Pouring creamy swirls into a cup of black
coffee, I dip and stir twice. Too sweet.
When I was six, my grandmother Nanay made
her coffee that way. Sugar and milk
mixed in before brewing, it poured from
the pot a lovely amber. Let it stand
a while, each sip sweeter. But black coffee,
now, an acquired taste, needs to get to know
you. Take it slow, let it sit, settle.
Nanay too was like that. Tatay
was never “Dear” or “Honey.” “Gutierra,”
she called him, R’s rasping like sharks
in her throat. Once, I got up, and my
windows, the sidewalk, the Captain Kangaroo
poster on my wall, were all leaning
twelve degrees to the left. Trees and dogs,
hydrants and houses threatened to slide down
the horizon. “Just a stiff neck,”
the doctor said. Nanay hardly spoke
a word to me then, even “Hello” and “Goodbye.”
But she came over nine days straight to stretch
and massage my neck, till I thought my eyes
would explode. After each time, we sat
in an easy chair: I in Nanay’s lap, she humming.
(First appeared in Forkroads: A Journal of Ethnic Literature, Fall 1996.)
—for my grandmother
The sky purple as ube jam, two hours
before the sun awakes in the Philippine Sea,
Nanay walks to the beach where fishermen
are landing. My father, twelve years old,
who has come along this morning, carries
her baskets. By sunrise, they are set up
under an awning of banana leaves at market,
and she is calling, “Bangus! Lapu-lapu!”
“Good morning, Manang Lourdes. I have
fresh sap-sap over here. That one there
was swimming in Manila Bay just before dawn.”
My father is dozing off, and she taps
him on the head with a wooden spoon.
“Hoy, Martin! Wrap up that fish for Manang.”
Her voice would become rough and gravelly from
calling, “Alimango! Hipon! Talaba! Sugpo!”
Later that morning, she and my father carry
their baskets through the streets. “Of course,
the bangus is fresh,” Nanay tells Aleng Naty
leaning out her window. “Look at the eyes.
Bright as a pearl.” Digging a thumb under
the gill, she says, “Look at that. Still red.”
My father can see himself poised by
the river, his fighting kite dancing on air.
(First appeared in Zone 3, Winter 1989.)
The pier, a great concrete semicircle,
stretched into San Francisco Bay
like a father’s arm around a daughter.
On Sundays, we would venture on that pier,
Mama in her broad straw hat, a country
woman in some rice paddy on Luzon.
In his lucky lime-green short-sleeved shirt, checked
by orange pinstripes, Papa would heft the net.
I would lean over the rail, watch the two
steel hoops—the smaller within the larger,
criss-crossed by heavy twine in diamond shapes—
loft out over the dark water and sink
in a green froth. A small wire cage nestled
in the center of the hoops, containing
chunks of raw meat. Papa would say, “Best bait
is porterhouse. Crabs really go for that.”
Sometimes he would let me pull the net up.
The rope slimy and tight in my small hands
and then the skitter and scuttle of claws
on the wooden deck of the pier. Later
at home, I would play the radio loud, hide
that same skitter on the sides of the large
enamel-white Dutch oven, concentrate
instead on the sweetness I knew would come.
One of those Sunday evenings, I dropped in
at my friend Peter van Rijn’s house. Dinner
had just been served, and the family rule
was: all the neighborhood kids had to leave.
But I didn’t. There was Pete’s father, like some
patriarch from a Norman Rockwell painting,
poising his carving knife above the shell—
huge and bountiful—of a red King crab.
I said, “Wait.” Their heads swiveled toward me
in shock, as if I’d screamed a curse word out.
Old Peter, the daughter Wilhelmina, his sons—
Paul, Bruno, Guido, my friend Pete—
the Mom whose given name I never knew:
a good immigrant family. The heirs
of European culture, I always
thought, these direct descendants of Rembrandt.
I said, “Wait.” And then I shared the secret
passwords to being a Filipino.
Here is where you dig your fingernails in
to pry the top shell off. You suck this green
and orange jelly—the fat of the crab.
This flap on the underside tells if it’s
male or female: pointed and skinny or
round like a teardrop. Here’s how you twist off
legs, pincers. Crack and suck the littlest ones.
Grip it here and here, then break the body
in half. These gray fingers are gills—chew but
don’t swallow. Break the crab into quarters.
Here you find the sweetest, the whitest meat.
(Originally published in Liwanag: A Journal of Pilipino American Literary and Graphic Arts, Volume II, 1993.)
ASWANG MANGO: SANTIAGO’S FANTASIA
There is no fruit I love more than the mango.
Taut skin, yellow and red, the blushing cheek
of a maiden, the soft curve, the shy smile
on my girl’s sensuous mouth, a slow tango
smoldering in her eyes. The mango’s sleek
flesh, sweet and fragrant as her bosom. While
Clara’s away these summer nights, the heavens
cloudless and clear, moonlight-filled, where she wheels
in air, she leaves with me her hips, two cheeks
like shapely fruits, the moon’s curvy crescent,
firm mango handfuls.
Note: this poem is part of an ongoing novel-in-poems about two aswang—Philippine mythical monsters—who fall in love and try to live as ordinary humans. Clara is a manananggal, which means that she can split herself at the waist, with the top half flying off to hunt prey, leaving her bottom half, in this case, in the care of her lover Santiago.
—for Mary Ann
Remember that June before our wedding we spent
in San Francisco? That first morning you woke
to my brother in silver sequins singing like
Diana Ross? What must have gone through your mind?
What kind of people were you marrying into?
My father who laughed a lot but was schizophrenic.
My stepmom who’d tried, they say, to stab him in the back
with scissors. Love may be blind, but not stone blind.
Then, one Sunday we bought at the corner market
one perfectly ripened red-gold mango.
How carefully I slit the skin with my penknife
. . . rivers of yellow juice, the furry seed . . .
then sliced the golden half-moons into quadrangles,
open petals. Your first bite of our sweet life.
(First appeared in Returning a Borrowed Tongue: An Anthology of Filipino and Filipino-American Poetry in English, Coffee House Press, 1996.)
Vince Gotera teaches at the University of Northern Iowa, where he served as Editor of the North American Review (2000-2016). He is also former Editor of Star*Line, the print journal of the international Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (2017-2020). His poetry collections include Dragonfly, Ghost Wars, Fighting Kite, The Coolest Month. and the upcoming Pacific Crossing. Recent poems appeared in Altered Reality Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Dreams & Nightmares, The Ekphrastic Review, Philippines Graphic (Philippines), Rosebud, The Wild Word (Germany) and the anthologies Multiverse (UK), Dear America, and Hay(na)ku 15. He blogs at The Man with the Blue Guitar.
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