Four poems by Patria Rivera

Sagada mountains

Green is the color of mourning:
a young woman brushing her hair,
posed on a stool on top of the wood table
in an old house in Sagada mountains.
I cannot see her face, she’s swung her head back.
I will forever imagine
how her face must have looked
up close, what stories you told her
to fill the silence on long walks
up the trail where the mountains
bled green with foliage,
how you kept those days sacral
in the fields of myth, humdrum rituals,
why I believed you, why her memory
skims through the bamboo slats
where light escapes.

From
Patria Rivera, Puti/White, Frontenac House Press, 2005

 

Sitting down for tea with the First Lady, 1954

The sepia photo captures my mother
in her one-and-only favourite frock – palm-frond
silk shift with a shirr of chiffon draping
the bodice – while the other women, artfully made up
in their pompadour hairdos, smart city clothes,
smile widely for the cameras.
An afternoon tea with the First Lady
on her first visit to a rice-farming town
in the plains of Nueva Ecija.
The woman in the picture wants to disappear
into her shadow: she has never drunk
tea except to sip salabat with rice cake.
It is much too hot for an afternoon
of empty talk. Had they let her, she would’ve
stayed by the river to finish the day’s wash,
scrubbed off the day’s grime,
the full torment of strange faces,
with her work-scabbed hands.
But the presidential aides hustled her off
to the municipio to keep company
with the President’s wife. Photo opportunity,
El Presidente, recently proclaimed “Man
of the Masses,” knows how important
appearances can be: The First Lady spends
an afternoon with the local mayor’s wife.
She wouldn’t let on how she survived the day,
how the sour camias soaked in burnt sugar
went with the well-coiffed ladies and their two-toned nails.
She grips a Spanish fan, a memento from her abuela.
She appears tight and vestal, her thin lips feigning a smile.

From
Patria Rivera, Puti/White, Frontenac House Press, 2005

 

Fearless dresses

She cuts out dolls and dreams from an old Vogue catalogue,
mixing shirts and skirts, pants, pleats and Pythagoras,
the clickety-clack of the shears dulling her
to submission, as if it were her
metal-to-metal impulse not to negotiate the intake valves
of frowned-upon choices,
the remarkable assemblages constructed from found objects,
a desire without fronts or backs or sides,
like some vendeuse pirouetting the choreographer’s impressions
flat on the ocean,
calibrating her emotions to the second,
then as now,
curbing her tendency towards a tight-lipped lower case “a”.

From
Patria Rivera, The Bride Anthology, Frontenac House Press, 2007

 

Manifests

There are languages that leave invisible chances,
slow knolls featureless between the tossing underfoot,
the backstreets of those damned to hell for all eternity.
When they can, they extract the maximum advantage
from speeding wind, as if to exact drift.
We take with us all the frozen poses of duty, the biting,
pinching snarls of doubt, the temper of irrationality, we
negate the measured assertions of our reversed roles
pinned to the blurred white night. It is unlikely
we can decipher all codes to the map of words,
where the site of the carnage vanished,
where what really matters happened,
the sequence after the pummeling and scarring,
the terrain where live the culturally and denominationally bounded.
Sometimes all we need is a finely-tuned ear to catch
the crumble of rusk in milk or the chilblain in flip-flops
or the soul pressing seed in the furrow, some Yeatsian vision
offering just what we need at just the right moment.

From
Patria Rivera, BE, Signature Editions, 2011

Four poems from “Poems for the Dead”

by Arvin Mangohig

 

1.

Love in the Time of Martial Law

I want you to save me and be gentle, our feet
Bleeding with ink from the newspapers they have shut down,
Our clothes tattered because our mothers must leave.
Offshore, our feet rot on black sand they will steal from us.

I want peace at night, before the shaking starts.
Trauma at the tip of my tongue passes from mine
To yours. Love me lightly or the bruises will return.
Not that the teeth they have pulled out might grow again.

To love you now means to love all the broken body parts
That running away has dealt us. Here I love you
In cul de sacs. Here I love you trapped between the ribs
Of burning cars. Here our nipples are crushed by steel.

There is no tomorrow in loving you. Only today counts.
We count our present, dazzling wounds. Our bodies
Are collections of near-misses and escapes, and between them
The times we find no barbed wire between our bloodied lips.

