Lament of Submerged Persons

Mudslide in Rio de Janeiro state...: in the early hours of Saturday, following two days of heavy downpour. A boulder slid down a slope and hit a group of houses in the city of Niterói. Volunteers joined rescuers in silence so that any survivors could be heard.
                       —BBC News, November 11, 2018

It's as if the marrow of the earth mistook us
for part of itself, our limbs its own settling

form, like we have sunk into chairs and taken as us
our tight-tucked legs, our bellies. Or known the settling

head of our daughter to sternum as an uncleaved us,
one sleeping self inside a woken self. The settling

mud around, its heave, seems simple now: is softening us
into dense dark shape, and we are settling

our gauges too: voice from volume, sediment, shadow, us
from the spaces we lived. Silence settling

who we thought we were, was us,
into this all-consuming lack. Nothing settling

a choke around the circumference of light, drawing us
in. We no longer know if our eyes are open, only settling:

(where our daughter sank her pillow—her hair—and us
somewhere too), though we're yielding there to this, settling

aphotic loss, how we once lived what we could bear: us,
her, no more. Now there is weight so true, a settling

so whole, we could die in its lightness: it exiles us
to formless terror—no blanket, no bed, but settling.

If we could remember that once a throat was us
inside a body. Only: here, or here, inside this settling,

a hint of shade, almost like memory: the sound of us. 
If we could just know again our mouths. We 

could part the earth with our voices, ask to be heard.

Touched by Dusk, We Know Better Ourselves

You map my cheeks in gelatinous dark, your torso  
floating, a forgotten moon, and a violin

crosses the sheets while you kiss me your mouth 
of castanets. I believed once my uncles lived

in trees, from the encyclopedia I’d carried
to my father, The Philippines, the Ilongot hunting

from a branch, my father’s chin in shadows. I try 
to tell you about distance, though my body

unstitches, fruit of your shoulder lit by the patio 
lamp, grass of you sticky with dew, and all

our unlit places folding, one
into another. By dead night: my face in the pillow,

your knuckles in my hair, my father whipping my 
back. How to lift pain from desire, the word

safety from safe, me, and the wind 
chatters down gutters, rumoring

rain. I graze your stubble, lose my edges mouthing your 
name. To love what we can no longer

distinguish, we paddle the other’s darkness, whisper 
the bed, cry the dying violet hour; you twist

your hands of hard birches, and we peel into 
our shadows, the losing of our names.

Sea Change

Morning, and light seams
through Juárez, its homes like pearls, El Paso

rippling in the dark. Today I understand 
the fact of my separate body, how it tides

to its own center, my skin crumbling from thirst 
and touch. The sun hangs

like a bulb in corridor: one city opening 
to another. When did my heart

become a boat, this desert the moving
chart of my palm? And when did pain invert

the sky to glaucous sea, each home on each hill 
rocking? I would give my lips

to a soldier if only he would take them 
as sextant, our mouths an arc, my tongue

the telescoping sight between. Below 
such light, the measure of boys

swimming cobbles, their stomachs 
dripping wild stamen. See

how they are clutching to their guns
like lovers, as if the metal could bear them.

Morning, and still in umbra, my dog
and I walk, her tongue a swinging rudder.

Thai Massage

In the dark room he asks me 
to change where we have to
bow below the ceiling, coughing
while he draws the sheet hung
to save my modesty, though
I have none to save. I peel off
my wet dress for pants thin
as the pillowcases I slept on
as a girl in Georgia, the purple
tie-dye ballooning my pelvis,
and I knot the remaining cloth
at my navel, fold the sheathing
I arrived inside, seams filled
with smoke, city, into a sharp
black square at the corner
of the single mattress. I can see
his body moving quickly, quietly
lighting candles behind the cot
-ton: divided, we both know not
to speak. This is the last trip
I’ll take with the one I still call
my husband, this man and this
room now a bought hour 
of silence from the silence of
my body walking behind another
in Bangkok, and I pleat myself
into the center of the bed, my
calves under my thighs, palms
sweating the lap, the way Asian
women know to wait. He senses
my pinned posture and pulls
the twin sheet back, and for
the first time I see him beyond
instruction, or introduction, how
the small hoods of his eyes drip
into his smooth high cheeks,
his tendonous neck and clavicles
rooting to a person more furtive 
than my own. He asks me where
I hurt, everywhere. But more
at my neck and lower back,
because I won’t ask this stranger 
to cup the cone of my caged 
heart. The springs depress
where he has sunk in to hold 
me, his chest at the hump
of my spine, my hands in 
his, our fingers entrenched.
He says of our shared, colored
skin same, same, and I say sawat
dee ka because I do not know
how to use the language past
gratitude—my accent broken,
tiger balm spiriting his pores,
and his breath at my neck, the two
candles hunkering blue light
in the corner, and somewhere
below, banned from this dark
room and in the laboring street
is the one who’s forgotten
to touch me, a man framing
in telephoto the smoky arms
of women frying chicken over gel
gas, and the foreheads of girls
hacking durian, their temples
shining, bent to the million
spines at each green shell, their
steel knives unstringing such
soft yellow fruit. Still to come
is a grief so large it will shape into
an estranged and swollen face
cursing me at the next party, our
future folding into our past, wine
staining our hands, our lips.
The sun drops, conspires
to further the darkness of this
blued room, where candles are 
shivering in secret. The fan 
whirs. The man embracing me 
squeezes our four hands, and I 
understand the gesture to trust 
him. He swings me, cracks my back.
 

