. When I told her it was my 13th, she turned to me with such a look and said something to the effect of “why did they let you join this contest then?”

So in my case, impostor syndrome doesn’t exist in a “purely” literary or artistic context. As a writer of color, a woman, and an immigrant, I can’t count how many times my credibility and output has been called into question, even after I’ve done everything that’s required, and often beyond. Once I was also told I should not list on my resume that I have four National Book Awards, because it “is misleading”— even if I also clearly indicate these are from the Manila Critics’ Circle in the Philippines— “since no American writer has won but one National Book Award” (which is by the way untrue because several men have won the National Book Award for fiction more than once, including William Faulkner and John Updike; and Jesmyn Ward made history by being the first woman to win the National Book Award twice).


In any case, the reading part of the program itself was a good experience; we had a warm and receptive audience, and it was a gift to listen to the two Honorable Mention honorees, Elly Bookman and Jason Baker, whose work contest judge Natasha Trethewey described thus: “There is a compelling voice in these poems rendering the ordinariness of our days extraordinary. A ‘furious rhythm’ undergirds the poems in Mixtapes Were Made [Baker]. And the deft play with language is more than wit; it’s a kinetic force that pulls the reader toward each new revelation and delight. Even more arresting is the way Stay Mine [Bookman] reminds us that the senseless tragedies of our world are commonplace— and in that acknowledgement, a necessary grappling for meaning.”

It is such an honor, and I’m very grateful to former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey for selecting my manuscript for the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Chapbook Prize. Natasha wrote, “What Is Left of Wings, I Ask is a lovely, piercing book of distances, the longing engendered by displacement, resilience in the face of sorrow, of ‘gathering darkness,’ and the nature of home—what it means to leave one for another. These are poems rooted in a haunting and quintessential American experience.”

It was wonderful to share the event with some people who mean a lot to me: my youngest daughter Gabriela, my old friend Myrielle Falguera from Baguio, and my former grad student and now anthology co-editor Amanda Galvan Huynh and her partner MD Huynh. It was also great to meet in person poet Aaron Fischer and his lovely wife Lauren. And of course, after the event, we ate our weight in fabulous Indian food and ice cream at Pondicheri, and congee with toppings at Congee Village; and went for the obligatory Shake Shack burgers and fries, after a long leisurely afternoon at the MoMa taking in the Charles White retrospective exhibit.



~ after Remedios Varo, “Icono,” 1945; óleo y nácar incrustado/madera (Oil and inlaid mother of pearl/wood).

I want to believe that beneath the plumbing
and gears exist possibilities of escape;
or flight, even. This isn’t just the result
of having been given books to read in childhood
with towns named Lakeport or Riverdale; or where
merry was a word that conveyed characters
from one episode to another, much like a red
convertible. I’m not surprised when I read
that before 1917, such stories were constructed
from whole cloth, with little or no connection
to the real world
. But when I say
the herbalist placed both her hands
on the part of the skull that was most tender
and transparent just after birth, there is
a general air of skepticism. And yet I felt
an immediate pulse— it coursed through
the length of me and did not stop at the soles
of my feet. What about the mirror? Is it not true
either? Whose face looked out as I raised a guttering
candle to its surface? You can know upon entering
a building that the shape of a man at the end
of a hallway will correspond to the shape he leaves
in a bed. So many stairs. So many planets and stars
reeling in their own inscrutable dance. But our
mathematics is more simple: something passed
here at one time believing it could last
longer than the birds that fell mute or turned
to stone. A house is an architecture of open
mouths and eyes. And trust me, you don’t
really want to spend eternity in a tower, lost
in pearled conjugations of ropes and hair.


~ “Caminos Tortuosos,” Remedios Varo (1957)

From decade to decade, I cycle
veiled in my secret griefs—
Do you see the little blades

and how they pushed the heart
out of its chest? Once I was
feathered and bright, once

I was dragonfly wings laid over
the heated surface of a lake.
What vessel for water

flung as weapon
from a burnished throat?
Who’ll dress the wounds

that spiral around the wrists?
Following the smell of ripened
fruit I knocked on door after door

in the countryside. I wanted
to offer a song I could still remember
beneath the roof of a beautiful tree.