 

2.

Unfinished Business

The way things were you had to leave
Unfinished business before the next day broke
Dishes in the sink
Conversations in midair
Planes before they even landed

Not that you could finish them anyway
For years to come
When you could not come back to them
These bothered you in the joints of your bones

That everyday ritual with a spouse
That son of yours not past grown your knees yet
That sound the hairclips made
When you finished with your daughter’s pigtails

All four clips of tenderness going
Click click, click click, in the memory

 

3.

Manunggal Street, 1985

If you survived it, you would survive
Anything: the summer of broken bones,
My cousin’s arm in a blue cast. Mumps,

Measles, days of nothingness, just
Being there like dust, selling
Ice candy through the sari-sari

Store’s one window hole through chicken
Wire, watching the dangers of the outside
World pass by like a phalanx of soldiers.

Titas and titos warned us what was
Out there: inner cities, drugs,
Raids in the slums that nightly

Drained blood, police in their owner
Type jeeps who kidnapped and savaged,
Bumbays and Intsiks who stalked

Our streets for evil kids. We were
Let out only to be gathered in before 5 p.m.
The siato stick meant it was late.

Its last flight trailed into the descent
Of the sun, as sisters and brothers swung
On the abandoned truck’s steering wheel.

We were that little, and the warnings
Of ates and kuyas were dark monsters
In our heads, frightened into staying

In our houses. It meant freedom, going out
Past 6, into the darkness of the lumberyard,
Its makeshift ladder of coconut

leading, past the crowns of our duhat
And mango trees, past that little world
We were cornered in, to the moon.

 

4.

Lost Things

One day you may take the most luminous thing
In your life and lose it halfway between home and destination.
To go back would feel wrong.
To arrive without it means defeat.

Out in the world where no one knows your name,
That one thing is the only one that can save you.
It is the answer that burns the souled-out questions of darkness,
Both the pass and password to salvation.

So no one can ask why you never came home
And never arrived, you stayed where you lost it.
In that imagine circumference of its light, you chose
To live your life, burning yourself out, you luminous thing.

A Crooked Poem

 

Forget about the shotgun,
Your father’s gone.
Kid, let’s have some fun.

I’ll give you a dime
to make your father’s
erring words rhyme
and wee-bits of vitamin
pills to hasten
the archaic flow
of your enzyme.

Gladly,
fasten yourself
to the wooden bed.

When he comes back
he’ll try to budge you
from your world of still time
with his tongue of fire.
Unsatisfied, he’ll get a stick
whip your head
(he thinks you deserve it)
while you poor dear
in a world so real
will not seem to mind
the final cracking
of a father’s behind.

And occasionally
you’ll live to tell
of those inverted years
and the engrossing satisfaction
of growing cross-eyed while
staring at a picture
of your mom’s wan face
with her biggest smile.

New Year Elegy

10.

 

In some cultures, clocks are stopped

when there’s a death in the family.

 

My wristwatch insists on ticking.

 

 

9.

 

How to write an elegy,

at the top of the page.

Consider whom to address—

the deceased or the bereaved—

what verb tense to use,

whether you can immerse

yourself in the language of grief

without flailing.

 

 

8.

 

How can you not be present while tonight’s fireworks

cheer up the sky like a young girl’s pom poms,

like jackstones whirling before the starry descent?

 

 

7.

 

She hurled the ball and stones

into a trash can years ago,

rejecting her loss the way

she refused the blindfold,

the bluff. Here lies the girl

who turned the pages of a book

while we salvaged her toys

and stood still behind doors,

not wanting our bodies

to be touched and identified.

 

 

 

6.

 

Between Christmas and the cemetery

was a long night, a phone ringing in the still of it,

a voice quivering to the cusp

 

of a goodbye, a gunshot muffled by tinted windows,

pillowed dreams. Here’s where it ends,

says her limp hand. Here’s the lengthy epilogue

 

where the rest of us grope for a lamp each night

as if it were an explanation, begging her to emerge

from the shadows of our interrupted sleep.

 

 

5.

 

Since you were a master of the angle, the frame,

let’s play a game. Use this scene to shoot

 

an episode called How easily guilt festers

into blame. Would you pan across the chapel

 

and zoom in on your ex-lovers muttering

in their separate corners? There she is,

 

your last beloved, hesitating by the door.

