Chris Santiago

                                             Home | Amy Maloof

                                             Home | Amy Maloof

[Island of the Little Mouthfuls]


Blown coral.


Fecund stone.

Terraced rain & tricycles.  Rooms

carved out of oil cans, panties, cracker boxes.


Island before breakfast, without its first cigarette.

Island of exported labor.

Fly wings & beauty marks.


Island with a thimbleful of serum. Island

trying to be a better option

for the beached whale.


Comely island

minus its lowermost ribs.

Composite divided by prime.


Island of tautological coastlines.

Skulls flared with jasmine

course-correcting the night sailors.



She comes by air; she never learned

to swim — seven thousand islands

& not a single stroke.  After a certain age

swimming is as impossible

as learning a new language.  We call islands


archipelago but the Italians meant the sea.

A better word: diaspeirin.  Tongues, tribes,

coastlines — scattered

before anyone took flight.

From Caticlan

to Kalibo I hardly speak a word.

I keep my mouth shut to pass

though the next passenger might be kin.


My uncle tells me how

he kept from going under: by counting

his own breaths.  Jumped into the fishpond

that he jumped in as a boy.  How he taught himself

to swim.  Solitary confinement

is learning how not to drown in time.

No swimming through concrete.

You could swim through blood

but there never seems to be


enough.  In one version of his death,

my other uncle falls into a river; the bullets

kill him, not the water.  Other times

it’s the President, his secret police, the First Lady’s

tears of sympathy.

Lola goes by bus

to gather his remains.  Lolo stays behind.

He’s anchored, has been all his life

to Jesus & his wheelchair.  Can’t swim

but he can baptize.  He could baptize

a whole town, & does, & dies while watching

planes wheel past: a stroke.  Gone

but not his gaze, which cuts my flight path

like a searchlight.


In indoor swimming pools

you can sometimes hear

your own thirty-year-old laughter; waves

can take that long.  My eldest

takes to water easily; I count his strokes

in Japanese — ichi, ni, san.  He’s seven

thousand miles away.  Too long

& so I’ve left him home.


Tulang: poem pluralized to strangeness.

Made nasal, ng a sound

that will never start its own word

not in this tongue.  The ghost of an action:

how a gerund blindfolds

a verb to make it still: come, go.




Her singing—sight-reading—while we
                                    were supposed to be sleeping.

Dad downtown in a tower
                                    & thrum of the graveyard shift.

Her piano—even pianissimo
                                    throbbed the snow-muffled rambler.

Hymns that taught what the word is: a spell
                                    for collapsing distances. And folk songs,

her forte, a rep rehearsed for classmates
                                    who sometimes passed through:

they’d belt them out together
                                    flower print crowding the upright.

Afterward cackling in her language:
                                    uncrackable, though I thought I caught

the upshot: why here, in this white cold
                                    & quiet? As if winter could cure a childhood

of cholera & typhoons. Her hand:
                                    she transcribed my favorite melodies

as capitals on scrap paper. I hadn’t learned
                                    notation, but the keys I could solve, a code

checked against the ear. My brother too
                                    & the cousins who came for holidays

some of them born in Manila:
                                   I asked them all to string

songs into letters, caravans
                                    braving the whiteout. Everyone played;

some even understood Tagalog.
                                    Later not one of us could speak.



Chris Santiago’s poems, short stories, and criticism have appeared in FIELD, Pleiades, Revolver, The Asian American Literary Review, and elsewhere. He has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and for Best New Poets, and an Honorable Mention from the Ford Foundation. A Mellon/ACLS and Kundiman Fellow, he teaches at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN.