When Safety is Foreign and Calamity is Home

Nine thousand miles from the grasp
of hands of ash, I feel the weight
of dormant decades violently broken
pulling down on my nonexistent wings
phantom itch on lungs that haven’t
choked on that lakeside air for so long
phantom burn on skin

Is the gray of your sky
the same shade as mine?
I have reached a reluctant familiarity
with winter, though with strong
gusts of wind it still causes me grief.
It’s what’s falling from your sky
that’s foreign to me now;
I was too young to remember
the last time, though I’ve read
so many heartbreaking stories
shrouded in that color of everything
we want to forget, scratched raw
across the pages by pieces of glass
spit out from the earth’s soul
that handfuls of it materialize
inside my shoes, in between my toes
or on the flat of my tongue
at unexpected times, usually when
my self-worth is disoriented and
my faith is shaken at the foundations.

Much has been said about us
being rebellious children of
storms and saltwater; we forget
we are igneous when our troubles
and tectonics are asleep. Most of us
are too young to remember the last time;
those who have firsthand wisdom
have left us with stories. Sometimes
it terrifies me that those stories
are the heaviest anchors of my being
and everything else would rust
or be undone by the wind, some wind,
of which there are plenty.

The lake was calm when I last saw it.
The horses were wild and regal
in their beauty when I last saw them.
Now the sky is swallowing lightning,
summoning to the surface
our worst nightmares
and I’m too far from home
to feel the earth rumble.

(Sending prayers and love to the victims of the Taal Volcano eruption.

Blur of Summers

I borrow the marquees, the streets
from your decadent will
for a day,
for a profane heartbeat,
the brooding lake sympathetic
but the intersections
foreign and curled
around a prosperity I can
claim no familiarity with.
Even the ordinariness touts
an articulate struggle,
the solitary walk a long,
complex history of silence.
I used to know you.
The fragile breaths of armistice
between my reckless choices
used to cover you with kisses,
my future pregnant with
the colors you favor
in the springtime.

Hundreds of steps,
dozens of unmailed postcards.
Your passion and reciprocity
patternless and obscure.
I’m just a somnambulist
under your streetlights,
unable to pay in full
what I owe.

See you at Seafood City

Eating is my last still
thriving link to my motherland
(she said as she ate her way
through another ten pounds,
through another month of walls
in her labyrinth of
differentness and unbelonging.
She said as she tried to find
her way home with her taste buds
and the siesta dreams they evoked.
I have another five years
to jump on the keto or
intermittent fasting wagon—
five years ago I think it was
Atkins and gluten free? and
staying on my feet for half an
hour after meals so the cellulite
doesn’t pile up on my thighs and gut,
because I’m lonely right now so
I’ll address that first, and food
bears the stories that make life
in a foreign land bearable),
I can’t diet because I’m homesick
(she decided),
and my people love rice,
and soy sauce,
and pork fat,
and let me tell you about the paddies
and the golden fields,
the kakanin and malagkit that
are unique to each island,
the birthdays and weddings that
aren’t complete without lechon
(I’ve missed so many of my
friends’ weddings it hurts),
the celebrations for graduates
and bar exam passers like
triumphant songs rising free
from the slow drumbeat of poverty
across generations so please,
give their parents another plate
of pancit to toast their dreams
and honor their sacrifices,
and how I’ve tasted fourteen
different renditions of adobong baboy
but my Dad’s is better than your Dad’s,
hands down.

En Route to “No Blue Memories”

All the steel bridges and politics
were swimming in that fall rain.
What’s one more rusty bolt?
The city is many things, but
quaint and dainty aren’t among them.

Turned off from Lake Shore Drive
with the view of the greenish blue
surface undaunted by the weather
to Grant Park via East Roosevelt,
from where the Field Museum
veiled in fog looked just like
the Manila City Hall from
the top of Lagusnilad, the tunnel
notorious for flooding during
typhoon season, where the teenage
urchins of Ermita held swimming
races across the water the color
of smog mixed with rat urine,
while all the stranded yuppies
cheered before scrambling into
those death-trap buses

(there is a kind of slowness to
remembering when you have to
superimpose memories onto places that
are otherwise unfamiliar, when their
resemblance to childhood landmarks
through an unflattering filter
is all you have to go on).

The car dropped me off at the
State Street entrance because that’s
where the Google Maps navigation
told it to go. The driver of
the #29 bus behind us honked his
horn while I struggled to open
my umbrella before getting off.

The sign on the door said,
“Closed after 5 pm.
Use Plymouth Entrance.”
So I had to walk halfway around
the block at 40 degrees, heels
of my boots clicking, my mind
automatically playing the intro
to the 2008 Jordin Sparks song.

There’s an alcove on the wall
along Van Buren. Two men were in it,
taking refuge from the capricious
Chicago night. Their backs were
pressed against the brick that made
me think of newly harvested wheat.
They were smoking weed and
exhaling indifferently
to passersby on the street.

