Saturday, December 26, 2009
Sunday, November 22, 2009
Notes on a sort of homecoming.
A man suddenly steps in front of our car, gazing blankly ahead at us. My brother has to swerve deftly to avoid hitting him. The man doesn’t seem at all aware of our presence, or the danger he has posed to us or to him.
I’ve been wondering if that man is symbolic of my visit here, my first since I left 16 years ago. But what would he symbolize? Total obliviousness or indifference to danger? A desperation so deep he doesn’t care about his life anymore? A passive aggressiveness (run me over if you dare, and I will give you hell)? This country’s sense of frustration embodied in his emaciated body, his drugged-out stare, his seething silence?
There’s a new Manila and the old Manila. The new Manila is the Fort, Makati, Ortigas, with their highrises and malls, a sort of tropical LA. The old Manila is just older, more rundown and decrepit, the city’s old shell that it hasn’t been able to discard. The buildings are worn down, the wood burnt a deep dark brown; the concrete buildings seem to have acquired a thick layer of soot; the sides of the underpass towards Quiapo are encrusted with soot and dirt and don’t seem to have been repainted in years, the after-effect, I am told, of the recent flood which inundated this part of the city up to a story high. The streets are a chaos of cars, motorcycles, pedicabs, jeeps, street hawkers and pedestrians, and no order seems to exist. Everything seems on edge.
Every morning at the hotel I’m staying at, the breakfast room is filled with old or middle-aged white men and their young Filipina girlfriends or wives, plus the occasional girlfriend’s family. But the prostitutes are no longer in this area; I hear they’ve been moved up to Quezon Boulevard, where they start lining the avenue at around 10 PM.
My family’s street has become a crowded warren of apartment buildings and walled-in, heavily gated houses. The house next door burned down years ago and is now some kind of car repair shop. From my old bedroom, I can see right through the street running past it, something I had never seen before. On the other hand, a new apartment building has been built right in front of our house, blocking the view of the Manila Bay sunset I used to gaze at every afternoon, sitting at my desk and writing.
Most of the Filipinos here are a lot more gentle than I remember. I forget how gentle a people we are. And yet there’s always this hard edge among many others, a kind of hostility waiting to brim over, a tough live-or-die aggressiveness that’s waiting for a target. Others are as hardened as they get. At the sari-sari across my hotel, the woman eyes me suspiciously, sizing me up to determine if I’m a tourist, answers me curtly, and overcharges me for a pair of corn chips and an ice drop.
Dapitan Market: pure mayhem, lots of kitsch, but an occasional find, such as capiz plate overruns. You pay the watch-your-car man 5 pesos, and at Dapitan Market, they demand 20, because there are 4 of them in their barkada.
Along the highway called C5, drivers are advised to stay far from the right, where kids throw rocks at passing cars.
At the Aristocrat Restaurant, a candidate for senator, Rey Langit, a former radio reporter, sits at a long table with about 20 of his campaign staff, all dressed in black t-shirts with his name emblazoned on them.
Manny Pacquiao victory parade through Makati. We are always looking for something to be proud of, we are always looking for international affirmation. Excessive adoration leads to excessive ambition: Manny Pacquiao wants to run for public office.
Manny Pacquiao has a mistress, a smalltime actress who’s posed nude for a magazine. The papers are full of stories about her, and about Pacquiao’s long-suffering wife. Manny Pacquiao is now officially a Filipino alpha male.
Another source of pride and affirmation: the Makati Greenbelt system of malls. Some shops here have not even opened in the US; the ones that have are much tinier than the supersized stores here.
Filipino food is to die for. Even the value meal at Max’s is worth more than the 2 bucks it goes for, and the pinakbet with lechon kawali at my humble hotel in Malate is a work of art. The bibingka at the duty free shops is real galapong. The crispy pata at Aristocrat is sinful and the sans rival to die for. And Via Mare’s lunch menu (kare kare, bagnet, lumpiang sariwa, sugpo in coconut sauce) is divine; so are their bibingka with cheese and salted egg, puto bungbong, and halo halo. So worth the trip to the country alone.
Middle-aged American man with 7-year old Filipino boy. Pedophile or surrogate dad? So, in my hotel so far I’ve seen white trash males with young women, older women, young boys, and transvestites. Something for everyone, I guess.
Marina: where my sister and I have a bucket of oysters and bangus sisig for all of 10 bucks.
