21 Spirits





“Brother, might is our immense mother”

Li Young Lee wrote in my book 15 years ago.


(To be honest, I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about, but I was playing like I did)


Maybe it’s how I can say violence cradles us

and know you’d get what I mean.

The odd comfort of a clenched fist,

how we look for the seam in stone.


I have tried to make a life of poetics, Jon,

and I don’t see a seam, just a brick.


We break shit with heavy objects.

That is what we do when you put it in our hands.




The mystic took one look at you and said,

“This one! This one has 21 spirits watching over him.”

And I wonder if they have been watching me, too.

If they’ve been there for every single mistake.

If every time I fall,

they could only watch me pass through

the impossible cushion of their arms.




Do they only show themselves to you, because I am too afraid?


They don’t make this world for people who see like you do.


What if I’m just too fond of this awful world.

What if this, alone,

is too much to bear, already.




Maybe if I say enough, I’ll get to become a memory

inside of someone else. Maybe they’ll care for me better

than I’ve ever cared for myself. Maybe they’ll say my name

back to me, and it is with all of the tenderness I have tried to learn

and failed at learning.Maybe there will still be time to become

something newer, that time isn’t escaping it’s just shifting

the lens a little. I am much more mortal than I was the day before.

I’d like to be a thought someday. A heavy one.

Something that gets slapped on the table and shudders the body of whoever it gets laid in front of.




A year ago we climbed a church tower in Zurich, Switzerland and watched the city rusting under the frost. You had asked me how I was doing. Which meant you were asking me about her. I told you I was good and the city looks beautiful from up here. I imagine she’d say how typical it would be of us Bayani men, to be so unwilling to communicate completely. She’s not wrong. I don’t miss her. I miss being in love and I mistake that feeling for her sometimes.




Maybe grief is not a singular emotion, but a system,

not felt, but experienced— we are beheld.




I remember one summer Ma forgot to pick you up

from basketball practice.

When we pulled up to the school, you came running at the car

like you were sure you’d be lost forever. You taught me

how long time feels when you are afraid.

How slow it is when you are alone. I promised then

I’d make sure you’d never feel abandoned again.

But when that boy gave you your first hit of crack

I was somewhere else.




When you were three, one of our uncles in the Philippines kept calling to let us know Tatang had passed away. I couldn’t understand what he was saying so I kept hanging up the phone. When you were a baby you got used to Inang speaking to you in tagalog, the slow percussion of her speech. It is inherent in you, the words. All I got is my skin. That’s what I live with. This and everything it carries.




You said the ghosts would haunt you at night.

I don’t believe in these things, but I believe you.




Everywhere you go across the world,

picking up new spirit.

a creeping shadow from Tokyo,

a wailing noise from Instanbul.

Sometimes, you tell me, it is Inang’s hand that wakes you.

You know this because when you were a kid

she would run the back of her knuckles over your spine

as you slept.




I tell you that I know she watches me too

and I am afraid one day I will see her.

You tell me I can ask her to leave me alone.

But Jon, I don’t want her to...




It was an overhand right. I set it up with a few jabs to the body. Had to switch up my stance because you favor kicks with your right leg and kept nailing me on the inside. I hit you in the shoulder and felt my wrist crumple on impact. I hit you hard enough to send you reeling towards the floor. My wrist, it still ain’t right. It was all worth it. I’d do it again.




How many times

they looked at us

and saw trouble,

when all we wanted

was a comfort

in this place

they did not believe

we had a right

to be given.




If ever I get old enough for a cane, I’m gonna hit you with that cane. I’m not trying to get healthier, I’m just trying to get old enough to fight you as a senior citizen.




I’m pretty sure I can still kick your ass. You workout every day of the week and have practiced Muay Thai for five years. All I got are the poems I’ve written and the 8 hours of gym time I barely fit into the week, but when you come home you want to drink wine with me and it makes me want to punch you in the face.




I tried looking up whether or not two brothers had ever fought each other in boxing. As far as I know it’s officially happened twice, in 1993. Marty vs Eric Jubowski and Kusuo vs Katsuaki Eguchi.


Both fights ended in a knockout. The Klitschko brothers said they sparred once and one of them left with a permanent scar on his face and the other, a broken leg.




Everyone I’ve ever punched in the face looked like me.

I swung at a white kid once and missed.


(that has to mean something, doesn’t it)




Maybe they watch us and say,

look at you, the only people

you can really hurt is each other.

Doesn’t that feel like a home?




Often there is a person

trying to tell me something

in the machine of them

is broken,


and what I hear is them telling me

something in the machine

of you will be broken, too.




All I see is the mess,

instead of everything

that has withstood.




I know of no home other than memory.

This wreckage we make wears both our names.

Ain’t no place out here know how to hold us,

the wild noise in our bodies that summons the dead,

this divine armor, this mighty mother.