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Janine Joseph

Sometimes, the more I want a poem to proceed, the more the process begins to feel like an interrogation or immigration interview. I respond by pivoting on the page and writing myself into a corner or through an easy exit. I know when I’ve done this because the poem will suddenly claim to have nothing more to say, though the document will remain open on my computer and I will mull lines aloud while I go about my day.

When I draft, I have to be cognizant of this impulse to turn away or show myself out and how it tricks me into thinking the work of the poem is done. I move away the lines or sentences that lead me into insincerity as they appear and approach the material again. My drafts are full of pages of these bob-and-weaves, misfires, false starts, diversions, and dead ends. Honing requires patience on my part—and this poem in particular had to trust me.

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This poem first appeared in Connotation Press (John Hoppenthaler’s “Poetry Congeries”)

< draft >

tago ng tago (TNT)


Because my cousins kept telling him to watch out,
my cousin was terrified of wall cavities, attics,
and crawl spaces—anywhere snakes could build a den.
Firewood piles, banks strewn with garbage,
and dilapidated tires made him wet his pants,
though I can’t say, because of what we did,
that he was gullible. Once, my cousins, thrilled
with rubber fakes, snaked the hallway
and waited for him to power on the lights.
He scrambled onto his bike and sprinted
from their house to ours, where we were no better,
shrieking Watch out! as mambas, like concertinas,
extended from our open door. Our poor cousin,
we’d say. And Kawawa naman when he laid low
beneath the bottom bunk, waiting to jump
Surprise! at his “mother” who we knew
was not his mother. I believed them once and one time
hid under the bunk with my fingers clamping
my eyes shut when they said I could catch conjunctivitis
just by making eye contact—but even I
knew that their mother was saving up in the States
and that the woman holding her hand out
to him was a family friend. But he stood quietly,
his shirt ironed and tucked, a good, good boy
in line with his stand-in mother at the passport office,
while we were vigilant about saying nothing
that might set him off. Just minutes after           
we stepped out of the car, my cousins held
my head back, pointed at my Eve’s apple, the bobbing
arch of my throat, and said disclosing
too much would make it explode.

 

 

with the woman
standing in as his mother and we were careful
to not say anything that might set him off.

 

I was the youngest, the baby of the family

and we

 

tucked in his shirt and waited quietly

 

You have to be careful, they said, to not say anything

            that might set him off.

 

  coming

 

reaching her hand out to my cousin was a

 

            was making a living in the States, saving up
to one day fly them all and that the woman

 

 I’d seen her

 
eyes closed when my brothers said I could catch
pink eye

 
but even I knew their mother
            lived in the States.

 
Their mother, even I knew, because I’d seen her,


crying like the baby
of the family. Kawawa naman,

for his mother
who lived in the States.

 

bed where I would hide with my eyes closed

  under the bed where 

 

 

scared
him.

a nest

 

See, my cousin, I explained, was afraid
of snakes because my cousins kept telling him
to watch out. They strew his room once with snakes
while shrieking “Watch out!” to his face so I can’t
really say he was gullible. They were fake,
but he ran from their house to ours where we,
            too, had shoveled a den for plastic snakes.
So awful, I know, but it’s okay if you
            want to laugh. We cousins turned out okay.

and my friend couldn’t tell
            if it was appropriate to laugh

whether to laugh along with me, or

 

Maybe he was gullible,
but with snakes
and yelled “Watch out!” at his face.

             

hallway to his room

Watch out when you lock the door
            behind you, watch out when you walk home alone.

Watch out!, they said to his face

bathroom
            door

,

            the they said to his face,

When he biked to our house,
when he played G.I. Joe’s

was gullible.


On a visit home after falling in love,
            I was what you might call, in love,
corresponding thrice a day


I would’ve said what was true
And what wasn’t, but I’d already said too much.

< REVISION >

tago ng tago (TNT)


He was petrified of them, though I can’t say,
         because of what we did,

that he was gullible. Once, my cousins snaked
         the hallway and waited for him

to power on the lights. He sprinted from their house
         to ours, where we were as cold-blooded,

shrieking, Watch out! from our open door.
         Wall cavities, attics, and crawl spaces made him

wet his pants. Anywhere the grass moved
         or seemed to move. Our poor cousin, we’d say

and, Kawawa naman when he laid low
         beneath the bottom bunk, waiting

to surprise his mother who we knew
         was not his mother saving up in the States,

but a family friend with her hand out to him.
         He stood quietly, his shirt ironed

and tucked, a good, good boy in line
         with his stand-in at the passport office,

while we were vigilant about saying nothing
         that might set him off. Be a good, good

girl,
they said, and held me back
         when I stepped out of the car. I clamped

my eyes shut. I could catch conjunctivitis
         from making eye contact. They pointed

at my throat, bobbing, and said disclosing
         too much would make it explode.