Anthony Tan is a professor of English at MSU-Iligan Institute of
Technology, Iligan City, Philippines. Winner of the Don Carlos
Palanca Memorial Award for Literature and the Homelife Magazine
Poetry Award, his published books include Poems for Muddas
(Anvil Publications, Manila, 1996) and 5 Stories, 5 Essays.

The Sparrows Come Free

The future was already in the past.
The leaves were there in the seeds -
Brittle brown, black serration,
Wrinkled, desiccated,
Waiting for the clemencies of time,
And green thumbs, weather, earth, water.
In the mind's eye were visions of things,
The possibilities of lushness,
Of tangerine ripeness and yellow pungency,
The anticipation of the sigh of summer
Among the wayward branches,
Of leaves snuggling in pouring rain,
The nocturne of frogs rising from the ponds.
When you dug a hole in the ground
To bury the unpromising saplings,
When in the months that followed
You uprooted the irrelevant weeds,
Prayed for rain and sunlight to some god
Of dubious munificence,
Was it ever on the periphery of the heart's dream
That some years into your middle age
The seeds would have such a crown of abundance
For the birds to have made their airy sanctuary?
Now the garden is ablaze with their raucous summons.
And sometimes interfused with their ceaseless aubade,
As the saffron dawn recedes relentlessly
Toward common brightness,
The blue echoes of a god-like voice:
The sparrows come free,
Come free,
Come free.

Crossing the River

Came upon a river shrouded in mist.
Too early for bird call, or wing beat,
Too early even for wind.
A giant conch shell on a beaded string
Hung on the branch of a leafless tree.
It belonged to the boatman of the river.
With little energy I blew it long and thin,
Remembering what I had been taught,
Cupping it between my delicate hands.
On the edge of that feeble call
An apparition darkened the thick mist.
Slowly the bow emerged in the hush of dawn.
Beckoned me to his boat. Didn't tell him
Where to and he didn't ask, as if
My destination were already foreknown.
He didn't paddle. He hesitated.
He waited as if he had forgotten something.
Looked me straight in the eye.
When I didn't respond immediately,
He opened one bony hand,
The white palm trembling with greed.
The other hand gripped the head of a long pole.
Then I remembered what I had been taught:
I dropped a silver coin into his open palm.
He gripped it, dropped it into a bulging purse
That was tightly sewn to his leather belt.
The drop of silver on silver
Was the only sound in the soundless mist.
Only then did a fugitive grin light up his face.
Only then did he strike
The murky water with the pole.
There was no one to say goodbye to.
No friends. No kinsmen. No lovers.
The gurgle in the wake took the place of words.
The boat moved toward the other bank, where
He had unloaded his boat of so many strangers.

A Cyrenaic on Bantayan Island, Cebu

Over the isle's supernal darkness,
Vast stretches of galactic dusts.
The stars, like holes of a cosmic sieve,
Brighten and multiply as the night deepens,
Each emanation a dent on the face of time.
We won't be frightened by their silence, Pascal.
We'll drop our careworn spirits on Cassiopeia's
Chair, and load our sorrows on the wagon
And drive it beyond the points of La Grange.
Let the archer shoot into the void
Of another galaxy, drawing his arrows
From a quiver of earthly woes.
The wish we must make, when the meteors
Shoot down like celestial fireworks,
Is lightness of being: to be borne
Evermore on the wave of laughter,
On the spindrift of intimacy.
Not steadfast as stars that were compasses
To bygone sailors, the ground of existence
Is as the sands on this beach of Santa Fe.

A Cynic's New Millennium, 1999

During a lull between typhoon rains
Nine white-breasted birds sat on a wire
Under the canopy of low, gray clouds.
On sodden ground the trees and shrubs
Wore the vestigial gloom of late December.
I thought of Hardy and his frail, gaunt thrush
And wished the birds would repeat to me
The thrush's song of hope, celestial solace
They would deign to pour on world-weary souls.
I waited for their song. None of them sang,
Engrossed they were with primping their feathers.
If nine presaged good luck, thought I,
It would be a prosperous year, or decade.
"Happy New Year!" I hailed them cheerily.
Six scampered away, startled, as I was myself,
By the zing and suddenness of my salutation.
Three tarried behind and looked around,
Twitched their tails in unison,
Dropped something white and watery
On my bare head and whisked into the dark.

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