If I put footnotes in my poems, they would be at least twice as long! So I am putting them here. With bonus commentary that is not half as serious as it should be, but if I worried about coherence etc I would never write this! I hope it doesn’t break in-world immersion too much.
Adarna was published in Strange Horizons in its 21 December 2015 issue.
May isang ibong maganda
ang pangalan ay Adarna,
cun marinig mong magcantá
ang saquít mo’i, guiguinhaua.
—from Ibong Adarna, author unknown
Or, more correctly, “Korrido at Buhay na Pinagdaanan ng Tatlóng Principeng Magkakapatid na anak nang Haring Fernando at nang Reyna Valeriana sa Kahariang Berbania” (Filipino for “Corrido and Life Lived by the Three Princes, children of King Fernando and Queen Valeriana in the Kingdom of Berbania”). I don’t know that I entirely agree with the ‘history’ on its Wikipedia page, but the summary is useful, though in the many many versions of this I’ve read and listened to, pretty much everything is secondary to the events surrounding the magical bird.
“Ibong Adarna” is an epic poem that was one of my first fairy tales as a child; it’s very special to me because of its scope, and– I will say, I didn’t have very many grand fairy tale quests rooted in my motherland, growing up. So what I did have, I clung to fiercely. As I grew older, though, I always thought that the Adarna was treated incredibly unfairly, and if some retellings I’ve encountered were true — that the bird was an enchantress, itself — the story was broken. And this brokenness planted a seed that grew into this what-if (I’m a huge fan of AUs): what if all the princes failed? And there was a fourth child, a young princess, who would succeed? And what if the price of this success was something terrible and costly, something she had not known to expect?
There’s a story in me about that; I’ve held it inside for over five years, I may hold on to it for five years more. But anyway, this poem! It got written.
Princess, they say: find her in the garden of bone,
feeding hearts to the soil.
In some stories, and certainly in my head, the Adarna has been so highly sought after for her magic that she’s turned scores of men into stone. It makes sense to me that she would set them up in a garden of hers. I mean, it’s practically canon. (Look, I really love AUs and messing with canon, it’s how I was raised.)
paniki, kuliglig, salagubang
Bat, cicada, scarab beetle. I admit I included salagubang because of this song.
My favorite scene is where the prince(ss) cuts into their palms with a knife and squeezes kalamansi juice onto the wounds so they would stay awake. I am more than a little outraged that the Wiki page used “key lime” — kalamansi is different, and far sharper!
dream-eyed waling-waling, violet mouths open
on galaxies of alitaptap
Waling-waling is an orchid; I remember being baffled when, as a child, I was told it was the most beautiful flower in the world. These days I can see why it’s called the queen of orchids. Alitaptap is firefly, and a very good example (in my view) of how words in Tagalog sound like what they mean. Doesn’t it sound like the winking on and off of fireflies’ lights?
from entrails massed, sampaguita’s sweet swell.
Entrails are aswang’s primary food, of course. Sampaguita are among my favorite flowers — Wikipedia tells me its English name is Arabian Jasmine? — they are white and delicately lovely and dizzyingly fragrant, and garlands and wreaths made from their buds are often hung in churches, shrines, cars…
heto, katotohanan. Oo, mapait. Bakit ka narito?
Ano ang hinahanap mo?
Here, truth. Yes, [it’s] bitter. Why are you here? What do you seek?
Come. It’s funny how when one uses Tagalog in a primarily English setting — not just here in this poem, but for me, in everyday life, as I don’t speak Tagalog at home anymore — one is struck so deeply by the beauty of Tagalog and its words. One thing about halika is “ka” — “you”; it merges the addressee with the action requested.
Push fingers hard into salt, grip kampilan
Salt is of course a traditional enemy of aswang and other night creatures. Kampilan is a long sword, my favorite of our indigenous weapons. I made a mistake with this, because in my head the princess is Tagalog — well, they are speaking Tagalog — and yet this isn’t a Tagalog weapon. Oh well.
