poetry and other works

Merlie M. Alunan worked for her Masters Degree in English at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, majoring in Creative Writing and studying under Edilberto K. Tiempo. She was a writing fellow of the Silliman University National Summer Writers Workshop and the UP Creative Writing Center. Most of the poems collected in this blogsite are from her first book collection, Hearthstone, Sacred Tree. The other works have also been published in local newspapers and other publications.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Rosas de Piedra

for Simone

When we heard word
A great silence
Walked into our world

Now in the wind
It thickens, it spells
Stillness in the waters
On the hillsides
The white spears of grasses
Quiver, stillborn grief
Hardens on our locked tongues
Our tears unshed
Are roses of stone
Inside our skulls

We shall grow
Continents of silence
Around your name, or else
My daughter
How shall we bear--
Without you in the sunlight
The rest of our days?


Fallen in battle in the mountains of Santa Catalina, Negros Oriental, 1987 A.D., a hill warrior talks to his daughter, three years old, from the trail where his bones lie unburied

Sure I had them in my backpack,
the piyaya, just as i had promised,
and the baye-baye from 'Nay Asyon.
She was asking about
the grandchild she'd never seen.
Also a comb for your mother.

The road from Siaton blew up.
Crossing the valley to our hut
to see you for the last time,
I left no footprints anyone could find.
So many things I couldn't
bring with me-- my gun, my boots,
left behind forever in the hidden trail.
Unseen, I watched your mother
waiting while you slept,
combing her hair by the gaslight
with slow patient fingers.
If they ever come
and cut your mother's hair
and bind her to bed,
run and hide.
Whatever you see, do not cry.
You will grow up, little one,
bearer of this vicious bond--

anger of your daughters,
revenge of your sons.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Fumespun fury well-told
Upon a turn of the windvane's tail
You can't escape by magic
Or the clever exercise of wit,
Deft designs the mind contrives
To trim the terror down to size
your teeth can bite down hard
Fighting the invasive chill.

The outcast passion wasting
The land, flogging the feeble trees
Runs a course in your own bloodtides.
When it comes harrowing the light
Or shredding the shrouds of light,
Bare your head to its carress.
Naked in its eloquence embrace
Yield all to the ravaging kiss.

September 9, 1988

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Writing the National Literature (Why Warays Must Continue Writing in Waray)

More than a hundred years after Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, and Francisco Baltazar’s Florante at Laura, how goes Philippine Literature? Racked as ever by schisms and controversies, and infected, no doubt, by the sociopolitical and economic ills plaguing the country.

Writers continue to grapple with certain pervading issues. To write in English or Filipino? Or to write in any of the 100 or so languages spoken across the islands, some of them by populations so small, they could only be found in an island one could cover on foot in, say, half a day, or in small remote towns of a few hundred houses.

The Myth of Isang Bansa, Isang Wika

Imaginably, we might have been overwhelmed a hundred years ago by our poly-lingual situation. Only Filipino and English, we ruled, to hasten national unity. Thus the anomaly of Isang bansa, isang diwa, isang bansa, isang wika became the catchword of the last fifty years. Cebuano, Warays, Ilonggos, Ilocanos, Pangasinenses, Pampangos, have not taken kindly to this rule. But resistance, by and large, have been weak. We have not had language wars, and so far, Filipino has over-run the airwaves north to south, east to west via radio, television and print without protest.

The dominance of English and Filipino has already been systematized in academe and in government. All the languages of the country have already been reduced to minority status—it remains for media to complete the rout. One might well ask, however, But aren’t all our other languages alive and well despite the dominance of English and Tagalog (or Filipino, if one is so minded to call it). Cebuanos continue to speak Cebuano, the Warays have not stopped using Waray, and occasionally Ilocano and Hiligaynon make it to some national ad on TV? You go to the places where these languages are spoken, to the market places, especially, and you will find these languages being used in the thick of the commerce. Doesn’t this prove that our languages are alive. Oh yes, but barely.

All that’s left of most of our languages are in these lively market scenes. Most of the songs and stories told in these languages are forgotten, or vaguely remembered or spoken about glibly or in tones of reverence though no one knows much about them anymore. Or if they are remembered at all, not much thought is being given to them. They have lost their value in the face of more immediate and popular attractions. After all, no self-respecting fan of River Maya or Parokya ni Edgar or Eminem or Sting would be caught dead singing Ahay, Kalisod except for a joke. Or for sentimentalism, in memory of a piece of anachronism for which one can no longer find any use in the contemporary lifestyle.

Economics of Scale

The economics of scale govern publications in general, whether of books or newspapers. It’s the argument very often used to boost English and Filipino—these are the national lingua franca, read and understood by majority in the countryside and used in academe, from the elementary level to graduate school. English and Filipino threaten to engulf all other literary productions in the country, north to south, east to west, as scholars, book writers and publishers undertake sporadic retrieval and translation of extant literature in the Philippine languages.

