In Possibility
Luisa A. Igloria



uisa A. Igloria was featured in the Doudna Arts Center New and Emerging Artists Series on April 6, 2009.

Originally from Baguio City in the Philippines, Igloria, who previously published as Maria Luisa Aguilar-Cariño, is a tenured Associate Professor and the Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program, Old Dominion University. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Crab Orchard Review, The Missouri Review, Indiana Review, Poetry East, Umbrella, Sweet, qarrtsiluni, poemeleon, Smartish Pace, Rattle, The North American Review, Bellingham Review, Shearsman (UK), PRISM International (Canada), Poetry Salzburg Review (Austria), The Asian Pacific American Journal, and TriQuarterly.

Her many, many national and international literary awards include the 2009 Ernest Sandeen Poetry Prize for Juan Luna's Revolver (University of Notre Dame Press); the 2007 49th Parallel Poetry Prize; the 2007 James Hearst Poetry Prize; the 2006 National Writers Union Poetry Prize; the 2006 Richard Peterson Poetry Prize; the 2006 Stephen Dunn Award for Poetry; the 2004 Fugue Poetry Prize; the first Sylvia Clare Brown Fellowship, Ragdale Foundation (2007); a 2003 partial fellowship to the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg; two Pushcart Prize nominations; a 1998 Fellowship at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers in Lasswade, the Midlothians, Scotland; and the 1998 George Kent Award for Poetry.

An eleven-time recipient of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, the Philippines' highest literary prize, Igloria has won in three different genres (poetry, nonfiction, and short fiction) and been accorded the award council's Hall of Fame distinction.

Luisa and her husband currently reside in Norfolk, Virginia with three daughters. A fourth daughter lives and works in Baguio.

In Possibility

Shock-haired scientists and mathematicians in scruffy
          sweaters, bald-headed Nobel prize winners; four-foot tall
prodigies still trying to master the art of tying their shoelaces,
          geniuses who mutter to themselves at street corners, looking
like surreal undertakers — interviewed, they say the instant
          of discovery is like a simultaneous pleating and expansion:
a tiny moment, then the catapult toward infinity.  Imagine

           the simplicity and elegance of a paper fan, stillness

and cooling wind both caught in mountain-and-valley folds.
         Imagine an accordion wheezing in and out: asthmatic
exercise, then music shiny as brass tokens on a carousel.
           Late one night or early in the morning when everyone
is still asleep, the golden ball of insight appears. Compact at first

          like Fermat’s last theorem, then it unspools

its complicated proof past the margins, on blackboard
          after blackboard — all parts accounted for at last.
One thread of irrefutable truth, more than three
         hundred years old. Light always follows the shortest
possible path,
as Fermat knew; a view of optics not popular
         with other mathematicians in his time. It comes to me

that such moments could be the same in poetry, when 

a handful of particulars can stretch toward a limitless
         horizon of insight and pleasure. . . . I think of the model to illustrate
the boundaries of self-conscious knowledge (human understanding
         that sees its own position transparently), constructed by my
philosophy teacher in college — a series of glass domes, enclosing
         this world and each other, the total number of which we
could not possibly see unless looking down, like gods,

upon the whole.  Perhaps ours is not the only world, he suggested;
         perhaps there are other selves identical to those that only live
and gesture here, and long to dwell in possibility. Are we

         already there? Are you at this moment coming indoors
to show me what you’ve whittled from a piece of wood,
         found on one of your walks in the woods; and am I coming
downstairs to show you the new poem I’ve worked on all afternoon?
         Sitting on the porch steps there to share a glass of wine,

I’ll tell you of a distant country, its map inked in jeweled colors
          under glass, where lizards scamper down the walls and kiss
the ground at dusk. Being no genius in this life, I don’t know what
           has happened to all the other lives we’d lived elsewhere
before we happened to each other — each with its accordion file
          marked randomly with children, partners, and careers;

weekdays sewing in a factory or plowing a field, washing
          windows, or prospecting for gold. Perhaps they’re spindled
in a glass, visible awhile before they vanish. Perhaps the only
          proof that we were ever here’s the imprint held by our bodies
inside the moments when we love each other, the sense
         of all we’ll ever know or do not know of who we are
and what we’ve felt, igniting in the gradual instant.



from Juan Luna's Revolver, University of Notre Dame Press, 2009

In 1904, more than 1100 indigenous Filipinos were transported to St. Louis, Missouri, to serve as live exhibits at the World's Fair and Exposition.

