Active Listening, Part I

You say the first consultation is free. I say
I am fully aware of the nature of this transaction.
Let me ease your way, doctor, and preempt—
or is it paraphrase—your explanations. Let’s make
a game of it. Here are my words, balled and tossed
across the room for you to receive, reconfigure,
and return. Parrot back as question: Is this
the thing you feel? You tell me what its name is;
I’ll defer to your expertise, as is professional.
I know this is your way of proving to yourself
and to myself what you have heard—I am confirming
understanding. I hear the you that you are speaking here.
As if to say it takes years to train the ear to scalpel-
sharpness. As if to say it only takes ninety minutes
in your pastel-colored office to know this girl
down to her smallest sounds: ductile strands
of muscle snapping taut. Cross, uncross the arms,
square the shoulders high in fighting stance, guard
the heart, cover the jugular, drive steel into the spine.
Say it like this: Your nails are bitten down to the quick,
my dear. When was the last time you cried? Now take
another question: Are you asking for instances
I remember? Now take an honest answer: the night
I was born, and even then it had to be struck
from me. Listen: here is something that passes
for a joke. Now laugh.


Or, there’s no talking to you when you’re like this.


(          ) tells you these symptoms
are your body fighting
to guard itself what burns
through your blood is desire

on hyperdrive tightening
airways squeezing your breath
in its fists there are

no safe words
only the needle

a shot of epinephrine clear
liquid a messenger
bearing orders to stand down

(          ) tells you to name
your aggressors
which foods which
drugs which insect bites

tells you watch what you put
in your mouth tells you a walk
in the park more like a dance

through a minefield there
are things with wings coming
from between the flowers

(          ) will not tell you
the truth sometimes is

your body hates you and wants you dead

why else would it distract itself with
fictional poisons pretend it knows
better than you how to name
what is unwelcome

sometimes there is no known cause


early 20th cen.: modern Latin, from Greek ana- ‘again’ + phulaxis ‘guarding.’

Allergies are terrifying things.

Everyone finds your girly problems weird, Nica.

Especially your nonfic prof at grad school. Mommy issues galore because everything is Freudian.


There is an old photo of my mother at around eighteen, in an album at my grandparents’ house. She’s sitting on the patio of her old family house in Manila, wearing a beige sweater with little flowers embroidered in a neat semi-circle around the neckline. She’s looking straight into the camera. Her mouth is poised deliberately open like she’s saying something. Her hands sketch illustrative circles in the air. Her manicure is, as I’ve always known it to be, pristine—the nails filed in a perfect arc, extending just beyond the tip of the finger, painted with a wine-red polish no regular kolehiyala would think to wear.

Her most striking feature is most definitely her Ponytail, so distinguished it deserves the capital P. All the hair has been scraped back from her face, pinned down under the vise-grip of an elastic band. It sits high on her head, squarely in the center and therefore equidistant from every other point on her scalp—the alignment is so exact you could probably chart its coordinates on a map, and draw the path it makes like a highway plunging stick-straight down. My grandmother once told me it used to take her the better part of an hour to get it right, but by the time she entered college she could do it without even looking in the mirror.

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Day 7: The Tax-Collector’s Table

This is what I imagine: that the Supreme Being is the kind of friend who bargains with you to liven up boring family reunions.

I will give you a peso for every air-kiss your mother has to command you into giving an old lady stranger, who professes to remembering your sweet rosy baby self running naked in the garden in the old Baguio house, whose face bleeds into all the other faces in the cloud of powder and hairspray at the mahjong table.

Five for every tita who prods the soft spots above your hipbones with her talons, squeezes your upper arm, shakes her head, blesses you with a lipsticked smile of mercy.

Ten for every time someone asks why you don’t have a boyfriend yet.

Twenty for, when you do have a boyfriend, for every inquiry about the wedding, every unsolicited offer to be your decorator, coordinator, makeup artist, stylist, godmother.

Fifty, when you marry, for every Got anything baking in the oven that is really a How well do the two of you make love don’t be shy now tell us everything we need to remember what it is like.

One hundred for every meal you politely decline to eat at the Lord’s table, even if lola’s friends have brought in a lechon and taken the good silver out of the tabernacle.

