[Island of the Little Mouthfuls]
Terraced rain & tricycles. Rooms
carved out of oil cans, panties, cracker boxes.
Island before breakfast, without its first cigarette.
Island of exported labor.
Fly wings & beauty marks.
Island with a thimbleful of serum. Island
trying to be a better option
for the beached whale.
minus its lowermost ribs.
Composite divided by prime.
Island of tautological coastlines.
Skulls flared with jasmine
course-correcting the night sailors.
She comes by air; she never learned
to swim — seven thousand islands
& not a single stroke. After a certain age
swimming is as impossible
as learning a new language. We call islands
archipelago but the Italians meant the sea.
A better word: diaspeirin. Tongues, tribes,
coastlines — scattered
before anyone took flight.
to Kalibo I hardly speak a word.
I keep my mouth shut to pass
though the next passenger might be kin.
My uncle tells me how
he kept from going under: by counting
his own breaths. Jumped into the fishpond
that he jumped in as a boy. How he taught himself
to swim. Solitary confinement
is learning how not to drown in time.
No swimming through concrete.
You could swim through blood
but there never seems to be
enough. In one version of his death,
my other uncle falls into a river; the bullets
kill him, not the water. Other times
it’s the President, his secret police, the First Lady’s
tears of sympathy.
Lola goes by bus
to gather his remains. Lolo stays behind.
He’s anchored, has been all his life
to Jesus & his wheelchair. Can’t swim
but he can baptize. He could baptize
a whole town, & does, & dies while watching
planes wheel past: a stroke. Gone
but not his gaze, which cuts my flight path
like a searchlight.
In indoor swimming pools
you can sometimes hear
your own thirty-year-old laughter; waves
can take that long. My eldest
takes to water easily; I count his strokes
in Japanese — ichi, ni, san. He’s seven
thousand miles away. Too long
& so I’ve left him home.
Tulang: poem pluralized to strangeness.
Made nasal, ng a sound
that will never start its own word
not in this tongue. The ghost of an action:
how a gerund blindfolds
a verb to make it still: come, go.
Her singing—sight-reading—while we
were supposed to be sleeping.
Dad downtown in a tower
& thrum of the graveyard shift.
Her piano—even pianissimo
throbbed the snow-muffled rambler.
Hymns that taught what the word is: a spell
for collapsing distances. And folk songs,
her forte, a rep rehearsed for classmates
who sometimes passed through:
they’d belt them out together
flower print crowding the upright.
Afterward cackling in her language:
uncrackable, though I thought I caught
the upshot: why here, in this white cold
& quiet? As if winter could cure a childhood
of cholera & typhoons. Her hand:
she transcribed my favorite melodies
as capitals on scrap paper. I hadn’t learned
notation, but the keys I could solve, a code
checked against the ear. My brother too
& the cousins who came for holidays
some of them born in Manila:
I asked them all to string
songs into letters, caravans
braving the whiteout. Everyone played;
some even understood Tagalog.
Later not one of us could speak.
Chris Santiago’s poems, short stories, and criticism have appeared in FIELD, Pleiades, Revolver, The Asian American Literary Review, and elsewhere. He has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and for Best New Poets, and an Honorable Mention from the Ford Foundation. A Mellon/ACLS and Kundiman Fellow, he teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN.