The many petals of desire

views and analysis

“Heartsong and Other Poems” is only the first book of poems by Felino S. Garcia, Jr. But collected between its covers are some of the most amazing love poems I’ve read. There is no rawness, no rush, and no half-cooked efforts in this collection. We have to thank publisher John Iremil Teodoro of Imprenta Igbaong for coming out with this collection of poems.

The book is divided into four sections. “Coming to fruit” deals with love’s beginnings, when the days pass in a blaze of happiness. And the nights more so, as captured in a poem called “Flood.” The poem has an epigraph from the now-iconic song of Basil Valdez: “Tuwing umuulan at kapiling ka (When it rains and I’m with you).” The poem points out the overpowering presence of love, like water that drowns everything in its wake, including the lovers.

Listen: “How we drown/ in our own flooding, plunging ourselves,/ shapeless, yet with gravity, swirling/ deep/ down/ down/ in the bottomless murky-/ sweetness of our watery love/ We drown/ without any hint of an end,/ no aftermath to this wild overflowing/ this flood, this love, this flood,/ this love, this love, this . . .”

Water then and wind: the natural elements of motion and force are compared to the brute power of love. In his novel A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway seemed to say that between birth and death there is only loneliness. But Garcia points to another direction: that beneath birth and death there is loneliness, yes, but also the bright and shining possibilities of love.

Moreover, the poet implies that love is not just moored in the elements of nature, but also in the elements of the body. The face and the voice, which are staple fare in the usual love poems. The body and its sensory zones, which are staple fare, too, in the usual erotic poems. But in our poet’s book, love is de-familiarized and the “heartsong” is the snore of the beloved. From snore to song is one bold leap, but our poet has steady legs and a pole-vault surer and stronger than any other’s. Watch him trace that arc.

“How you snore, my dearest one./ I stay up all night . . . . / I can bear listening to your heart-/ Song breaking loose,/ Breaking through the throat’s/ Darkness, soft singing its way/ Through this listening silence,/ Filling the brims of my watchful eyes/ And rising like a hairline/ Of breath, or smoke gathering light/ Unto itself, air sprouting flowers. . . .”

“My skin’s terrain” is the second part of the book. Here, the poet talks about the art of cartography. But what are mapped are the slopes and seas, the coves and caves of the beloved. Such appropriation — for the poet is also a keen student of contemporary criticism and has grafted its select theories into his poetics — is also found in two other poems in this section.

The body’s desires and dreams are etched in the poem “Inscription.” Here, the body’s various vowels and consonants, the syllables that form a text, find a haven and home. This triumphant work should make the three horsewomen of French feminist criticism giddy with joy. “ Must I then seek/ A quick, sudden release/ From all these beginning less and endless/ Sensations and ululations/ When you are already inscribed on my body,/ On my body’s margins and boundaries,/ On my body’s text as ecriture/ Defying, denying all forms of otherness,/ Othering and erasure/ Like love drawing us all in/ Mercilessly in its full embrace—/ Ever grasping,/ Running out of breath.”

There is also the appropriation of the poetics of Islamic mysticism in the poem “Pillow,” with an epigraph from Khaled Mattawa: “Come love like a crushing seed.” Islamic mysticism is focused on the Tariqa, or the Sufi Path. Its poetics is rife with motifs of birds and blood, of spore, semen and light, of journeys whose destination is the Beloved. Garcia weds beautifully the sensual gesture and the mystical moment in the poem “Pillow.”

“Imagine him as you close your eyes./ Imagine him in your sleep./ Imagine him as though this were your last slumber,/ As though you would no longer hear/ His voice echo the bird’s sweet singing,/ As though upon hearing him, your body, your ribcage/ Could no longer be shaken into sobs,/ Convulsed into tears as though you were cursed/ And could never be awakened./ Imagine his voice as though its sweetness/ Could no longer like an arrow/ Pierce your heart . . . ”

“Beyond this lifetime” is the title of the third part. In a homage to the finest love poems, the sensual the spiritual have become one in this poem, wedded in utter and singular bliss. The readings of the poet are varied; in this poem, he alludes to Buddhist motifs. Without the endpoints and pauses of punctuation marks and in lines fluent and fluid, the poet leads us to the heart of nirvana:

“and like the Eightfold Path fulfilled/ you came stepping in this room quietly/ as if it were a lake you dipped soaked/ your feet/ as if you were a bodhisattva/ deferring enlightenment How we learned/ to breathe in time murmuring each other’s/ name over and over like a mantra/ while we slept in this bed shaped like a lotus/ on a night made lucid by the full moon . . . .”

