19 November 2013
The news came at breakfast. I was feeling sick, I wasn’t able to sleep all that much. I have been tossing and turning in my bed, and around three in the morning I threw up for an hour in the bathroom. Get a grip, I told myself, as I was wiping my mouth and looking at myself in the mirror, trying not to cry. They’re not dead yet, and today you will look harder. I must. I fell asleep making an outline in my head of things to do: call Red Cross, cross-check with media centers, go through Google Person Finder alphabetically, in case names are misspelled and miscategorised.
At breakfast, some news at last. Alive. M! They are alive. Alive.
The 18th is the last day of ModPo. The class is drawing to a close, though the forums would be open until next year when it is time to begin again.
Things are ending. And lives that I thought were lost are here, and saved. It was past seven in the morning and I burst into tears, all the relief and adrenaline coming up to the surface.
Alive, alive, alive.
After about two hours of crying I sat down to write you a letter. But it was as if my fingers have forgotten how to write. All I could do was curl up into a ball and sob my heart out. I don’t know how to deal with this–all this joy and release and just–the feeling of being saved. Because I was. I was saved, too.
Around noon I started to write a letter to Al and my fellow community TAs. I apologised for being remiss in my duties for the past week, and because I can finally bring myself to talk about it, I told them why. I said, my family and I are safe in Manila. But there are other people I know who weren’t, and the past week has been hard work trying to find them.
I said, I went to bed every night with lines of ModPo poems in my head. And not just those that talk specifically about grief, too. I think of Pound, and the image of faces as petals haunt me. I think of all the debris that lie in Leyte. Of all the fallen coconut trees. Of the dead littering the streets.
I think of Dickinson, and the thought of Floods splitting the Hills is magnified in my mind. In class we talk about splinters, about uncontrollable currents and how they explode, how they deliver an incredible amount of destruction. We talk about water as an irresistible force. I think about the storm surges–how they forced themselves into towns, homes, families.
I think about how one typhoon has shattered every idea we have about security and safety, about the cruelty of nature vis-a-vis the kindness of people, the complacency of expecting things to stay as they are. In a country made up of more than seven thousand islands, I thought we already knew everything about water. With an average of twenty typhoons passing through our borders, I thought we already understood everything there is about wind and rain. But ah, how little we know, in the end. In the face of such magnificent and terrible force, how the world must be telling us, and you, and everyone, that change is needed. Is imperative.
Do you know that we have a word for it? Storm surges, I mean. We call it daluyong. I have forgotten. To me that word is old and has no place in my vocabulary. Because we haven’t experienced it in a long time. Because it is the title of a novel that is required reading in high school. Because over the years the word has become associated not with a physical manifestation of water, but merely a metaphor for the tide of problems and waves of change that we face in life. And now perhaps nature is making us remember why we have a word for it in the first place.
The discussion about having a word for storm surge is one of the many things that preoccupies us now. There was a lot of criticism and talk about how people failed to understand the weight and danger of the words ‘storm surge’ because it does not evoke fear, compared to the word ‘tsunami.’
Again, I go back to ModPo. I think about one of the very first things that Al said: how poetry allows us to shift our attention to language, because language is not just a utility but self-making. A while ago, during the last live webcast, that came up again–the languaged self. I remember this: that we have an ethical responsibility of the way we use our language. That we should stop believing that the substance of what we say is sufficient. That the how of what you say is what you say.
Other lines from poems that repeat in my mind over and over for the past week:
A festering pulp.
What price bananas?
Real life emergencies or
flubbing behind the scenes.
Back wings of the hospital.
Which shore? Which shore?
The darkness surrounds us.
We have no word.
To die, so you live.
I bequeath myself to the dirt.
And so much more. I said, I hold on to these words and these poems and try to anchor my life, my self there. I said, I remember what I learned, how truth can sometimes be disorienting and impossible.
Last year I learned so much about grief, and grieving, from Stein, O’Hara and Hejinian. This year their works are still teaching me, but I find that more than that, more than the poetry, the ModPo family has held my hand and embraced me and took care of me at a time in my life that I was so sure was slipping from my grasp again.
How is it, M., that once more poetry and ModPo become the glue that holds me together?
You asked about flight. For the past few days that’s all I can think about: to get on a plane and fly to Leyte, and see what I can do to help. To find some magic that would turn me as small as a bird, so I can just leave my life, and spend my days perched on a tree or soaring through the sky.
This morning: The worry that I would only add to unnecessary chaos if I go to Tacloban. The despair upon learning that my friends’ houses are destroyed, that there is nothing left, that they have been starving for days, that their livelihood is gone–and the desire to be with them, to offer them my physical presence so they won’t feel so alone.
The regret that I am unable to go to the Kelly Writers House and meet old and new friends I’ve made through this class.
The ache that I can’t be with you when you need me, that I can’t hold your hand and sit with you as you unpack your feelings about your grandmother dying.
The tremendous sadness at the fact that I live so far away, oceans away, from a lot of people and things that I love and matter to me.
How long is someday, I ask myself.
You asked about roots. I think it means staying. It is deciding to stay. Emily, a ModPo TA, said during the webcast: “Staying with someone or something is a powerful expression of love.” I think about the week I’ve had. I think about looking, day in, day out, looking and looking and not giving up. I think about the people who held on, who gripped whatever they could get their hands on, and waited out the typhoon, the water. I think about all those who haven’t left their towns, their homes, those who sit with their dead on the streets. Those who show up at volunteer centers to pack relief goods, all day and all night.
I think about you, how you are here, how you continue to write to me even if I am late, how your hand is stretched out to me, constantly searching, constantly waving, until I can grasp it again.
I think that’s how you grow roots–having decided to stay, even if you have all the reason in the world not to.
In another one of the webcasts, Al said, “I have done nothing else in my career except stay.”
I am extremely grateful for that. I don’t think I will ever be able to tell him how much. Because he stayed, he is changing so many lives. Because he stayed, years later, he has saved me.
And because I stayed where I was, in a small corner that I have created for myself, you have found me.