ESL Or You Weren't Here
Playlist by Aldrin Valdez
"ESL or You Weren’t Here" tells the story of a queer Pinoy who immigrates to New York in the 1990s in order to be reunited with their parents. What follows is the poet’s awakening to the legacy of American imperialism & colonialism in the Philippines, and to the experience of living between languages, cultures, temporalities, and genders—untranslatable. ESL asks the reader to bear witness to embodied histories of forced immigration, separation and abandonment rooted in patriarchal racism. Released this month by Nightboat Books, Verse is honored to offer you this preview of Aldrin Valdez's first poetry collection.

On a deep personal level, Aldrin Valdez’s debut book of poems delves into my own beautifully tortured, torturously beautiful upbringing in Manila: its wonder, humor, imagery, confusion, and nostalgia. Then, from within, its pages fan out airing the mysteries and dichotomies of a queer immigrant body, purple gendered, paradoxical. I marvel at the collection’s tangled grappling—as with the constant negotiations between Tagalog and English, the definition of motherhood—and the process of omission and possession. Being also a visual artist, Valdez is pliant, imagistic, creating collages and giving expert shapes to poems that twist and turn in their churning relocation. But through it all, at the heart of it is a pursuit of connection, of totality: “In this body,/as it meets your body, there is a rhythm/like knowing and unknowing.”—JOSEPH O. LEGASPI

Aldrin Valdez’s ESL or You Weren’t Here is that rare book of poems that unfurls a story while also offering lovely, satisfying poems page by page. There is so much love here, so much tenderness, so much beauty, which doesn’t mean the book isn’t also full of grief, probing, protest, and alchemy. Valdez has written one long song I’m honored to hear.—MAGGIE NELSON
"ESL or You Weren’t Here" tells the story of a queer Pinoy who immigrates to New York in the 1990s in order to be reunited with their parents. What follows is the poet’s awakening to the legacy of American imperialism & colonialism in the Philippines, and to the experience of living between languages, cultures, temporalities, and genders—untranslatable. ESL asks the reader to bear witness to embodied histories of forced immigration, separation and abandonment rooted in patriarchal racism. Released this month by Nightboat Books, Verse is honored to offer you this preview of Aldrin Valdez's first poetry collection.

On a deep personal level, Aldrin Valdez’s debut book of poems delves into my own beautifully tortured, torturously beautiful upbringing in Manila: its wonder, humor, imagery, confusion, and nostalgia. Then, from within, its pages fan out airing the mysteries and dichotomies of a queer immigrant body, purple gendered, paradoxical. I marvel at the collection’s tangled grappling—as with the constant negotiations between Tagalog and English, the definition of motherhood—and the process of omission and possession. Being also a visual artist, Valdez is pliant, imagistic, creating collages and giving expert shapes to poems that twist and turn in their churning relocation. But through it all, at the heart of it is a pursuit of connection, of totality: “In this body,/as it meets your body, there is a rhythm/like knowing and unknowing.”—JOSEPH O. LEGASPI

Aldrin Valdez’s ESL or You Weren’t Here is that rare book of poems that unfurls a story while also offering lovely, satisfying poems page by page. There is so much love here, so much tenderness, so much beauty, which doesn’t mean the book isn’t also full of grief, probing, protest, and alchemy. Valdez has written one long song I’m honored to hear.—MAGGIE NELSON
1. Tagalog
Aldrin Valdez
2. fall / pall
Aldrin Valdez
3. Mrs. B Tells My Mother I Must Speak Only English at Home
Aldrin Valdez
4. Sagad
Aldrin Valdez
Nanay once joked that when it came time to move to the U.S.
she’d beg the pilot to turn back. Or she’d jump out of the plane

          swim back to Manila.
 
                                              Come back   
          I pray


langoy
 
                   langoy
 
langoy ka.
 
                           

          Swim with the river.



                            Sa ilog.

 
                   Taga ilog.
   
                   From the river.
 

Tagalog: People of the River.


                                                                Nanay


                   emerges from the water, cursing
 

the trash and tae floating all around her, clinging to her ill-fitting
dress, something she’d only ever wear to who knows—maybe an
embassy, to a stuffy plane full of ‘kanos & balikbayans-to-be.
 
She twists her hair dry, a gesture her arms have memorized
wringing wet fabric ten times as thick down the street from her
house where neighbors gossiped over laundry.
 
She thinks to get on a jeepney, but she doesn’t want to stink up
the whole bus with the shitty water drying on her skin and clothes.


          PUÑETA!


          LECHE!

 
Tagalog curses feel good on her tongue.
 
She spits on the earth & begins to walk the many, many miles
back to Tondo. She is used to walking.
 
The skin on her callused heels is a map of broken streets &
syllables that fall like rain water on newly paved asphalt
 

                                              i sa
 
                            da la wa
           
                   tat lo
 

                                              a pat
               
                                   li ma
 
                        a nim
 

                                              pi to
 
                                   wa lo
 
                        si yam

           sam pu
It’s a Friday when she’s gone.

In Manila, her leaving is faster: 12 hours into Saturday—
in New York, does that mean she is still alive?

Beg the impossible for a slip in time & language:
Leaving. A leaving. Let her spirit travel.
A clock, a leaf. Autumn, her body a duster dress
of foliage. Autumn, a mother. Leaving, the sky.

Is it too much to ask that a telephone call be taken back?
Explain you don’t want it at all. Leaves don’t whir,
don’t fit inside a phone. They turn color & fall, as they should,

so a figure may form on the ground, because there is a ground.

A child must not be bereft. See: the leaves shape a mother,
layered brown, orange, yellow, red. Her face, the most colorful.

Heed the sun stay longer. Stay, crepuscular, warm her bones.
NEARBY is not pronounced as NEAR-BE.
GRANDMOTHER is GRANDMOTHER
only.

Admit NANAY contains two negatives.
Yes, also NIGH,
as in ALMOST HERE,
but the word is ARCHAIC,
meaning
FAR
AWAY IN TIME
or NO
LONGER.

Abandon
PRIMITIVE
attachments.

My teachers, mother
remind me,

You’re in America now.
                            In my hand your genitals: your words
tangled, thick hair, your lovely, uncut—
                            I ask permission to name—

cock, you permit—
                            & it enters & leaves, enters
& leaves, enters & leaves—I

                            am breathing. Mourning comes
in little waves as desire comes
                            in little waves: O—to let my mouth

be a site for feeling!
                           In Tagalog, I tell you, there’s a word
for this fullness—Sagad: to the hilt,

                           as in a sword or a screw.
And just like that, violence
                           punctures the field of conversation.

But let it be transmutable, as when you,
                           sagad in me, say ram & ride,
I think of clouds above Manila

                           with its sky-flung blue, & sweat,
a tropic bloom city street folded metal
                           painted Virgin Mary palm-prayer pink—

The breath moves, pain
                           moves along with it. My throat,
then the branches of my lungs. Soon

                           the disembodiment the act of naming
can be, gives way to the warm
                           fogginess of staying, a slow,

low atmosphere. Here. In this body,
                           as it meets your body, there is a rhythm
like knowing & unknowing,

                           asking, then waiting to be answered.
Once, my kiss wasn’t with lips
                           but with an O’Hara poem I fumbled

in the dark, half-memorized, to you.
                           To be the child in the poem, weeping
in the bathtub, just as lost, but feeling okay

                           with not returning to myself, as myself was,
just a few moments ago, before I,
                           longing, kissed you.
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