Self-Discovery is a Tree-Lined Winding Path

They built an amphitheater
in the place where I’ve chased
hundreds of sunrises
back when there was dawn
in my step and the rest
of my life was still a secret
that fate was withholding,
all the probabilities glistening
on the edges of each blade
of grass and I could hear
the impeccable pink hum
of time in that two-foot gap
they left on the footpath so as
not to disturb the running creek,
a constant reminder to always
look where we’re going. Every
morning during typhoon season
I would rescue the snails that had
wandered onto the damp concrete
and reverently place them back
in the safety of the green earth,
away from crushing death by
running shoes or bicycle wheels.
Those creatures’ lives were
little petals of karma I collected,
and after six years exchanged
for a lush garden of good favor
from the cosmos in the form
of thunderous applause for my
then boyfriend, who was an
aspiring reggae singer and
got to perform in campus
the songs of revolution we had
written together. It was that
place where one late night I
witnessed a bullfrog the size of
an adult human head battle a snake
to the death, and I was mesmerized
and paralyzed by awe and drunk
from the cocktail of discovering
life and traversing the Science
Complex Park with Diana Cerzo,
who was brilliant in graduate level
abstract algebra, a field that both
terrified me and enslaved me with
its perfect beauty. It was also
that place where a professor, who
twice humiliated me and once made
me cry in class, tried to talk me
out of my decision to quit
mathematics as we walked
side by side to the jeepney stop,
which short circuited my heart
because he inspired both despair
and hero worship in it. And I can
pull out a dozen more memories that
liked to call that place home, but
suffice it to say, they built
an amphitheater in the center of it,
and it is glorious, a hat tip to
the genius of ancient construction
and understanding of acoustics,
a landmark on a timeline
parallel to mine, a world that
excludes me, that I will always love.

In Memoriam

When a place burns down to the ground
the memories attached to it
do not go up in flames
the way heavier,
more tangible things do.
The vestiges of the past are made
almost of fresh spun spider silk
right before it dries.
They drape themselves onto
the souls of walls
that may no longer be standing,
and dance in an earnest pattern
of believing and forgiving
of belonging and fleeing
crossing itself every so often
at points that glimmer in the sun
when seen from the right angle,
at the right time of day,
of one’s life,
vibrating in the wind and
ever so delicately holding
the imagination hostage
ruminating past lifetimes
catching glimpses of a future
that has already arrived,
back when it felt natural to assume
that coming back would be
inevitable and effortless
like calling a dear old friend
by his first name
not anticipating that missed chances
could come in many forms:
caved in roofs,
books reduced to ash, and
hallways that have replaced
generations of scholarly voices
with the long, painful journey
to recovering their former selves

the memories survive, pristine
sharper, even, than the real gritty
scenes they were taken from
like a ghost facade
overlaid on the more recent
horror and tears

crossing the threshold, though,
is another story…

Bequests from the Departed Light

It’s not the poems the stars write
that give the night its soul
not the light the moon
borrows from the sun
or the breath of silence
stirring between the trees

it’s a fragment of the blue
coaxed from the heaving tides
from passion’s forgotten oceans
and remembering having once
craved for rest when all
the city could spare
was a lonely furnished room
lit with your tamed vices

it’s the texture of that moment
when it came up in conversation
with a trusted friend
how best to spend the small hours
trapped between your skin
and the fire that claims
to be the estranged daughter
of the song no one else but you
could hear.

2143 San Vicente BLISS

“Nobody understands me.”
He must have thought me
first world and shallow,
when I said
we all had our burdens to carry,
and articulated mine
to be a solitude in mind,
an alienation of being,
and whatever other pseudo-
existentialist dilemmas
came with it,
while my bedroom was
bigger than the entire
house in Tagapo he lived in
with his parents and two sisters.
I’ve been there before;
the living room doubled
as a bedroom
and a kitchen
and a dining room,
the creaking bamboo bed
laid down at night
and put up against the wall
for space in the day.
The toilet and bath was outside,
where you and a partner
took turns pumping water
from a well underground…

“I feel too much.”
He must have thought I was
in for a rude awakening,
once we got out
of that university,
complaining about my
dear old tortured soul
and restless muse,
while on the next bed
of the dingy dormitory room
he lay awake troubled
and confessed to me his guilt
about spending 35 pesos
from his scholarship stipend
to eat a chocolate bar,
when back home
his poor sisters might
never know such luxury…

I don’t know if he’s
forgiven me by now,
my closest cousin,
for my self-important
shortsightedness back when
we were students and dreamers
with uncertain futures.
But he danced with me
on my 18th birthday and
still checks up on me,
from time to time, like
the older brother I never had.

