Life masquerading as art imitating machine error.
*Photo and edit by moi
Life masquerading as art imitating machine error.
*Photo and edit by moi
Malimit ang tawag ng tubig
Balik-balik ang alon
Ang luha ko ay dagat
Sa kalawakan ng papel
Bawat titik ay tulala
Ang hikbi ay bula
Sa kalaliman, kadiliman
Ang buhay ko ay anod
Bago ang unos
Akay ka ng daluyong
Ang tayutay na nagkatawang tao
Ang wangis ng lalim, ng dilim
Ang banayad, ang ragasa
Ang pag-ibig, ang tula
Ikaw ang dagat ko
*Para kay Paul
They’re memories, lilies in a stagnant mind
Feet weren’t stepped but left prints
Ripples in the air perfumed with sweat and the scent
Red Beijing, with women raven-haired
Shy eyes setting over ocean smiles
Their skin salmon pink or blue
Red Beijing, as in movies, touching
Is loving or fucking
Cigarettes as lanterns burning bright in starving mouths
Red Beijing as red lips seeking warmth
Women raven-haired and softly shedding
In some far away country that never was
Alive as ghosts in a dreaming mind
I have only kissed men who could only kiss me in the dark.
Not out of preference, of course, but these things
Happen. They are names
Inside a box I label “never look back”
Because the norms tell me that I am a slut
For playing with lips that other women have labeled “reserved.”
When I was in college, a man told me that he liked that I spoke French. It didn’t matter
That he didn’t understand.
He looked at me the way voyagers
Looked at the unexplored edges of maps.
And when he thought no one was looking,
He led me by the hand and marked my lips “charted.”
A man’s life is a continuous quest for terra incognita. It said so in all the books.
His wife waits for him to come home.
The first time a man branded me woman, he took off his pants but not his shirt.
His torso held a warning “only for my lover”
While I lied on his bed,
He looked at me the way Neil Armstrong looked at the moon, and whispered that I mattered.
Except in space, sound never learned to travel without air.
And if a word was not heard, would it have happened?
Armstrong’s ashes are scattered over the Atlantic.
Each time the moon waxes, it drags the waters closer and closer, but Armstrong
At night, my dreams are as vivid as Photoshopped pictures—
A policeman stops the traffic to make love to my lips in the open streets.
A priest calls my name at church and proceeds to fuck me on all fours in front of the whole flock.
On the radio,
Frank Sinatra is alive and is singing my name over and over and over. On the television,
Salvador Dali is young and says he
Is nothing without me.
Yes, sometimes I would take out the box of names and rip out the label.
Most women have photos and love letters in their shoeboxes, I
Have nothing but the memory of men on my skin, their smell long faded.
When they gave themselves to their lovers, they had nothing left for me to keep.
So I would put the label back,
“Never look back.”
I would turn off
The lights and assure myself that some people
Can only glow in the dark.
Today, I learned that the word “vagina” came from the Latin word for “sheath.” The term was first recorded in 1682, while its counterpart, the mighty “penis” was first used in 1668. But before you imagine that penis came from the Latin word for “sword,” let me assure you that it did not. It came from the Latin word for “tail.”
I cannot say why this is so. I do not know why the vagina was named in relation to the penis, while the penis stands on its own (pun very much intended). All I can tell you is that to me, it sounded unfair that the mother of the universe was named as an afterthought to the cock. Sheaths are, after all, consequences of the blade, suggesting that vaginas were thought of then as mere scabbards to the all-conquering penises. And what does that say about me as a woman?
No, I have not the least intention of turning this discussion into a feminist rant. All I want to share with you is the power that names, ultimately words, hold over our thinking. You can tell a lot about a person’s background once you ask him the story of his name. You can learn more about a culture should you study its language. Names and words, basically anything you can spell, communicate more than they are generally thought to. The beauty of language is in its being the most effective tool for expression.
