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Archive for October, 2012

Whisper, Carabao

Not long ago I saw an interview with a Filipino writer who spoke of cliché’s that Filipino writers—mostly beginning Filipino writers—use. He cited such things as mango colored suns, white sand beaches and, of course, the obligatory carabao as hindrances to the literary landscape one is trying to create. This writer’s comments made me think of my own writing and the role the carabao has played in it. Firstly, I have never seen a carabao in person. The carabao is a beautiful animal—hard working and loyal—I’ve been told. The people who have told me this of the carabao also happen to be hard working and loyal (and I have been told that I have displayed just the opposite qualities, namely by my father). I have seen the carabao in pictures—National Geographic and in numerous books showing the landscape of my indigenous ancestral home, the Philippines. I felt somewhat guilty in regards to the writer’s comments because I had used carabaos and mango colored skies as metaphors in my writing. “You’re a sham” a friend once told me. “You’ve never seen a carabao in your life, nor have you been to the Philippines”. This was true. But I began to think about the writer, who is quite well known since the release of his book, which has been well-received. I looked at his face, his clothes, his hair—all were immaculate, all impurities swept away in the Arkipelago winds. I was curious if this writer had ever stepped into a steaming mound of carabao dung in his oxfords or boat shoes and subsequently fallen? Or did he ever wake to find carabao crust in his eyes, or walk with carabao mud between his toes or carabao snots running down his nose? These and other questions remain—the mystery persists.

My Uncle, the poet Al Robles, wrote of carabaos. His book of poems, “Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos In the Dark” are carabao tracks on the page, tracing their journey in the Philippines and in the US. Each poem is stained with the mud, saliva, tears, tae—the life of the carabao, the memory of the carabao, the music of the carabao—the heart of the carabao which is the heart of the manongs. The sound of the carabao brings us closer to home, closer to the earth, closer to ourselves. Carlos Bulosan wrote of the carabao in “America is in the Heart”. In the story his brother Amado beats a weary carabao with a stick, to which his father responds by slapping him sharply across the face. What are you doing to the carabao? I think of one of my uncles poems and the reverence he had for the carabao:

He’s nice one, you know

Carabao is nice to you

When you come in the afternoon from the ricefield

He go home too, by himself

After the sun go down he lay down

Goddam! Like a human being.

International Hotel Night Watch

Manong –carabao

I ride you thru the I-Hotel ricefields

One by one the carabao plows deep

I recently took a walk to the grocery store in my neighborhood. I picked up a few things and headed back home. A couple blocks away from my house I came upon a garage sale. I approached and saw the usual—books, plates, clothes, knickknacks—all kinds of stuff. It all belonged to a young white guy wearing a Giants T-shirt. His face had a pinkish tint due to the unusually hot weather. He sipped on a Pabst Blue Ribbon as people browsed through the items making up his life. I looked at a few things but didn’t see anything I wanted to buy. I was ready to leave when something caught my eye. It was on a table, a wooden figure that looked worn but beautiful, crafted by someone I’d never met but whose feelings I’d feel as my own. I reached for and touched the figure. Its eyes whispered. I tried to make out what it was saying but was interrupted by the guy with the beer. “You like my yak?” he asked before taking a swig of beer. He took a very long swig before proceeding to crush the empty can with one squeeze of his freckled hand. He stood examining my face. I looked at the wooden figure and realized it was a carabao. It was beautiful. It had eyes that were alive. But before I could tell the garage sale guy that what he had was a carabao, not a yak, he went to the cooler and pulled out another beer. He walked back over and told me that his yak had belonged to his ex-wife, who had gotten the lion’s share in the divorce. He made fun of the Yak, saying it needed another yak to fuck (a yak to yuk, to use his exact words), etc. I looked at the carabao, it looked at me. We knew. Then the man started rambling about this and that—a rant of belligerence mixed with a twinge of sentimentality; his words spilling forth in a spirited froth of beverage-inspired verbiage. As I recall, it went like this:

Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak

Yak yak….yak yak yak…yak yak yak yak…yak yak yak yak yak yak

Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak

Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak

Yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak yak

Yakitty yak


He yakked my head off for almost half an hour. Finally he stopped. Then I uttered two words: How much?

Five bucks

I dug into my pocket and the carabao seemed to say: if you don’t get me out of here and away from this fool, I’m gonna back up and run as fast as I can, dead at you, and ram one of my horns up your ass.

I found five dollars, gave it to the guy and picked up the carabao that had to endure being called a yak for who knows how long.

I brought it home where it belonged.


Hands–A poem for Uncle Al In Filipino American History Month


My father joked once
About a man who moved
His hands a lot when
He spoke

Dad would say that if
You cut the man’s
Hands off, he wouldn’t
Be able to speak

My uncle, the poet Al
Robles, my father’s
brother, spoke with
His hands

Hands attached to nothing
Hands attached to something
Mind attached to nothing
Mind attached to something
Heart attached to nothing
Heart attached to something

Yet everything

Uncle Al spoke with
Hands not cut

From elders
From manongs
From community
From the whispering kulintang eyes of
From Nihonmachi
From jazz
From thick Manilatown dreams
Dancing in steam rice
From Kearny Street
From struggle
From the I-Hotel
From Delano and Watsonville
From Gold Mountain
From Angel Island
From Fillmore Street
From Ifugao Mountain
From Agbayani Village

With hands
He spoke of

With hands
He felt

Felt life

With his

Never cut

© 2012 Tony Robles


Al Robles: A Treasure Not Lost by Lorenz Mazon Dumuk

(Note: Lorenz Mazon Dumuk is the author of “Ay Nako: Writing Through The Struggle.”  The following poem was dedicated to manong Al.  The Robles family thanks Lorenz for this poem which beautifully captures the essence of Al)


I remember you reciting your poem
while jazzy hands slapped
against an upright bass
Your words perfumed with the scent
of sampaguita memories
and resonated the sounds of jeepneys
passing by San Francisco cable cars.
Stories that still warm the soul
like fresh pan de sal in the morning

That iconic beard and those glasses
you brought to life with your stunning presence.
This world painted and created
by the strokes of your poety;
communities built with the beat of your heart.