He graduated
and worked his ass off
and bought his family
a bigger, better home,
calls them everyday from
his apartment in San Francisco
and comes to visit
with boxes of chocolate
every Christmas.

Cheshire Twilight

The glass roof of the café
looks like it’s
holding up the sky;
the wind, like
it’s blowing the cars
around the rotunda.
My words travel
from the bottom of the well
where my sentient being
fastened its roots to
the core of the universe.

I perceive distances
the way I perceive
freedom from the past:
what the light touches,
how much
parallax from movement
obstructs as if
from understanding,
grazes briefly,
reveals briefly, then
leaves to its own device.
How the long
consciously forgotten still
tints the subconscious
like noontime glare
overlaid on clothes
worn by cold strangers.
How passing details
get snagged in memory and
get faithfully recognized
as they happen a second time,
in reverse,
when you make the trip back.
How tattoos, kept close
like second skin
enough to breathe through
and take for granted
seem to suddenly throb
with defiant life,
the pain you’ve
grown accustomed to
now more real than anything
as you, in turns,
struggle to remember
and try to keep up
with too much remembering.

The faint stars press
their weight against my cup.
In the city
of a thousand beginnings,
I feel responsible the most
for days I have stolen
and miles I have borrowed
long after I have gone
back to where I started.
Bliss gets undone with tears.
The person I used to be
caught the next train home.

Brute Force

Consequences, then,
fall like leaves.
A subtle change
in the season
for which there are
other signs,
plenty of ways
to brace the soul
for what’s coming.
I’ve seen those leaves,
first, change color.
Then the streetlights
turn on a little
earlier than before.
And I’d walk
those streets wrapped
in damp and gray,
and even my ordinary
thoughts usher
the inevitable,
a story that
cannot exist
without being told.
That way, then,
they are no more
the darker,
bitterer half
of the time-poisoned
fruit of my actions
than butterfly wings
brushing against
sea foam and causing
a tidal wave
on the other side
of the world.
Instead, a thread,
intersecting life
at a million
different points,
all of them naked,
all of them hurting.
And when the leaf
unclasps from the branch,
it’s after it has
held on for as long
as it could. All that
it could have become
will have been carried
away by the wind,
one green cell at a time.
There will be
no regrets,
no goodbyes left
to say to the tree.
The wounds heal.

A Viking’s Funeral, Please

You might remember me
as a harbinger of chaos,
some loose change who came
into your midst with
ideals misaligned with yours
that you’ve learned to appreciate
because my truths,
though uncomfortable,
matched the shapes of
your own dark, empty spaces,
and because you enjoyed
the contrast between my hunger
and your mute obedience,
a drunken catastrophe
that rattled the windows
and read your pains deeper
than you wrote them
and told you you deserved more
when you thought you had it all,
a howling at dawn
that would not be silenced,
a kind of raw force
powerful but unsustainable,
and see,
I knew that from the start.

But I cared about you,
all of you,
and with every ounce of me
that cared,
the sky stirred
and the ground shifted
towards the end that was coming.
I loved you that way.
And the more I hated the lies
that propped up the roofs
you blissfully slept under,
the faster morning approached.
A bright flame in a white room
where you never thought
to feel restless, until
the walls started burning.
I didn’t set the fire;
I merely showed it to you,
an open secret,
a voice, foolish but brave,
stoking your hopes
like they were kindling,
a carelessly placed trust
that was my downfall,
a contract too broken
to hold,

and I was finally taken from you
and made an example of,
a ritual sacrifice
for you to witness over and over
until you no longer recognize
anything you used to remember

but I hope
it comes back to you
someday:

a rogue spirit that hailed
from a place that took pride
in singing in the streets,
a place I left and to which
I can never belong again.
And being with you
far outshone the original
reasons why I came.

You are part of my story now.

