Monday, June 12, 2017

Tatlong Bayani

To José Rizal

I visited your cold, stone prison.
Bereft of spirit,
Empty of words.
Your cell rang like footsteps

Inside a bell. I could not
Imagine you alive.
Supine, you lay
Motionless, a pigeon

Strangled by the hand
Of forces greater than
Your idealism, stronger than
Overpowering sentiment—

Your love of country exceeding
Your love of life, a pearl.
Yes, you penned poems, essays,
Two novels. You wrought

Drawings, paintings, sculptures—
One famous piece:
The Triumph of Science over Death.
Buildings, cities, towns, streets

Today carry your name.
Yet you are not deathless.
You are dead,
Slain by migrant necessity

Born of want, poverty
Pulling grubs from the soil,
Nailing down rusty iron sheets
To fashion flimsy shelters

Soon blown apart like paper
By tornadoes, locusts
On annual rampage.
But wait—now I see you rise,

Arms bound, marching off.
As if on a stage, players assemble.
Your back is to the firing line.
At that moment of volley

I see you transformed:
You turn—shot as a traitor,
Dying as a martyr.
Despair spinning into hope.

The Martyrdom of Rizal (1960) by Carlos Francisco

To Andres Bonifacio

Your bones may be lost forever,
But we are possessed, fortunately,
Of your photograph, in which
You glare—proud, sullen,

Belligerent, yet also brave, staunch,
Inspired—Supremo indeed.
I do not doubt your genius,
Testified by, for one,

Your marvelous capacity
For self-education, though
You must admit that
Your keenness is blunted

By your weakness
In the aspect of strategy:
Your inability to ride
Rapidly transforming events

So that they instead
Rode you, shamefully,
To your wretched execution—
Unjust, no doubt,

Still, result of your failure
To play your cards well.
Unyielding to a fault,
Prickly, reckless,

Flawed by fatal hubris,
You forecast your own fate
In the red and black flags
Of the Katipunan.

Now, standing in dust and smoke
Beclouding your monument
By the illustrious sculptor,
Guillermo Tolentino,

I see the Great Plebeian
Brandishing bolo and gun
And wonder about the message
He purportedly signifies.

Is there wisdom in violence?
Behold, the sword that liberates
Is the selfsame weapon
That tragically destroys!

Andres Bonifacio Poster Design Project (2015) by Carlo San Jose

To Emilio Aguinaldo

Your name means Christmas gift,
And yes, you bestowed
Upon your country
A fine gift, your house,

A generous patrimony,
Memorial to courage,
Summons to hope.
As travelers approach,

Many-gabled red roofs
Notably rise into view,
Presided over by a tower
Six storeys high,

A lookout embellished by
Five quaintly pointed spires.
Gracing the front esplanade,
Your bronze statue—

Your visage, undaunted,
Drawn sword at the ready,
Riding your stately mount,
Foreleg upraised, purposefully.

Entering the vestibule,
We see behind glass displays
Your bleached military uniform,
High-cut boots, rusted rifles,

Glossy buttons adorned
With Masonic symbols,
And the sword of the defeated
General Ernesto Aguirre.

Ascending the main stairway,
We encounter at the landing
A crossroads of sorts—
Left, doorways, the first

To a ladder-like stairway
To the third-level Music Room,
Rising to the Mirador
At the top, a tower

Overlooking sweeping views
Of Manila Bay and its environs;
Further down the hallway,
Your children’s bedrooms;

End of the hallway, a patio,
Galeria de los Pecadores,
Your venue for hatching plots
Against the Spaniards—

Right, your living room, commodious,
Harboring the original window,
Now converted into a balcony,
From which you declared

Philippine Independence,
Unfurling the first flag
Of the first Republic,
Marcha Nacional playing.