Tiendesitas is the place to go to for nearly everything, from antiques to clothing to handicrafts to classic suman and avocado cake.
Along a street in the back of QI, people spill out of their ramshackle homes unmindful of the cars, motocycles and pedicabs passing by. Most of the houses along the Manila-Quezon City border look like their walls have been burned, full of soot and dust. My sister tells me this is how it’s always been, and I must have blocked the memory. But I never recall this part of the city being this sordid at all. Was I not looking closely then?
Quezon Avenue, lined with strip bars and saunas, as I’ve always remembered it. A sudden downpour clogs the streets, and it takes us over an hour to get to Shangri-La, a restaurant where my youngest sister and brother celebrated their graduation from high school with our lola, and where my niece held her debut before her family immigrated to the US. We have peking duck, garupa escabeche, yang chow rice, spinach and tofu with toasted garlic, and one of my nephews gets the drink of the day, iced tea with lychee and grenadine, which comes with a free stuffed toy. Sweet.
Gave 5 pesos to a woman holding up a baby girl, telling me the girl’s sob story which I didn’t really catch. Will 5 pesos even help? Got stopped by a transvestite on Del Pilar, who told me, “Excuse me, your face is very popular to me…”
The administration ticket has asked Pacquiao to run for a House seat with them. Which will probably boost the administration’s popularity among voters. And will drive this country even further down to hell. If Pacquiao really cares about his country and has half a brain, he should support the party that really has serious intentions to try and fix this place up. But maybe that’s too much to ask of our public officials?
Two days ago, a friend of my sister-in-law lost her only son to road rage, an increasingly common malady in traffic-clogged Manila. Someone got out of his car and shot him pointblank on Santolan Avenue. The killer is still at large.
Two young women are sitting on the sofa of my hotel lobby. Some minutes later, a Japanese man comes in with another Filipina, who introduces him to the girls. He looks one over, and smiles broadly. Yes, yes, he says, and his Filipina companion books a room. He’s a bald, shriveled country bumpkin, totally crass and loud and disgusting. And he acts like the lord of all he sees, slouching back in the sofa and shouting orders to everyone in the lobby.
Remedios Circle: visiting the old haunt, which is no longer its former self. Café Adriatico seems smaller. Penguin Café, where all the rebel poets used to hang out, looks rundown. The Circle is surrounded by places I don’t recognize and probably wouldn’t go to.
Fidel is the only person I want to see on this trip, outside of family. He overlooks my shortcomings, understands my craziness, believes in my work, and doesn’t castigate me for having chosen to live in the US. He makes absolutely no judgment of me at all. I haven’t seen him in all these 16 years; I missed him when he came to visit my office at NYU in 2000. When we meet, we just start talking again as if we had only seen each other yesterday, and we are just picking up yesterday’s conversation. Fidel’s cool.
I ask Fidel if I have become like those typical Fil-Ams who visit the Philippines and see only the negative, and have nothing good to say. He says my observations are spot on, I’m not imagining it, the city has become more decrepit and rundown, poverty levels are much higher than before, population is unstoppable as migrants continue to pour in from provinces and the birth rate keeps getting higher. The Catholic Church opposed a proposed bill in the Senate to institute birth control, and has successfully campaigned against politicians who dare oppose them.
Towards Nagtahan, the river is so clogged with refuse and debris you could hardly see the water at all. There are weird-looking lampposts along the avenue, grotesque monuments of ugliness that seem straight out of a sci-fi B-movie, each of which was a project awarded to cronies who got huge kickbacks.
I’ve lost count how many parties are running for office in May. There’s Villar/Binay, Nonoy/Roxas, Erap/Vi, Gibo/Whatever, ad nauseum--so many candidates, but no platform, no ideology, no vision.
Our politicians keep messing us up, yet we keep voting the same types of people to office. Is all this mess our own fault then? I remember what my friend Marilen said a year before I left the Philippines, that what the people really need is education. I’ve been thinking about that all these years, and I realize Marilen was right. Or I hope she is. But would better education make us choose better leaders? Would it make us more vigilant, and help us keep our leaders accountable? Would education find us our philosopher king? But aren’t we a highly educated people to begin with? So is there something else wrong, some inner demon we haven’t dared to look at? Maybe what we need is not just education, but a Dostoevsky to make us gaze into our own darkness, and not blink.
