And so we’ve all been told to shutup (Don’t talk, they say,
too fast, too loud, or for too long. Don’t take too much time
trying to tell the truth). But this is my work,
to break out —in the presence of strangers— into laughter,
to watch small children, for example, fill with the lucky gust
a poem can ride into the near stillness of a room
and dance. For that, I am always, as now, grateful.
My father tells me, in his seminary days,
during the Japanese occupation,
most of the priests who ran that school were German.
The boys, then, were to speak only in Latin,
and would surely be slapped three Sundays back
if heard speaking the language of my father’s country,
which is a beautiful country and a beautiful language,
and which has a curious word for being
so suddenly seized by affection, you clench
every muscle from your eyelids to your toes
for wanting to hold a loved one tight, to squeeze one
and kiss one so deep, you place yourself and your beloved
on the brink of physical harm. There’s no word for this
in English, no word for those small provinces of silence
or for the kind of love that will trouble that silence
into music. My work is trying to find the very word
rippling in my body, which is a woman’s body,
my mother’s, and a man’s body, my father’s,
and nowhere to be found in the languages
that have conquered the lands of my ancestors.
On the outskirts of every empire, there are man-made
lakes large enough to receive with ease
one hundred villages’ worth of bones tossed into them.
This is a fact: there are more than seven million Ilocanos
in the Philippines, maybe a million in diaspora. All of us,
at one time or another, have been told to shutup, don’t talk
too loud, too slow, or for too long, in Saudi
Arabia, in Madrid, in Tokyo, in Milan, on Bowery
near the foot of 1st Street. We’ve been told this. Some of us
have been famous liars, Ferdinand for example
(who married another liar, Imelda), and my grandfather,
kapitan of the barrio, who claimed to kick the shit
bare-fisted and single-handedly out of fourteen ruffians
in the small barangay of Santo Tomás. Actually,
he kicked the shit out of five – nine ran away. These are not
lies. This is the truth. I’m not wealthy. I can’t buy
space and time on billboards or websites. The name I inherit
doesn’t part columns in the city’s Daily Journal.
My family comes from a long line of farmers.
My cousins scrub their chopping blocks with salt.
They shush the goats before they kill them.