Mosaics, triangles galore,
Wood carvings in relief,
A plethora of symbols
Adorn walls and ceilings—

Eight-rayed, a sun
Honors the first eight provinces
To revolt against Spain;
Inang Bayan flourishes a banner;

Bearing a letter, a dove flies
Towards flags representing
The League of Nations.
Appointments, darkly varnished—

Cabinets of costly hardwood,
Flashing full-length mirrors;
Ornately wrought clamshells, which,
Pulled out from their niches,

Serve handily as pot stands
Attached to pilasters;
Grandiose, an outsize dining table;
Desks with sidewise compartments

To store important documents,
Or arms, for quick brandishing.
One corner of your sala,
A wooden panel swings open,

Disguised as a hat rack,
Concealing a corridor
That exits into your bedroom.
Herein positioned, an aparador

Built by your carpenters
To serve as your hiding place—
Dodging unwanted visitors,
You would sit inside, quiet.

A trapdoor from your bedroom leads
Two ways—one descends to
An indoor swimming pool;
The other, same level,

Is a corridor to your kitchen.
This hallway, Veterans Hall,
Is where you would meet
Your comrades-in-arms.

Their portraits line the upper wall.
Below, benches with backboards
Flip open to reveal hollows for
More documents, more arms.

Your spacious kitchen houses
A central table, its solid wood top
Hiding another passageway
Descending to an underground

Bomb shelter cum tunnel leading to
Santa Maria Magdalena church,
Five hundred meters
Down the main street.

Back of your storied mansion,
Your tomb, very large,
Monolithic, a single block almost.
Round the corner, in the garden,

Your Packard limousine, gleaming
Inside a house of polished glass.
Cleverly constructed, wily—like yourself—
Your entire second floor conceals

False panels, secret passageways,
Hiding places, an underground tunnel—
All of which gives us pause.
Never look a gift horse

In the mouth, they say.
To your consternation,
You might discover jutting teeth,
Or worse, dark jaws of betrayal.

Malacañang portrait of Emilio Aguinaldo (1964) by Galo Ocampo

Friday, June 9, 2017



Nighttime, I am alone
In the desert,
Moon, sand, stars,
My only companions.
Clouds have forsaken this land.
Distant tribes, the cirrus and the cumulus,
Pasture elsewhere.
The sky, a wanderer, has left his staff behind.
Knees lower to kiss the dirt floor,
Heels press into haunches,
No pain. The outside world,
Persistent as foraging field mice,
Blinks confusedly at the present.
Disavowing the past,
History stands behind
A tall black rostrum.
Wrestling with the future,
A fugitive struggles, trapped by
Four walls in a dream.
Inside this cave,
Bread, water, salt
Keep me alive. The wind
Feeds my spirit.

Desert plant at night

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Song of Creation

To Gerard Manley Hopkins

Creation sings of the glory of God.
We do not hear it but see it
In brilliant interstices
Opening and closing
Of trees waving to and fro
When the world is radiant,
In glittering leaves,
Beaming stones,
Mountain streams, flashing
Metal foil flattened
By fists, smoothed
By hands.

The blind hear the song in the trees yearning to speak.
They inhale it in the attenuated wind,
Taste it in fruits bursting with water.
Bending down to touch the earth,
They become one with the beginning of all things,
Pushing roots into the soil,
Unfolding leaves,
Joining hands with the sun and the dead
Brought back to life.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Monday, June 5, 2017

Ordinary Time


Morning is a swimming pool,
Deepest blue,
Newly replenished,
Chilled overnight,
Rippling gently.
Floating water molecules
Waft fragrant.

Ice cube splashing into a glass,
I dive, do six laps,
Six laps more,
This time backstroke,
Right arm, left arm,
Gazing upward at a cloudless sky,
Protective bubble
Swatting back
Solar radiation—
Stroke, stroke, stroke—
Glide forward, turn,
Push the wall,
Exhaling underwater
Necklaces, carbonated,
Feeling flushed, exhilarated.

No one else here,
I am first one in.

Only turbulence, spume generated by
Slashing arms, windmill,
Churning legs, waterwheel.
V-shaped wake, widening,
Tracks a streamlined hull, torpedo
Guided by black tiles, laser
Aimed at white tiles, target.

Beneath the surface tumult,
Water, transparent backwards, forwards,
Tranquil as a pipe
Fuming wispy aphorisms
Or dolphins wondrously examining
Mirror images of themselves
Slightly distorted
By visual deformations,
Akin to optical effects wrought by
Heat waves rising above
Desert stretches, or
Asphalt roads, disappearing.

