CROSSING THE STREET WITH MOTHER
Holding her close
to say good bye every weekend
I feel her eighty-two year old lightness,
bones delicate as her thin cotton dresses.
Yet every night over the phone she regales me
of her forays into shopping malls, alone;
her encounters with shopkeepers in Kalentong,
pickpockets seated across her in jeepneys.
I still fear her peremptory voice, the rattan rod
she wields, even as she holds on to me tightly
as we cross Shaw Boulevard, her walking pace
as measured as these roles we persistently play.
She cooks her different ways of chicken---
adobo, jamonado, stuffed with lemon grass,
steamed. Every Friday she asks me, how do you
like the chicken cooked? I tell her not to strain herself.
We take her out to Sunday lunch, and she
hardly eats. She wants nothing of this eating out
when she can cook better, and yet I see how she goes
about the kitchen now, handling cleaver and knives.
These days when I see her white hair, bright eyes
(both lenses new, post-cataract surgery), I let out
a little hope that she might have learned to see me,
no longer the girl who said “no” to her every request.
And because crossing this street is a task
she dreads, I hook an arm around her waist, and she
reaches out to catch my hand. We are not in a hurry.
The other side of the road seems no nearer.
I inhale the scent of her hair, wishing to tell her
we can walk on like this longer, longer than she
can hold me, as we mold fragility closer: her rebukes
silenced, and my own heart, hushed.
for August M.
Hovering over fringes of sleep
images skitter like water bugs
on the mind’s surface.
Within the water’s depths, Wu,
the nothingness, is understood
as simply being in the moment,
flowing, like the smooth movement
the shoulder makes, as the foot,
malleable as dawn, pivots
to an empty position.
Koans become clear as summer rain.
Lightning flashes, cymbals
announce the coming of warriors.
Nothing seems impossible,
as body hurtles through push
and pull of wakefulness,
birdsong winding its melody
around fluttering lids,
the mind seeing what it sees,
because in a second
the moment is gone.
LEMON MERINGUE PIE
We assemble pie pan, bowls,
measuring cups, aluminum sifter,
spoons, spatulas ---a mise en scène
she began forty-eight years ago.
Graham crackers are crushed
accretions of long silences
we tamp into smoothness
lining this Teflon pan.
Knobby hands scrape lemon peel
for zest. When had her joints
become so large, the fingers
As the crust bakes I put flour,
butter, sugar, eggs, juice and zest
into the blender. Above the din
she exclaims how different it was
during her time, when custards
were mixed by hand.
Smoother curd, she insists,
as Oster blades cut though
sweet tartness, or tart sweetness
whichever is predominant today,
fear and willfulness mingling,
two women in so many ways similar,
yet loathe to see their own selves
in the other.
Giving in to her wishes I whisk
egg whites for meringue with a fork,
the bantering between us light,
soft peaks rising. Teaspoon
by slow teaspoon she adds
sugar, poking a finger into the bowl
and puts frosting into her mouth
and chin. We laugh aloud,
mirth reaching out across
this expanse liberally strewn
The room explodes with smells
of baking pie. In the oven,
perfect swirls turn golden brown.
CLOUD HANDS IN CALERUEGA
It should be a torso movement,
the Tai Chi master said,
never only the hands.
I raise one arm, elbow gently flexed,
open palm before my eyes,
while the other arm comes down
in a gentle arc of shaping the wind.
Last night’s storm dampens
bare soles, the smell of moist earth
mingling with wood smoke,
the air quiet but for birdsong.
Turning slowly to the right
my eyes catch low clouds
settling halfway down the mountains,
slopes gentled by morning sun.
Look at Infinity and be aware of the Now.
Right, then left; up,
and down; the mountain fog
seems to echo my movements:
Who is following whom?
The answer lies in the Nothing.
It is enough to be here, be one
with the mists, the pearl-gray skies;
to move and yet
CALLE LOPEZ DE HOYOS, 66
One day I shall remember this:
the stillness of a late afternoon
in Prosperidad, an affluent district
twelve minutes by subway train
from el centro de Madrid;
the sudden shuffle of feet
and voices from the next apartment;
the sun, still high at six thirty,
shining through ivory-colored lace curtains,
reflecting the six-story yellow whiskey advertisement
from across the street.
Stretched out in the living room divan
I am cocooned, shoulder to toe,
in your eider down blanket,
its dainty gold feather prints silky
in the coolness of early spring.
Ian McEwan's Amsterdam is on the shaggy carpet,
Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, too, half-read,
stories on journeys half-finished,
characters undone in passion and grief.