Far from the province of
          beginnings, I can acknowledge my face

has finally begun to resemble the canvas it feared
          most. But I remember how it was to feel my way

down mountain trails, drink from hair-lined throats of plants, sleep
            crouched among the fiddlehead fern. Three days, five,

then the canopy lightened. I walked past clearings where crops
            had taken hold: sweet potato and beans trained to the stake,

runners and tendrils curling toward commerce in the markets. Even before
            I saw the first few shingled houses, unhappy dogs

tethered to their posts smelled my approach. Faces gawked
            as I walked past. To them I was a stranger,

dark and not to be trusted; my woven skirt a red-striped
            carnival tent that might open to what they

could not imagine — though I’d spent my whole life until then,
          no farther away than where they might glance  

at the sun lowering itself at the horizon, between notched
            limestones; a few moments of convulsive light, mother-

of-pearl sheen, ripple of cream, stroke that primes the canvas
            before darkness closes around the world like a bead.


Detached figure, I walked to the bay where crowds gathered around fishing
nets.  Flies hovered above their heads, dark wings gold-tipped

like doors of miniature tabernacles, though this was before the time of my      saving
          and instruction. The heat, threaded with salt and moist as a mouth, 

made me swoon. What I desired: to hoist myself over the side
            of the first vessel I saw, lie down in its shadowed hold, as if

the lap-lap, lap-lap of water would take me to you. But my purpose
            was intercepted. Someone came forward, guided me across a road,

into the town. Whereto? I did not know, but at that time I believed
          all paths would make themselves plain again so I could find my way. 

I slept and woke. In a glass, a woman brought me the milk of an animal
          and made me drink. I rose from my pallet in the night and shat in the garden

under a manzanilla tree until my sweat was warm again, unclammy. 


A season passed. We stayed a few months in that town, and then another
         just like the one to which I made my way when first I left our village. 

The man I worked for took pictures – some landscapes, farm houses
          and crosshatched dwellings; they sighed a little

as ethers in the tray affixed their souls to paper. A few of wildlife:
          a bird with its breast rouged as though from harm, one lost

cloud-rat before it skittered away toward the forest. 
          It came to me his interest was people that in some way resembled me

as I resembled them. He loved our habit: the tiny bells that women dangled
          from belts of plaited horsehair, their combs of polished wood,

boxes where areca nut and leaves are stored for chew, their insides stained
          the same wild red as spit. He loved their deformities and rituals:

he catalogued the splayed toes and claw-feet of grandfathers, earlobes distended
          by pipes and padlocks; folds of skin, fingers troubling a pig’s spleen

for omens, horoscopes. His wife had me help in the maintenance
          of their world: buying food from white or lowland traders, boiling

to render safe for consumption; mending the worn but goodly
          linens. It was she instructed me and sought to baptize me, secretly

afraid of  words I mumbled in dreams, in my own
          language. Husband, even then I dogged your shadow in my sleep.   

I learned to wear shoes on my feet. Garments covered my breasts and arms,
          and these I took off only when, eventually, I posed for him—

my dark breasts artfully concealed under an arrangement of necklaces,
          agate and carnelian. I came to understand their talk, their gestures

and nuances. I was cook and laundress, subject, apprentice, their
          surrogate. They praised me like a daughter

In the sun, I whitened clothes. I ripened
          beside the honeysuckle, tending my time.

Author's Note: The Philippine Reservation at the 1904 World’s Fair and Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, was laid out across 47 acres near the Arrowhead River. The cost for building it, as well as for transporting over 1,100 indigenous Filipinos from the islands, amounted to more than a million dollars and was financed by the American Government and its colonial branch in the Philippines.  The Filipino bodies at the fair made up half—and the largest—contingent of native bodies.  Live exhibits of Filipinos, Ainu, Native American Indians, and pygmies, were meant to illustrate the development of nations from savagery to civilization, and America’s role as a new imperial power.



Songs for the Beginning
of the Millennium
© 1999. Manila, Philippines, De La Salle University Press. As Maria Luisa Aguilar / Maria Luisa Aguilar Cariño.