Deeper, stiller,
Clearer, cleaner,
Keener, wiser.

Touching the wall,
I stop, pop my head
Above water,
Bobbing ball,
Dripping like a dog,
Mermaid undulating
Sine waves, low amplitude,
Alive, lightning,
Thunderously huffing,
Euphoric, inflated,
Rising, happy balloon.

Life is water—
Cold, fresh, clean.


Dark-headed coffee is a keen companion
Of depth and wit,
Finely calibrated scientific instrument.

Swinging his censer just below my nostrils,
He slays my logic with perfume.
“What crow has stolen your words?”

He asks. “Has your eloquence
Turned into baubles in his nest?”
I pay no attention to the ribbing.

He is too valuable a vizier.
I mine gold every morning.
I take my breakfast like a king—

To my right salted fish,
To my left steaming rice,
Fresh egg is the jester.

Butter, a bird, is eyeing the bread.
Milk dives smoothly into coffee.
Sugar disappears, memory of a dream.

A cock crosses swords with the day.
Things to do arrange themselves,
Tallest to shortest.

Digesting a bolus,
I rise ready to run the next marathon,
Wakeful as a bat, electric as a hawk.

Tree Sparrow

Chirps scatter…
You, slight, alight,
Switch your head,
Hop, swivel,
Tuck your arms tight,
Preen, puff, shiver…
Burst in flight,
Bullet of feathers, wings, tail—
Prodigy of creation,
Breathless creature
So frail.

Eurasian tree sparrow


The sky is clarity,
The wind, perfume,
You, a comely valley
In a sunlit room.

The sun arranges flowers
Along a window sill.
Your vine ascends, curling
About an iron grill.

Rooms by the Sea (1951) by Edward Hopper


The words of a rainy day
Drift incessantly, sighing.
Clouds wander about, homeless.
Soughing water vanishes.

The earth melts, insensate.
Shiny rocks rise in assembly.
Silence bends a strong arm.
Belief sits, quiet as bread.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) by Giorgio de Chirico

Is There No Balm in Gilead?

“You’re allergic to coffee,” the specialist says.

I had been wondering about those skin rashes—roseate, swollen, itchy.
I thought I had been bitten by a tarantula.

Blister clusters filled with aqueous liquid,
They popped painfully.

Morbidly, I had imagined I was leprous, beseeching
St. Damien of Molokai to deliver me.

“Take this pill after breakfast, this one twice a day.” He adds,
“Apply this cream after your bath.”

Pausing as if to ponder the fallibility of medicine,
“Come back to see me after two weeks.”

I muse that capricious Nature would be tamed
By Science, no less, methodical knife

That is as much the geyser of serendipity
Or Providence’s boon as it is purported genius.

I console myself that descending clouds
Hide blessings. Afflictions work miracles…

A broken leg is the first step of a spiritual journey…
An ambitious man turns into a holy fool…

A widow in penury transforms into a horn of plenty.
Reversals abound. A bold man serves lepers,

Is himself ravaged by leprosy—blamelessly, ostensibly.
His pustules and ulcers, like rutted soil,

Bear fruit, nourishing ears of generosity, sweet stalks
Of charity, miracles wrought by the dying.

Hapless in life, he works miracles after death…
A woman prays to the saint, her cancer vanishes.

Turning a corner sharply, a nurse, smartly pressed,
Head-to-toe white, pushes a wheelchair, smoothly gliding. Riding,

Unshaven, a befuddled old man wrapped in a moist bathrobe.
Fronting the glass doorway, his limousine pulls up, gleaming.

He rises, his back twisted, a drooping flower.
Drooling, his head bobs uncontrollably.

Pierced by unspeakable mystery, wounded, stricken bird,
I shuffle outside, sky neither gray nor blue.

Sighing, “I guess I’ll have to drink tea instead.”

Head of an Old Man in a Cap (c. 1630) by Rembrandt van Rijn


Snake swallows frog.
Marten bites snake.
Snake coughs up frog.
Snake wriggles free.
Frog swims away.
Frog snares dragonfly.
Frog swallows dragonfly.
Snake goes hungry.
Marten goes hungry.
Frog is gratified.

Pine marten