May 30, 2010

and earth still rising: Melissa Roxas’ chorus of prayer | Vanessa Huang

I met Melissa Roxas through poetry’s tidings, our heartbody calls and responses to the unnatural quiet in state-sponsored stealings of loved ones near and far.
Last summer, Kundiman called my peers and I to “participate in a community of cymbals through poems – bringing noise and sound and outrage and unremitting memory” to Melissa’s abduction and torture while in the Philippines “and what continues to happen to activists and artists around the world who dare to take a stand against injustice. Let us encircle them, encourage them and fight for them. There is power when people agree to stand and speak together.”
This call and our ensuing congregation of poets in prayer moved me to tears, having come a few months after the unexpected police targeting, brutality, and arrest of my partner and fellow activists here in the States during a local protest. My partner and many of the others had been charged with felonies – plus terrorism sentencing enhancements – and held at atypically high bail. Even while our communities had quickly and successfully organized for our loved ones to return and stay home, my writing practice had frozen in its tracks for months, still in fear from this break, still recovering courage for truthsong. Even in such different context, my bodymemory began to recognize and empathize with some of the safekeeping practices of my elders, long-time community organizers and activists still standing after FBI infiltration and targeting: namely, breath and patience enough to steal bodyprayer rest, unearth quietpresent, renew the fightdrum.
Melissa and I too had distinct, varying experiences and locations – and roles and strategies – in surviving the impact of and challenging state violence. Still, I experienced us, through our words – sounded and unsounded – in kindred yearning for survival through break, in the bodied experience of new patience, new spirit feeding transformation and safety. Through my own silence, Melissa called to me through the words that “kept rising out of [her] during the time they held [her]”

Come before the Night Hour
Come and Sing
before Night
Comes. I am Flame
to the Body.
The Incipient Wing
that can’t Fly.
The Open
Skin on a Foot
that Bleeds
Black. Tonight
I will learn to Die
a Thousand Times
and Be Resurrected.

Melissa’s call to comrades for engaged response (“Come before the Night Hour”), her unapologetic call for beauty’s place, its warmth in break, the unknown (“Come and Sing / before Night / Comes.”), the unrelenting prayer in her repetition (“Come before the Night Hour / Come and Sing / before Night / Comes.”) and alliteration, listing of bodied evidence (“I am Flame / to the Body. / The Incipient Wing / that can’t Fly. / The Open Skin on a Foot”), her simultaneous humility and strength in presence through these words – these all invoked a real power and safety to sound my own words in waiting as I further settled into my responsibility as an engaged poet. Through a time of personal and collective grief, trauma, and healing, my practice as a poet – which had originated from political practice as a young activist choosing to wrestle the terror of police and prison violence disarming resistance of each and all where empire, racism, gender oppression, queerphobia, and silencing meet – became more fully present, unfolded into prayer, embodied in offering.
The words I’ve continually returned to through new practice have been gratitude, courage, patience, humility. These my center, encouragement as I continue writing to feed heartbody resilience in face of continued and growing detention and imprisonment, unearth the steady fightdrum, quiet through such stealing – these too a lens to express my gratitude for the continued experience of Melissa’s offerings as a poet and writer following her safe return home and continued engagement in challenging state-sponsored disappearances in the Philippines:


to ground new poemseed in political experience, understanding through letters to friends and policymakers. In her June 21, 2009 letter to friends, Melissa articulates how states use “torture as a form of control […] to instill fear in people in debilitating ways, so they stay quiet and lose their light inside.” Amidst such terror, she reminds us “how precious a birth can be,” “how to appreciate life” amidst what the state wishes would desensitize us, and crucially how “no amount of pain or suffering or fear can stop that earth in [us] to keep rising,” encouraging our continued resilience amidst state violence. In this letter, Melissa’s courage grounds her truthsong, the naming of how fever untreated hardens the softness infant eye; how dehydration tighten infant skin; how this a disease of poverty and oppression and more than alphabet typhoid fever, cholera, malaria; how there’s death too in the stealing of freedom workers and disease in the leaving of children of desaparecidos.

to then call her readers to co-investigate and respond to the irrepressible evidence of poetries from body. In her poem “Disinter,” Melissa calls us to sound, experience the memory our bodies store, the evidence the state attempts to terrorize out of its targets and that continues on, even when seemingly silent (“the heavy screen door, shut / the echo of her voice,” “There is a hush / from the night child / that saw,” “no moan from the open mouth / only a song / the music of people / in my head […] / A silent song / from the people / kept playing at my heart”). 