Darkness. Brownout during our family reunion: something that hasn’t happened here in a long while (brownouts were one of the many reasons I decided to leave; when I left, the city practically had no power, due to rotated 8-hour brownouts). Fortunately, this one lasts only for about 15 minutes, not enough to drive me away a second time. My siblings have gone the whole hog to let me savor the tastes of the Philippines I’ve missed all these years: lechon from Elar’s; my sister-in-law’s baked bangus, lumpiang sariwa, and ube hopia; chicharon bulaklak; sapin-sapin and Arce mantecado, queso, and avocado ice cream. We are having our reunion at my brothers’ house, which used to be my lola’s house, which was built by my grandfather in the early 1900s. Much has changed, of course, but here and there my brothers have kept the old furnishings, the original windows, even lola’s little altar to the Sacred Heart. This house has four generations of memories, and I wonder, as I look at my nieces and nephews, if these memories are as important and crucial and defining to their lives as they have been to mine.
I’ve been wondering these past six days if this is really where my roots are, if this is what I am and what continues to shape me: this innate desperation, inescapable suffering, aimlessness and bleak future. Then, after our family dinner—my last meal with my entire family before I depart for Hong Kong tomorrow, and New York the day after—my brother shows us an envelope he found in his bodega, along with old family pictures: lola’s collection of sympathy letters she received right after lolo’s death in 1929. The letters are crisp with age, some so brittle we dare not unfold them. One is a personal note from Eugene Allen Gilmore, Governor General of the Philippine Commonwealth, praising lolo as one of the finest and most promising lawyers in the country. Another comes with a news clipping analyzing lolo’s brief but brilliant career, stating lolo was being groomed to be the youngest supreme court justice ever. Lola never had the courage to look at them again and kept them even from her own children. Lolo’s sudden, tragic death changed her completely, and she shut down. Once, my mom and her siblings found lolo’s gramophone and records in the bodega and played it; lola went berserk and went around the house like a madwoman, throwing pillows and stuff around in grief. How hard it must have been to face all this future suffering alone, to be so bereft, and to know that nothing will ever be the same. Again, is this another symbolism? I don’t know anymore. I don’t know what this trip will mean to me in the next few days, in the next few years. But I know this last discovery has made me feel better about my history, and my future. And maybe, since I am inextricable from my country no matter how far I go, this says something about my country’s history and future as well. Who knows? All I can say for certain is that a voyage is worth it if you discover something new about yourself.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Monday, October 12, 2009
Monday, October 5, 2009
This statement came from someone who was sitting safely on the 9th floor of their condominium unit while the rest of the metropolis was wading in flood waters that destroyed their homes, claimed lives of their loved ones and swept away their dreams, their past, their years of toil.
My initial reaction was to write a comment "so what are you still doing here in the first place?"
We do not need a nation of whiners, those who cannot see beyond the comfort of their airconditioned houses, treading the paved main roads with their newly bought shoes, carefully steering clear of the mud along the side roads. In situations like this, we need people who can rebuild their lives and make it better and not bring down those who are toiling to make it so.
Today, the rest of the people who were affected by the storm came to office after one week of trying to restart their lives again. Tales of heroism during times of adversity, small acts of kindness surface again and again.
People who reach out to strangers, and attempt to share whatever they can give, and who prefer to remain in the shadows of anonymity, not the politicians who stamp their names on relief goods and have their pictures taken for media to pounce on.
The people whose lives were severely affected but who can now smile and laugh and say "ganun eh" and continue to move on because they know they can.
Those who learned from their experience and vowed to make a change no matter how small it is.
These are the true souls who make a life worth living and a nation worth rebuilding. Not the people like the facebook user who announces to the world the narrow-mindedness of her view and the callousness of her soul.
-- Sent to this blog by my sister in Manila
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Monday, August 24, 2009
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Friday, August 7, 2009
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Monday, August 3, 2009
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Saturday, August 1, 2009
Cory Aquino misunderstood all this – she herself just wanted to get back to normalcy, i.e. bring things back to where they were before the Marcoses looted the country – just as we all misunderstood her. She was no politician, thank goodness. She was, possibly, a yurodivyi in the Dostoevsky sense, until we told her to be smart, and she tried. For despite her stubbornness, she was a political blank slate. Every faction knew this and wrote its own self-serving agenda on her. When she began speaking on behalf of one or the other, we blamed it on her, not on the people who were using and re-creating her.