Anak ng tao
Child of man is how some people would translate this, if they thought man/mankind was genderless. I will say “child of humans” instead, in a world where “humans” can sub seamlessly with “people” and “persons”. It’s weird how you’d think this was a straightforward translation, but really it’s not when it comes to our ungendered words.
sawa coiling forests
Sawa are pythons, and they entwine with forests in my head because I’ve walked through forests where I was told to be careful of sawa.
It is not true what they say
about the dark: you know how shadows protect,
shielding flesh uneaten from the teeth of men. So it is
even with monsters.
When the Spanish colonizers came to my country, they demonized the dark, the supernatural, the babaylan. A local show did a good summary of it. (One note, “the Maria Clara mold” is not accurate to the original Maria Clara, who was a brave young woman; it’s a sad thing that the stereotype does such disservice to the original.)
a fierce womb burnished gold from when araw meant
radiance and not a father’s killing blow. Birthed to hiwaga,
Araw: sun. An alamat, a folktale, tells of how the Sun and Moon were husband and wife. The Sun was a terrible husband; the Moon was an exemplary wife; the Moon decided to leave the Sun, and they fought over who would have custody of their children, the stars. As they fought, the stars fell from the sky, and the Moon raced after them to save them while the Sun did nothing, preferring to stay on his lofty throne.
Hiwaga: magic, enchantment.
tempest in halimaw’s throat, all the fury of sigwa, unos,
bagyo—then the silences of bundok shouldering upward,
their mineral strength. Lindol at alon:
lulunurin ka, lalamunin. Aawit ako at guguho
ang iyong mundo.
I appreciate very much when editors don’t bat an eyelash at code-switching within sentences; it’s a very normal thing for me when I’m home in the Philippines, and actually Taglish is a lot easier than straight Tagalog or straight English. Halimaw: monster. Sigwa, unos, bagyo: these are all storm-words — sigwa is the storm’s herald, an oncoming storm; unos is the wild winds, the typhoon; bagyo is the catch-all storm.
Bundok: mountain. Lindol at alon: earthquake and wave, the main forces of destruction in the world I know. Will drown you, will swallow [you] up. I will sing and your world will crumble | collapse | be utterly destroyed.
the wind’s fingers sign of the women
who sang before the white armies came.
But of course the women. It has always been the women. More specifically, our societies’ structures had women in positions of power, with agency and rights, before the colonizers imposed their own structures on us. Reading this article on women in pre-colonial Philippines makes my heart hurt — so much that was shattered.
Kumain ka na ba?
Have you eaten? But it’s not just that: it’s greeting, it’s basic courtesy and respect, it’s expression of care for another’s well-being, it’s acknowledgment of the fundamental role of food, not just as sustenance but as a vital social act.
of isip—salita—gawa—all yours.
Thought, word, deed. This echoes the original Panatang Makabayan, which I recited together with my schoolmates as a student, every flag ceremony: I will strive to be a true Filipino, in thought, in word, and in deed.
…I swear I didn’t mean this to be a hyper-patriotic poem or anything of the sort; I don’t think it is, but naturally anything that speaks of decolonization must also speak of reclaiming one’s motherland, how one belongs to it, how it belongs to one.
Babae is only another name for a strength
that does not shatter
Babae: woman. We all know this. We have always known.
Bakit ka narito? Sino
ang hinahanap mo?
Why are you here? Who are you seeking?
you have dared rivers’ flood-gorged bellies,
buwaya’s jaws, swimming on and waiting
for the chance to break the surface, gulp in air.
Another what-if: what if the Berkakan in Biag ni Lam-ang was a crocodile? And Lam-ang wrestled it? And won? And it wasn’t Lam-ang, but this princess, on her quest to find the Adarna and bring her back to cure her ailing father?
Our voices rise meticulous into the air, halimaw
babae gamit ari-arian, like fragrance from crushed
Monster woman [thing | tool] possession.
if we must die,
we go into death
It is always a song.
We are always singing.
Adarna would have been a far different (and, I think, lesser) poem if not for my ates, older sister/friend/mentor people, Aliette de Bodard, Kate Elliott, Cindy Pon, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. Maraming salamat sa inyong pag-gabay at pagmamahal.