                   In the land of the headhunters the trip north

                   was made in the dry season when the sea

                   was quiet along the coast                                (900)

                   Before this we had seen them

                   through our field glasses   Where we lay

                   in the bleached grass the trail

                   was visible   They came to dip       

                   fish baskets in the water

                   while the children dug for mollusks

                   I saw one touch the husk of a star-

                   fish to her cheek trailing a fine

                   stream of sand   It was a gesture

                   both touching and nostalgic                           (1000)

                   making one wonder if after all

                   they were capable of beauty

                   which reminds me of their bodies

                   and lips   Oil-dark and dwarfish   Broad

                   nostrils deflating with each

                   breath and the exertions they made

                   Our experts say they ornament

                   their bodies with the dyed points

                   of sharp quills or sticks   Others

                   make wounds with strips of bamboo                 (1010)

                   rubbing dirt to raise large welts

                   From a distance these have

                   the appearance of ridges   Reptilian

                   scales   Motifs repeated in rows of two

                   and three stippled with faint

                   yellow or blood-crusts   Women

                   tattoo only the arms   How is it not

                   possible to believe what’s written

                   of them   So we follow close a guide

                   into the villages   Days later we wake              (1020)

                   with the sound of gongs beating through

                   damp earth and our bellies   This means

                   either a wedding or a funeral which can take

                   months   A woman’s corpse propped

                   against the doorway of her house   Leaves

                   burn   Clouds pour smoke caught in the skin’s

                   dark tissue   All of which can mean

                   war   a hunting party to retrieve heads

                   for vengeance such as these strung on the house-

                   posts beside skulls of carabao and small           (1030)

                   animals   We fall asleep clutching our rifles

                   lulled by fog filling crevices of rock

                   and pine   I wake drenched in cold

                   sweat and moonlight dreaming

                   my body encased in death blankets

                   Their borders circled by lizards

                   from latticed neck to hem


In the continuity of voids, the desire was to track

a path from the eastern mountains, from the capes

through prairies, through hills and yawning canyons               (1040)

stretched as a wide swath onward to the farthest

outposts.  Green chains of islands, rebellious horizons

now always leagues before the traveling sun

so that there would be no intervening

moment of darkness, only a trail reminiscent

of blood upon the waters.  Here is a man

inscribed within a circle within a square,

composing orderly cubits of desire:  a geometry

of erected space, rendering the world and its orbits

chosen and transparent — yellow lines to mark borders,          (1050)

blue for rivers; red for highways and new railroads.

Place names adhering to parchment.  Magnetic,

leaping like obedient fish into the hands of the namer

He who had been granted another night forestalled

into what was to be a narrative of eternal fatality.


In the predawn stillness of a city nearly overtaken

by slumber, I hear on the asphalt the sound of hooves,

the circlet of a revolving wheel.  It is a sound

swollen with the richness of texture, married to the curved

handrail and peeling paint of its carriage, to the limping horse  (1060)

whose flanks heave like a bellows, whose head inclines

with such longing in the direction of water.  The river —

somewhere, uncoiling its length and giving up its dead

and dying to the moon: the colorless roots, the grey-washed

bodies that continue to bear witness in clear

strokes through the obliteration of their lips

and eyes.  Like history, the river accommodates,

parting its waters with the slightest

of rippleslike a sigh, admitting the large weights

and small inscriptions: all, into its limbic heart.                     (1070)


In the Bardo thos grol, the death of the body

is not a true event.  Flesh dissolves as soil 

loosened by moisture, its bruises clearing

like smoke changed into wind, or torrents.

This is not to say that we forget — think

of those numberless bodies fallen into the clefts

of a field wet with rain and moss, their temples

crossed with bands of red, the sixfold knot

of the vulnerable heart armored in amulets,

unravelling from crimson into imminence.                              (1080)

In that war alone, how many beings crossed

the river of consciousness, forded the passageways

between — leaping from hinge to hinge, mirage

to mirage, from pain of bayonet thrust or volley

of lead, to clear candle flame and moonlit sky?

From the rude floors of huts, those who can raise

neither hope nor complaint perform the miracle

of daily awakening.  A pulley hoists into air

a rectangle of cloth with intersecting

planes of color — the clear blue and fluorescent                     (1090)

yellow, a white field edged with its triumvirate of stars

and gold corona; the red, a plain soaked in blood

to signify life that has ebbed away, and life

yet to come.  How else might we explain the daily

acrobatics of survival?  The worker suspended

a hundred feet above the avenue on scaffolds

of threaded bamboo, the child stitching her way

through traffic with an offering of garlands and scent.