Glancing at the clock on your wooden bookcase
crammed with volumes in Castillan,
I realize it is time to prepare dinner;
my sense of the present all askew
because of the sunlight, and all loathe
to leave the softest of feather downs,
your roof above my head.
“Una Furtiva Lagrima” drifts in from the window
(song, and the smell of fried onions)
which opens into an airy central courtyard
where shirts and sheets stir in the clotheslines.
Padding around the kitchen in my cloth slippers
I wash the jasmine rice purchased in Tetuan,
measure the exact amount of water.
I can almost hear your keys
at the back door, clattering; your voice
singing, "Hola! I smell rice, cooking!"
I shall remember April in Madrid like this:
day bright at seven in the evening, early spring
bringing a soft edge to waiting, a blurring
of distances, and rice cooked to perfection.
Where do we walk today, you ask,
spreading out a city map
creased and partly torn.
In these afternoon peregrinations
we discover late spring:
red tulips and marigolds
displaying Spain’s colors,
chestnut trees in flower,
maples; mosaic façade
of ABC building, or even
the man-phoenix figure
crowning an insurance edifice.
With you, one is a child again,
in that city by the Guimaras Strait.
Images are freeze-framed:
of you and Father laughing,
voices ringing out above
long concrete stairs leading
to photographic studio,
former home that now
houses the skeleton
of a shopping mall.
Thirty years lost between us:
we need a map, surely.
How could the decades
have unfolded as they did,
surprising us at every bend,
our paths converging, deviating,
opening, ending at intersections
more complex than Metro signs
at the rotunda of Gregorio Marañon?
Don’t lose your way now,
you say with a laugh,
knowing how in this place,
and space, one could easily get lost:
missing a train transfer
at Plaza de Castilla or losing
one’s bearings at the flowered
roundabout of Marquis de Salamanca,
body and as readily, heart: running
breathless, on edge,
loathe to keep you waiting.
We decipher street signs with care,
as Calle Miguel Angel opens
into sunshine dappled
through the canopy of elms
lining Paseo de la Castellana.
(after a visit to Lunghou, Chinkiang, China)
I meet her eyes shyly
half-afraid of seeing
Will, she, even for a moment
wish, that the thousand li
could be breached by this
stranger of a granddaughter
speaking in a halting tongue
the language of a common forebear?
I kiss her cheek
and she is taken aback.
This intimacy a surprise,
a gesture most alien to her,
and she pulls herself up
to seemingly tighten her cloak
of imperiousness around her
protectively even as my spirit
strains and reaches out to her.
I watch silently, wide-eyed,
as blood surges and boldly
speaks out with sureness
even as I falter in speech,
feeling this oneness with her,
this delicately-stooped grandmother,
bound to the earth in her
small, small feet.
I feel this kinship, mute
but irrevocable, as we sit
together and gaze out into the
rows of spindly trees bereft now
of leaves, as the cold and icy
blasts of wintry wind
from the Lung Lake make me
burrow into my unsubstantial coat.
is a continual flow
in the soliloquy we weave
In Memoriam: Ángel Crespo
In this coffee shop I await my flight home.
Trying out the latinate words in today’s
El Pais, I roll the erres, exaggerate the jotas.
But the utterances ring hollow in a shadowed
stage, a monologue of “Who could he be,
this man who turns my life inside out?”
(conjugated in the futuro simple, you said).
For weeks on end, I mangled reflexives,
tortured infinitives, adjectives tussled
with adverbs, discordant, each entangling
the other like carnelian beads at the Quetzal
exhibit near the fountains of Plaza de Colón.
Amidst the bustle of Barajas I remember
that afternoon when we read silences of Mayan
hieroglyphics, touched funeral urns and jaguar
masks above altar stones. Obsidians, like black
teardrops, glinted inside lighted cabinets,
and men with steeple-shaped heads faced death.
In my valise, your silence lies heavy. In any
language, distance is the shadow we embrace,
in the soliloquy that we translate, day after day.
LA TIA JULIA IN FEZ EL-BALI
Shouts of “Batica!,” or, “¡Cuidado! ¡Burro!”
ring out. Pedestrians flatten themselves
against walls as laden donkeys sway past,
their tails swishing through labyrinths
of forking lanes and cul-de-sacs.
The smell of cured leather, rich and earthy,
lures us into this souq. From the tanneries
the small wind carries the odor of raw pelts
soaked in vats of green liquid, wheat husks,
pigeon dung, and chemical dyes.
We crowd around Abdul, the Moroccan guide,
who speaks accented Spanish. His gold brocade
djellabah rustles softly as he gestures, his feet
encased in yellow babouches with curled-up toes.
He tells us of his university thesis on Llosa.
