Rigorous
Volume Three, Issue 3



The Sky Beams Flamboyant

Alfonso Manalastas


The first time I encountered the word guillotine,

I confused it for gluten and spent
weeks wondering what new brand
of Keto diet had decided
to pay my generation a visit

this time, when my city crumbles,
I imagine it to sound
like snapping a biscuit in half,
the kind that forms

in the mouth the exact moment
the word fuck is conceived,
how it trips and knots
at the throat but still manages

to swim up to the surface, breathe,
take a life of its own,
maybe even get married one day
and name one of its children

after the pope, who knows?
For now, I am inclined to believe
when Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin
invented the device

that would cause thousands
of heads to fall
from the thousands of bodies
they once belonged to—

all of them presumed murderers
and thieves disloyal to the crown,
traitors to the French monarchy,
heretics and false gods, you

name it; noblemen and the poor
both bleeding the same red—
he must have slow danced
his wife and whispered to her ear

I promise, this will all be good.




White Bodies Splayed on White Sand

1.

There is no mapping out a space
definable only by the pigment

of its occupants. In these shores,
the economy of skin and hair

and eyes outweighs the mandate of coin.
An island local jokingly quips:

the border that outlines General Luna
from the rest of Siargao is determined

by the sudden, sporadic presence
of white bodies splayed on white sand.

A German tourist at a local nightclub
takes out his phone to film six

brown bodies across him, cheeks
blushing pink, teeth polished

and gleaming like mothers-of-pearl;
an ornate display of what attempts

to be the finest catch in an island
best known for its clam and fish—

their scales silky, slippery; guts strong
like shells carrying saltwater; mouths full

and seething with a language
so broken it is almost beautiful.


2.

On the day General Antonio Luna
was assassinated, the sky broke open

unleashing glacial wind over tropical
seas for the first time, his corpse

lathered in red amplitudes, purple
spreading on his meaty back barely

leaving any trace of brown on his skin—
such is the betrayal of man, how once,

the Kawit guards struck him on the head
with a bolo, life slowly trickling from his

still-warm body, a most swift decay
of his voracious, unforgiving name. Now,

the name General Luna sits on maps
that point a surfing capital known best

for its pristine whiteness, forts of bamboo
sticks shooting upward like white pickets,

transient beds laced with blonde hair
and freckled limbs, then, the brownness

of the soil yielding to the sand’s sprightly
shimmer: a carnage of shells, mollusks,

splinters of corals—fragments sprawling
dead across a shore bleached so white,

I might’ve overheard giggling children
once proclaim it looks just like snow.


3.

In a packed city of thirteen million
you can always count on a body

lying still, a disruption of space
and movement so palpable, the world

can’t help but stop dead in its tracks.
In its stillness, mortal and mutable

at the core of every life, you can always
count on the chalk that outlines

the body as though all it takes to keep
liquid from spilling out of a wound’s

gaping mouth is a white line that cannot
be crossed. On my flight back to Manila,

I carry the weight of the sand still stuck
stubborn on the creases of my khaki,

my body a repository of grain fine
and wispy as gunpowder: something

lethal to fuel this rage with. I take
my bags and forget the island; this city

prefers things fleeting. I shut my eyelids
on the ride home; this city thrives

in darkness. I watch sand spiral over
my shower drain, in a city frozen

to a standstill, where the closest thing
alive is water swirling, breathing, white.




The invention of guns came before the invention of sliced bread

             A man in uniform steadies his pulse
coils his fingers around the cold steel
             as he tilts his body for the perfect aim:
point blank and between the eyes
             his hot breath simmering below his nose
coaxing the bullet at the muzzle
             where a rush of heat engulfs, quickens
at the fall of a body to the ground
             like a fresh clump of dough beaten
to a perfect round, tossed and dropped
             on the cold surface of a linoleum countertop
before it can earn its place inside the oven.
             And who are we to argue with history
when the invention of guns came
             before the invention of sliced bread,
how humans looked towards gunfire
             for survival long before they ever looked
at packed carbohydrates sold
             to the rich in brown paper bags, pre-sliced
for convenience, a thirst sponge
             never to be consumed cold. 




The Moon Addresses her Enemies

“In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union developed secret plans for an unprovoked nuclear strike against [the moon].”
             —The Atlantic, 5 April 2017

I see you, clad in metal badges pinned to green,
a troop of the finest men marching at your
command and disposal, your finger—foolish,
condescending—pointed at my face, as if

to question my place among the stars. I see you,
donned in holy robes, scepter, staff, the body
and blood of Christ for nourishment; your impulse,
the divine will of an imagined god. I see you,

gray suit and leather, sparking trade inequities
and carving hunger in the world’s most remote.
This isn’t the first time I’ve stumbled upon your kind:
specks scrambling like wildfire around Earth’s

lush foliage, you come to me in many forms,
from many dynasties, across many centuries
with the credence and conviction that you will one day
see me fall and never rise again. How unabashed

you were after setting fire to the women of your
people: witch, gypsy, harlot, whore, you aim
for me—your planet’s lone companion—looking
to burn down what you cannot defeat. Or, looking

to burn down what you cannot attain. You call me
Luna. Lunar. Lunacy. How you examine my fullness
with glittering eyes and waxing obsession, dare
blame me for your bestial brothers, the fangs

they grow, dare call it madness. As with the soft
outer layer of an eggshell, you mistake my skin
for something decadent, brittle, can be cracked open
by force except something inside refuses to be naked.