“The wind relents” is the last part of the book. And as if to mimic the natural order of things, it deals with endings. In “The Second Aftermath,” the persona is full even when empty, for the beloved’s presence is made even more manifest by his absence. The poem has images of wayward fish bones stuck in one’s throat, of boulders sinking deeper than gravity could hold them, of eyelids closing for the night.

I would like to end this review by quoting in full the poem “Undertow.” It is a poised, painful meditation on the pendulum of love and loss. Like a haiku, it tells us that beauty is fragile and transitory, and its very transience hurts.

“No one speaks/ Of all that was here/ All that you and him were/ All that will no longer be/ Between you and him/ In a single blink/ Final and irreversible/ And yet world of his touch/ His whispers his voice/ The sea in his mouth/ Its undertow hissing/ The sound of it all/ Still hanging in your heart.”

The tradition of the love lyric is long and diverse. Heloise wrote letters to Abelard, Robert Browning to his Elizabeth Barrett, Walt Whitman to his anonymous young men, and Emily Dickinson “to a world that never wrote to me.” It seems that the poems of Felino Garcia Jr. belong to the world explored by Whitman and Dickinson. Garcia’s poems are letters to a world that still turns a blind eye to the wonder, the majesty, and the pain of men loving other men.

Warm, witty and wise, grainy with the many landscapes of love and longing, the best poems in this collection have already earned their secure places in the many rooms that comprise Philippine writing in English.

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Inquiries about the book can be sent to


Rina, OFW, HIV +

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The following is a direct testimony from Rina (not her real name), an overseas Filipino worker who contracted the HIV virus while working abroad. She read her testimony during the launching of the United Nations Development Programme Report called HIV Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women: from Asia to the Arab States. The launch of the report coincided with the launch of the Philippine report on Filipino women in the Arab states. The launching of the two reports was held last March 10 at the Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati City. The Asian report was a collaborative effort of UNDP, UNAIDS, IOM, UNIFEM and CARAM Asia. It is based on interviews with 600 migrant workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka who went to Bahrain, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. One of these women is Rina, and this is her story:

I was a former domestic worker several years ago. I dreamed of working abroad to help my family rise from poverty.

Year 1992. I was able to leave our small town and eventually work as a domestic worker. I was only 17 yrs old. The passport I used to go to Qatar had another surname. My age in the passport was older. The agency sent me to Qatar without asking for a placement fee. They said that this will be paid through salary deduction once I started working.

My employers were very strict. They were selfish and insensitive. They gave us very little to eat and sometimes, we would go without eating after a whole day’s work. I was also made to work for my employer’s extended family. The worst part was that they paid me less than what was stipulated in my contract.

Many other women domestic workers have similar experiences. There are even others who did not receive their salaries at all. Because they needed to send money home to their families. They had no choice but to either engage in part-time work, or sometimes, even sex work. Others would engage in relationships with other migrants or with nationals of that country to ease their loneliness, or to fulfill their need for comfort and affection. Also, their boyfriends could support them financially. Unfortunately, these situations make migrant workers vulnerable to HIV.

There were times when I got sick, but still I had to work. I was not given any medicine. I could not go to the doctor, since I was allowed only one day off for an entire year.

There were several occasions when my male employer made sexual advances to me. I was ordered to give him a massage and all the while he kept touching my private parts. I could do nothing to stop him. All I could do was endure the hardships for the sake of my family.