We wanted Cory Aquino to be strong so we could remain passive. We wanted her to save us so we could refuse to save ourselves. She was there so we could continue the infantile neurosis that has always sustained the Philippines’ need for a “guiding” power – God or a dictator, choose your daddy – and has always justified its corruption and poverty. She was, as so many predicted during the heyday of the people power revolution, our Joan of Arc. We knew we would burn her for allowing us to corrupt the vision we wanted her to sustain. We forgot so soon that she had achieved what no man in our supremely machismo-obsessed country had done – to get rid of the Marcoses. For that alone, we should be grateful. If the Philippines never rose from the “long nightmare” after she took over the presidency, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Friday, July 31, 2009
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Saturday, June 27, 2009
is a quarter before midnight.
It looks dead from the ground up,
a single withered stick.
Then opens gently,
like the luna flower.
It bursts with all the radiant loneliness
of the desert,
a shock of moonlight that pulses
only once a year,
when you least expect it,
when you’ve forgotten
the pungent scent of grief.
Reina de la noche
covers the arid valley
from here to the moon.
They open their mouths
like fish in water,
sucking in the dry air.
Their small tongues
are smeared with silver.
Such beauty can never last.
The best time to listen to sorrow
is anytime if you are
in the desert.
You can listen to it
in the just intonation
of summer, when everything
is one music, seamless and slow.
I like to press my ear against
your sternum, I like to hear life
being pumped all over you.
I like the way the sage
is always silent
and full of healing,
if we only knew.
It’s not like here,
in this shitty apartment,
where sorrow yells in your ear
and all you hear
is your heart opening and closing,
and only because
it’s supposed to.
I can live with sorrow
all day without you.
I’ve gotten good
at making it feel at home.
I think I will get even better
tomorrow, and the day
I will be so good I will have
rivals, I will evoke such envy.
I will wear it around my neck,
the way those pimps
wear a viper sometimes,
just to show they’re somebody,
just to show they’re special and mean.
I can live without you
sometimes, I can feel your name
scratched into my heart
Someone must have left it there
in the dead of night,
when no one was looking.
I swear it wasn’t me.
If there’s a best time to eat sorrow
it must be now,
when your hunger gnaws so deep
it feels like having a soul.
You can let it take over you
like the spirit
the shaman wakes
with a single drum.
You can turn it into poetry
or religion, whatever
is easier to swallow.
Either way it remains
what it is,
a slow, elusive bloom
that opens your body up,
and you can’t help staring
at the dead light streaming
the dead waking the living
with these small revelations.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Elle craint Avril plus que tout, ce moment où la mousson
étouffe le peu de dévotion qui reste entre nous. J’en veux
à la mousson, pas à elle. Depuis Sarawak
quand il longe la côte sud ouest, l’air empeste le cardamome,
la laitance de crabe, les cadavres. Des soldats bombardent Pikit,
trois mille réfugiés musulmans affluent
dans les églises chrétiennes. L’ironie ne la frappe pas qui veut
que nous finissions toujours par soigner ceux
que nous maltraitons le plus. Elle est couchée sur le lit telle ma
république battue par le vent et la pluie, trop triste pour réagir
à la médiocrité de mon étreinte, à ce que ma jouissance
vienne ou trop vite ou trop lente. Vous pourriez croire que j’invente
mais elle m’a dit ce matin : L’argent
est le plus bel objet du monde.
Elle cherche à croire en quelque chose,
un au-delà de l’évidence trop claire, trop proche
pour être vue. Cher Eric , écrit-elle, je ne me précipite vers toi
que lorsque je suis sur le point de me désagréger.
L’été aux tropiques est un long carême, tout de repentir
et de résurrection, et il me rend malade. Elle colle ses pouces
dans les stigmates secs de croûtes de mes mains, sans douleur.
Elle me dit que l’on n’échappe pas à la guerre. Il faut bombarder
quelques villes si l’on veut la paix. Si nous avons des enfants
ils seront neuf sur dix qui jamais ne conjugueront le futur.
Pour quelque raison elle trouve cela réconfortant .
Lorsqu’elle est ainsi couchée, en position fœtale, un bras déplié,
contact avec mon visage, elle me rappelle le cap
extrême nord des Sulawesi. Elle me l’a montré une fois
sur la carte : une île jungle presque de forme humaine,
grouillante de terreur, incroyablement pauvre.