Language is one of the most sensitive issues in Philippine Literature today. What does Philippine Literature consist of? After almost a hundred years of concentration on English and Filipino, we are now saying what we should have said at the very start of our nationhood—Philippine Literature consists of all that have ever been thought and written by all Filipinos, no matter what language he/she uses.

The bodies of literature from the languages of our country comprise the entire body of our national literary heritage. Literature embodies our national memory. That explains the reverence we pay to the novels of Jose Rizal. These novels distil the memory of our people at that point in our history. In the process of devaluing the languages spoken in our countryside we are also devaluing the memories captured in these languages.

Writing the National Literature

In what language should the national literature be written? And who is to write it? Any language spoken by the people, anywhere in this country should be part of the national literature. Any Filipino, no matter what language he uses, may write the national literature. One among us, using the language closest to our soul, will write the piece that will reflect the spirit of our race.

If the work happens to be in English or Filipino, well and good. If the work happens to be written in Ilocano or Cebuano, or Hiligaynon, it is no less for being so. We are obliged as Filipinos to know as much of our country as possible, including learning as many of the languages spoken from end to end of our archipelago, without prejudice. That is part of the “rich cultural heritage” we are so proud to talk about.

Language displays the rhythms, the tones, the attitudes of our people. In the variations of our languages are refracted the diversity of our nature as a people. This diversity is part of who we are and what we are, and we cannot be unified until we embrace it as a distinct part of our nationhood. We can only fully appreciate the genius of our race if we begin sharing the collective memory of our people with understanding and pride. Jose Rizal wrote the sad annals of our awakening to national consciousness. So far his two books, the Noli and the Fili form the foundation of our collective memory.

But there are many more pages to discover, in the many tongues spoken across our seven thousand islands. To discover the national soul which is our common birthright, we have to read beyond Rizal. More than that, we have to continue collecting that memory, writing in the languages by which we live our day to day experiences. That is why Warays must continue writing in Waray, in the tradition began by their ancestors, continued by such lovers of the language as Iluminado Lucente, Eduardo Macabenta Sr., Pablo Rebadulla, Francisco Aurillo, Casiano Tinchera, Vicente de Veyra, and many others.

To continue writing in Waray is to contribute to the growth of the National Literature.

Old Man at Midday

Through a slit in the slats of the wood
By the kitchen stove from where I stood,
He looked no more than a thumb's length tall.
He would not see or hear me if I call.
Among the limp shrubs stunted with the heat he merged,
A scarecrow dressed in rags, dragging
His feet. I seemed to hear as he passed
The gravel crunching, the hiss of dead grass
He bent, perhaps to right a twig, or gather
An old man's poor booty in summer--
Wood to raise as evening's humble fire.
I would never see from where I stood
What fixed his eyes past the sapling grove,
But oh, why in my gut this sudden cold?

May 30, 1988

Young Man in a Jeepney

Trapped in a conspiracy
of chance we sit close inside
this sardine can on wheels
horning the gasfume streets

of this dust-tired afternoon.
How your shoulders
strain your shirt; a stray wind cools
your sweat in my skin.

"This heat," I mutter,
"melts the very bones,"
saying this as i feel
inside me awakening

sweet April, fragrant May
unfolding flower fingers
on her lap. If she dares
she might pass her coll palms

on your moist brow. My own hands
competent and perfectly mundane
clutch my little burdens
close against my chest.

"I declare," a woman nods back,
her grimace mirroring
our transient common woe,
"this heat does dry us all."

Do you hear her?
On our faces ravished
with their aging hope,
Do you see the rogue crack

Like mortar on a weathered wall?
At the stop you get off--
anchovy bodies come untrapped,
shaken loose in the space

you emptied, your frail warmth
is stuck in your wake, a trace
above the indomitable dust,
the iron smell of gas fumes.

I do not watch you turn
the corner to the sudden dusk.
But i smile to savor
my sin in secret.

My 28, 1988

Thursday, September 14, 2006

My Mother

Your womb described my earliest space--
Terse measure in pulses of our one blood,
The flow and turning of my fetal days.

I took from you more than shape of chin,
Span of bone, a cast of shadow in the eyes,
Accents of your speech, tone of tour skin.

It was your law whipped my conscience
Recalcitrant as hair loose in a wild wind
To strict conformity and terrible obedience.

Your unrepentant fears cower inside me
Shivering their dread of birth, danger
Ancient as the grave's wait for its fee.

It is your shelter I had yearned to fly,
Startling to the doom written in the blood,
The statement of our common destiny.

Watching you now inside this shrunken room,
Your skin a loose bag over your brittle bones,
I think how flight would only bring me home.

News for My Father

There's news abroad, a rumor to be sure,
bred, one supposes, from the Ancient Grudge
we bear against Existence, that in some
remote future, every father, regardless
of his estate, may order, in accordance
with a Model Plan, sons turned to perfection,
scions bright to carry on with exemplary vigor
the patriarchal glories, and daughters,too,
who, despite his just deserving, shall yield
a rare harvest of virtues-- wit and grace
to bear fine witness to his name, blessings
to last him to the end of his precious days.