An Ibaloi in drab pantaloons blinks at a busy

intersection in the city, stretching out a hand;                     (1100)

he walks, lost warrior, between cars’ rolled-up windows

as if protected by the braided bachelor’s cap and its one

jaunty decoration, a rooster’s feather — as if the dream

of mountains could sustain him in the searing heat

and these refusals, returning only his beggared

image in the glass.  Perhaps it does.  Perhaps, he  

is still the surer voyager among us.

Having known another time when the earth

could not be held by drawn limits on paper,

his feet trust better the nimbus of dust                               (1110)

raised around his ankles, the anthem

of air delivered in the clear, cold night

under naked stars.  Meanwhile, in the glittering

domes of malls or airport terminals, an arsenal

of taut bodies tests visions of the future.  Flight

is a moving staircase, a cocoon of glass

lit with reflecting mirrors.  Here, it is said,

the edges of continents have already begun to blur,

like bodies merging into a sea of fluids, in-

distinguishable sex, the armament of markets,                      (1120)

politics, intrigue.  Walls bounce images and sounds

from every possible direction.  Music pulses to crescendo

levels; persistent heartbeats envelope the moving body,

detached flaneur in space — visceral rhythms, silencing

all speech except desire.  The line spirals outward,

escaping limits.  Laid out from end to end, the stone

terraces of Banaue would circle half the earth.

Think of a line of dancers balanced

on this rim, arms held out against an expanse of sky.

In this dream they dance like the Fool in the tarot pack,          (1130)

perhaps naively courting disaster, but bravely ornamented —

joyous as a zero, potent with a sense of beginnings.

What does it matter that in that old hollow, a century

below this ledge where we are perched —

on the green esplanade, on the floor

of the meadow — municipal buildings rose,

a street cut through the axis of known north

and south?  A center where the public arts

could flourish, parks dividing the natural

elements for pleasure and recreation, fanning out                  (1140)

in pleasing motifs.  By then the wilderness

was considered kept at bay.  There, a trading post

and bakery; there, a telegraph office.  On elevated

land, decorous halls and courtrooms in the shadow

of the Governor’s Mountain.  On promontories,

barracks and military outposts.  But first

came the work of clearing according to the Plan:

pasturelands consolidated, ownership verified

according to clear measures and titles.

Cowpaths rerouted, villages rezoned and classified,               (1150)

as hygiene dictated was “only natural.” Above all,

in the visual field, an erasure of all

possible contaminants, their relegation

to the fringes:  huts, troughs, unruly

and domesticated animals.

Where the line ends in the middle of the sea,

at the turning of an age, at the crossing

of destinies — what does a body do with so much

history behind it, with so much and yet so little

space, with the gift of ruins and the lost chests of                (1160)

hammered wood and precious mother-of-pearl

containing all that one had loved in this

life and wished to take to the next?  The heart

knows no other recourse:  it opens its face to the wind,

like a wound, like a cup, like a thing that lives

the endurance of the fallen; that rises up, that waits

like the stones on the road which are most

abundant in repose, which seem to alter

nothing in the landscape, but un-

tutored yield their hearts: acknowledging the slow                (1170)

labor, the utter brutality of light, especially in its

apparent absence —


                     and so it is that in darkness,

something bleeds besides the heart plunging fully

into its fall.  Physics teaches that a falling

body should not feel its weight.  Careen into the wind, then,

tilt the balance of the universe.  Be brazen.  Cry,

Revolution!  like the lamp in that final chapter,

the one that should have lit up all Binondo and the world,

had remorse and love, the smaller concerns of familiar life,

not intervened.  I am not saying these                                (1180)

are not important — they are all

we have: the firefly flicker at windowpane, the warmth

of soup and blankets; the birth in the shanty, the lovers sighing

into each other’s hair by the docks.  A coin

has no measure for any length of loss or waiting,

nor for the sweetness of water in the shallows,

the pails of shellfish gathered by hand

and opening upon a bed of rice like petals.  The moon

rose once over Syquijor and I thought it was the sun

setting in reverse, abundance of gold and saffron yellow        (1190)

like witchcraft taking back the edict of night.

If I followed that sun, if I refused the order

to interpret the world as it appears — if I implode

my body on the space of what is given —

Revolution: tilt of the heart and gut,

complex spill of desire.  Do we endure the world,

or do we speed up the motion of the centuries?

