Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Sea Stories





Old women in my village say

the sea is always hungry, they say,

that’s why it comes without fail

to lick the edges of the barrier sand,

rolling through rafts of mangrove,

smashing its salt-steeped flood

on guardian cliffs, breaking itself

against rock faces, landlocks, hills,

reaching through to fields, forests,

grazelands, villages by the water,

country lanes, towns, cities where

people walk about in a dream,

deaf to the wind shushing

the sea’s sibilant sighing



somedaywe come



Only the old women hear

the ceaseless warning, watching

the grain drying in the sun,

or tending the boiling pot

or gutting a fish for the fire, fingers

bloody, clothes stained, scent of the ocean

rising from the mangled flesh into their lungs.

Nights, as they sit on their mats

rubbing their knees, waiting for ease

to come, and sleep, they hear the sea

endlessly muttering as in a dream


someday someday someday....




Nudging the old men beside them,

their mates—empty-eyed seafarers,

each a survivor of storms, high waves,

and the sea’s vast loneliness,

now half-lost in their old age

amid the household clutter—

old women in my village

nod to themselves and say,

one uncharted day, the sea

will open its mouth and drink in


a child playing on the sand,

a fisherman with his nets,

great ships laden with cargo,

and still unsated, they say,

suck up cities towns villages—

one huge swallow to slake its hunger.


As to when or how it would happen,

who knows, the women say, but this much

is true--no plea for kindness can stop it—

nodding their heads this way and that,

tuning their ears to the endless mumbling....










On nights when rain pours as if

the very gate of heaven is open,

and nothing to stop a shivering earth

from death by drowning,

people in my village rehearse this story—


An empty house in Delgado Street.

A tricycle stops by the locked gate.

A man alights, his wife, cuddling an infant

close to her chest, a boy of five or six

gripping her skirt with bony fingers.

Delgado,” the man had said, the one word

that brought them to this unlit house

on this lonely street in our village.

Not a sound from them throughout the ride.

Now the man digs into his pockets for fare

and comes up with a few clamshells,

holds them out like coins to the driver.

Wait here,” says the man,“I’ll get the fare,”

and goes into the unlit house, everyone

following him, but the house never lights up

and the man never returns.

Seized by a strange suspicion,

the driver flees, fast as he can, terrified,

pursued by the reek of fish in the wind.


This story goes the rounds of Cardo’s motorshop,

Tentay’s caldohan, or wherever it is that drivers go

to pass the slow time of day, or when rain forces them

to seek shelter. The story grows with every telling—

barnacles on the man’s neck, his hands, his ears

the woman’s hair stringy like seaweeds

the infant in her arms swaddled in kelp

and did he have fishtail instead of feet?

The boy’s flourescent stare, as though

his eyes were wells of plankton—

was that a starfish dangling on his chest

seasnakes wriggling in and out of his pockets?


The house in Delgado waits empty and dark

as on the day, ten, eleven years ago

when the M/V Dona Paz with two thousand

on board, became grub for the sea.

Of that time, the old women in my village

remember coffins on the dockside,

stench in the air, in almost every street, a wake,

funerals winding daily down the streets.


No driver in our village has made a claim

to the telling of this tale, yet the story

moves like a feckless wind blowing

breath to breath, growing hair,

hand, fist, feet with every telling,

and claws to grip us cold.

We cower in the dark, remembering,

grateful of the house above the earth,

the dry bed on which we lie, the warm body

we embrace to ward off the tyranny of rain

pelting our fragile shelter—a mere habit

of those who breathe air and walk on land,

you might say, but still, always in our mind,

the sea grumbling grumbling sleeplessly—









First the rain. Then the flood,

rolling down the mountain,

flushing the city to the sea, all

in thirty minutes flat, and then gone.

Dazed, huddled in any shelters they could find,

no one in the city slept that night, waiting

for news, counting the missing, the dead,

hoping for the rare miracle.

Everyone hungry, terrified, cold.

Darkness but for guttering candles

and sooty kerosene lamps.

The drowned littered the city streets,

huge abandoned dolls with arms held out,

legs spread and bent as in prayer or embrace.

He was the one to walk to look for the dead.

A slow walk with throngs of others

from Cantubo Bridge to the shorelines

of Sabang and Alegria. He started from sun-up.

At mid-afternoon, he found the bodies floating

face down among hundreds of others

in the shallows of Linao--father, brother and his wife,

and one of three children. He was tired, enough,

never mind the infants whose bodies might have

shredded in the debris. Out of the water

he pulled them with the help of strangers,

brought them to Ormoc’s hilltop graveyard,

laid them all in one grave, no coffin, no ritual,

no grieving, so tired he was, not even grief

could blight his need for rest, food and drink.


That’s as it should be. You understand,

we arrived much later, three days after the flood.

We visited the common grave as he had urged,

and found everything satisfactory. That task,

finding the bodies, and the burial, was his alone

to do. Gathered around the neat mound

the spade had formed over the grave,

we were empty of words, just as he was.

He’s not mentioned that time since.

We soon left the graveside—we still had to dig out

the old house from the silt, the hearth to make anew,

the altar to rebuild. More urgent to us then, the claims

of the living, than mere obeisances to the dead.