Gladys and Nelly from Montevideo speak fast
in Spanish, something I cannot quite catch,
except for the title of one of Llosa’s novel:
“La Tia Julia y el escribidor.”
Was it true then, Mario and his aunt…?
Marlene from Bógota relates how a telenovela
in her country was based on this novel.
Graciela from Mexico City, Dolores
And Juana from Barcelona nod their heads.
I grope for the correct Spanish conjugation.
From Llosa’s Arequipa, Peru to Fez indeed,
is a long journey. But longer the route
each one must have taken, simply to be together
at this moment, to talk about their own Aunt Julia:
soap opera to real life and back.
Here in the bowels of the medina voices rise
above the redolence. We crush hierbabuena leaves
against our noses: six middle-aged women
held together by their fascination
for an eighteen-year old’s indiscretion.
On the twelfth lunar month the moon
is full, and a song learned in childhood
has become a festival of lights
by the riverbank.
I become one of the lithe figures, svelte
and smooth skinned, ensheathed in gold
lame. Kneeling by the water’s edge,
I set sail a heart-shape flower boat
of woven banana leaves, lit by saffron-
colored candles, perfumed with incense,
wild orchids, and a lock of hair entwined
In this land where three New Years
are celebrated every year, where one
is doused with water in fun and celebration
in April, and sky trains above grid-locked
buses have eased travel to flea markets
vending songket cloth and pewter tankards
with handles shaped like elephant trunks,
tonight. The river throbs with a thousand
flames on floating crafts that fill the eyes
with lighted wishes. Water shimmers
with reflected desires, witness to this sailing
of krathongs, as the night air whispers
distances only passion could translate,
ordaining journeys only flower boats
DANCING IN THE RAIN
In our minds, the music goes on.
Here at the Plaza de Cibeles,
under a gibbous moon half- hidden
by rainclouds, we sway and stop,
sway and turn, a studied ritual
of steps and embraces, silhouetted
against the fertility goddess
and ivory columns.
Raindrops sting as we sway and stop,
sway and turn, a Latin rhythm that
makes us hold on to each other,
but as too soon break free.
My L’Temps d’Nuit mingles
with your scent, a tower bell
Where I come from, bells
in churches ring tonight
to signal the start of dawn masses
until Christmas. How far away
they seem, celebrations that mark
a childhood replete with rituals.
But here, touching your damp shirt
(is it the rain? your perspiration?)
I kick off stilettos and old fears.
Bristles on your arm singe
gooseflesh on my bare shoulders.
We sway and stop, sway and turn,
pulsing, throbbing, cadenza of song
scorching our skins, rain pouring
in this corner of Paseo del Prado.
ON SEEING THE GUERNICA AT THE
CENTRO DE ARTE REINA SOFIA
Its immensity stuns.
Human beings, or whatever is left of them,
have mouths all agape---in agony, in despair,
in extreme grief. The horse, galloping on two hooves,
shows a sharp blade sliding out of its tongue.
Only the dead infant seems oblivious to it all,
lying limply in its mother’s arms, its eyes closed,
a small sad smile on its lips: A Pieta silhouetted
on a bull’s torso, a palimpsest on a half-sphinx.
Here a hand clutches a flower, a dagger;
there, sharp teeth crunch a torso.
A stake thrust into the belly of the steed
disembodies fingers, horns; blood flows,
the salt seeps through whimpers, shrieks
and stomping feet; the doors
that might have opened to sunlight
They leap, dance, eddy, grow, diminish,
black and white shapes vertiginous,
coming to life as one gazes and
makes sense of how it must have been
for this simple village, plundered senseless,
The crowd silently files out of the Sofia
into a noontime of spring rain, umbrellas unfurled.
Calle Isabel smells of damp earth, the sky
a granite gray. Back home, an upheaval
not unlike the mural, unfolds: tens of thousands
had again massed on that large avenue
where the Lady stands enshrined in brass.
Footages showed the disgruntled, the unshaven,
surging forward, as if by sheer numbers
they can topple a newly installed government.
Those who are far watch silently, but they, too,
hear the screams, the crunch of broken bones,
and smell the cordite of gunfire.
Towards the Paseo del Prado, stragglers
of a full marathon reach the finishing line
amidst funfair of confetti, a crescendo of applause,
cheers, laughter, ambulance sirens and policia cruisers
under the steady rain: three men and two women,
their hands raised, limping, exultantly waving to the crowd.
Framed by rows of acacia trees
ancient as gray skies, the fountain
at Pintor Sorolla is seen from a distance
through the chill that shrouds this corner
of Martínez Campos and Zurbano.
Because the yellow leaves are silent
about leave-takings the afternoon instead
darkens prematurely at five.