Related Poems

Children Walk on Chairs to Cross a Flooded Schoolyard

Taytay, Rizal Province, Philippines
(based on the photo by Noel Celis)

Hardly anything holds the children up, each poised
mid-air, barely the ball of one small foot
kissing the chair’s wood, so
they don’t just step across, but pause
above the water. I look at that cotton mangle
of a sky, post-typhoon, and presume
it’s holding something back. In this country,
it’s the season of greedy gods
and the several hundred cathedrals
worth of water they spill onto little tropic villages
like this one, where a girl is likely to know
the name of the man who built
every chair in her school by hand,
six of which are now arranged
into a makeshift bridge so that she and her mates
can cross their flooded schoolyard.
Boys in royal blue shorts and red rain boots,
the girls brown and bare-toed
in starch white shirts and pleated skirts.
They hover like bells that can choose
to withhold their one clear, true
bronze note, until all this nonsense
of wind and drizzle dies down.
One boy even reaches forward
into the dark sudden pool below
toward someone we can’t see, and
at the same time, without looking, seems
to offer the tips of his fingers back to the smaller girl 
behind him. I want the children
ferried quickly across so they can get back
to slapping one another on the neck
and cheating each other at checkers.
I’ve said time and time again I don’t believe
in mystery, and then I’m reminded what it’s like
to be in America, to kneel beside
a six-year-old, to slide my left hand
beneath his back and my right under his knees, 
and then carry him up a long flight of stairs
to his bed. I can feel the fine bones,
the little ridges of the spine
with my palm, the tiny smooth stone
of the elbow. I remember I’ve lifted
a sleeping body so slight I thought
the whole catastrophic world could fall away.
I forget how disaster works, how it can turn
a child back into glistening butterfish
or finches. And then they’ll just do
what they do, which is teach the rest of us
how to move with such natural gravity.
Look at these two girls, center frame,
who hold out their arms
as if they’re finally remembering
they were made for other altitudes.
I love them for the peculiar joy
of returning to earth. Not an ounce
of impatience. This simple thrill
of touching ground. 
 

from "Apocalipsixtlán" [12. A Second Crack in the Earth]

The pond of bones begins to rattle. Even Mother’s
     throne collapses, her body disassembles. The ground
turns to quicksand as it trembles and swallows
     every socket, every thorn, every pebble. In a single
gulp the bed beneath the Smaller Ones swirls down
     a funnel. The earth has groaned like this before.
We know what to expect though it doesn’t help
     us guess which plate will lift its crust and which
will crumble. The dust is blinding. It separates us
     as we scramble. Unknowingly, some of us run

right into the opening and plummet. We hear
     no screams. We hear no cough though we see us
spitting ink—the gas unleashed has cooked our
     lungs. Slowly the collective gathers in the shadow
of the clouds. We must guide our shattered spirits
     to a shelter before the mists release their acid.
In our ears the ringing doesn’t stop. It will take
     a week and some of us will get the sickness—that
rabid urge to kill and tear apart what’s whole.
     We fear no second crack. We fear another purge.

We wrap our arms around our bodies, swaying back
     and forth—we’re motherless cradles, candle stubs
whose flames have melted down to callus. We are
     silent but for the piercing shrill inside our heads.
Cocooned in misery, we might have missed this
     spark of light entirely, but there it is, lifting heavy
chins from chests: a firefly—an actual firefly,
     beautiful bug from our fantasy game, a reality
here among the detritus of the world, rising from
     its dregs, a flicker, a flash, a wink of vital breath.

We try to catch the little star but it eludes our grasp.
     We let it be, it comes to rest upon a knee. Dare we
ask if this means the planet now spins in opposite
     direction? Does it begin to mend its ruptures, unclog
its river paths? The firefly fades but its ghost remains.
     No more dreams, no more questions. Sleep, tiny hope,
we do not know what threats or sorrows we’ll
     encounter next. Tomorrow is a story for those who
make it through the present chronicle—uncertainty,
     scarcity—we the ephemeral have inherited this earth.

Once the World Was Perfect

Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world.
Then we took it for granted.
Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind.
Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head.
And once Doubt ruptured the web,
All manner of demon thoughts
Jumped through—
We destroyed the world we had been given
For inspiration, for life—
Each stone of jealousy, each stone
Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light.
No one was without a stone in his or her hand.
There we were,
Right back where we had started.
We were bumping into each other
In the dark.
And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know
How to live with each other.
Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another
And shared a blanket.
A spark of kindness made a light.
The light made an opening in the darkness.
Everyone worked together to make a ladder.
A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world,
And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children,
And their children, all the way through time—
To now, into this morning light to you.