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Prayer

I am thinking of Damascus as an argument
over street parking ensues, muted
by the glass doors of the town café.

In my head the angry men are telling me
that this country allows me to look
elsewhere. And so I look up at the wires

on the poles and their flat parabolas,
at the leaves behind them on stems
on branches of trees whose names

are up to me. The building behind
the acacia shields me from the mild sun
of 3 p.m. Is this the luxury of older age?

Forgetting this city’s name?
Why does that sound so much like serenity?
And why is Manila so beautiful

in the places the sun reaches
only barely? I am thinking of Damascus
and the anatomy of a blast

because the smoke, the rubble, the dark
are all aftermath. A blast is pure light
and sound, heard as nothing

but noise, and seen as light
not different from God’s. Did we forget
that he has never been a granter of wishes?

That the most bearded of philosophers
spoke always of the bolt of lightning
in his closed fist? The truth is I know nothing

of terror. I wish to know nothing of it.
What I do know is I do not weep
when I am afraid. I forget

the names of flowers, of books, of the dead.
I forget whose voice I heard
after awakening for the first time,

and the names of everyone
I have ever loved. I forget that I kneel
each night, but do not call it prayer.

All I recite are the names of cities
in a whisper to myself: Damascus
and Paris. Sinai and Mogadishu.

Marawi and Peshawar and each place
that makes it impossible to forget
where you are. The prayer is not for skylines.

The prayer is not for streets and their silence.
The prayer is only for each quiet voice
to find its rightful ear.

In Memoriam: Wilhelmina Casuela-Domingo

I cried a lot when I was in first grade. I cried so much that my mother volunteered to take care of the kids during lunchtime just so I could see her. I cried so much that my mother can still rattle off the first grade lunch habits of my friends: who made the most noise, who loved sinigang, who ate the slowest—stories that get stranger to hear the older I get. Once, I cried in class because I looked out the window and saw my mother’s face in the clouds, like Simba seeing Mufasa in the sky in the acclaimed cinematic masterpiece the Lion King. And I cried each morning before saying goodbye, because I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again—or because I had all the sublime logical capacities of a dog. But I suppose these are only common consequences of being a son so loved by his mother.

It wasn’t normal—which is the nice way of saying that my behavior was absolutely abnormal. And yet somehow, I’m 28 years old, happy, mentally healthy, and with a black belt in self-acceptance. To this day, I think I have my first grade teacher, Wilhelmina Casuela, to thank for this. If I can pretend to be an amateur psychologist for a moment, seven years old is where traumas set in—where we begin to wrestle with our eventual identities—and Wilhelmina Casuela, or Wimpy as her friends called her, walked into the dark pit of my Being and pulled me out.

I don’t remember much, because it’s true what they say: When you look back on your life, you see only a few moments in great detail. Otherwise, all memory erodes into dust. Once, on a sad day, Ms. Casuela stood in front of the class and said: “Boys, I’m your mother when you’re in school.” It meant the world to me, who had never heard that before. During another sad day, she saw I got a six out of ten on a quiz about telling time—she called me in and made me take the quiz again. On another day, when I once again felt lonely in the company of so many friends, she had me sit with her during lunch break, and asked me to kiss her on the cheek. One day, in 1996, she spoke to my mother and said that she knew I’d be one of the brightest kids in my year.

Nine years later, she died. She was in her mid-40s and it was summer. I don’t remember exactly how she passed, but it was a sickness. My only recollection of those nine years was seeing her in campus a few times for some hey how are you’s. Catching up was for far, far later in life. Catching up was for now. Catching up was for when I’d made something of myself—for when I’d had enough adventures. I’d buy her a coffee with money that I’d made; I’d share the happiness that would be impossible without her existence; we’d talk about politics and falling in love and starting a family, and how I’d want my kids to have second mothers like her; maybe we’d talk about a nice name for a kid; she’d ask me if I still go to church and end up disappointed; and I’d tell her about the good, good fortune of having her in my life. She deserved that twenty times over. She deserved to see us do some good in the world.

Miss Casuela was a good person. I imagine that, in her final days, she held no grudge—and breathed only a pure, untainted love into the world. Perhaps the only pity I feel is for myself. My own self, constantly pained by the existence of debts that can’t be repaid—by the pressure of receiving a teacher’s love for no other reason than simply existing. With a love like that, how could I be anything but kind? How could I not kneel in gratitude for the rest of my days? How could I not begin to love other people for little to no reason? Yes, Miss Casuela, I still cry. I am crying now. But I hope you know that I’ve learned to cry for the proper reasons: I miss you, and I don’t know if I’ll see you again.