In her poem “Humus,” Melissa grounds us in the natural decay and transformation of life on this earth, then asks us to examine the unnatural in state torture, the break in earthbody. “The composition of the earth changes every time something is mixed into it,” she writes,

"The rains come and it becomes mud when mixed with water. Seeds, when planted, flower into something that feeds you. The same is true of smell and sounds. Isn’t it often said that when you talk to plants they grow to know your voice? Move with your breath?

But what of sweat that pours into the ground? The markings made from combat boots that trampled the earth? […] What of the blood? From the back of Julito *? From the chest of Ronel **? What happens to the animal sound from the bodies? The slow movements of men with their hands tied to the back, the missing tongues, the knife, the men in uniform whose laugh made the earth remember? There was the odor of musk and wind and rotten calabasa. What will grow from that much soil? The earth grew familiar with Julito’s hands when he planted maiz and vegetables in the farm, Ronel’s feet from hours of planting squash. The earth has known their names forever, Oh, but never like this."

Melissa simultaneously offers prayer to feed our continued examination, future response:

By earth
by earth
bit by bit
by give
by mouth
by trail
by foot
by print
by squash
by earth
by leaf
by worm
lift by hair
by arm
by might
see the sack
grey and ash
by and by
hack by hack
by bit
by bone
by red by rib
by earth
by lie
they lie
o my
by and by
by earth they lie


in knowing “there are no deaths that are forgotten, no fathers, no mothers, no sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles, or cousins that are forgotten,” that “they live in the births of new babies each day” (June 21, 2009 letter to friends)


in engaging call and response, in her clear ask that we not stop sounding the quiet of chorus with/in ourselves, our loved ones, but continue feeding our collective truthsong:

There are many more desaparecidos, more abductions, torture and extra-judicial killings going on in the Philippines and around the world. Let the new birth come where there is an end to all of the killings, abductions, and torture. Let the noise come from all directions–they are no longer whispers but shouts for justice.

I met Melissa through these poems and writings, through Kundiman’s call for a chorus of authors’ prayer in lovesong. After months of not writing after my own break – and finally having given myself permission to offer bodyprayer as evidence alongside the official documents, the other voices, the truths the state wishes to hush – Melissa’s and Kundiman’s invocations called me to begin sounding my own quiet of chorus:
Let us be this fightdrum still chanting
each Kuya, help me still chanting
each decline to comment still chanting
Melissa your camera memory still chanting
ghost of dead lovers still chanting
showing signs of torture still chanting
medicine for this break still chanting
language evaporate at gunpoint still chanting
stretch and pull each mask still chanting
each door forced open, each left ajar still chanting
each stomach caressing ground still chanting
each muscle fight back still chanting
Melissa your Flame to the Body still chanting
each Foot that Bleeds Black still chanting
each Incipient Wing that can’t fly still chanting
military gone to hide still chanting
each inch tape, each knotted blindfold still chanting
sinking each handcuff’s clasp still chanting
temperature their rifles still chanting
each bomb, each fire, each time still chanting
each death and resurrection still chanting
Melissa your compas inside still chanting
each rib, each palm stronger than cages still chanting
each breath you stole for rest, each whisper a campaign still chanting
each poem that speaks later, each truthsong before Night Comes still chanting
each window of sky, each freedom found in village arms still chanting
each knowing eye, each kind gesture still chanting
each movement til empire fall, each rest in love still chanting
gathering this rebel heartdrum still chanting
all this music poetry still chanting
Yes, you live, Melissa,
song of truth rising,
your music is chanting.
For Melissa – with gratitude for your offerings; beauty, resilience, and presence on this earth; your continued call moving us to dialogue and action.
Kuya, help me
from Melissa’s affidavit. The rest of the italicized text from the excerpt of my “Kundiman” for Melissa is from her poem composed during her abduction.
Vanessa Huang is a poet, writer, and community organizer whose practice feeds the resilience and embodiment of people, campaigns, and movement building from the margins. Vanessa was a finalist for Poets & Writers’ 2010 California Writers Exchange for her poetry manuscript, quiet of chorus, which has been described as a project that “lifts up the often muffled legacies of resistance to genocide in contemporary life” and home to “lifeworlds that yearn for freedom and wholeness, and help enliven the path forward.” Vanessa has studied with Kundiman faculty Myung Mi Kim, Rick Barot, and Staceyann Chin.
Photo credit: Visibility Project

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