John Bengan is a writer and translator from the Philippines whose work has
appeared in Likhaan, Kritika Kultura, BooksActually's Gold Standard, Cha:
An Asian Literary Journal
, Words Without Borders, LIT, Shenandoah, and
World Literature Today.

Tawan Says "Mahal Kita"

Your name a face of the sun we search
among emojis, syllables we add to a prefix
to form a body, call a comrade in arms.
We name ourselves after animals
that cannot live in the same space: polar bear
and orca, ice and water that we no longer
know what begins where (or if you're only hiding
the boy we're helping you find after all).
Tell us again how you love in Tagalog
or say happy holidays, although neither
our peoples intended to worship
saints who come bearing gifts.
We tune in to you live on our phones,
rub your vowels on our cheeks,
read between middle and rising tones
and plead that you say something
in a language we can speak, even better
in a language we were born into.
We make merit by watching hours
of you eating dessert, discerning a secret
herb, concocting a salad bowl, or playing
the boy who shows that other boy
what a real kiss is (he who no longer wishes
to be seen—at least in public, we dearly hope—
with you except when he gets paid to do so).
Each post we espy and decode, looking
for hints in slippers at the threshold,
shot of a blue, cloud-threaded sky,
we investigate the timeline of shirts worn,
companions kept, songs sang along to in the car
(but not with the right person).
We wait for when you make us laugh again
as we understand almost nothing
except we wish that it were all true
and you find something better,
something good, something new.

Vachirawit's Neck

You made a mistake. You didn't think
the party's army cruising the sea of
noise would ever find her.

They made a mistake when
they thought we wouldn't go
to battle—after all we are not

diplomats, the palace doing its best
to appease the intruder while the boats
of our countrymen get rammed and run.

We are different. We fight
for every ruined reef, every fisherman
adrift, every incidence of trespass.

We are devotees of the swoon
the fluttering in our stomach
command a legion. We will delete

every inch of that nine-dash line
even if we have to eat a thousand
trolls a minute a day. We shall send

an arsenal of gifs. Another attack?
Here's a photo of your fingers
wrapping tape around his fingers.

Here's your face colliding against
his collarbone; here are your wrists.
As for your neck, graceful curve

of strength, supporting what is most
holy: we will not let them
come for your head, snuff

your light when it's about to burn
bright. They made a mistake.
This ship, they cannot sink.

A Supermarket in Davao del Sur
after Allen Ginsberg

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Fluke Natouch, for I walked down the empty streets under enhanced
community quarantine with a food pass self-conscious wearing a cheap facemask.
In a country where more are getting sick, and waiting for relief, I went into the nearest
supermarket, still dreaming of your reincarnations!
What lychees and what pomelos! Designated kin shopping at night! Aisles full of sons! Daughters
in the mangoes, second cousins in the mangosteens!—and you, Earth Katsamonnat, what were you doing
down by the rambutans!

I saw you, Fluke Natouch, lovelorn, desolate old soul, reaching for the skinless mung beans and
eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed Ananda? When can we touch again? Are you for
marriage equality?
I wandered in and out of shelves emptied of rubbing alcohol following you, and followed in my
imagination by the military junta.
We strode down the sterile corridors together in our sanitary whimsy tasting santol juice, seizing
every forget to swallow, and never sorry for prancing.

Where are we going, Fluke Natouch? The mob starts in an hour. What future do your tears reveal tonight?
(I see the count and dream of the devil of comparisons and feel perturbed.)
Will we ever walk again through crowded streets? The new cases add test after test, locked inside
our houses, we'll both be lonely.
Will we march dreaming of a new Southeast Asia of love without fear of expulsion from any proverbial garden?
Ah, dear queerboy, unproblematic, effeminate idol at last, what nations did we conceive when
strongmen are having the time of day, dancing over liberties not all of us have even had, and we are left
now with not much of a world to win?

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