Impermanent sphere, platform of being,

this country a few solemn specks whirling

in the indifferent sea.  Typhoon country, monsoon                (1200)

land, hieroglyph of disorder and pestilence.

I want to write a tarot of your brilliance, your chaos,

your pain and possibility.  If we could engineer

more moments of rupture, perhaps the clock

would bring us nearer again that portal we approached

in those years heady with oaths and gunpowder,

vermilioned with the blood and daring of heroines,

the amazement of men and women who could love

a reality still unknown, beyond the visible.

The millennium nears.  We count the stars;                         (1210)

tenderly we kiss, make violent love, traffick in bodies

and goods.  The land gives warnings.  It knows

the orbit of the world cannot sustain its course

without a test of passage.  It was done before.

It will happen again.  Look at our young

preparing for that world.  How they take

of man and woman, of beast and saint;

how they smear their mouths with knowledge

of the world and whimper in the islands of sleep

for that reed hammock lost in the mists of the dreaming        (1230)

sea.  We marvel at their armor, ardor as hard as flint in their eyes,

bodies that know too much, voices cobbling song from among the ruins —

alloy melted from this world that will make them

whoever they need to be in their time of reckoning,

lit by surreal fire and pestilential omens, fevered

with dreams, otherwise as fierce as ours.  The ocean

of suffering takes our sacrifices, sends

its in-rolling waves to quench our lit

fires — What is the size of the heart?  Only

a handful of earth.  How can it keep all the names                (1240)

and keepsakes of our small and breakable lives?


Country of ephemera,

multifarious sea of longings.

Starving moment sating itself

to the point of annihilation.

Passionate tunnel leading to the heart

that I seek like a wounded animal tired

of hunting in the dark.  Woman with flowers

wound through her hair and wounding

her painted cheeks, wandering the cities                             (1250)

of my youth.  Universe of impenetrable

ciphers, body of embraces upon whose bed

we are irrevocably impaled.  Centennial of desire,

you raise us to mad running, racing

full tilt through the hills with lit

torches; you string us, helpless, like flowers

before armies and tanks.  You tap

on the cynical heart at dawn

with unexpected presents: the pure

blue of a mountain edged with fire;                                    (1260)

light as clear as the inside of a prism;

a spoonful of melted ice drenched

in the sweetness of sampaguita,

so even the inside of my mouth becomes

a chapel where I can begin to praise you.

In a town in Samar, the people wait for the return

of a bell taken from their church tower.  A man

enacts his private Golgotha each Lenten Friday, seeking

the father who abandoned him in this desert.  A woman

has her palms pierced with five-inch nails because                (1270)

a dream of Christ has entered her body.  Breakable

vessels, signatures of terra cotta lined up on the path —

surely, the universe writes a numerology

of justice?  At the mouth of the bay, the city

repeats itself and spins its webs of steel

and glass.  The sea pleats and unpleats

its eternal syllable.  The fish lie in nets,

stunned by explosions.  The horizon bears,

each day, the weight of those who impel

their bodies through surrounding space.                              (1280)

What music was it that drew La China

Poblana, Filipina-turned-curandera,

to that galleon that left Manila for New

Mexico?  In a hotel bathroom in Chiang

Mai, from a port in Amsterdam; in a hospital

ward in L.A., or a university square

in Tokyo; in a factory yard

in Cainta, a Western

Country Music Palace in Baguio —

one night, they may see a star falling                                 (1290)

to earth, and feel something stir in the ashes:

echo of phoenix-feathers, the sound of long-

locked portals grating open, the intense

longing to call aloud to all the unknown

parts of this dormant body extending

across the water — from the tallow

of these wretched bones and fingers,

to the hollow of these broken

and reassembled ribs of dreams;

the stubborn molecules residing in the thighs                       (1300)

and groin, the bronze-dusted breasts; the length

of arms that have known the unbearable

ache of drought and the exquisite

dilemmas of fulfillment — the shape of a heel

and the longing in the arch of a calf forever

imprinted in leather, the way a fossil witnesses

to the responsible nature of salt and rock:  white

wound of leaf,  abandoned carapace of garden

snail, mute halos of lichen encircling

the places where pillows of lahar dust                                (1310)

hide the absolute disintegration of bones,

a kitchen sink, a cistern, a single

guava tree whose green flesh and fruits

become entombed in memory.




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