Icy whiffs bring showers of ochre,
sprays falling to the ground in whispers,
like things softly sensed, felt,
unthought of, but real. In this quiet street
fall creeps up on fools faltering in their faith,
catching them unawares in this season
of misty metamorphoses.
Blaise was right, after all.
Reason may bring a little certitude,
probabilities that one can put bets on,
but premises can be no truer
than syllogisms in a noumenal world,
because the heart, hushed,
knows what it will miss:
laughter beneath autumn skies,
scent of after-shave, crunch of leaves
beneath walking shoes, and passion
that rational thinking can never refute.
November afternoons, breaking up
into vignettes of paseos amidst swirling
leaves, scoff at cosmic wagers:
at one glance, bare trees and unpeopled
side streets, and at a second, the odds
stacked fully for all dreams and desires.
but to the keenest of eyes,
a lapse in stitching lies
along border of folk art fractur:
two pheasants in a mating dance
above sunflowers and apricot seeds,
feathers spun in cinnamon gold,
terra cotta, and willow green.
The embroiderer could have
remembered how the gods
deemed perfection only
for themselves, deities who
could do no wrong, and how,
when mortals dared the absolute
they were turned into toads, or trees,
or forever silenced as mountain tarns
in the deepest of woods.
Or, lost in an exquisite world
envied by divine beings,
the artist might have been
so beguiled by the autumn
wind, so moved by the hand
that caressed her cheek, pallid
after words of endearment.
She knows that faultless things
must be hidden from prying eyes,
the heart be quiet, ensconced
in muted fire, while fingers
emblazon figures on ivory faille,
lisle shaping the sounds
of wingéd flight.
WITH WORDS(for Madeleine, who taught me the magic of sign language)
Because the sounds
were caged within
a voiceless void,
she speaks to me
of joy this morning
with eager gesticulations,
hands darting like sparrows.
Last night, draped
in starched sterile greens,
she clutched at straining bars
under the harsh lights
of an antiseptic cubicle
eerily quiet. It woke
to her small sharp screams.
Her waters broke
as a fuzzy head slid out
with its wet waxy vernix.
Her tears were sounds
scrabbling at the hollow
of my throat, bird wings
brushing against glass panes.
Today we look at each other
across this expanse of clean sheets,
laughter tumbling out of our
quick wrists: splayed fingers,
open palms. Her fingers
touch her heart, circle the air.
I hear the burst of wings.
Alice Sun-Cua Poet and physician, Dr. Sun-Cua is a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist at the San Juan de Dios Hospital and at the same time, a poet writing in English. She has published a collection of poetry, Charted Prophesies and other Poems (DLSU Press, 2001) which was short-listed by the Manila Critics Circle for the National Book Awards in Poetry in 2002. Her book of travel essays, Riding Towards the Sunrise (Anvil, 2000) won the National Book Award in 2001. She is a founding member of the ALON Poetry Collective, a group of DLSU alumni who meet regularly to workshop their poetry while continuing to foster camaraderie and support in their writing endeavors. In 2003, an anthology of their poetry, What The Water Said (Libro Agustino) was published, which won the National Book Award in 2004 for best in Anthology. In October of the same year, 2004, Gather This Voice: A Multilingual Poetry Anthology of the poems of renowned Orihuela poet-martyr Miguel Hernández, translated into six Philippine regional languages, was published. Dr. Sun-Cua was a poet-translator in the Hiligaynon panel. In 2002, she graduated with a diploma in the Superior Level (Nivel 18) from Instituto Cervantes de Manila and in 2007 passed the language proficiency (DELE) exams for the Intermediate Level given by the Ministry of Culture in Madrid. Since 2006, during the Spanish National Month (October) she participates actively by writing movie reviews of the Películas, a series of Spanish movies highlighting its culture and modern trends. She is now translating Las personas del verbo, a collection of Spanish poetry by Jaime Gil de Biedma with a grant from a cultural foundation in Madrid, working closely with Mr. Jóse Ma Fons Guardiola of the Instituto Cervantes, to be published by Vibal Publishing, in 2009. In 2008, Dr. Sun-Cua published her fourth book, The Transition Years: Perimenopause in Filipino Women, a study of perimenopause and its effects using a culturally-validated questionnaire, to good critical reviews.She speaks English, Chinese Mandarin, Fookienese, Spanish, Tagalog, Hiligaynon, and Cebuano, She is a regular panelist for the MFA Creative Program of DLSU, and her poetry is being published in the poetry sections of local magazines and international anthologies. She suffuses her literary work with the humanism that comes with daily encounters with her patients, their problems and suffering, melding literary art and medical science into one --- to share, to help, and ultimately, to heal.