The Book of Asking

Barbara Jane Reyes

For Erin Entrada Kelly

What was your first word today, ever, in your native tongue, in the tongue you were coerced into taking

Was your mother there to witness and document, and if not, where was she, in the other room, in another time zone, on another continent

Did you speak your first word, or did you write it in cursive in your secret notebook, in chalk on concrete, on the sidewalk, did you scratch it into glass

Was it stylish, asemic, was it concise

Was it tattooed on your body somewhere secret, did it hurt your tender parts, how much did you have to drink to bear it

Do people still try to touch it without your permission

Did you stammer like your father, did people stare at you there, stuttering

Did they laugh at you, did they cut you with epithet

Did they call the cops to report someone who does not belong here

When did you open your mouth again

Did they then ask you who taught you how to speak such good English

Did you watch their mouths make meaningless music

Who told you to shut your mouth, did you know they were they afraid of you, did this make you want to throw a brick, to break their windows, to take down their flag

When did you know it was not safe to speak, when was the first time you knew you were not safe

Whose words scratched out of which documents, what words booming double barreled

Whose sweet song is safety, whose sugar

What is the cost of safety, what is its color, tone, and tax bracket, what language does it speak

And if safety’s price is your silence, are you good with this

Are you good

Are you more afraid of speaking, than of guns, than of fire, than of breaking, than of dying, than of dying young, than of dying alone, than of dying among strangers

What happens to all that prayer stuck in your lungs

Are you afraid of being unheard, of being unfound

Where is your murmuring body

If your mother tongue has been cut, then in which part of your body does all your poetry reside

When did you know the stories they told you were not true

Who made up those stories, why did they write you as tragedy

Do you recognize yourself in their descriptions of a wordless girl

Do you believe what you read in their descriptions, a dark girl, no mouth, no larynx, no lungs,

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night with words pushing themselves out of your mouth

Whose words will you believe, did you know you have a choice

How do you know who to believe, when everyone is speaking without substance

When will you ever be good enough to speak

Are you good

What if I told you there is a god’s language in you, would you believe me

Who told you your language is not divine

What if I told you spell and poem and prayer are really not so different from one another

What if I told you that you already know how to speak a thing into being

Would your body be ready to grow a new tongue

How would it feel to press your front teeth to your lower lip and exhale, to click at the back of your soft palate, and to spit

Feels hella good, right

Would you then remember the last word you ever said to your father, whether it was a soft and kind word, as befitting of one keeping vigil

Was it was a forgiving word

Do you think he heard you, and if he did, did he know your voice, did he recognize the worldmaking you speak

What mantra for your father

What mantra for your father when you buried him

Did you also know this language resides in stone

How are you cutting and polishing each phoneme, each utterance

Are you holding that stone in your hand right now

Are you ready for your first word

Are you ready

Barbara Jane Reyes headshot

Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Letters to a Young Brown Girl (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2020). She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is the author of five previous collections of poetry, Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003), Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), which received the Global Filipino Literary Award for Poetry, To Love as Aswang (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2015), and Invocation to Daughters (City Lights Publishers, 2017).