Poems from A Smell of Burning Starts the Day


“You made a mistake” are the first words
we hear when our feet touch ground.
And they bang the side of the bus
for us, to stop it. “Quickly,
get back on!” Jeepney drivers, children,
women from the market stalls
behind us, even the uniformed man
with a pistol and leather shoes–
crying, “Sir, Ma’am, someone
has fooled you, please, there is nothing
here.” It’s hotter here than the city,
that’s what we notice first, and the lack
of color. But we look east
and it’s there–Arayat, a pale blue cone
above the bare exhaustion of the plain.
Bundles of firewood, sacks of charcoal, leaking
a black powder into the dust;
piles of palm hats, bunches of broom-grass,
some still carrying seed; and multicolored
bouquets of plastic shoes–
this we pass in half a block, the crowd trailing
yet hanging back, making no offers
to carry, sell, or direct.
And that’s what we notice next,
the caution. Two drivers
come to their senses first: wherever
we mean to be, someone might be paid
to take us. So, when we drag our luggage
into the first open store,
sit down and order beer,
they sit down too, to watch us,
until the one who’s braver,’
or speaks better English,
or is more in need of money,
asks us where we’re from.

Colorado–no, they don’t know it.
Rocky Mountains–no, they don’t know it.
John Denver–yes, they know him! So,
we are from John Denver, and why are we here?
Are we Air force, Navy, Marines?
Civilian–but that is a word the woman
who owns the store must translate. And yes,
there are in this half of the province
two hotels. “I will take you,”
says the less bashful driver,
and moves a few feet closer.
But when we begin to negotiate
the price of a day’s hire,
based on the price of gas and beer,
our best guess of how much more
than what they need they’ll ask for,
we have again this problem–
there is nothing here. Perhaps
you will let me drive you to the seashore.”
So we give the whole list of places
we’re come to see. They’re all within
twenty miles of the store we’re sitting in, but
we must say it again,
and a third time. At last they begin
to laugh and poke each other,
to talk back and forth so fast
that the only word we recognize
is revolución. Yes, we can start with a list
of barangays. Yes we can see them
all in a day–no, two,–three at most.
And the mountains, yes, and the bombing range.
“But please do not be disappointed.
There is no scenery, only
like you see here, but worse.”

By now the man with sunglasses
is sitting at our table,
and he cannot seem to stop smiling
with his many gold teeth. He has no idea
just what he has gotten into,
but we have accepted his price.
It means he will have a new roof
before the rains begin.
It means he will have a day off
before the end of the year.
It is something like the sky opening,
saying there will be rice,
something like the lucky break
his wife has long believed in.
And he wants to start right now,
right away, does not even want
to drink the beer we paid for. He takes
our luggage, seats us, in solitary splendor,
in the twenty-passnger jeep–
and we’re off, three innocents, a little
breathless, a little drunk. We leave
pavement, turn left down a line of trees
so the mountain is behind us.
And we’re all smiling, all polite, watching
each other in the rear-view mirror.
We’ve come to see the only thing they have.
He understands. But none of us knows yet
if we can see it, if any word
we have in common names it. We name ourselves
as we speed west, a cloud of dust already
attached to us like a sail.
Anxious to please, he begins to explain
a few things we will need to know.
How his province is poor. How the people farm.
And how in the hills beyond the cane
a few who don’t farm live
by hunting orchids, the flowers that grow
on nothing.

–Capas,Tarlac Province, Philippines, 1985


At a P.C. Sergeant’s House  
Zambales Mountains

Recent Posts