National Artist for Literature Cirilo F. Bautista passed away on May 6, 2018. This suite of poems by Mr. Bautista was originally published in the August 2013 issue of High Life.
WORDS CIRILO F. BAUTISTA
The sign says, “You are here.” Right enough I am.
Where else would I be? I cannot be carrying
the world’s weight in sin across the Burmese jungles
or counting coins in Peshawar with my legs
rooted to the ground. Everything in the right
directions-the corridors, the halls, the spoon and fork,
the escalator rehearses the orderly mind
to find existence shining like a jewel, left, left,
round the corner. My slip-proof shoes follow the cadence
past Chinese clothes without heads and sad-eyed canines
in steel cages. I stop to pass my handkerchief
against my face. The juxtaposition has disturbed
my balance somehow: empty humans
and unhappy dogs disrupt life’s easy commerce
with values invisible, brand names
and discounted sales included. Fill in the form.
Contemplation repeats understanding,
even as a condition for high fashion,
and excellence defies mass production.
Speaking for myself, I do not like leather goods,
automatic watches, plastic wares,
and chocolate candies. Old and sick, I like the sound
my pants make as I limp across the floor-music
to my ears, the faint eternity.
If you ask me, dreams define the lost moments
of our life. They lurk under the subconscious,
memorizing their lines or reading a novel.
At sundown they swim to the surface to try their luck
at shaking any door open for exit upwards;
they must find the right time, though-the doors have a schedule.
The flower vendors in Brussels stimulate dreams
with tulips and red roses, while the surfers
in Boracay break the door open with angled twists
and level plops. When the night turns out well the dogs
whine at the porch without let up, dreams slip into
the kitchen to make coffee and plan
their itinerary. Lights dim in the neighborhood.
The highway hums with trucks bound for Aparri.
It is at this point that governments fall, that cars
are stolen from the garage of people eating lunch,
that a clerk marries her doctor, that a man finds
himself naked in a convention hall,
that another picks up golden coins from the street
endlessly, or a gangster is shot
inside a bank: anxiety drives the dreams
backwards in time and covers them in blinking brightness
as though to warn against an impending storm,
and things get cleared up for the clerk and the naked man
about the stories they are to lead, though the gangster
has to fend for himself. There is hardly any
structure here in the sense of entry and closure.
The plot occurs as it occurs, not the product
of probability or premeditation
but desire onrushing. That as a result
people stumble or rise in its wake remains
an exploitable proposition.
At seventy I have not seen an opera
to shake my sensibilities but I know
the rumbling anger or regret’s sweet sorrow.
Everything coming without signal but seemingly
connected, the rhythm being “lost and found,”
“now and then,” “young but foolish,” “ache and burn,”
all the tears and blood of a degutted existence.
You also have to listen to the silence
between dreams-there repose the answer to the divorce,
the corn crop burning, the heart pinned to a promise,
the empty water tank. Years later
you will understand why, seeing a man
emerge from a shoe store, you approach him
and say, “Haven’t I met you somewhere before?”
The Wedding Poem
Forgive me. I am not one for remembering.
Things fly in the dust clouds of my mind and stain
my memory. I stagger rather than walk,
my knees heavy and hardly flexible, there is
a dark spot in the corner of my eye.
And the storm came, felled the old tree which then leaned
against my neighbor’s roof, its long branches like arms
reaching for the sky. When they were chopping it down
I thought of the poem I was supposed to write
as a wedding gift to you. That was two years ago,
wasn’t it, in a chapel in Vancouver.
In the picture you were smiling like your bride
whom you adored, I heard. A pretty couple
you were, with a log cabin in the mountains
and all the stars to play with. I can hardly play
in this messed up country but I try to occupy
myself-reading, scrapbooks, writing narrative poems
the likes of which you have never seen. But the poem
for you, it simply slipped my mind. Besides, who am I
to write about love, hurt by its inconstancy?
I know how it feels walking through an empty room
searching for something lost, the smell of a kiss
or a hand full of flowers, asking, Are you there?
Are you there? She was never there. Sometimes I hear
answers, night noises breaking the stillness.
I write to fill in the abyss love created,
Dump words and feelings over it till it be compact
and firm, then I’d cross over it to the other side.
I’d like to tell you love is like that, a transport
to the possible, a renewal unto hope,
but if love is expended in the doing,
if nothing removes the dark, the stepping across
is groundless. The eagerness to live is gone.
Perhaps chance and temperature call attention
to child games and say, That is not love. Nothing
too easy is love, and you keep paying past
the deadline. Not to say I have not thought of you
all these years. I know you keep ducks fattened
for village feasts when steeple bells are rung all morning.
I know you have a daughter-your spitting image-
now learning to walk. I wanted to tell you, Hey,
be careful! That’s Chinese porcelain. And I almost
had a seizure when the brushfire got close
to your cabin last summer. Somebody settling
A score with the world, I thought, truth against nature,
no less intense than love against love. No problem
if you’re at home with it, with the planets
and galaxies and heartbreak wounds, you can repel
and compel and still get the picture a-right,
for the meaning roots in time and lunacy
where all things meet. Too bad she left you after
all the wedding candles and promises,
after you had thought the world held you in its favor.
You’ll be the stronger for it. You’ll have wings.
I want to know what others are doing
when I’m not looking. So many things happening
in the world and I’m just one part of it.
My luggage sits fat in the small closet, quiet
and ready to drag itself anywhere. But this
is my home, though it is not my home, between
the mountains and the surging sea. From the bus
things look fresh like a newly-printed photograph,
fine-grained and color-sharp-the pale scrubbed faces
eye me curiously not knowing what to say
to a brown immigrant from the East, trees stand
on both sides of the road, straight and vigilant,
the cows look at the vehicle suspiciously.
I am somewhere outside my skin, my new language
grates in my mouth like little stones. When I ask for meat
in the butcher’s shop I have to say it twice
and even then with gestures to make my meaning clear-
Say it again, they say, very kind but impatient,
when I hesitate between the spaces
of an articulation, but how can I?
The stones shift often and the pigeons distract my mind,
hundreds of them swirling upwards when the shooting
started, several men chopped down by machine gun fire,
fear frozen on their faces. I held the curses
foaming in my throat. That was when I took the boat
for the rendezvous to France. How can I tell that
To these people who want to wrap me in their language?
I am something they cannot order through the post
and read on a summer day when the sprinkler goes
haywire and scares the dogs, nor a proposition
they can discuss in Sunday school. For the present,
move the reel backwards-the birds are roosting in the eaves,
the bronze general rides easy on his horse,
not drawing his sword-then forward, Abandon
Hall of Justice and assume ambush position!
And now is now. A shaping silence.
History forestalled. A republic in anguish.
I walk to the cold square where the citizens
exchange gossips about the world, I salute
them in their innocence, each of them,
and try not to roll the stones in my mouth too much.