The Language That Your Soul Thinks In

I never lied to the world
about what I wanted
ever since the beginning
the world knew
I wanted no less than you

even from way back when
people thought,
and perhaps rightly so,
that I was too young to be
looking for love and
did not hesitate in
letting me know,
my innocent eyes would
look through rose-colored
glass walls and out into
the mad, vibrant world
and wonder about you

even from the time when
all the other women,
so brightly colored with
young, untrained freedom
like sunflowers lined up
on University Avenue
were so impatient to make
something of themselves
and shine like sequins
in the dark,
I wore my hungry heart
on my sleeve and
my brazen honesty
like a rusty halo

there was a time when
I walked on broken glass
from one love affair
to another, my faith
piercing the pain and
believing that every mistake
I ever made would only
bring me closer to you

and through the thick of all
the love I’d fearlessly loved,
finding only pieces of you
and poor copies of you,
I’d always loved you

everyday my certainty that
you must exist, somewhere,
would radiate from my
stubborn soul and subtly
dye winds and ocean currents,
like a message in a bottle
flying across the face of
the desert sun to reach
where life was molding you
to be everything I would
later come to love about you

and even when I’d grown
strong enough to want
other things,
when the world changed
its tune and told me
I am needed elsewhere,
to wield my talents like
a purpose and occupy
a position of power,
I knew enough to recognize
a road that would only
carry me farther away from you
so I said no

and those who were next in line
had scoffed at what they
claimed was my weakness,
only to find themselves
secretly wanting to trade
their trinkets for my treasure
now that I finally have
the one thing that
I’ve never stopped wanting

so I pray that they also
find what they truly want,
that they figure out what that is
and just be a little more
honest about it

My Rare Second Chance

I’ve been searching earnestly
some would say desperately
for the chance to prove myself
that chance to show the only truth I listen to
that I haven’t lost my senses
that I am brave and will not live on dreams alone
that I haven’t sold myself
for the low price of glitter
that I’ll still recognize real gold when I see it

see I have an unsettled score with fate

long ago, when my moonlight still danced
with the black space between acacia leaves
before my stars competed with the enlightenment
of acrophobic towers with staring windows of light
I was put to the test and I failed

because love knew nothing was above her
but so many blind dreamers walk, single file
and follow each other down the cliff
of worldly deception
and I was too young to know
love almost never gives second chances
you miss your bus and that’s it:
you end up playing with a shuffled deck
and clutch a random card to that hole
where your heart used to be
to keep you warm
to get you through the cold lonely nights
I was too innocent to realize
I squandered an honor not given to many

one moment’s weakness gave me many years of shame
such that I couldn’t look love in the eye
without feeling little
I sometimes pretended to believe
she was both fickle and cruel
but deep inside I knew it was I who fell short
and I wanted my second chance
I wanted to do right by her

because I will not be beautiful for nothing
I will not be any kind of genius for nothing
I will not be a bejeweled queen of fame and fortune
who comes home each night to a profound emptiness

still, every other soul I found were among the deceived
they would not pay the price with me
they turned their backs on the redemption
of their life’s biggest mistake and mine

but here you are, finally
love’s great test
love’s leap of faith
and I assure you we will succeed
I promise you we’ll make it all the way
I give you my word we will conquer it all
the distance, the time, the money, the cultural divide
I know enough to risk what I have to, to be with you
here, I’m putting everything on the line for you
it is a privilege I am thankful for
and it would honor me if you would take it

Ikot Jeep Sonata

There are some truths
that don’t take breaks,
sitting awake vigilant
by the bedside
of romance,
keeping its fever in check,
monitoring its temperature.

Their eyes tell me
you’re out of my league.
That’s a blinding flash
of the obvious,
so obvious it absolutely
makes no sense:
the distance of class
stretching between
your world and mine
and our complacent hearts
like London fog
more impenetrable
than literal miles.

The caste mark
on your forehead,
the dust under my feet,
the bourgeois Taft Avenue
parking tickets,
the Archers’ bow
the color of
University Avenue trees
that bore witness to
a hundred years
of rebel Isko rallies
all form a staunch barricade.
Love is out of the question.
Not even love’s shadow.
Not even its grandchildren.
Not even the little paper parasol
discarded on the glass
from which love sipped
a casual cocktail
one insignificant afternoon.

So this malaya
takes its leave of
the maharlika,
and neither would
waste any moon phase
celebrating
what is missing.

Save for the minutes it took
to write this poem.