The Night I Became Scheherazade

My body was made
entirely of holes.
Each a nameless story.
I thought
maybe if I kept talking
we would forget
to sleep. Or sail
from one island
of slumber to the next,
a sky of only our breathing.
When else have I prayed
to some tired deity–
some treacherous djinn–
and wished for the entire Earth
and its motors to slow?
My philosophies
were carved on stone:
Happiness is a fleeting thing.
Joy is only the first
and loudest echo
in the valley of contentment.
But the legend speaks
of a woman who told stories
for one thousand nights.
In those two and something years
who knows if they learned
to talk only with eyes?
If they saw in one another
eternities of stories
abridged into a smaller
eternity of stories?
If they simply let
the warm night
dot the constellations
of what never happened?

Pre-Departure

 

Before the sea I recite all that I remember:
the gulls, the swallows and the mystery
of nameless birds. But nameless only
in the small industrial city of us.
In that strange weather you were Eve.
Every uttered syllable composing
the vocabulary of the Earth.
Didn’t we look at the sculpted trees
crawling up the ridges of mountain?
And weren’t their leaves funneling
the ambient breathing of the country
into song? The hawks were diving
into the gorge; we didn’t need to talk
about beauty. Do you remember
the boats dark and distant?
Tiny as the motions that waded us
to the shores of today?
That wasn’t our place,
but it was our silence.
How I wish we were places
known only for what surrounds them.
Laguna only a lagoon.
Cubao only a hunchback
who lived atop a hill.
I wish to be known in history
only for a proximity to you;
for the springs and the pines
and the woods between us,
where nothing else exists
but breeze and silence
behind every opened door;
where I no longer write,
but sit by whatever fire we can build,
where I can look at you
from afar, close my eyes,
and revel in your breathing.

Above

I was waiting for the sky to darken.
For our particular world to slow
into a ballad so I could listen

to the wind and the many verbs for it.
How it funnels past the gaps
in our fingers. The same gust

once caught in a sail, blowing
a nameless explorer into more water
and more wind. How can I not think now

of the world’s minor inventors?
Take the word brisk and the joy
that comes with watching

our existence acquire
a tiny sliver of precision.
I don’t think we have a choice.

The world is a beautiful place
and we are overwhelmed
by default. All that’s left

is choosing which parts of it
to carry into death. As for me,
I need this night and its winds

like another man needs sparrows.
I need the silence and the quiet
combustion of stars.

Tell me: How can anyone speak
confronted by this sky, this splatter
of cosmos? What can we do

but count the holes under the heavens
and never finish?
The world is tiny and brisk.

We are all alone.

Bridge

The plan was to watch the sky darken
in silence.

Yet to my left are schoolboys shouting,
pelting rocks into the bay.

This was the exact scene
of a dream I once had.
I was wearing a coat of light
on my feet and spoke loudly.

I can’t remember of what.
Those particular sentences
perhaps being washed
into a future dream.

These past years I have learned nothing
but patience. About anything else,
I was probably wrong.

The boys’ arms are worn now
and they are not talking.

Only breathing.

They do not know they are a form of sacredness
in any story of any man
stranded between joy and sadness.

I just want them to remember
the sunlight.

How easy laughter
will always be.

How the world, sometimes,
decides to be just a little warmer.

Again in a Dream

Walking alone
and slowly to my room

in an old style hotel,
I take a wrong turn.

A hall of paper doors
are sliding open

to the ocean.
Battleships moored

to concrete pillars.
Japanese children

naming all the birds.
Hato, tsuru, suzume.

Every person was a coast.
How do I decide

what it means?
All of it is beautiful.

The rooster too
chasing a scared child

around the tatami room.
I drop my bags

onto the sofa in wonder:
How fast I have gone

from being lost
to being where I desired.

I have no reason
for telling you this.

Only that I once read
a poem in a pier

for you. And that
was the only plan.

Not the rain.
Not the Chinese drunks

laughing about business
in the hotel bar.

Not falling in love with you
again and again,

as if we were empty
bookshelves in a library:

metaphor for our hope
for all the five-year olds

sitting calmly by the shore—
that they will all have

something meaningful to say
one day. Some days, I think

my life’s been a map.
What’s left of it

only a long revision.
One morning I will wake

having completed
the book of everything

I know. Laughing
at boring old stupidities

and you are beside me.
I am telling you

of the peacefulness
of birdsong

or how everything
is only suspicion.

Even the meowing
of the bedside kittens.

Then maybe I will tell you,
as I do, about all things

I don’t know.
A life of only questions

as the sun climbs
the cloudscape,

and we are tangled up
in morning,

revising and revising
and revising.