There’s our uncle, blowing cigarette smoke

 

in her face, a signal for us to walk out.

Whom would you have called the culprit/s?

 

 

 

 

4.

 

Fact: more people die

during the holiday season

than at any other time of the year.

Evidence: other mourners filling up

this hallway, that bathroom.

 

In the next chapel: men guffawing,

keeping their dead company

with a bottle of gin, getting drunker

by the minute in another dialect.

 

I march up to them. Let me in

on the joke, I say. They look

like they’ve just seen a ghost.

 

 

3.

 

Endings are my specialty. What keeps me going

is not faith, but curiosity. Here’s to us who see

the stories through, whose victories are few,

who wish to shake her awake in the casket,

to slap the hands of strangers’ children

pointing to where the bullet

had burrowed its way in.

 

 

2.

 

A tumor lodges its way into the head, like a bullet.

A bullet lodges its way into the head, like a tumor.

 

We were taught to read well: if a character suffers

frequent headaches, they must be critical. If a gun

 

is introduced, it must go off before the story ends.

Such eager students, obeying the rules of the narrative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1.

 

What would you like us to revise

now that you are simply a she,

was? Shall we say you joined us

in the next game two decades ago?

That you believed in an elsewhere

with popcorn and front row seats

to the rest of our lives? On this side

of the screen, we count the seconds

down to the new year, while fireworks

keep falling from the face of the sky

and new ones keep shooting up

like thrown jackstones before being

picked up and kept warm in someone’s

hand, one tiny piece at a time.

At the Travel Agency, I Find

myself parceling thoughts into paragraphs
to be mailed, as if he had already left.

One: after three flights of stairs,
how could he have guessed which
was the right room, there being no sign
on the door?
Two: his sense of direction
has nothing to do with the compass-
shaped lighter in his pocket, yet another
contrivance.
Three: white squares
on walls where maps must have hung,
tour brochures still on monobloc chairs,
steel cabinets perched on trolleys,
all make up one story: even this place
is in the process of moving.
(A traveling
travel agency, like a garage sale
in a real garage.)
I think of a neighbor
who parked her car out on the curb
while strangers rifled through silverware
and books, furniture and shirts: a houseful
of detritus in the driveway, selling for less
than their worth.
She looked on with resolve
(or was it nonchalance?), her eyes saying:
No room for baggage; I am bartering
my heart for another life.
And now he—
who is neither neighbor nor stranger to me—
what would he say in this, my story
of the last errand?
(That he has been
a tourist all this time? That his hunger
for border-jumping is insatiable?)
I sit at the edge
of my chair, waiting for—there it flickers,
as an agent hands him his plane ticket—

the look of a child asking if it is all right
to leave, as if permission were mine
to give.
I watch the agent reading,
taking forever to turn the page. I want to ask
where the maps are, to see the red dots—
like the lit ends of cigarettes—in place
of the cities we love.
Instead, I make my knuckles
crack a code into the air: Leave already,
so you can write to me. I need
to read your version of this story.

At First Sight

“She was coaxing her 2-year-old twin sons to look at one another because, finally, they can….Carl and Clarence had been joined at the top of their heads until they were separated last week in a 17-hour operation.”

—Philippine Daily Inquirer

Like you, I wake up hungry
for good news with my coffee.
(This for the meantime makes us
a we.)
We scour the papers for proof
about the times we live in, that they
are more than bearable. We no longer
count our disappointments.
Then here
on the front page parade the mother
and doctors, audience of giddy adults,
around the twins in their beds.
(Some of us
have followed this story for days
and pages, nodding like distant relatives,
shadows entering the picture,
murmuring: being half of a package
is no way to live; allow us to celebrate
this separation.)

We are waiting for them,
the groggy patients, to see each other
without photographs or mirrors.

There is one brother, sitting up,
bandaged head about to turn.

There is the other, cradled
by the mother (who pushed them out once

one by one, who had always seen him
and him both.)

We step back,
and wait for the crucial moment.

Like most everything, it happens
when the train whizzes by under our feet,
when we revert to being you and I,
who have never seen eye to eye
who barely even speak the same language.