Five hundred for every time the spirit moves in you, makes you foolish and brave enough to answer all questions taklesa or otherwise with Bullshit–accept your state of sinfulness, hija, that suplada face will send you straight to hell.

I enjoin you, in the spirit of friendship, to keep these debts on record. To demand the cumulative sum of what you are owed, at the end of days, with interest.


Day 7: Write a poem about money.

Day 6: A Case for the Health Benefits of Sun Exposure

dear my love please hear me out before
you lynch me for leaving the blinds open
to let in natural light by the gallon pouring
liquid and buttery over your sleeping face

it has to do with more than your body
and its natural processes of synthesizing
UVB radiation for vitamin D
for the strengthening of your bones
and teeth and protection against cancer

it has everything to do with your skin
and how it absorbs the morning, with the sun
that radiates from beneath the sheets

I already know you are golden
but does the world wake up aware of this
I mean to tell the world


Day 6: Write an aubade.

Morning love song daw e.

Day 5: Banish Air

Banish Air
from Air Divide
Light if you dare
They’ll meet While
Cubes in a Drop
Or Pellets of Shape
fit Film of Soap
in a Finger-ring
Odors return
whole Force Flame
out of Water
over the Sink
The Sun


Day 5: Find an Emily Dickinson poem – preferably one you’ve never previously read – and take out all the dashes and line breaks. Make it just one big block of prose. Now, rebreak the lines. Add words where you want. Take out some words. Make your own poem out of it! 

More playing. Mangles Emily Dickinson (but minimally). Languages all the things. But “Banish Air from Air” is such a lovely little poem, especially because I have no idea what it means.

Day 4: I Will (Non-Denominational Vows)

give you not all the days of my life, but every day
that you can endure my face without shattering,
look at me across the dining table and not feel
breakfast curdling in your throat. I will
make no promises that cannot see fulfillment
within the hour, or your order is free. I will
demand no promises, only unimpaired
and fully informed consent before we try
funny business with blindfolds, candles,
and a slight risk of injury. I will fill my memory
to its boiling point with grocery lists, commuting
routes, your coffee orders for Starbucks, Seattle’s Best,
that Leaf thing, how many buses will take us
to the nearest beach, how far is “far enough.”
I will learn to cook. We will get fat together,
grow into our ugliest selves, fight about
how pretty we were before we met–
and when we wake up, realize how old we are.
But we will pray together, throwing our voices
to any invisible ears. We’ll sing together.
You choose the radio station.
I will be listening.


Day 4: Write a loveless love poem.

I just wanted to play. See also: why I will never marry anyone, in any way, shape, or form.

Day 3: In Vino Veritas

When, wanting oil, our lantern gutters faint
we two sit empty in an empty hall,
and rain and heartbeat drum their single rhyme.
Some nights, I play the sinner, he the saint,
and watching each drop’s suicidal fall,
we chase the night away with smoke and wine.
A smile, a breath, and no one dares confess
that greater souls have lost their lives for less.
Though I possess none of the sweet restraint
that stands him up when lightning cuts the skies,
new cuts of broken scenes we try to paint.
Imagine ourselves whole. The lantern dies.
Some nights, he plays the sinner, I the saint.
I pour his glass; he thanks me with his eyes.


Day 3: Write a fourteener.

Of course I cheated and wrote a sonnet instead. Cheated further because this isn’t exactly a new poem, just a tweaked version of something I wrote in high school (??????), when I was still, I daresay, pretty good at making words fall into patterns. Sometimes I miss the discipline of writing metrical poetry, even if back then I only ever wrote about cheesy things I didn’t really know anything about.

(Also, I mostly kept this poem because it’s littered with Saiyuki references. Fujoshi feelings still going strong after ten years.)

Day 2: You Asked to See Stars

And for you I’ll play
great architect
of the universe,

ready to tip it on its side.
Here is my hand on a line
of switches: Let there be
a dark for you to see by.

Blackout. Here—
the sky you wanted.

From where you sit
on the edge

of my bed, hugging
your knees against the air
conditioning, imagine

that cold is space,
and watch the city
lights throw up
a galaxy around us.


Day 2: Write a poem about the stars.

Highschoolish cheesiness because I can, and because I miss the view from my old room, which was higher than everything. Also, the Wiktionary glossary of collective nouns lists “a wonder of stars” as a possible collective.