Consequently, my love affair with words leads me to the thinking that who I am is a matter of words. I am a name, a gender, an animal species. I am a combination of overlapping nouns and contrasting adjectives. I use words to present myself and other people use words to deal with and relate to me. Sometimes, I feel like words define my actual existence, that I do not exist if there are no words for me. It is during these times that I have to stop and remind myself that I am more than the names I call myself. After all, words aren’t everything, right?
In a class that dealt with language and culture back in college, the professor asked the question of which came first, language or culture? It was a chicken-egg question of whether perception came first or the word for it. Some people believe in the theory of linguistic determinism, meaning that how we see the world depends entirely on our vocabulary. In the same way, my initial thought when I learned that my vagina was named after a slot that holds a sword was that to be a woman is to be man’s plaything.
But stop, I tell myself. This is just me paying more attention to etymology than I should. Words aren’t everything and all languages are just metaphors for reality. In the end, this is a battle between linguistic determinism and human determination. In the same way that we can easily dismiss the etymologies of words as things of the past, so can we easily wave away society’s preconceived notions of what it is to be a woman.
It is said that when Shakespeare found that the words of the English language were no longer enough to convey what he wanted to mean, he made new sets to better express himself. Similarly, when the names and words you’re stuck with are bothering and even hindering you from advancing, you can always make new ones. We name territories, typhoons, pets, children, and even private parts for the purpose of establishing authority. I hate the history of the word “vagina” and what it implies so I’m taking control and naming my little girl something else. Everyone, meet my sword.
The first time I smoked, I was in Los Banos, partying with college friends. I was 22 and felt like I was no longer doing anything new with my life, and I wanted new, I craved new. So I went to the biggest, baddest smoker in the group and asked to be taught.
That night, I had seven cigarettes.
The habit didn’t kick in until a month later. I was living alone in a room for rent that smelled of cat piss, overlooking the damp, gray city that was QC. With melancholia seeping through my brain, and with loose change in my pocket to burn, of course I found myself knocking at the window of the nearby sari-sari store. It was sixty pesos for a pack of Marlboro blue.
And for the first time ever, all alone, I lit one up.
And I puffed.
The smoke was icy air going down my lungs.
I held the cigarette between my stubby fingers the way any 1950s femme fatale film character would. I was not wearing makeup but I had red lips and a cat eye. I was not trim, but goddamnit, I was gorgeous.
Today, some 20 months later after I lit my first one, I am tentative about quitting smoking. For a few days now, I’ve been having difficulty breathing and the doctor had already asked me to get an ECG and a chest x-ray. It’s a bitch to be sure, not being able to breathe and all that, but I am hesitant about drawing the line between my pack of Marlboro blue and me because I don’t want to give up something that made me feel—
I remember creating a character who talked about why actors smoked in scenes during dialogues in movies. I got the idea from a professor in playwriting back in college, who hated characters who smoked. I gave the script to a friend and he said it reminded him of Ayn Rand, whose female characters all smoked because it was empowering.
Those were the words he used.
Pair that with the stereotypical image of the Western European artist, with deep-set eyes, full lips, and a cigarette between his bony fingers. It must be my fault for watching too many French films, that I’ve held in high romance for so long the image of the smoke-inhaling, crisis-plagued, self-destructive, madly creative and yet constantly misunderstood artist. But in my mind, it was everything I wanted to be.
I want to be.
I want to look.
Your Name (noun) 1. The romanticization of a seconds-
long interaction beginning with your question, ending
as a knot in my stomach, a smile I swallowed
2. The bitter dawning of the impossibility
of having lips that will reach your ear, of having
stranger skins meeting under covers, accompanied
by the sweetness of becoming nothing
3. The disappointment that follows a minute of introduction
to the you stripped of my imagination;
4. The laugh ripe with disgust after landed feet
proving the foolishness of constructing a future, a poem,
a noun, after a spit of tired dialogue
from an unexplored tongue