Diagram

My friend shows me his diagram, the aftermath of an incident that had occurred this morning, minutes before he chanced upon the scene. These rectangles are blockades police set up. Past them, a point where a man cradled a boy with bloody legs. This square is the taxi with its driver’s door smashed. Between the polygons, pieces of pan de sal , scattered ovals. He wants me to help solve the puzzle, draw arrows between figures, calculate the size and shape of disaster. As if we had been in it, or in on it. In the end, we remain students of the city, baffled and impatient, ready to turn the page. Inconclusive , we say—though something must end, something else must carry on. I do suspect the bread, still warm from the oven, continued to bake in the afternoon sun.

Confession

“We shall be known by the delicacy of where we stop short.”
—Robert Frost
Forgive me if I haven’t been honest
enough. The proof’s in the poems,

those corner cobwebs snapping
under the shifting of my mind, my tongue.

They will not bear the weight
of some truths, dark and lovely.

Could I have led you to believe
I was an awful child? In the booth,

I was always tempted to tell the priest
sins I wish I had committed.

Do you think I gave in? Restraint
is overrated, and no reader wants

a litany of our loyalties to the actual.
Should I say that we crossed

one intersection after another,
never knowing when to stop short

of disaster? Look, I could be there, perched
on a telephone pole. I’d prefer

the view from that kind distance.
I am learning mercy from a poet

who respects the line, who knows
when to continue, knows when

to brave severance. He cradles
words in white spaces, clouds

of relief, letting them breathe. If only
we could hold each other like that.

Passover Days

by Jose Marte Abueg

 

And He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near …’”

– Matthew 26:18

I.

When Grandmother said, I cannot hear the twilight anymore, Father thought to move her to the large upper room.

Wide walls, two small windows, a wooden post at the center; Father sometimes slept in that room, in a narrow bed, by a stone corner for a fire, seldom used; in the expanse of space, Aaron once circled like a butterfly that had flown in, fluttering, I seated on the floor, wanting to do the same.

Grandmother slept by the door of the pantry. Liked listening to the grains in the bins, the lentils in the bowls, the water in pitchers and wine in jars, she said.

We should listen to soundless things, she often said. The last time, we were at the patio, I by the doorway watching Aaron chasing pigeons under the sycamore, branches leaning, crown spread wide. There are not enough sounds for all the mysteries, she said.

A gift your grandmother has, Father tried to explain to Aaron and me.

Much affection; much sand and dust on his feet and sandals.

II.

Tried to catch a pigeon once, I couldn’t; we cheered, laughed loud, when Aaron caught a fish, the sky bright over Galilee. Boys’ hearts that listen are heir to heaven, Grandmother said to the two of us.

Things look very different up here, Aaron said, perched on a branch of the sycamore, I seated on a big root, the three of us looking skyward. It’s what birds see, Grandmother said, it’s what angels see. Look there, she pointed to connecting clouds, clouds are like secrets before secrets are known. When it rains, there are rivers and wells everywhere.

III.

When Grandmother said she could hear a lamb coming from the field, Father said it was better for her to rest.

Birthplace
Of sorrow

Stream
Of wounds

Long airless night, hollow in the belly, too empty the house, Aaron climbing the post in the large upper room, was told to be careful, I by the door, hearing two servants outside whisper to themselves the time was come.

At close to midnight, mute the large room, the two small windows, the door, the stairs; down in the pantry, mute the wheat, barley, millet and raisins, mute the jars, mute the water; out in the patio, soundless the sycamore.

IV.

Aaron went. Aaron. Suddenly Aaron went.

I hollow. Hollow the head.

Blank. No breath. No air.

The house, the rooms, the patio, all empty, all nothing.

Childhood became an absent window. Birds departed the sycamore. Leaves died.

In the lake the fish went absent, boats arrived bare. The shore lay like a place without memory.

Understanding came slow.

V.

Sometimes people have to be like houses, Father said, as though hoping to explain his days. We need walls, our windows we sometimes have to keep shut.

Those are fine branches, he said on another night, out in the patio.

The coming and going of time, that’s outside our making. Sometimes some of us are able to flow better than others. Some of us are fortunate, a few are blessed.

The farewell I understood much, much later.

VI.

The house will be sold, I told the servants. We will live away from here.

VII.

Mostly sounds of strangers now in the old house, itinerants, transients; I visiting again for another Passover; the pantry a seldom used space, the large upper room a supper room for journeymen who have no one in Jerusalem.

