Merlinda Carullo Bobis Poems

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From Cell Nine

it is not bare tonight,
this black wall.
it suddenly wore a tiny star,

Life Today, Manila, 1990

i love too beautifully today,
as if tomorrow I will die.

i even tie my hair from cliff to cliff


Once upon a time in Bikol, Pilipino, English —
we tell it over and over again.

Digde ini nagpopoon. Anum na taon ako, siguro lima.
Si Lola nag-iistorya manongod sa parahabon nin kasag
Na nagtatago sa irarom kan kama.

Dito ito nagsisimula. Anim na taon ako, siguro lima.
Si Lola nagkukuwento tungkol sa magnanakaw ng alimango
na nagtatago sa ilalim ng kama.

This is where it begins. I am six years old, perhaps five.
Grandmother is storytelling about the crab-stealer
hiding under the bed. Each story-word crackles
under the ghost's teeth, infernal under my skin. I shiver.

But perhaps this is where it begins.
Grandfather teasing me with that lady in the hills
walking into his dream, each time a different
colour of dress, a different attitude under my skin.
I am bereft of constancy, literal
at six years old, perhaps five.

Or, this is where it begins.
Mother reviewing for her college Spanish exam:
Suddenly also under my skin, long before I understood
‘Eyes': how they conjure ghosts under the bed,
‘Lips': how they make ghosts speak,
‘Hands': how they cannot be silent.

I remember too Father gesturing, invoking
once upon a time. This is where it begins.
Story, word, gesture
all under my skin. At six years old, perhaps five.

And so this poem is for my father, mother,
grandmother, grandfather and all the storytellers,
the conjurers who came before us. They made us shiver
not just over crab-stealers hiding under the bed
or a lady uncertain of her garb. They made us shiver
also over faith, over tenderness.
Or that little tickle when a word hits a hidden
crevice in the ear. Just air
heralding the world or worlds that we think
we dream up alone.

No, storytelling is not lonely,
not as we claim—in our little rooms lit only
by a lamp or a late computer glow.
Between the hand and the pen, or the eye and the screen,
they have never left, they who ‘storytold' before us,
they who are under our skin.

Perhaps they even conjured us, but not alone.
Storytelling, all our eyes collect into singular seeing,
our lips test one note over and over again,
our hands follow each other's arc, each sweep of resolve.
Eyes, lips, hands conjoined: the umbilical cord restored.


when fringe of lips
and tips of hair
run a sweet fever
at one o'clock in the morning

when a shameless nipple
stares like a hot-hard eye
at one o'clock in the morning

when the little finger
and the little toe
burn holes on wind and earth

it is the hour of the gipsy heart
vagrant of my lover's body
cul-de-sac of belly

avenue of thigh
still dark and silent
at one o'clock in the morning

when the whole world sleeps
save me who waits
for the double somersault
of the heart


the blind are showing movies
in the plaza
so the deaf are gathering
in the plaza
so the mute can debate
in the plaza

the fate
of one beloved nation

Summer Was A Fast Train Without Terminals

I, too, can love you
in my dialect, you know,
punctuated with cicadas
and their eternal afternoons —


how easily a speck of bird
shatters the evenness of skies—

she peers, stunned, from cell 22

that such dumb minuteness
can shake the earth


When I met you,
you even wished to learn
how to laugh in my dialect.

Between the treble of bees
and the deep bass of water buffalos
on tv's ‘World Around Us'.
Between the husk and grain of rice
from an Asian shop.
Between my palms
joined earnestly
in prayer,

you searched for a timbre
so quaint,
you'd have to train your ears
forever, you said.

And when I told you how we village girls
once burst the moon with giggles,
you piped, ‘That must have been
a thrilling sound,
peculiar, ancient
and really cool—

can't you do that again?'


every night from work,
she proceeds to test for damp
the lingerie redundant on the line.
the wash are shadows of other hangings;
they need to be tucked away
like virtue nightly slipped
into an old rose vanity.

she shuts her windows tightly
from a fire-wall never higher than her grim
stare, and begins to strip away
the opaqueness of the day.
she resists the sin of a lone mirror;
it might reveal her luminous.

a monotone of rice and fish
is laid out then—the voyeur yellow bulb
is asked to dinner. it's their affair
to have it hug her limbs,
and gentle them to grace.
she squints in welcome
of its savage repetition on her face.

nightcap follows, a glass of milk
for gut-wounds. they nag for feasts
that hush with sleep.
tucked between eight and nine,
the willing mattress holds her down,
its weight unstirring as a mother's arms.
she, too, does not stir,

except on moments when her hands flail,
ever slightly, to toss aside
this mother's clasp
in dreams of maybe younger arms.
but they only flail-flop
back to her breast
like some impotent reliquary.

her mouth half-opened
cups the darkness for posterity.
so she does not hear the rustle,
the young wife's skirt,
the fabric-sigh that ransoms
the next room from shadows.


for Mama Ola
the sea clings
to the roof of my mouth,
but the tide of my heart
cannot swell.

only this salt-taste,
this dumb remembering,
sharp as the flavour
of fish dried on the beach.

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