Cirilo F. Bautista, National Artist for Literature.

Art and War

When I look at abstract art and think of the dead
in the war in Iraq, things even out
considerably, even if the firework
is heavy on this or that side. They seem to stick
to the same color, for one, like red encircled
by black by which is meant a focal site—
you have to keep terror on the impersonal
plane—and blood a mere daub to brighten
a setting sun. From then you build an equation,
I mean a flashing of bones or a refit
of perspective however you might feel
at a given time. For another, you see
that abstract art abhors a vacuum—it likes
to fill what could be filled with bottles, forks,
a two-faced woman, a curlicue on what looks like
a crow pecking at an apple—sometimes crawling
to the edges of the frame—that’s how full tone
it is, or can be, you can even coat a man
with blue over and over again, a shining
skin, as if he has just emerged from a cave
of dirt and cannot be faulted for it,
or a tin soldier on leave from the desert
with real wounds on his chest. Art tastes like oil slick,
war collects the signatures of skeletons.
The wisdom is in knowing that war honors
a backroom compact and art suffers from
righteousness. You agree to flatten a mountain town,
you do it, short of massing the color wheel
and staining reason. The birds come in the morning
arranging the landscape. The brush captures
the way they work in the fields of combat, the exact
sense of fear they put in shrubs and fallen trees
and you can almost hear the shouts of panic
and the groan of pain, then silence covers
the canvas. But after the body count
and sheen of varnish, the carnage dances
in books and public places. War makes art
responsible for clean-shaven faces
and art makes war obsolete—soldiers in exile
in sun-drenched islands with nothing to do.
That’s what bothersome in the equation, as though
life could stand still and dark is not the opposite
of bright. It’s not easy to see from a moving
platform the condition of approaching objects,
you can almost die trying and most times you do.
Best to sit on the bench and let the images
whirl before your eyes, whirl and whirl until
the security man claps his hands
and says, “Closing time!” and turns off the light.

Concerning Poetry

It’s nothing different from starting at words
and tracing the path they take from certain rootedness
to shaky flight, and where they might roost the houses
look truncated pushing ships on a green sea.
The door is a verb of passage to a room
awaiting a feather to drop on the bed.
Will that do? Will that tear the universe apart
for a new order, say of sentences
recitable backwards, each letter with a wing
or, because it is a dark rainy day,
of love as constant as a baker’s dough?
The strange ceases to rebuke the mind familiar
with royal tricks in long halls with poisoned rings
or feigned passion to inaugurate a dynasty.
Nor deflect the heart from the single concern
of trading gold buds for the harvest moon.
It is not a box with secret boxes in it,
this articulation, crawling from doubt to doubt,
but a fixity that may jump anywhere without
losing balance. How strong becomes the weakness
it kisses, how clear-seeing the blind.
And the end always sways to music, orchestral
or by two guitars, focal or peripheral,
always. Sometimes the words come without your asking,
obedient, full-bodied for a tillage without
condition of time, only the careful touch you give
the heirloom crystals and a gypsy’s fortune cards.

All the Seasons

In Persian, “Paradise” is a “wallled garden”:
that is nice to know if you’re at ease with death,
with the thrill of bluebirds early in the morning
and with the stone with your name polished  to a sheen,
and flowers will shake your thought
which leaps from color to color,
from corner to corner. But it takes more than vines and creepers
to stir the seeds. To exist or not to exist is beyond Paradise
when things remain the same,
edgewise or central, the lack of something or the fullness of something
one and the same, nature beating its breast
and saying, “It’s me again.”
Indeed the hummingbird and the butterfly hover over the stillness
of repetition—Is that to say, too,
that a mistake cannot be corrected?
Like an ant that rises again and again from the crushing
Of your thumb, does a lie return to haunt you?
Never again to the sweetness of herbs, to the bud of the lotus,
to the straight protrusion of the grass will nature confer
the splendid form that danced  with creation.
A part of it decorates the brook with the gold fish outswimming
your thought, crawls along the silent letters on the hanging grills
whose fretworks support roses.
And what do we do with the petals on the ground?
Nothing. They do not fall. In the garden the mind outpaces time
and clings to supposition—you study the stars
to find the site of a scent, the squeak of a chameleon
to see a changing sunset, and what happens to your passion—
which cannot pass through the gate—
will bring it close to where it started, but never to end,
water dripping on parched earth, and when the ear catches the sound
there will emerge a night equal to all the seasons, to all the stars.

Do You Like Vic Damone?

First there must be an evening with the moon
in it brightest swaying over the sea,
then a man in the veranda watching the details,
a cigarette burning between his fingers
but he does not know that: this picture in black and white,
the edges where water and light meet
break in curly motion
to repeat the ageless longing and regret,
then the trumpets and cymbals kicking,
and then there’s Vic Damone
on the record player,
who aligns the planets for star-crossed lovers
and makes things stick together, the honey
and the bitter lemon, the loss and the gain.
If you like Damone you know the surname
of passion is anything a kiss has not touched
And must touch.
Be neither a flamethrower
Nor a flowerboy but scale a mountain to get
a finger stone that will flare with the sun.
Damone creeps into your dreams
after reworking the romance of forgiveness
and arranges the setting of desire
in a house where things are correct and alive:
the door’s unlocked and the stars are where they should be.