Twenty years since, and now, he too, like us,

is growing old. We still do not talk about that time.

Everything behind us, that’s what we'd like to think.

The streets of Ormoc have been repaved, houses rebuilt,

the river that runs through its heart tamed, so it seems,

by thick strong concrete dikes.

But who could feel safe now?

As the moon waxes and wanes, so the tide too

rises and ebbs—a daily ritual the sea could not help.

Behind his eyes watching the waves, the terror lurks

unappeased—when will the sea grow hungry again?


Somedaywecome somedaywecome






After the flood, weeks and weeks of muck.

People rose from the muck to sort out the debris--

what to throw away, what they might re-use,

taking up shovel, hammer and nails, saw, drill, mattock,

to rebuild the homes lost to water and silt.

Then out came the sun, the muck dried, turned to dust

and rose in the air, falling gently over all surfaces,

even the trees wore clay on their leaves.


Then came the stories, many different stories.



One day before the flood, a beggar came by,

stopped to ask for a drink at a house in Isla Verde.

A very little thing, did anyone pour him a drink,

or did he turn away dry? Dry, the story goes,

oh, such wages paid for a good not done.

Not so, not so. It was a woman, a woman

came knocking knocking at the door to ask

for a night’s shelter, nothing more.

Suspicious of strangers, no householder dared

to let her in.


And still another tale:


No, no, not a beggar, not a woman.

It was a child who came by, asking for food

from the meagre board—

Now then, with eight thousand dead,

homes, neighborhoods, villages,

perished in the Great Flood,

who is to blame among the living or the dead

for that fit of churliness or greed,

a mild indifference, granted,

a minor sin, doubtless a little guilt,

that flooded the city with heaven's wrath?


More stories come up. Witness:


When it is time to light the lamps, hear--

cries, shouts of distress, mothers calling,

children screaming, rising above the traffic,

the dinner talk, the prayer. I heard them, said one.

I too, said another. And I. And I. And I.

Those who had merely come to help

were even more susceptible, they claim,

We too, we too, we heard it.

Voices as from a great distance, disembodied,

mere echoes, likely, in the tympani, heard

in the head more than by the listening ear.

Walking the dark some nights, some swear,

it seems to rise from the sea, faint wailing

hovering over the air like angels lamenting.


The skin prickles as one sits down to eat,

or at dawn, drawing the sheets against the chill—

these stories, word by mouth passing,

as the living dug themselves from the muck

and the dust abiding everywhere.

Ask me how they bore all that swift emptying

wrought by water in one great wave?


Tell stories, tell stories to one another,

stories of one thing or the other,

oh, but not to the sea, never tell the sea—

the sea never remembers.





Ten, eleven years they hunted him.

Too long a time to keep a prize on a man’s head

without hunter or prey becoming careless, giving up

tiring on the game one way or the other.

Felons have been hunted for lesser crimes—

and his, by any means, exceeds the count:

two commercial flights wrecked, their passengers

killed, national monuments demolished,

two proud cities shamed, a whole nation

in mourning and puzzled rage.

September 11, 2001 A. D. The world sat agape,

not knowing what to think. Drumbeats of war

vibrated from zone to zone. We’ve walked since then

the razor’s edge, stalked by terror, no one spared.


Osama Bin Laden. Hero of the sleepless, angry,

disenchanted, warrior, desert rat, bigot, fanatic, maniac,

saint. Rebel against the universal tyrannies of our age,

hegemonies of greed crafted in hellfire and ignorance.

Honor we begrudge him—this devotee whose causes

crumble on the threshold of our facile pieties.

Slurping our thinned teas and watery rice gruel,

we simple folks blamed him for all our ills—sun and ice,

drought and flood, surely, all these, we said, are wages

of the Christian blood wasted at his command on that

morning of 9/11. The fevers that killed our children,

train wrecks, earthquakes, tsunamis, wars and famines--

none will be assuaged until he falls, his deed avenged.


We prayed he would be found. Tracking dogs sniffed out

his traces in real time, or virtual space. We never thought

of him as mortal, and perhaps, like us, also afraid.

We thought him proud, sly as a cougar, fierce, and always

blood-hungry. His fall when it came had been swift and sure—

only his wives, a son or two to witness. They took him out

in Hyderabad, shot him down in his own room, bundled him up

and flew his body to a waiting ship.


No grave on land for such as he, they had decreed,

whose name could turn a mere rock to an altar

or a monument and thus people the earth

with more believers to sow such terror as he had bred.

The sea then, the sea for Bin Laden,

commodious graveyard that gorged him into its silence

without a trace. That’s all we can tell the future,

that's all we’ve been told.


Dare we ask: Has Justice been served,

with blood on both sides to even the score?

Are the murders paid up at last?

With him gone, will we, at last, lie easy at night,

sipping our drink, dipping our fingers in sea salt

to flavor a mess of cold rice and mountain greens?

Eternally, the sea washes his bones. Listen:


ebb and flow

ebb and flow

ebb and flow—

we’ll never know.


