184.1: Chris Santiago:: [Island Without Ancestors] & The Silverest Tongue in the Philippines & Trans Am & Some Ruins 184

After reading Chris Santiago’s poems, I immediately reached for my copy of Joan Didion’s The White Album and turned to its title essay. Freshly unpacked after a cross-country move, its pages still smelt like California. Small grains of sand from some grungy beach north of Santa Monica spilt from the book onto my desk that faces Ithaca, New York. Didion’s essay begins: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the moral lesson in the murder of five.” The narratives in Santiago’s poems carry this compulsion, to venture through memory and history, and to insist the importance of life and all of its incarnations.

Take "[Island Without Ancestors]":

Trade winds glad-hand the dropped husks.
No stroke or syllable has ever been made

to mean bone.
You are first, & alone, & final:

This lyrical incantation of desolation and despair revises Donne’s declaration. No, man is an island, it says. Each person is akin to “a womb through which you catch hints / of the sea & its voices.” These poems reveal shades darker than the sensational California tales of murder and woe that often comprise Didion’s essays. “The Silverest Tongue in the Philippines,” for instance, ends in a prescient claim on political violence and repression:

                                                                 a firearm

     making more silence
     in a dazed & speechless country.

Santiago’s narratives do not seek to understand life but rather perpetuate it through memory and experience—those dynamic tools a poet must possess in order to crystallize the world’s unfettered fluidity. Cody Todd

[Island Without Ancestors]


Trade winds glad-hand the dropped husks.
No stroke or syllable has ever been made

to mean bone.
You are first, & alone, & final:

the island an eardrum. The island
a womb through which you catch hints

of the sea & its voices.
Driftwood. Whale song.

Tail end of a squall.
Shoals translucent

as a backlit sundress:
soft fire, tombstone, frogspawn,

organ pipe—coral
teeming with damselfish.

The interior a green wall.
Sheer & permian.

Karst limestone nested with swiftlets.







The Silverest Tongue in the Philippines

after Jaswinder Bolina

I can hear my uncle muttering in the stillness of his cell.
Badmouthing Aguinaldo. Reciting Marx & Mao.

He has the sharpest tongue in the Philippines.

It’s why His Excellency the President hates him
& why his doomed brother
worships him.
                        I can hear him all the way
from Bloomington
wheedling inside cowry shells
ice buildup in our gutters.
                                           I won’t be born for years
but my ears are preternaturally sharp.

The brother drops out of school & joins
the partisans in Antique.
Picks up where he left off—agrarian
politics & explosives.

Or maybe it’s his cellmate
who has the deadliest tongue in the Philippines.

                                         But my uncle is alone—
it’s the silence I call
his cellmate because he has to give it space,
be wary of its moods.
It’s big & oppressive; solitary.

He balls up inside minutes, fissures,
the spoon-dug tunnel of his throat.
                                                         Even the shrikes
who’re supposed to angle in & give succor
shy away.
                  He meets me at the terminal
in aviators & a black BMW.
Even I can tell, though I hardly speak

the language—he has the silverest
tongue in the Philippines.
Bus boys, shop girls, investors, bureaucrats, even
the cop he u-turns illegally in front of—
they blush, chuckle, kowtow, make promises

to look out, for example, for his nephew
who has the most leaden tongue in the Philippines.

We meet his friends in the lounge of the Shangri-La:
oysters, live music. He doesn’t drink
but talks & grows younger
as he does so.
                        He’s younger even
than I am: he’s got the most gifted
tongue in the Philippines. He wins an award & the Palace

invites him to fly out & speak. But he gets up, lashes out
at the President seated behind him:

speaks storm surge, speaks outrage, speaks velocity
& eruption.
                      Now his words are getting muffled:

the blizzards that give birth to me are whiting out his cell.

He’s spellbound. Horrified. Something’s finally
gotten his tongue. He can hear

three hundred miles away: the jeep muttering up
to the checkpoint, soldiers placing the faces,

his brother making a break for it
but dropping what he’s tucked in his shirt; the explosion

doesn’t kill him
but is followed by a sudden report—

                                                            a firearm
making more silence
in a dazed & speechless country.




Trans Am


The opening credits of Knight Rider
were when we could expect Dwayne

a friend of our questionable neighbors
who staggered over to squat with us on the shag

& poke through golf balls we’d harvested
from the backyard, hooks & slices

off the fenced-off fourteenth hole.
For a clutch he’d shell out five, even ten

& for that or a more elusive sympathy
our parents let him drink his liver yellow & ash

in a bowl for long dead mollies.
It took a week of jasmine rice & adobo

to get the Marlboro out of the curtains.
His eyes lit up at the tricked out pony car

whooshing across a nuclear desert. Speed
he said to no one is the sole cleanser

of the world & by that I knew he meant floored
& windows down in even the dead

of winter. When he worked, he worked on cars;
he’d rigged wheels too in Nam & grumbled

about shortage & regulation, lost torque
& muscle, the third generation F-body

giving up the Coke bottle curves
of the first, the Bandit swoop of the second

even the wings painted off the hood
left unplugged stereo component black:

a creepy birdless starless Cold War night.
In the cul-de-sac we’d freeze when the sirens

cranked up to a keen, my precocious heart stalling
until I remembered it was tornado season—

a drill—& we resumed our maneuvers
in the yards & driveways, plugged

into every other cul-de-sac from sea to shining
sea: avenues, interstates, commerce & defense.

Sudden static made me jump too until we realized
it was the same neighbors, shimmying up

our adjoining pole to splice our Falcon
& our Snowman. Mom said they needed

new distractions since Dwayne no longer came.
Still we hosed & spit-shined those Dunlops,

Spaldings, Titleists, but especially
the Pinnacles, the ones he’d pay the most for

before chucking our chins & staggering out
to the trunk of his ’78 Firebird Trans Am.

He took a shine to us, the Asian kids who lived
next door to his erstwhile friends, & we took a shine

to his car, which we ogled while he dumped
the balls in with the rest, which even then I assumed

he never used, there were so many.




Some Ruins


Some Ruins