My cousin Orlino shows me the Big Island
for the first time.
At Kapulena, we stop at our uncle’s house.
We tell him the names I am from
until the old man remembers
and nods at my grandmother’s name.
I want to tell him that we’ve forgotten
the oyster mushrooms I brought from the Mainland
but I’ve forgotten how to say it in Ilocano.
My island pidgin is even worse
so my uncle doesn’t understand
what it is I’m trying to say.
All the way to the Kona side
my cousin and I try to name the mushroom
that grows wild on certain trees
after a good rain
but we are far away from remembering
and turn instead to Hawaiian mele
on the radio and sing together
the words that tell of the mountain
that towers to our left,
this place that rose that rose up from the sea.
Between Waimea and Waikola, he says, “O’ong.”
“O’ong,” he laughs because he’s known it all his life.
In this world I know
the smell of burlap sacks’
the sound of rain and my father’s voice
near a river years before
in a place far away
from this light fading on the slope of Mauna Kea.
I have felt them, too.
The water buffalo.
They come from far, unlighted fields.
They lead us out of our city streets
Into the sleeping blue of water,
All of us crossing together.
Inside their curved horns, voices
Whisper us back from our wanderings.
On Kearny Street, we are far
from the lettuce fields, the cockfights, the blood of the pig.
And still farther, trapped in memory, comes
the arrival of workers’ boats, of cane
fields waking in the arms of dark men.
I have not always known their tender presence.
In this city
cradled by two bridges
the old ones disguised as dog spirits lick
the bowls we leave for the dead.
The wind spins us in this ordinary world until
someone nearly broken with desire
to be lifted to another country in his heart remembers
the feel of the animal’s black hair, the slow
but powerful carabao walk.
In the dark, they chase us into dream,
into wet voices that bathe
in the blue night,
like the blue awakening of fish.
The town is named for a river.
The river is hidden beneath sand and silt
with salt marshes where it meets the sea.
it is September. And the leaves
of the cottonwood are almost golden
in a cold light.
Not far from the river
in the labor camp named Green Gold
for the lettuce we harvest,
even the fighting cocks pecking their corn
seem bright bronze in a tame light.
it is 1933. Our wages have been cut from 35 cents an hour to 20.
We are Filipino and “hard to manage”
because we say strike
in the language they taught us.
Down the road
vigilantes piss in the ditches.
A car is on fire,
But that is not the lesson –
It is meant to distract us.
They splash gasoline
on the bunkhouses and chicken coops.
Flames burn the buildings to the ground.
We inhale the smoke
of 100 sacks of rice put aside for the strike.
They thought our hunger would make us quiet.
Like birds we send ourselves
into the night
the color of stars
soon to fall. Our leader is in jail.*
We continue to strike.
For months we buried our hunger
with edible weeds we pulled from the ditches.
When we nod to our empty hands
And, in later days, when you look for us –
absent in books abandoned by history—
someone will be holding a dark fire,
someone will be writing us out.
Our eyes search out those who left, those who stayed.
At the end of the fields is the edge of America:
We were held by a word.
We stand in the light of a clear blaze
in a moment of all possibilities,
nodding to ourselves
as if you had found us.