“These people, both men and women, seem amphibious, and to be able to live on water as well as on the land, so well do they swim and dive. Five pieces of iron were thrown into the sea to them for the pleasure of seeing them exercise themselves. One of them was skillful enough to get all five of them, and in so short a time, that one can regard it as marvelous.”
—observations of indigenous Filipinos by the Dutch in 1600, from Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, by Antonio de Morga
To be amphibious
is to breathe underwater
gills and fins
illuminated in a flash of sun
to be sirenos1
es amar el mar
es tener cuerpos de agua2
desfrutar how the sea dances
along our spines
how it fills our hair
makes us weightless
Our bangka5 are extensions
of our katawan ng tubig6.
Do you know which hands carved this wood?
Mula saang mga puno?7
Whose spirits guide us to the other side?
Hindi namin kailangan ng mga mapa8
Hindi namin kailangan ng mga kumpas
Feel the immense dagat move beneath us
Can you feel it, through the thick hulls
of your conquering vessels?
We do not disrupt the harmony of things.
Can you plunge your hand into the sea
and bring up a fish?
Can you split one into two thousand pieces
so that every mouth is filled?
Can you perform such the miracles
you describe in your holy book?
Bawat plankton, bawat maliit na hipon,
bawat nabubuhay na bagay11
upang maging kasuwato sa dagat12
is to breathe underwater.
1Both in Filipino and Spanish, this refers to mermen, but in Filipino folklore, while also including a version of a tantalizing creature (usually female) that leads fishermen to their deaths, sirenas/sirenos are are also engkantos or spirit-guardians of the sea. The colonial and indigenous influences in this mythology are both evident.
2“is to love the sea/is to have bodies of water”
3“naked/observed in a sacred act”
4These two lines show how Tagalog incorporated Spanish as one sees the shared words; it goes from Spanish, “not for conquest” to Tagalog “but for union”
5Bangka are Filipino outrigger boats with ancient origins that are carved from wood; it was believed that the spirit of the tree or an anito (guardian spirit) was imbued in the boat, especially through ritual consecration.
6“Bodies of water”
7“From which trees?”
8“We do not need maps / We do not need compasses”
9anito are ancestors, nature spirits, or deities in precolonial, indigenous Filipino systems, which were animistic. The word also can refer to statues and figures representing the spirits.
10“All living beings / protect us”
11“Each plankton, each tiny shrimp / each living thing”
12“To be in harmony with the sea”
Copyright © 2020 by Aimee Suzara. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 13, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.
on gelatine paper
no intricate live edge
of the Missouri
no breaking sod
to mine it for wheat
no magnate's gold to
drive our bodies into the fields
no wheat sliding east down
easements that pierce the treaty lands
no ghost of Dorothy
sits up in my body
no craft cocktail:
John Brown's Dugout 14 bucks
no wet grass curls
above and beneath us
no tractorsfulls of
no empty words
silting our throats up
no empty bowl
of cut-up peaches
no wombs lit
up with atrazine
no place but
that's just hearsay
Copyright © 2020 by Kerry Carnahan. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 18, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.