September 7, 2011


VI. SENDAI, MARCH 10, 2011


Michiko chan

was picking flowers

the day the rocks

heaved and the sea

rose on its toes

to kiss the hillsides.

Now a thousand things

litter the beach at Sendai—

boats, houses, cars,

bottles, shells, felled trees,

animal bones, broken bodies.


O Michiko, I dreamed

to see you this spring

under the sakura orchard

with the moon glow caught

in your black hair.

Now on the sand at Sendai,

these drying seaweeds.

Among the seagrasses,

these countless shoes

in hues of orange, blue, pink, red

gay yellow, all without pairs.


I want to ask the sea,

Which one is Michiko’s?

but no use. The water

has nothing to say

from its deep black heart.

Only the little waves

drift back to me, licking

my feet, sighing, almost—







When Merlie M.Alunan sent these poems, this was after the shooting of 20 children and six adults in Newtown dominated the news. She added following comment to explain her response:

"let me share some poems because that is how I respond to the tensions that affect me, whether of local or global origin. One has to do with the murder of Bin Laden, one of the poems in the suite of poems grouped under Sea
Stories. The other (Ampatuan) has to do with the silence of poets in the face of evil. I wrote the latter a year after the massacre of 58 journalists, a politically motivated crime done in broad daylight with the cooperation of the police and the military. It is also cultural (tribal if you wish, the microcosm of the larger concept of nation)
because the opponents were both Muslims and the victims were a mixed group of Christians and Muslims joined in brotherhood and peace in support of a free electoral process.  
I send you another poem in translation, originally written in my mother tongue and which I have translated into English. The third is an offshoot of the history I was tracing for you of that little Philippine town--the night before the massacre of the Americans, the local folks killed a carabao for a feast. That's the background of the

Merlie M. Alunan 17.12.2012


A first comment or response to her poems and two stories:

I have started to read your poems and stories. The first piece I read was
about what we say when we say good-bye. Vivid in my mind is now the signature of the frail hands. Like a drawing your poem reflects age or growing old. It combines well with what people have to endure once their knees begin to ache and they are afraid that this time they will not make it up the stairs. All this has sensitive touches for what it means to no longer being able to travel so easily or for that matter to get up from where one is sitting. Nailed by time to the place one has never chosen to stay at.

Still, Katerina Anghelaki Rooke and I love to say, that "you grow older by
earning the Right to stay young."

Interestingly enough Barack Obama
said in his speech in Newtown after the shooting took place there, that "while we become old and frail on the outside, we can become younger in spirit in the inside." Then I read intensively your poem about the man who searched for the bodies after the sturm had struck and which once found he put all of them in one grave. It is a telling and moving image that even twenty years later nothing is
said about that.

With such a poem the reader enters a world of its own. You forget about
all other things. The surrounding of the poem absords you completely. It touches upon that magic moment when a poem is read on the basis of a positive self forgetting. And then that poem about Bin Laden. How he was hunted, how he was killed not only physically, but in the imagination of those who were not merely hunting him down like an animal but those who feared him as well and therefore never trusting to fall asleep completely. The lack of sleep explains the kind of restless minds he has left in his wake.

wonder if people in the USA would understand such a poem? Again you show an independent position or as you wrote in your letter, you are not a nationalist but through your poems I can see you live with your people, and this at every footstep approaching the sleeper, to make sure he can complete his dream.

Bin Laden was, of course, far from being a dreamer.
He took refuge in a system of thought which had developed most likely while in Afghanistan and seeing the operation against the Russians out of the perspective of the Talibans. Yet he was as well on the pay-roll of the CIA. He may have become through that a kind of killer machine which the own boss does not know how to control. A robot to kill out of control! That is more than a madman like Hitler. He was as real as unreal and in every sense of the word just as proud in his defeats as of his victories. Most of them relate to how he managed to instill more fear in the world. He stopped counting the sacrifices and measures made out of fear after 911. It was said that he had a background in engineering which allowed him to calculate the possibilities of the collapse of the Twin Towers. The subsequent disaster includes the war out of revenge with first Afghanistan, then Iraq. And now the world is even more preturbed by what is conceivable if weapons of mass destruction fall into the wrong hands. As if things cannot be controlled by more security devices or better equipped armies.

Barack Obama stated in his debate with Mitt Romney when facing relection last Nov. 2012 that 'smart armies' with high technology at their side are needed and not just pistols and old army stuff. In light of these technical developments Bin Laden appeared to be like the boy with a sling shot to make Goliath topple for a moment. The giant being the USA was not sure what hit him but once wounded, this giant could lash out for having received such an unexpected blow. You touch unexpectedly upon deep topics which can alter the outlook of many people. As someone in Holland stated in response to what happened in Newtown, the biggest problem is what trust children can still have in other people, in the world. Once we fully realize the fact that that without such a trust and friendly attitude towards the world nothing goes well, then we know your poems can serve as bridge between no trust and a trust to be found by getting to know your other world through your poems. Thanks for sharing. I shall read more

Hatto Fischer
Athens 17.12.2012






^ Top

« Two Stories by Merlie M. Alunan | Curriculum Vitae »