Traduit de l’anglais par Anne Latour et Branko Aleksic
Monday, May 11, 2009
and I said it was because of
anti-matter. It’s because I have
x-ray vision or think I do
and the skeletons drive past
in their invisible automobiles
and I am not scared,
I drink the full red grapes
right off the vine, the women
from Guangzhou are counting
all the fish massacred at four o'clock,
and somewhere in the night
God exists in his own mind,
counting the quarks left over
from all the revelations,
true or false. I pray to this space
that opens before me, wider
than my soul can carry.
And in the dark I dream
about nothing, I evolve
into orangutans, my mind wrapped
in the silence before words
before illogic. I am primitive
therefore, I don’t know the signals
for love, I refuse the dress code,
I check in when I want to,
I have an open ticket.
Inside out the world makes sense
but only if you don’t live in it,
the spoons bending in the smallness
of non-space, language useless,
desire absurd. You say evil
and I say no, you say in emptiness
is where you’ll find it and I say
x is not x, my anger is for
all of you, all the self-delusion.
It is not pity, it is real, it cuts me
straight through. I can see behind
the glass. I can stick my hand in
and not feel a thing.
I can fly over the broken world
and never touch ground.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
Sunday, April 26, 2009
You take the Acela
while I take the downtown B.
The stations will be packed.
This story has grown old.
Still I will close gently,
and let the credits scroll.
It will be torrid in the 80s.
The cold hearts glisten
in the waiting room.
The instructions will be simple.
On a clear night
in La Silla, Chile,
a goatherd looking for a lost kid
will look up to find
a mirror of the earth,
twice as big, double
all the sorrow,
all the epiphany.
I cannot hurt you any more
than I can hurt you.
There are secret wars
that need to be investigated.
You were never
here, you were the space
I was lost in, the light years
spun from a web between now
You were my nowhere.
The fade-out will not kill me
or you. We will remember
all or nothing.
Someone’s bound to discover
and for a moment
hope will return,
and longing. If I knew
what I really wanted,
I would let you know.
If I knew what to search for
here, all the wrong moves,
all the enigmas. Or there, among
Maybe we can count on it,
a better world,
bigger, faster, double
all the promise. If I knew
it would make a difference,
I would let you know.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Saturday, April 18, 2009
I am building a rampart around you.
You have no idea this is happening.
All the world’s unhappiness
pools in the souls of people around you.
They don’t know what’s going on.
Their frazzled bodies corrode
from the inside out. They douse themselves
with cologne. I can tell who’s who.
I can tell the ones whose words
are toxic waste, whose eyes shine
with hate. I have brought the mortar
and the ammunition.
I have rolled out all the trebuchets.
This will be a battle between them
and me. I am your superhero,
secret, full of love so general
and abstract you don’t see it
in the frame. I am flying over you.
My shadow falls on your face.
The city is a dark place to live in.
All this is alien to me.
I don’t understand the cruelty.
The snide remarks. The false pity.
The walls are invisible now.
The rocket will barely miss you.
You will not be hurt.
Your heart will never be broken.
This is not a vow. This is a matter
of fact, because I will not fail.
The bullet will rip
into the very nucleus of me.
I will let it smash
all my atoms, crash into my heaven,
shatter the imperceptible jewels.
No one will defeat you.
I will lay down the earth
and all its imperfection
beneath you. And I will watch you
in your sleep. As though
you were not yet born.
As though the earth were still
open and forgiving,
and ready to receive you.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Friday, April 10, 2009
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Monday, March 30, 2009
Sunday, March 29, 2009
endures. Three and a half centuries later
the stream of sorrows no longer flows
along Mission Dolores.
The grieving mother’s heart hangs
over the nave, pierced through
with swords for every possible hurt,
even the most mysterious,
visible, maybe, only to angels.
As for the angels, the Ohlone
must be among them now not because
they ascended but because they swiped
heaven off the sky and brought it
closer, ceiling-high, reachable
and real. And what is God
if not the God of baskets, corn,
brick and mud. Whoever watches over us
is the one we adore. Above me,
from the choir, The Gift of Finest Wheat
is still unfinished, every note a ladder
to perfection. There are seven sorrows
the heart must suffer.
Bereavement, because it fills the soul
yet works alone. Longing,
which makes the body weak.
Distance, the light years between
eye to eye, body to body,
soul to soul. Time, which turns
all mourning into silence.
Silence, the heart’s way
of reading the world. Death,
which devours the smallest
whisper. And love, which wraps
around it like a stream. There are many ways,
each one a lifetime’s breadth
and an inch away. The heart
is the toughest muscle, the blade
cuts through and meets not resistance
but surrender, which makes the heart strong.