It was in 1999 when I worked in Dubai. I was hired by a real monster. My male employer raped me repeatedly. When I had mustered enough courage, I told my lady employer about what her husband had been doing to me. To my surprise, she believed me and helped me report her husband to the authorities. Even the police was surprised because it was their first experience to have the wife of an Arab employer on the side of a foreign domestic worker. Afterwards, she helped me return to my country. I was finally able to come home to my country after seven months’ stay in Dubai.

Unfortunately, nothing came out of the case I filed against my employer. The agency promised me that they will pursue the case on my behalf. But after I got back to the Philippines, I found out that they did not do anything about it.

Even after everything that I had endured from my previous employers, I still did not lose hope. I still believed that working abroad was the only way to make our life better. In June of the same year, I applied for overseas work again. I was about to leave for Malaysia as a domestic worker when my medical test results showed that I was positive for HIV.

When I was diagnosed with HIV, it felt like the moon exploded in my face . . . or a bomb exploded. . . I kept asking myself, what will I do? I was so shocked. I couldn’t accept it. I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to be alone. I cried every day. It was so hard to accept because at that time, I didn’t have any idea about HIV and AIDS. I thought it meant that I was dying.

One of the worst impacts of HIV infections is that I can no longer work abroad. Many migrant workers who are diagnosed with HIV are left without any source of steady income. In the Philippines, jobs are very hard to find.

One day I met a volunteer of Positive Action Foundation Philippines in the hospital (PAFPI). They provided me with the proper information about HIV. They told me about their organization and introduced me to their support group. I started working for PAFPI as a volunteer for their family support program. It took me six months to accept my HIV status.

When I got involved with Achieve’s research in 2001, they gave me an opportunity to become an advocate. They facilitated my participation in different forums as a resource speaker. My involvement with them enhanced my knowledge and my skills. I am now able to impart also to others what I have learned.

I am also a member of Babae Plus, a support group of women living with HIV. In this group, we learn our rights as women and this helps me in my relationship with my children and my husband. I also draw strength from the other members of the support group.

However, because my job in PAFPI is tied to project funding, after the project ended, I also do not have an income. We are still waiting and hoping for new projects to get approved so we can continue working. For now, I do volunteer work for PAFPI and I accept invitations to be a resource speaker in trainings and forums.

I am currently taking antiretroviral drugs, which allows me to be healthy. I am now living with my family in Cebu City, where I was, and where we hope to start a new life.

Thank you very much for listening to my story. I am also thankful to UNDP and Achieve for doing this study and coming up with this publication. I hope they continue to advocate for the protection of women migrant workers.

More information on “Unveiling Vulnerabilities: Filipino Women Workers in the Arab States” can be accessed at

Message to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo on her birthday

Mrs. Arroyo,

I deleted the word “dear” in the salutation for obvious reasons. But I am being negative, and this is no time for that.

In fact, I wish to wish you a “Happy Birthday.”

Birthdays are opportune time to look into ourselves and reflect. Are we living the life God wanted us to live? Are we making positive impact on the lives of the people we are duty bound to serve?

I am sure there will be parties and celebrations today. No matter how “simple” (as your apologists want to project it), there will still be your minions, your cronies, the people who benefit from your administration to wine and dine with you.

Meanwhile, the poor will continue to fight over the crumbs.

Many of those who will attend your parties, no doubt, will praise you and your government. But if you look behind their backs, you will chance upon their crossed- fingers, hoping you leave the Palace soon. And for good.

Mrs. Arroyo, birthdays are best spent with peace of mind — with the knowledge that no one wishes us ill. Birthday, to be really happy, is meant to be shared in the spirit of love and respect — not ass-licking and self-indulgent press releases.

For a president like you, no matter the circumstances that brought you there, to have a real meaningful birthday is to be able to face the people without fear they want you out, or worse deposed; a real happy birthday is that which is celebrated because you know you have done your duties, and did these well; that you did not cheat and robbed the people of their hope.

Too bad you will not have any of that. Mrs. Arroyo, do yourself a favor. Leave the Palace as soon as you can. Perhaps time will come when you can have a real happy birthday.

I wish to wish you a happy birthday.

San Juan City