The gray line

The lights say soon I’ll tuck myself in
For another night of half-awake sleep.
The idling engine scoffs as bodies rush
To grab seats in a lottery for space
In a land drowning from inflated egos.

The streets sigh under the trampling of a million tires.
The sidewalks choke with trash and vendors.
The world is being grilled in the barbecue stands,
On trial in the court of massage parlors and shops,
Languishing behind girlie bars and gas stations.

A robber runs from a stranded jeep
Loot in tow, a hyena smile on his face.
Passengers spill out like panicked wildebeests
Too dull to think, too cowardly to do anything
But save their hides and protect their hooves.

At home the walls can’t stand between my ears
And neighbors creating their version of Waterloo.
I’ve long given up hope of finding peace
Between her Israel and his Palestine,
Amid warring royals with no kingdoms.

I won’t be surprised when I close my eyes later
To find myself in a crowded theater.
For even the realm beyond the movies
Of my Technicolor dreams
Is pure chaos.

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Lament of the Modern Slave

What one billion carry and a billion more abhor
Is the price civilization has to pay.
But why oh why does it have to be in me,
A poor man, hapless in stature and pride?

Like a rabid dog it gnaws my insides
Insatiable as lust, intractable as fear.
If these were heaven’s lashes, have pity on me
Oh deity of Ronald McDonald and company.

I’ve walked the mill and such contraptions,
Starved the animal on gruel and caffeine.
Yet the stronger it grows day upon dreadful day
Until I give up, relenting to its desires.

I loathe myself as the fit scorn at me,
Deducing my being from the width of my waist.
My will is torn, my body no help either
As it consoles itself with sucrose and salt.

I dread the dawn when the beast arises
To take me, lonely, to an early grave.
But for now I tremble in sweet delight
As succulent pork to my lips take flight.

I am but human.

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Night in

Alone, I watch the frames whisk by
Ennui inviting me to dine with her again.
Do I have a choice? I turn to the humid room.
None, the fan blades tell me as they spin blindly.

I look at her again, she’s telling a different story this time.
Of two men galloping across Napa on a search for meaning.
What is love? What is truth? What is beauty?
When do dreams take the form of reality?

I miss the cake, coffee, and effervescent talk
Shared with friends through nights of awakened hopes.
Oh, how we giggled and snickered and argued
Of the good and ugly, the right and easy.

Yet my feet won’t move now, my brain unsure
Of where to run on a restless night.
Alas, my companion’s showing me the credits
Telling of a fight that’s over until the next moon.

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Post mortem

I saw you walking across the street today.
You haven’t changed, not a bit
Like the cracked sidewalk beneath your feet.

You still sport that penguin face.
The puppy in my chest rose,
Yearning to keep with your pace.

I decided to call out to you
But stopped, remembering
How the ground shook when we last bid adieu.

We gave too much, everything in fact.
Tried to make north south, east west
And a square peg into a round hole fit.

Some doves just aren’t meant to fly.
And are destined to cages tied
As the Gods willed, as our egos conspired.

So shut up I did when I saw you today.
And like the adult I am now
Wished it were another day.

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Living Dead

Amid the carcasses of men lying by
Hawkers with their wares ply.
The living jump over skin after skin
Unknowing one may be their own kin.

The wind blows strong from the sea.
The stench of death rises over the city.
A dust cloud descends from the mountains
Wrapping everything, everyone in its embrace.

But no one is afraid, everyone’s running on empty.
A child with a missing mother, a father without yearlings.
Trucks rumble down the byways, coming to tuck the bodies
In unmarked graves of lime and mud.

The sun sets in a golden haze
As lamps in silent homes come weakly ablaze.
Soon, the streets are flooded in complete darkness.
Night has set in.

— I wrote this short piece (or much of it — I’m writing from memory) in 2nd year high school. It won the campus poetry contest that year.

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The Visitor

Out of nowhere
I stumbled upon you
After so many years of combing the beach
Looking for the basilisk of my dreams.

You haven’t changed.
Not a bit, like the sand
Where I sat and pondered
Unknowing you’ve always been in my thoughts.

Forgive me for giving you up
To circumstance, my version of comfort.
I’m a coward like the scurrying crab.
Or maybe you were too raw for me?

I’m weary from stooping, searching for clues
To where you lay hidden in my mind,
The eddies I stir only make finding you
A mission without a purpose.

You came with the ordinariness of the tide
But gave me a shock.
For with joy, I realized
I’ve gotten my other half back.

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I hadn’t seen her in person before, only through photos sent to mom, the latest of which were about a couple of years ago. Thus I was naturally excited when she decided to visit last May after living in the U.S. since the early 70s. I heard she had doubts at first especially that women her age (70-plus) often don’t travel halfway around the world. One aunt said she had even wondered whether air conditioning was already available in a country she left at a time when the dictator had just risen to power and declared martial law. Aircon was a luxury then as it is still largely today.

But memories, and perhaps the specter of mortality, were too strong to resist. Auntie Albina even managed to bring her frail husband, Uncle Ben, along to Bacolod City where the clan gathered. She did notice the heat (who wouldn’t when this year’s summer had been the hottest in decades?) but was far from finicky. On the contrary, I was struck by how “Filipino” she was – ushering us to the table the moment we arrived from Cebu, making sure, with the help of other relatives, we would get a portion of all that was laid out. And, yes, she spoke perfect Bisaya, not a hint of an accent.

What I love best about reunions is that as we rediscover and build ties with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins and grandparents, we realize how similar they are to ourselves and our families. We may live hundreds, even thousands of miles apart, yet we recognize our parents, brothers or sisters in our kith and kin. A cousin commented bemusedly that I looked like her younger brother more than her other brothers do. A nephew walks like one of my siblings. An elder cousin once entered the nunnery, which my sister is currently contemplating on heading. More clansmen took or are taking up liberal arts courses than science and math-related ones. Most are fun-loving and expressive, love singing (and videoke) and don’t fuss over their looks.

It’s familiarity without the contempt, my brother Florencio once said of the value of cousins and relatives not too long after we had argued over something I already forgot and were just settling back into our old selves, as siblings have been trained to do for ages by their well-meaning parents. His comment brought to mind Plato’s proposal in The Republic, wherein to build a strong state, the Greek thinker recommended that the traditional family setup be replaced by one in which children are brought up by the state so they all come to recognize each other as family (without the contempt). Parents (and aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) would be non-existent in such a setup since the kids wouldn’t know them from birth. The children would only be loyal to the state and work to protect its best interests, Plato asserted.

Will this odd suggestion work for the Philippines? After all, nepotism is still largely to be blamed for rampant corruption, lack of transparency and a “tayo-tayo, sila-sila” attitude when it comes to politics and governance. For one, the proposal to divide Cebu is more than anything a filial/feudal affair than one about finding the best way to serve the public. “Gloriagate” came in the heels of detailed accusations that GMA’s son and brother-in-law received jueteng payola. At any given time, be it the most peaceful even, one can find dozens of relatives and supporters of elected and appointed officials littering the civil service rolls, from the smallest barangays to the biggest LGUs, doing nothing more than report to the office to log in, snack and wait for 5 p.m.

Given the (re)public’s exasperation at the “state of things,” Plato’s thesis no longer sounds weird and unacceptable to me, though it still seems improbable given how much I (and most Pinoys I think) enjoy family reunions. Anything to stir the imagination and perhaps lead to clear and convincing action is more than welcome in these times of frustration and apathy.

First published in Cebu Daily News, June 16, 2005