All quite lifeless to me, save for the sycamore, with its kind shade.

VIII.

His disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the hour is now late.”

– Mark 6:35

The girl was dead. One of the servants’ sons, normally reticent, came running from the synagogue. They said the little girl was dead, but the teacher, from Nazareth, told them she was not dead but asleep. They laughed and he had them sent out.

And then he told the girl to get up, and she did, she began walking. He said to give her food. He told them to tell no one.

IX.

Alone on foot for many days, to Bethany, to Jericho, to Galilee, to Judea; and then on hillsides, at edges of water with the multitudes; I listened, heard words that could heal even the dead. “Blessed are those who mourn.”

X.

Thursday during the Passover, visiting in Jerusalem; renting the supper room in the old house; starting to get dark outside; the water jar brought in.

Two men carrying nothing, in a voice that seemed from behind or beyond them, to me: “The Teacher says, ‘My time is near; I am to keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’”

XI.

In quiet space, like a vivid dream; Grandmother, Father behind her, Aaron high among leaves of the sycamore; I bowing, bowing deep, wanting to speak, to say hail, to find a prayer to say; the silence pure, the sound of faith, like rain filling everything; our house resurrecting.

XII.

Jonah, son, can you hear my voice? I can no longer hear the twilight.

Mother, I will ask to have you moved to the big room upstairs so nothing will disturb you.

But there is a lamb, somewhere coming from the field.

It is getting late, Mother. Better that you rest.

XIII.

Smell of smoke
No spice

Flat on the plate
A piece of bread

Small, plain, ordinary
A cup

XIV.

The room is silent, they are eating, Jonah. A long table, a fire at the rear, a man with his friends, a frugal supper, some wine and bread dipped in herbed oil.

Mother, it is only the boys. Aaron, be careful.

The room, the table, the wood in the fire, the walls, they all breathe.

It is the window curtains being drawn, Mother.

XV.

A solitary voice, real, human, divine; Jonah, listen.

XVI.

Take, eat; this is my body.

XVII.

The words

As written

XVIII.

I should rest now. Where is Abigail? I do not see her.

Abigail went a long time ago, Mother.

But she has not left you and the children, Jonah. I often hear her around the house.

Mother, when you do, Mother, tell her the sycamore in the patio, I planted it for her.

A gift your grandmother has, boys, a true blessing.

Come and say goodnight now. Aaron, take your brother downstairs. Tell the servants to light the lamps.

XIX.

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

– Matthew 26:30

The man carrying a jar

by Jose Marte Abueg

 

And he sent two of his disciples, and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the householder, `The Teacher says….’” – Mark 14:13-14

The wells look alike around Jerusalem , it occurred to him. This one is the oldest. That’s what the old folks say. As a young man I asked one of them how certain he was, and he pointed at the sky.

Many days the sky mirrors the desert or the lake; at night it can look like the bottom of a very big well. An endless river could be running underneath that well, another elder said. I didn’t understand at the time.

Many afternoons I sit around here, watching people and things. Passing shadows, mostly. And listening to people spilling words, he mused. The things that matter take longer than an afternoon, an olive picker said. But most times the words were also shadows, or moths in uncertain space.

This hour we are shepherds gathering our flocks, said a shopkeeper after closing up for the day, and a lad walked by with a staff. That boy’s father always passed here at dusk. Nothing ever gets different, a sack maker said.

Yet there was that Thursday afternoon, during the Passover.

A house servant, a widow, was having difficulty at the well, so I took her pail and jar, and filled them up for her. It was her son that fetched water, she said, but she had sent him for some wine because her master was having visitors for supper. A teacher was coming, she said, with twelve others. He glimpsed at the sky, it was starting to get dark, and he heard without listening.

The widow’s words were turning into moths when she tapped his arm. Be kind a little bit more and take this jar to my master’s house for me, please, I must hurry with this pail to prepare the large upper room and the long table.

There where I was walking I saw two men arrive, they saw me and I nodded, I carried the jar of water and they followed. There were no words. I did not know and yet I knew—the teacher had sent them.

There was a kind of quiet and there was not, there was a kind of brightness and there was not. Through the desert, the lake and the sky it came and it did not. It was infinity passing through and it was not.