Poems from Sri Lanka

Written in three different stages during our time there: the first on a plane from KL to Colombo; the next in the dead of our second night in SL; the third sitting in an airport, waiting for my last flight home to Butuan.­

i.

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Photo by P. Tolentino

the father across the aisle is reading
to his daughter. she is seven years old
and tiny. she peers at the world,
wide-eyed through dark-rimmed
glasses.

the father across the aisle is reading
to his daughter, a book with pictures.
he uses a different voice for every character.
from where i sit, i hear snippets of
the story, “the wizard of oz.”

i close my eyes and think of dorothy
and her red shoes, swept up
in a great wind and dropped
on yellow brick roads lined
with half-creatures:

scarecrow without a brain
tin man without a heart
lion without his courage, and in the end
dorothy helps them all find
what they need. i fall asleep
wondering–how long
before dorothy found
what she herself thought
she had lost?

the turbulence jolts me awake.
the plane dips and shakes, lights blinking
frantically outside the window. i think of
great winds that sweep up
little girls in red shoes,
of bird wrists sifting
through the sand for

lost minds
lost hearts
lost courage
i wonder–how long
before we find the things
we think we have lost?

the father across the aisle is reading
silently by himself, a book with no pictures.
his little daughter is fast asleep
in his lap. breathing even.
all else is still.

and i, i am scribbling furiously
a poem on the back of a wrinkled airline ticket–
engraving two strangers in a memory
i did not intend to capture, because
i don’t want to forget how the soft glow
of the cabin light above them
feels like,

a spotlight, a mirror,
a long-forgotten wish,
a favorite story unearthed from old boxes,
covered in dust and whispering voices
that have only just begun
to fade

i wonder–how long
before we find the things
we think we have lost?

–yellow brick roads, b.c.m.

ii.

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things that sound the same in faraway places:
thunder rumbling in the dead of night.
your sister’s voice crackling over the phone.
laughter, and the drumming of rain.

pauses strung together in between
strange lilting syllables, uttered quietly
to Yeshua, in reverent trust.
His voice steals over them in answer
in the same words they use to pray,
and you wonder at

this strange God
this familiar God
who knows every word
of Tamil,
Sinhala,
Mandarin
Lord of every language
and the nations that speak them

this mysterious God
this beautiful God
who holds all together,
fills these parking lot spaces
where words don’t fit,
spins my dog-eared English
into poetry enough to
break my heart
a thousand times over.

knows all my words
before they are birthed.
knows this poem before it
is even finished.

things that sound the same in faraway places:
ringing of worship in the early mornings.
wind-song overhead, and the birds that join in.
a genuine “how are you?” by a friend.

a lion roaring from the inside of your chest.
the still small Voice in the quiet.

–things that sound the same in faraway places, b.c.m.

iii.

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Waiting.

They measure things in distance here.
(Like most of the world does, I suppose.)
Hatton is 120 kilometers from Colombo.
Fifty kilometers more ’til the town of Nuwara Eliya.

I pause every time and ask
“How long is that in hours
in a car or on a plane?”
Distance tells me nothing.

When we land in Sri Lanka, I tell
my brother in Nigeria, I have moved
three hours closer to where they are,
the gap between our sunsets closing.
(It is easier to imagine Africa from
this seashore.)

I understand
hours better than kilometers
clocks better than maps,
endlessly chasing the minutes
around a plastic face,
but maps leave my handwriting
shaky by the end.

I glide round and round in carousel circles.
Everywhere, nowhere. Back again.
The seconds come in twelve
different colors; the ones I now hold
are muddy blue. Like the sky, or
the tail of an airplane. Like
the days I find myself wondering
where you had gone.

This morning, we rode
twelve minutes through
the rain and to the airport.

It is one sleepy hour ’til
I am finally home.

–hour-maps, b.c.m.

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