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Sample Poems by Arlene Biala


nanay,

a curandera urged me
to invite you in,
to offer tobacco and sea shells,
and wild ginger grown
where there is barely light.
perhaps i could rub red clay
on your eyelids,
sea salt over your belly.
i could sketch you
in a lotus position, the lapis
prayer bowl in your hands.
i could prepare your favorite meal:
salted bangus, grilled corn and rice,
if that would help you
stay awhile.

or i could pray for the guidance
of fireflies and sage
as you swim in rio dulce at dusk,
floating quietly past the duende
who whisper names of the dead
and sleep in small hills by the river.
i could take your hands and glide them
over my hair, how you used to
help me fall asleep.

maybe i could just hold
your body as it shudders
because you hear the japanese soldiers,
their footsteps too close to the cave
in the backyard where you hide.
or i could sit beside you as your brother's
coffin is lowered into the earth.

each night i think i will find you.
but, while the moon is a chant
in your language
and the mountains are your breath,
i crave the scent of coconut oil
you massage into your hair,
how blissfully it drowns me.



 I dreamed this song when i died, when my spirit left my body and my pulse stopped beating. a snake had bitten me. it licked my footprint and yet we could not find it anymore.
~ "lingon tutul sebu" (hymn of lake sebu), mendung sabal


how loudly have you met her in the wind?

today like all other days she will chant
bleed this hymn into the mist until she is sure to be cured.
she places the bamboo jaw harp at her lips, asks you to recall

how many people in the philippines will have to eat toxic yams
instead of starving?
how many here will watch the news and rush to pack to balikbayan box
with old clean bed sheets packets of top ramen clothes
nestle crunch bars last year's shoes
letters to nanay so that she won't feel alone
here is a picture of your great granddaughter. here is our wedding picture.

how many boxes, how many letters beating
of the drums gongs listening tonight to this music
how many tunes sung into full moon waves lapping against the shores
of her lake a door, small something tapping against her leg

if you could understand her, she would be singing hip-hop funk
and drinking san miguel beer from a dusty warm bottle,
smoking a cigar and spitting brown tobacco juice into the crowd
of laughing comadres who have come to remember who they are

if you could keep up with her, the beating of the kulintang
the colors of her voice a dance she is challenging the drummer
she is challenging the drummer to respond she is scooping
twirling frenzied wrist neck feet into a dance all hair bracelets
beating the screams out of the slow lapping of the lake.



five stages of loss

you give the baby
the name of someone in your family.
we have the same name.
there are three of us.
she is still with us.

in this and any moment
judgment you bring is tricky.
be careful. don't get carried
away with your ideals.

because this storybook is so thick
i have come to rely on things like
this brash musical clock
that you won at cache creek casino,

the tibetan prayer flags rotting slowly
into the bark of our black walnut tree,
my photos of guatemala that i found
in a shoebox. casimira in huipil,
santa maria de jesus. norm posing
arm in arm with the soldado,
shot before he says, now go.

you give by buying products
they sell: handmade worry dolls,
earrings made of endangered wings
of blue morpho butterflies,
mud-dyed tee shirts.

stroke, knead the body.
give me that sympathy look
give me that bb gun
give me more time.

realize that you are not standing
on top of mount pinatubo.
you are at broadway and 24th
alone after the verdict.

when you hear someone crying
please build a shelter.


because you don't have a map
you think you are lost.
imagine what you wish.
a place that has everything
you need to survive.

i found one more picture:
this is what it looks like
when it rains down here.
the road is really steep.
i know, but i'm telling you
it is. you just can't see it
in this picture.



abby,

i think about our drive through the mojave desert,
on that windless night somewhere past the moon.
do you remember the two coyote pups that appeared
at the side of the highway? a good omen. their eyes
carried us all the way to guatemala that winter.
everywhere a volcano: agua, fuego, pacaya looming
up past the jacaranda trees and blankets of bouganvilla.
and that day we drove towards quetzaltenango, waiting
at the crossroads and watching those blue buses pass by:
hundreds of returning refugees from mexico. dirty faces
pressed against the glass, tired eyes. looking for homes
that were set on fire and burned over fifteen years ago.