These poems are from an in-progress novel-in-poems about two aswang (mythical Philippine monsters) in the 1930s who fall in love — Clara, a manananggal vampire, and Santiago, a werebeast who shapeshifts into a huge dog — and try to live like normal people, in plain sight, in the US, where they have migrated to escape people trying to kill them for being aswang. The married couple promise each other they will foreswear aswang ways, in order to protect their newborn son, about whom they worry because they suspect he may also be aswang. During WWII, Santiago joins the service to fight (though really to kill as aswang) while Clara, left behind in San Francisco, wonders about her husband’s motivation.
Aswang Love, a novel-in-poems, is different from a verse novel. The verse novel is, quite simply, an extended narrative written in the poetry genre, broken into poetic lines, such as an epic in earlier literary periods. The novel-in-poems is instead written in established poetic forms; in the case of Aswang Love, such forms as blank verse, concrete poetry (esp. carmina figurata), curtal sonnet, free verse, ghazal, hay(na)ku, pantoum, prose poetry, sestina, sonnet (Shakespearean, Petrarchan, and Pushkin), tanka prose, and terza rima. The poetic forms that comprise Aswang Love are from widespread global poetry traditions — American, Asian, British (in fact, European), Middle Eastern — across several countries. I hope you enjoy these excerpts from Aswang Love.
Excerpts from Aswang Love
Aswang Honeymoon at the Golden Gate
—May 26, 1937
“Isn’t that simply magnificent, Tiyago?”
Clara pointed above the steamship’s prow
as they sailed under the brand-new bridge,
its orange towers gleaming in the setting sun.
Tiyago could only nod, speechless at the beauty
of the orange cables shimmering as they swooped
in a graceful arc. Thousands of San Franciscans
had walked across the Golden Gate that day,
a grand feat never before possible.
Clara and Tiyago hurried but got to the bridge
too late, almost dark. The next morning,
at the dedication, people snickered
at the loony old man, the bridge watchman
who swore he’d heard leathery wings wak wak
and saw silhouetted against the moon a bizarre
flying thing, holding a gigantic dog.
“Holding a dog?” Nearby listeners laughed,
pantomiming drinking from a bottle
behind the poor man’s back. “Crazy drunk,”
they whispered to each other, smirking.
How beautiful it must have been on top
of the eight-hundred-foot tower nearest
to the glistening lights of San Francisco,
tiny diamonds strewn on jet black cloth.
The bride’s wings beating slow and soft,
the groom’s canine fur shining sable and sleek,
holding hand and paw in the velvet night,
a thousand stars showering glittery light.
— Clara —
I don’t know how Tiyago got narra wood
here in San Francisco, the national tree
of the Philippines, used in native healing
of tumors. For days now, Tiyago would
get up at the crack of dawn, and plane three-
inch-wide long bars, sawing and hammering
until sunset. Finally, it was done,
a crib for the baby, shipshape boat we three
would sail into the destiny we’re making.
So proud of Tiyago, able now to shun
his aswang craving.
— Santiago —
I know this carpentering makes Clara
happy, thinking I’m finally becoming
human, no longer a shapeshifting aswang.
How can I be anything else? This narra
wood is always narra wood and nothing
can turn it into balsa. I’m just aswang.
For her sake, I pretend I’m not, but I live
for the chase under the hard bright moon, hunting
men. Even with the baby coming, aswang
is all I am. Clara, I give you this crib.
But I’m still aswang.
Aswang Christening: A Family Photo
Radiant parents and bouncy baby, all silken
and crinoline, taffeta and three-piece wool,
are posed in this portrait next to the baptismal
font at St. George’s. The baby smells of milk and,
slightly, of turned earth. They name him Malcolm.
The mother, Clara, whispers to herself, she’ll
swear off womb water, that sweet fetal
liquor, now that she’s bearing children.
Santiago, the father, thanks the parish priest
but thinks to himself how plump the man is.
Imagines Father Simon running for his
Life, pale skin glimmering in dim forest.
Behind them, in stained glass, a trick of the light
turns the Holy Ghost—a dove—black, not white.
Son of Aswang
From dawn’s mists at the birth of the world, aswang.
To judgment day’s star-starved midnight, yes, aswang.
Black bird of the heart rises up into the open throat
and back down again, croaking the song of the aswang.
Pitch-dark feathers, tar, bitumen, creosote, obsidian
stone blade chipped into the sharp sword of the aswang.
Bakunawa dragon devouring the deep sky’s silver eye,
dread darkness swallowing then spitting up the aswang.
Santiago and Clara, saintly and lucent, desperate tenebrae,
have borne Malcolm into the light. But will he be aswang?
Clara picked up the baby from his crib,
her little boy, Malcolm, swaddled in a white gown,
like a cotton cloud or maybe a winding sheet.
His caramel tan face framed by a bib,
Malcolm smiled at her, his hands like brown
starfish in warm sea sand, his little feet
playing peekaboo amid all the white cloth.
She held him up in front of her, and a frown
crossed his face. The gown ripped in the pleats
at his shoulders and out popped wings. A moth’s
slow dusky wingbeat.
