Kristine Ong Muslim

Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of several books of fiction and poetry: Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), A Roomful of Machines (ELJ Publications, 2015), Grim Series (Popcorn Press, 2012), We Bury the Landscape (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012), as well as Black Arcadia and Lifeboat, two poetry collections from university presses in the Philippines. Widely published in magazines and anthologies, she grew up and continues to live in rural southern Philippines. She is the poetry editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, a literary journal published by Epigram Books in Singapore, and co-editor (with Nalo Hopkinson) of Lightspeed Magazine’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction.

Dear M,

Dear M,

“The secret name is the gesture that restores the creature to the unexpressed.” – from Profanations by Giorgio Agamben

I am writing you as early as now, hoping this letter finds you well, because I might not get to you on time. When you create something that lasts, something meant to outlast you, then you die a little. And you’ve already created and recreated so many immortal objects that at this point you are close to bleeding out. Tell me, is it worth it? Is it worth pouring so much of yourself into those clunky lightboxes trapping miniature worlds that should have only existed in your mind? Are your books, devised from the variable clay of what haunts you and what ails you, worth it? You should know that only a few can read your books the way they should be read. You should know that most people who read your books do so because they are looking for themselves in your words. The same is true for what’s on your canvasses. You think your paintings, your poems, your stories to be extensions and iterations of yourself. They’re not. They are parts of you, irreplaceable parts of the splendid machinery that’s keeping you alive. They are pulsing with the demons you have yet to exorcise. Because you are crudely fashioned out of the sleepless finite and because you don’t have that many threads to begin with, you shall soon be irretrievably broken.

Know this. I found a cracked piece of brick in a construction site once. It was loneliness, and it was beautiful. It was named after you. I’ll show it to you if I get the chance to meet you in person.

Imagine the composure of immovable objects, the calcified ones that refuse to rot. Imagine their conceit when magnified on a slide exposure where they are cut open, scrutinized, backlit, made to appear bigger than life, all their lines seamless in their branching out, seamless yet irretrievably broken—like you. Syntax can only take you far enough, then you shall someday stutter, become bereft of words, of manifold symphonies and colors and textures you haven’t really lived and understood.

What is your source language? Do you know that in the second book of Herodotus’ Histories, the pharaoh Psammetichus set two infants to be raised in a linguistic deprivation tank so that whatever first word they uttered would supposedly be from mankind’s true source language? The first word that was said was “bekos.” It was a Turkish word for bread. Imagine a long-dead civilization screaming one word that echoes throughout eternity, long long after the pyramids they built were buried in layers upon layers of sand. Imagine slave builders with their hands scarred and callused by ropes used to hoist boulders high enough in the air for their otherwise stunted gods to reach. Stunted by inbreeding, their gods are cloistered in the desert shade. All these years, the builders have been crying out different words for hunger. Too many, too many, too many make-believe vessels bound for make-believe seas. Every time you close your eyes, you see all these, don’t you?

And just because the amateur boatmen predict an absence of wind does not mean you should believe them. It is always the unschooled and the savage ones who end up with bigger ships, with more oarsmen. The amateur boatmen are adept at taking measurements, too. But they cannot deduce, can rely mainly on equilibrium achieved through, let’s say, a cantilever beam. They may or may not recognize the point where the water begins and the sunken island ends. Although this is only a reenactment, you should never forget how it all started, how your Congo River once dissected the earth to grow one civilization each per riverbank.

Remember what has become of Jose of Mexico, who grew up to become the illusionist of Baghdad. He is now trembling in his pulpit of magic that preaches invisibility. Remember the radium girls whose death throes were mistaken for their drawl in the vernacular. Remember how you used to stare long enough at a figure, a form not quite there until you ultimately see something, or believe that you have seen something. You are born in the realm of Forms. Remember, remember the allegory of the cave.

There’s still time. Come on. Speak out in the language of the present. Everything else is just white noise. Grasp the tender neck of your formless god, twist it to throttle out its secrets. If you can only see and smell and hold whatever it is that’s inside of what you are worshipping, you wouldn’t have loved it that much. You can then slit the throat of your formless god. In its death, you’ll find peace.

Walk with me sometime. I’ll show you my Arcadia. I’ll show you how I stole the stories from the paintings in your gallery. I’ll show you a map of my island. I’ll show you where in my island I keep my nine dogs to guide me to the underworld. How they tame their feral handlers. I’ll show you the strange horses of my creation myths. I’ll show you the rough beasts of summer languishing among the trees, their horns silvery in the dwindling afternoon sunlight. I’ll show you the harbor where my makeshift lifeboat is secured in its moorings. I’ll show you my roomful of machines. Then I’ll tell you about this universe of small towns strung together, each town unique in its placement in the braceleted whole, of heresies that make people retain their natural shapes, of world without end without end without end.

The epistolary piece “Dear M,” is the first poem in her forthcoming book, Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2016). 

Featured Image by: Evan Tetreault