Excerpts from the As-Yet Unfinished Poetic Sequence Into the Earth
Count the Steps
Oro: Ten from the path up to the front porch, and another twelve leading to the second floor
Plata: lost in the fire. The attic is now nonexistent except in the pictures.
Mata: Find me here.
What Do You Know Of Stories
The Don had this mansion made for his wife
and thirteen children, but this fountain was not here
when the Japanese came. You ask me
how I know: were you there when this mansion
was burning? I say nothing--
I read it on a sign somewhere here.
We sit on the Carnegie belvedere. I watch you
watch the water arc over the sun now balanced
on the tip of a stalk of sugar cane, the weight
of all the light in this field on a shaft
that a bolo has just now felled. You run your hands
over the etchings on the pillar beside you
without thought. They say the Don had to mix thousands
of raw eggs’ whites into the cement to make these
walls smooth. I would tell you what I think
but I know what you would say. Now the farmhands
gather the sugar cane to load into the back of a truck,
and the fountain rustles on, the water runs the sun through,
splashing light on your dress, splashing water on
everything else. Let me tell you what I think:
I think tourists smoothed these walls,
running their hands over them over and over
looking for something they couldn’t find
in the rest of the house: another fault, another story,
maybe more signs. Someone I don’t know somewhere
shuts the fountain down. The truck passes;
the crunching gravel is new here,
and how would I know except if I’d been
here before, you asked me how I knew.
Now the fountain spits out a last jet,
and the water now rises and
falls in slow motion,
the sun now resting on nothing, hanging
in the sky, pulling everything up with its rays;
except the canes, still fallen, and the farmhands,
still bowing to pick up what another struck down,
I know what you’ll say--
but lie down right there. Don’t mind the dust.
Look at how these etchings
become M’s facing each other, the initials
of the Don and his wife, forming two roofs of houses
turned on their sides.
Perhaps if you keep feeling their edges like that
then someday their names will be
smoothed as well.
As when the Japanese, who heard stories
of a mansion made of stone and hard
wood in the middle
of a cane field,
a mansion so vast that it could house
four hundred strong
if they slept
with one entrance and enough space
and the war flag;
and upon finding the building completely incinerated
and roofless, except for the pillars of stone;
so my grandfather, telling that story,
recounting with fervor how
as a boy, listening in from
the field, and himself
knowing a bit of that foreign tongue,
heard the lieutenant let out a cry
of disbelief and vexation
and now, in his age, forgetting
the words that were
in that scream,
is himself frustrated
to no end--
and which one of us children,
was it, listening at his feet,
to the ghosts
What Do You Know of Stories
1 In 1935 President Quezon conferred upon General Douglas MacArthur: a gold baton and a state dinner.
2 Weapons of the Philippine arsenal.
3 Most Filipino dressmakers could copy dresses from just a picture without surrendering their sense of propriety. The Filipinos were so good at this that one tribe learned to weave their dreams; this was how General MacArthur’s new uniform was pieced together from talisay leaves.
4 This was how the Philippine flag was made.
5 Observe how this in turn is green-less.
6 God, how many of ‘em do you reckon there are?
7 You were right.
8 The more reasonable complaints that reached the Peninsula were answered
9 like this.
10 But you cannot do away with the apparel of sacristy,
11 in much the same way that the crowd of the Tagalog masses witnessed the death of three priests,
12 with only two-thirds of them martyred, statistically speaking.
13 in effect, sacrilege is a question of consensus.
14 All title and claim of title, which you may have had at the time of the conclusion of this article to any and all islands in memory lying outside the lines of
15 this poem, is ceded to history.
16 It is said that Corregidor was the last.
17 Elpidio Quirino once gave a speech. “There is something young men do not know. To tear a monkey from a tree you must lull it to sleep. Blow into its face gently.
18 and as its eyes close pry its fingers from the branch.”
19 A boy is old enough, but tonight it is his shift, there is cash at the gas station.
20 He is listening.
21 It is currently disputed, but some sources say he still is.
How could I forget. The tree was in the tower. Somehow the tree grew itself inside. As a spine. It watched the proceedings from this vantage point. But first a sapling at the window. Before that a seed shat from a bird. Now as a sapling watching the gardener wake up just before sunrise to trim the hedgerows. The bicycle vendor rides past. Runs his hands along the wrought-iron fence. Passes something to the gardener. The gardener passes something back. What this is cannot be seen at this point from this point. Perhaps an amulet or a stone travesty. A bullet. Something the size of a fist unfolds. An origami rose riddled with ink at the foot of the tower. A few branches later and the mansion is on fire. The townspeople watch from empty coffins stacked on roofs of square houses. One of them says a flood is coming. Swift and weightless. He takes a swig of brandy and throws the bottle at a bird’s nest. The bird rocking back and forth like a refinery of needs. A forest god sheds a tree for a tear somewhere. The disaster itself takes some time to get here. Paced by the speed of dull sound, the bird speaks. Tells you from the branch it is sitting on the true history of this tower. This history fits in a single speech. And this entire speech has been your birthright.
Ben Aguilar graduated with a degree in Health Sciences and a Minor in Creative Writing from the Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City. Currently taking up a degree in medicine at Xavier University – Jose P. Rizal School of Medicine, Cagayan de Oro City.