Photo by Bobby Ong, Jr.
By Merle Alunan
Not strangely, these days, I have been obssessing about marine images and stories of disaster. I lost six members of my immediate family to the flood of 1991 in Ormoc City. For days I watched with mesmerized horror the tsunami in Japan. This obsession has given rise to the following chain of poems, three of which still have to be written. I'm sharing the ones that I felt have reached a certain level of completeness.
Merlie M. AlunanMerlie M. Alunan, an associate of the U.P. Institute of Creative Writing, is a professor at the U.P. College in Tacloban City, where she currently resides. She obtained her M.A. in Creative Writing from the Silliman University in Dumaguete City in 1975. She has received numerous awards for her writing, including the Lillian Jerome Thornton Award for Nonfiction, Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas, Free Press, Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Creative Work, and Likhaan Workshop Award. Her book Hearthstone, Sacred Tree (Anvil, 1993), in particular, consists of sets of poetry that won in the prestigious Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 1985, 1988, 1991, and 1992. She published another collection of poems, entitled Amina Among the Angels, in 1997. Her other works include a book that delves into social history, Kabilin: 100 Years of Negros Oriental (1993) and the anthology Fern Garden: An Anthology of Women Writing in the South (1998). In addition to teaching literature, she also serves as a panelist in prominent writing workshops like the Iligan National Writers Workshop. (From Panitikan.ph.com)
I THE OLD WOMEN IN OUR VILLAGE
Old women in my village say
the sea is always hungry, they say,
that’s why it comes without fail
to lick the edges of the barrier sand,
rolling through rafts of mangrove,
smashing its salt-steeped flood
on guardian cliffs, breaking itself
against rock faces, landlocks, hills,
reaching through to fields, forests,
grazelands, villages by the water,
country lanes, towns, cities where
people walk about in a dream,
deaf to the wind shushing
the sea’s sibilant sighing
Only the old women hear
the ceaseless warning, watching
the grain drying in the sun,
or tending the boiling pot
or gutting a fish for the fire, their fingers
bloody, their clothes stained,
breathing the ocean brine rising
from the mangled flesh into their lungs.
Nights, as they sit on their mats
rubbing their knees, waiting for ease
to come and sleep, they hear the sea
muttering endlessly as in a dream
someday someday someday....
Nudging the old men beside them, their mates,
fisherman, empty-eyed seafarer, survivors
of storms and the sea’s vast loneliness,
half-lost amid the household clutter,
the old women in my village
nod to themselves and say,
one uncharted day, the sea
will open its mouth and swallow
anything it could find—
a child playing on the sand,
a fisherman with his nets,
great ships laden with cargo,
and still unsated, they say,
it will gulp in cities towns villages—
one huge gulp to slake its hunger.
As to when or how it would happen,
who knows, the women say, but this much
is true--no plea for kindness can stop it—
nodding their heads this way and that,
tuning their ears to the endless mumbling....
II A STORY FOR RAINY NIGHTS
On nights when rain pours as if
the very gate of heaven is open,
nothing to stop a shivering earth
from death by drowning,
people in my village tell the story—
An empty house in Delgado Street,
a tricycle stops by the locked gate.
A man alights, his wife cuddling an infant
close to her chest, the boy of five or six
Agripping her skirt with bony fingers.
“Delgado,” says the man, the one word
that brought them to this unlit house
on this lonely street in our village.
Not a sound from them throughout the ride.
Now the man digs into his pockets for fare
and comes up with a few clamshells,
holds out like coins to the driver.
“Wait here,” says the man,“I’ll get the fare,”
and goes into the unlit house, everyone
following him, but the house never lights up
and the man never returns.
Seized by a strange suspicion,
the driver flees, fast as he can, terrified,
pursued by the reek of fish in the wind.
This story goes the rounds of Cardo’s motorshop,
Tentay’s caldohan, or wherever it is that drivers go
to pass the slow time of day, or when rain forces them
to seek shelter—the story growing with every telling:
barnacles on the man’s neck, his hands, his ears
the woman’s hair stringy like seaweeds
the infant in her arms swaddled in kelp
—and did he have fishtail instead of feet—
the boy’s flourescent stare, as though
each eyes were wells of plankton—
was that a starfish dangling from his neck
seasnakes wriggling in and out of his pockets
The house in Delgado waits empty and dark
as on the day, ten, eleven years ago
when the M/V Dona Paz with 2000 humans
on its decks, became grub for the sea.
Of that time, the old women in my village
remember coffins on the dockside,
stench in the air, in almost every street, a wake,
funerals winding daily down the streets.
No driver in our village has made a claim
to a role in the telling of this tale, yet the story
moves like a feckless wind blowing
breath to breath, growing hair,
hand, fist, feet with every telling, and claws
to grip us cold. We cower in the dark,
grateful of the dry bed, the earth under us,
the body we hold against the tyranny of rain
pelting our fragile shelter—a mere habit
of those who breathe air and walk on land,
you might say, but still, always, the sea
grumbling grumbling grumbling sleeplessly—
III RAFAEL: ORMOC, A.D. 1991
First the rain that went on and on, and then,
the flood flashing down the mountain,
sweeping the city once, flushing out to sea
people in the streets, stores, offices, bus stations,
dogs, cats, pigs, chicken, the market place,
houses, cars, trucks, machinery--then it was gone.
No one slept that night, waiting for news,
counting the dead, hoping for the miracle,
cold, wet, hungry, terrified. The city had gone dark.
Hundreds of the drowned littered the streets
like huge abandoned dolls.
He was the one to walk
with throngs of others, looking for his dead.
The streets were littered with the countless drowned,
stiffs with their arms held out in the attitude of prayer
or an embrace, legs spread and bent. A slow walk
from Cantubo to the shorelines of Sabang
and Alegria to look for his dead, finding the bodies
in the afternoon, floating face down among
hundreds of other bodies in the shallows of Linao—
father, brother, his wife and one of three kids.
Out of the water he pulled them,
with the help of strangers, carried them
to Ormoc’s hilltop graveyard, laid the bodies
on the earth in one grave, without coffin or ritual,
also, perhaps, without tears, so tired was he,
not even grief could blight his own need.
That’s as it should be. You understand,
we came too late, this task was his to do, alone.
We witnessed nothing of what I’m telling you.
Three days after, we visited the common grave.
Gathered around the neat trim mound
his spade had formed, we were bereft of words.
Like him who’s never talked about this since.
We went down again soon—we had the old house
to dig out from the silt, a new hearth to make,
altars to rebuild. The demands of living
outweighed the claims of the dead.
This too, this is as it should be.
Twenty years since, and he too, like us,
is growing old. About that time,
he’s never talked, everything behind us,
we’d like to think. The streets of Ormoc
are repaved, houses rebuilt, the river
that runs through its heart is tamed.
But who could feel safe since then?
As the moon waxes and wanes,
so do the tides also rise and ebb.
Still at times, the old terror haunts his eyes—
when will the sea grow hungry again?
July 6, 2011
Reposted with permnission from Merle Alunan