~ after Remedios Varo, “La Llamada” (The Call), 1961

A blue curtain descends
from the rafters When a door

opens you think of the end
of life The yard of your childhood

home Quilted rows of vegetation
that fed only other hungers

Tiny white flowers guarding
the places where stone met stone

Nothing you could throw in a pot
if there was nothing else

But here is all this loneliness
It presents itself to your care

From one to another you stumble
with vials of balm, your bottled

songs, your practiced step
You want to smooth the canyon’s

raised edges Flute ridges until
they’re fragrant as old wood

Are you afraid when the cardinal
flashes her breast in the bush

That bright red gash a warning
As though some celestial object

pinned you under its glare It traces
your steps Knows before you do

which form you’ll touch first
Which last Which not at all

I was the fire dreaming of some accident,

some alchemy of phosphoric
connections— a conflagration

seeded in stars before we
were even born, the sympathetic

rise of hair along forehead
and nape. Your gaze translates

into tectonic movements across
the tablecloth, the undulation

of curtains and ceiling lights.
Though the years have aged us both,

rivers of longing grow more and more
into the shape of that archipelago

left behind. When I look into
the depths of your eyes, it is always

my absence I catch, though your mouth
never shapes any chiding word.

~ after “Simpatia” (Sympathy), oil on masonite, 1955; Remedios Varo


In response to Via Negativa: Fire Dream.

What is it to be with our longing?*

~ after Remedios Varo, “Find,” 1956

It is a nautilus rounding the shore,
a vessel headed two ways.

It is a swamp overgrown
with neon candelabra.

It is a lighthouse made of steps,
a table set for one in the middle.

It is a rudder sighing
to its own compass beneath the lake.

It is the breath sent up through the spine—
just enough to billow the sails.

*Hari Alluri

Every shadow has its shadow

~ after Remedios Varo, “Garden of Love,” 1951; oil on masonite

And you were the bird that visited
me in the cage of my house, the warm
mustard of your breast a foil

to my ice-colored cast. I stood
on the threshold, having come
from miles of subterranean

engagement with myself, solitary
as a bull sitting in the middle
of a dirt-floor room where all

the shades are constantly dawn.
I admired your rosy winged
optimism, the blade

of your anxiety held in check
by its own gallant sword. Aren’t
we a pair? There’s hardly any

boundary left to cross, now that
we’re mostly on the same side; even
the forbidding woods have opened up.

We stood in the hallway of a friend’s apartment, kissing

as others came and went that Thanksgiving—
slipping off snow-covered boots to don a pair
of abaca slippers from the basket by the door
before entering: actors, musicians, the visiting
theatre director, all recently unhomed or not yet
but soon to be settled in this new world. Our host
was once like us: immigrant arriving with only
two pieces of luggage, reading the cab driver
the address scribbled on a piece of paper.
Slowly, the years made the landscape familiar:
even the constant muted grey with its scaffold
of suspension bridges; metallic trembling
as trains sped past the elevated platforms.
We heard buskers play their instruments—
the sound carried down labyrinthine steps,
into the transfer tunnels where fitul
light flickered and sometimes we saw
rats large as kittens cross the tracks.

~ after Remedios Varo, “Plant Architecture”, 1962


~ after Remedios Varo, “Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle,” 1961 (oil on masonite)

In a circle we sew
what will be the earth’s
last sleeping garment.

How precious each thread,
plucked from our own heads.
A flock of goats clambers

up the rocky hillsides.
Vultures watch from crumbling
towers. Cypress and rosemary

among the rocks, their woody
scent like something burning
in a thurible. Up there,

the leathered coffins of
our dead— shrouded in air,
still sitting in counsel.