Do you despise the lighthouse I become in the dark?
How it denies you the power you hold at night?
How it clothes my sisters from the nakedness
you inflict? Do you despise
                                                                          how it unrapes them?

I orbit around your seas, your valleys, your deserts,
beckoning women across six continents to bleed
in the parts you want to conceal the most.
Their bodies—diminutive in size and heedless

of their power—are vessels of a life force unbreakable,
like a rock in space whose permanence gloats boisterously
against your quiet mortality. O, how jealous
you must be that a decade from now, you will set forth

on an expedition to plant a steel rod on my surface.
You will send two of your best men to X-Ray my deepest
secrets, chart my vast expanse, deface my solitude
with your star-spangled banner. Loud and liquid,

the story of your bounty will be spilled across every
dinner table, how man alone tamed and conquered
the undying beast in the sky. My vanity, to be televised
for a world that has forgotten what gravity I hold

in my navel, what light I carry in my breasts, what
succor I bring to the rising of the tides. Yours, after all,
was not the first finger to be pointed at my face.
I’ve seen them from kings whose crowns bleached

to rust, thrones crumbled to ash, men shriveled
to gray, and soon, you will, too—but I will be
the same moon coasting through the night whose flight
is yours to observe only from a distant telescope.




Juxtaposing Hotel Luna

1.

A blood splattered painting
hangs regally in a corridor:

increments of the artist’s DNA,
some overt political message,

an antiquated brass frame,
deftness, dexterity, taste.

A woman in shiny pearl earrings
stays at the hotel, smokes Esse

along the cobblestoned streets
of Calle Crisologo, a microcosm

of Spanish occupation in rural
Ilocos where a plume of smoke

erupts from her mouth, lungs
brimming with ash and heat.

The rate goes: four thousand
pesos a night, not bad

for its middle-class occupants;
a pool, an intercontinental breakfast,

a blood splattered painting
perched outside your door

to decorate your mornings
with, as a warning, perhaps.


2.

We will stroll around this city
made of stone. We will meet

at 8:30 sharp, travel by foot past
old walls, red bricks leaking out

of concrete like gushing skin.
We will have steaming white rice

for stamina, meat in distinctly
Vigan sauté for protein, something

sumptuous that will say we are
neither of this land nor new to it;

what hybrids can find love in a city
that sells horseshit and decay

by the pound, and be so in love, still,
that we are drunk after two beers,

unperturbed by the click-clack of
the kalesa, how spit and sweat are traded

in gleaming currency, how we barter
for more as soon as we run out.

The hotel staff will find our sheets
disparate from their appointed beds,

a crescent yellow forming outward
from the center—nothing that good

detergent can’t fix in Hotel Luna
where it’s business as usual.


3.

The philosophy of forgiveness
resides not in the abandonment

of history, or the virtuous denial
of our pain, but in the cruelty

of remembering, how we preserve
the cages we were slaughtered in,

how we bend our knees in worship
of the wealth that flourished

on our hunger, how we build highways
out of stones we collected on our broken

backs, how we slice off our tongues
to learn the language of our enemies,

how we create monuments
out of bomb shelter ruins,

how thirty pesos per person
is what it costs to enter bell towers

built in the names of those
who enslaved us, how so willingly

we surrender our last change, how we
take the shape of our oppressors

and sell it back to them, complemented
with the finest hotel arrangements

our tempered sense of selves can offer,
certain they will come back for more.




Paint by Numbers as Van Gogh

I once was asked on a job interview to describe
the color blue to a blind man, to which
I responded with a resounding no, I said

what sick man would I be if I lied? The truth is,
who knows for sure what blue looks? Like
right now, as I glance at the sky hand-painted

on this marvelous box, I see a flurry of blueness
—eight different kinds numbered differently,
the opacity to which they’ve found their resolve.

Some even a little green. You can show me a picture
of the sea perched perfectly still and I wouldn’t
know the difference for what is the sky

but just an ocean without gravity to hold it back?
Eleven stars and a moon—now this, I can tell
clearly, is a starry night, an approximation

of all the dark we’ve abandoned in the day, blueness
whirling around yellow dots as if to devour them.
Such carnivorous display twinkling above cities

whose hues and pigments pulsate
under the tyranny of math—three for blue, four
for another kind of blue, and so on. So tell me,

how am I to describe the color blue to a blind man
without its name? Six is also blue,
and so is seven. Instead, I turn to the cypress tree

black and sullen in its singular hush of dark,
its tree bark clawing up the rectangular frame
as if to say here dear blue, devour me, too.


Alfonso Manalastas: "I am an op-ed contributing writer, a poet, and a spoken word artist from the Philippines. I was accepted as a poetry fellow for two national writers’ workshops, and have spoken in two TEDx events in Cebu and Davao. My op-ed articles can be found in Rappler, Scout, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, while six of my poems are in the 12th edition of Likhaan: the journal of contemporary Philippine literature (UP Press)."




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