A Mother’s Warning
Clara gently rubbed the baby’s forehead,
and as Malcolm’s eyes closed and he drifted
off to sleep, the moth wings on his shoulders
pulled inside till there was no trace except red
creases marking where they had unfolded.
Clara smiled then frowned, thought of him older
and no longer cute. Whenever he would ride
the night wind, soar the sky, they’d send soldiers,
hunters, to kill him. Clara rubbed at the red
marks, frantic. That they faded, disappeared,
barely consoled her.
—slang for infantryman in WWII
The soldier, a five foot two buck private,
1st Filipino Infantry Regiment,
motto “Laging Una” (Always First),
snuck into the woods that full-moon night,
June 1945, island of Samar, Philippines,
his company doing mop-up operations,
rounding up Japanese enemy in the jungles.
Our blisterfoot, alone in the boondocks,
silently stripped off his fatigues and
stashed them with his dogtags in the bole
of a tree. Dogtags too noisy for this mission.
A personal mission. Stared up at the moon,
his vision red like bright pulsing arterial blood.
He laid his hands upon the earth and began
to lope through deep jungle on all fours.
Till he came upon a wagon of “canned cows,”
condensed milk in tins. Guarded by another
fighting man, a skinny Japanese ittohei,
soldier first class, armed with a Type 38
carbine, not a front-line rifle. His Tokyo
specs glinted like the bottoms of glass
bottles planted neck-down into the ground.
Like wind, Santiago leaped from the tree line.
The imperial soldier knew nothing. Fangs
ripped out the soldier’s throat, his jugular
spraying red. Aswang drank full and deep
the man’s blood, the moon a bronze medal.
Aswang Despair Late at Night
I was awakened suddenly by a bump
in the night, and I turned to embrace
Tiyago but he is gone for now. A fixture
in my life for ten years, gone. A howl
echoing far off is how I think of him. Lonely
for my husband away at war, I resolved
to be stronger. After all he had resolved
to fight for our country — he was no bump
on a log. The two of us have had two lonely
years while he trained. I’ve learned to embrace
this duty he must follow, but in my heart I howl
at the unfairness of life. I’ve fixed your
face in my mind’s eye as a bright fixture
to get me through the days when my resolve
slips. I wonder if, deployed now, you howl,
fighting in the old country, sharp bumps
of bullets and shells loud in your ears. Brace
yourself, mi amor. I know you are lonely.
If it helps, you should know I’m lonely
too. I got out of bed, picked up your picture,
hugged it to my breast, the only embrace
I own now. I started walking our rooms, resolved
to find things connected to you. My foot bumped
the dining table you constructed, and I howled
at the pain in my little toe. My faint howl
helped for a moment, distracting me from lonely
musings. I found another photograph: my baby bump
with you rubbing it jokingly as if to fix it, your
smile so bright, your eyes twinkling, your resolve
to be a good father so clear in your face. I embraced
you that day, I recall. A long, loving embrace
that almost removed the memories of you howling
and me hunting pregnant women. We then resolved
again to give up the aswang ways, no matter how lonely
that would make us, just invisible ordinary fixtures
in the world of humans. I went to Malcolm, sweet bump
of ours, and embraced him. He is our brave fixture
among the others, old prey. Bumped, Malcolm howled
in his sleep. Instantly lonely, I feared for our resolve.
The Last Moments
The moon’s full face beamed down like cold fire
on the thick jungle where Tiyago ran,
giant black canine, paws silent on the ground,
his prey a squad of Nipponese soldiers
on silent patrol. He sprang from dense green
foliage, onyx-muscled arrow sans sound.
But one man saw the movement, fired point blank.
The bullet splintered Tiyago’s collarbone.
Changed back to human, he fell hard, Clara and
Malcolm flashing in his mind. He whispered, “Thank
God,” and was unbound.
The Future: Clara’s Change
After Tiyago died, I started welding
at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Don’t ask
me how I got the job. It was like my man
was guiding my steps from the afterworld.
I love the intense heat and light of the gas
when metals do my bright bidding, melt and
fuse, flow and meld, the acetylene blue
blaze from hearts of stars lighting up the dry dock
where we repair Navy ships. I feel like I’m
a virgin planet in the cosmos, brand-new
sun, electric aswang.
Vince Gotera teaches at the University of Northern Iowa, where he served as Editor of the North American Review (2000-2016). He is also former Editor of Star*Line, the print journal of the international Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (2017-2020). His poetry collections include Dragonfly, Ghost Wars, Fighting Kite, The Coolest Month, and the upcoming Pacific Crossing. Recent poems appeared in Altered Reality Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Dreams & Nightmares, The Ekphrastic Review, Philippines Graphic (Philippines), Rosebud, The Wild Word (Germany) and the anthologies Multiverse (UK), Dear America, and Hay(na)ku 15. He blogs at The Man with the Blue Guitar.
Acknowledgments for Previously Published Poems
“Aswang Honeymoon at the Golden Gate” was published in Spirit’s Tincture journal, November 2016.
“Aswang Christening: A Family Photo” was published in Dreams & Nightmares journal, September 2016.
“Son of Aswang” appeared in Philippines Graphic, 14 October 2018.