Revision of the Master Plan is
certainly overdue, and most welcome to us
poor heirs to disproportion,
born scant of measure
to procure a father's pleasure,
or his notion of success.
But alas, notorious Existence
takes millennia to revise
what's fixed inAncient Rule
which grants Perfection only to Angels,
and condemns us poor Mortals
to the chancy povidence
of Love and Forgiveness to ease the burdens
of our humble state.

So then tell me, old man
with your tongue of wrath
and your heart of ice:
how should I live?

We Kept a Jarful of Keys

We kept a jarful of keys
on a forgotten shelf
in the house.
What doors they opened,
or what they kept forever locked,
before they came by accident
or chance into our little jar,
we never learned.
"Let them stay there,"
you said, your eyes on mine
saying, take all I have.
Since I had let you in
to share my little feast
and you'd not wish to leave,
I nodded, "Yes, there let them stay."

We hadn't reckoned how
the years would wear love thin.
And now your pained eyes
search my face for all
I shouldn't have taken, and I,
I ache for all I should have kept.
We hammer the doors of silence,
bruising with words we could not speak.
How did we ever think
we had no need of keys?

Sort of a Love Poem

Alongside each other they lir
Each one keeping to its side--
The ponderous land, the abysmal sea.

In the mountains, clarity and light,
Grey silence of silt, implacable downdrfit
Sucking in skeletons of whale

Perhaps on a September evening,
The sea in a playful mood may curl
Upon the shore its wavelets of lace;

The somber land beguile would murmur
In a voice heavy with rocks and trees,
"Stay, stay a while, a little longer,"

But the sea, tossing its frothy curls,
Would gather its weedy skirts and rush away,
Sighing and leaving to fade on the sand

Its bangles of coral, cowrie and kelp.
A story, my friend, without proper end.
And yet, I'm very glad we've met.

To a Poet Caught in the Will of the Sea

... tell nothing
in the flush of your fear
speak no word that the sea may hear

trust to it no name call no one
enemy or friend utter not one sigh
to snag on a reef

or curl round the coral keep
furl song in your throat tales of fire
laughter and ice cram in your

brimful eyes confess nothing
in the crest of your fear
lock up your tongue

that when it chill fingers
reach deep to pluck out your heart
make no sound not one prayer

vault your voice
telling the wind nothing nothing
to the very end nothing...


Oh dear Ana, what a clatter
it made-- the sun going down
beyond the hill, rumble of red
and screaming gold-- we dared not
look back, racing fast as we could
the rain to our door.

Tonight friendlylike,
the wind shall whistle,
tease the dark leaves, beg
to come in, while we
(safe behind our doors)
may dream of it streaming
green summer sap under our skin
scraped by raw coral shards,
sands, the barks of trees.
A safe wind turned to our will,
tame to the prickly mind
seeded with grss,
briar and burr, taste
of plundred gardens tingling
on our wakeful tongues, the slugs
wounded under our feet.

Our windows would hang tight
though the wind may sing
through all the long night.
But oh sweet Ana,
what of the morning
when the sun shall rise
rattling at our door
its sabres of light?
How shall we fare,
dear Ana, would you know?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Two Poems for VNS


"Shaman, oh Shaman,
Oh what shall I do?
My dear son refuses
The broths that I brew."

"Squeeze him and tease him
And give him a kiss
And you'll find dear witch,
He'll do as you please."

"Shaman, oh Shaman,
Oh what a big shame!
My old pot he's broken,
He's doused out the flame!

"My bats he has driven,
My spiders he's crushed!
He's poured off my potions,
My phials he's bashed!"

"Well, slap him and kick him,
And tweak at his nose,
And pound him and pinche him,
And learn him who's boss!"

"Oh shaman, sweet shaman,
Now what have I done,
Kicking and pinching
My own lovely son?

"He mumbles and grumble,
He squiggles and sighs,
He squibbles and scribbles
And tries to look wise.

"His language sounds strange,
His eyes they look wild,
Oh Shaman, dear brother,
Would he ever change?"

"Poor wretched witch,
You may talk till you're blue
But I fear your sweet son
Will never be like you.

"He seems quite beyond help
By all witchcraft's art--
You must learn dear sister,
That soon you must part.

"Your son he has taken
To rhyming and verse.
His heart won't be won
By your wiles or your tears.

"But take heart, dear sister,
Do take heed and pray,
He'll make as good a rhymester
As this shaman you see!"


serpent's jawbone
lizard's tail monkey's paw
curse of an aging snake,
frog's croak
distilled in dew
sign omens
gypsy spells--

my friend, this
cluttered landscape
you inhabit
teaches you nothing.

this is all
you need to know:

this old moon
this new moon
that waxes and wanes
waxes and wanes
in the seascape
of your own blood

when it sings
as tide sings
in the strand
hush your croaking frog
your clicking lizards

and listen
oh listen