My Second City

I thought I would love you

I thought it would be easy
I thought there was nothing else
for me to do but belong to you
and the gentle curve
of your lake shore,
your phoenix spirit not
completely rid of the ashes,
the iron of your will
and circuitous history
written against the rust,
hell, even your brutal winters,
the bricks of ice on the river
larger than acts
of forgiveness,
and your cold, cold heart

I thought I could get drunk
off you like a sweet stranger,
and adore getting lost in you
like a nymph in a forest
of faithful mirrors,

I thought I could eventually
learn to speak you,
be well versed in the way
you’ve made of systematic racism
a homogeneous elixir where
anointed beauty becomes
commonplace when diluted in
poison, or at least understand
your detrimental love affair
with violence, speak you
like rebellious pursuits
of meaning aligning to
the rhythm of the rain,
like ethnic patterns of
pleasure inoculating dogma
from the blood of a collective
in drips,
one soul per generation,
like walled colonies
effervescing into a virgin
white canvas of a future

I thought, after all this time,
I would love you, and
you would love me,

but oh,
your cold, cold heart…

The Place Where All The Important Questions Gather

I had a dream that the city of my childhood
was on the far edge of a flat world,
cups of warm tahô, Bulul statues,
and jeepney dashboard calligraphy
on the conveyor belt of careless,
noncomittal remembering, falling
past the place where everything ends
and dissolving in the ink black between
stars as cold as ice and spattered strains
from the violin of Erich Zann,

and I was standing at starboard on a change
relentlessly sailing against the current
and watching parts of myself disappear,
neither protesting nor surrendering,
but instead acutely feeling the whipping
wind on my arms and the salt in my eyes
and preoccupied with deciphering
the intentions of the tide as it pulled away
from the heavy wisdom of the shore.

4th of July 2017, Chicago

Mimicked thunder,
multicolored lightning
heaving sky and swirling
omens peppered with spent cordite

the noise
is dark, eviscerating

blunt instruments in my flesh
like surgery in smoke
pulling out bloody fistfuls
of the long forgotten,
the secondhand past
from songs and stories told
that turned to solid rock
formations and axioms
for my chapters to dance on

the restless knot of pain
that I was while in the womb
wanted to be born on a night
like this; the contractions
that I pushed against
in a deluge of liquid screaming
were keeping time with
each shattered pause

New Year’s Eve in Binondo
the Chinese knew how to party
they invented gunpowder
and dragons, and dressed
their hopes in red silk

I wanted to remember
beginning, the shift
from nothing to breathing

but this noise,
this chemical explosions of light
over a sea of violence—
embraced— trivialized— systematic—
denied— cultural— condemned—
permeated by irony and
the smells of late-night barbecue

distract me

a brick wall shaped like
the point of no return

the pictures of slaughtered peace
in Marawi
have the same sound, the same
the same corrupted coldness,

exodus of frayed futures and
gutted lives in makeshift bundles,
dawns detonated by unrest,

there is where I am.
Mournful and rattled
tossing wishes of independence
to every passing stranger
like grenades
like it’s a matter
of life and death.

Letters to the City

You are cold to my heart.
Sometimes your foreignness corners me
like noise in a crowded room.
Was I too quick to wear your name on my sleeve?
I’ve called so many things love
when in fact they weren’t.
I’d sit among the animated conversations,
share a table with the living pages
of your breathless glamour
and the nuances of their language
would start picking my identity apart
like rust on a piece of iron.

The opera is Mount Olympus
and the homeless are the masks from the tragedy
that have slipped off the actors’ faces.
The South Side is a thousand aborted Renaissances.
In the West Side they weave sacred bundles
with mementos from a shared past and call them home.

Compassion in the streets is a desecrated temple.
Diversity is someone’s beloved child,
temperamental and fed a daily dose of Vicodin.
In the Loop, denizens bleed money
from their jaded taste buds.

Once I spent an afternoon on the Riverwalk
watching people, trying to know them by their eyes.
There was a sheen to their movement
that felt impervious to the weather.
Four years and I haven’t deciphered
the rhythm to their step.
I can’t walk with them. I have no friends.

Would it make me any wiser if I took the bus?
I don’t understand the graffiti.
My acts of rebellion are stained with melancholy;
my most earnest prayers sound plagiarized.
Even the people who have the same facial features I do
have an easy complexity I don’t recognize.

There’s a pile of refrigerator magnets
at the souvenir shop that nobody wants
because they show the “old” Navy Pier.
I’ve only been to Navy Pier once
and all the companies I tried to keep
and stories I tried to tell fell like anchors
that didn’t bear enough weight to resist the currents.
I am an object in the wind.
I trace the skyline with my fingertips
but possess no arrow to penetrate its center.
An empty quiver and a suitcase full of intentions
in a labyrinth of violence and smoke.

The Same Old Shade of Blue

The loneliness is the main thing.
You don’t really overcome it;
you are just able, on good days,
to pass it on the street or
those narrow avenues of silence
with no confrontation, without
so much as the usual searching
glance that’s always as plain as
the words, you have been carved
like wood and there is not
one thing in this brick and
steel wilderness that is quite
the right shape to contain you
without holding an irreverent blade
to your finely sanded surface.

That loneliness, it’s too proud
to stalk you down the corridors
of your most judged, most
defended choices, the dangerous
alleys where you’re most vigilant.
It’s that casual emptiness, that
congruous absence sitting in the
middle of your glorified routine,
not giving you pause until it speaks
and you’re caught off guard
finding that all the answers are
so far away and out of place and
you’re reduced to the handful of
moments that haven’t yet faded,
the raging distance between
the person who was headed here
and the person who will never be
the same upon arrival.