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The Dead Face of My Beloved

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

{ The Dead Face of My Beloved is a poem being taught in schools in the Philippines. Although I am not sure exactly where it can be found, I suspect it's in a textbook. I often get emails about the poem, and it also appears as an entry in google searches. This week I decided to find the poem. }

One day this week, I received an anonymous email from a student asking me to explain a poem, apparently written by me, titled The Dead Face of My Beloved. It wasn’t the first time I have received such a query. It is possible that the poem is being taught in Philippine schools, just like my other works. Time and again, I would receive emails from students asking me to send them a copy of my first novel that they were studying in class. Student emails appear in my box in spurts, as soon as my works are assigned and their research begins. Also, for over ten years, there has been a Google search category for The Dead Face of My Beloved Bino Realuyo. It is even one of the choices that appear on my Google name search--created by frequent search of the same topic. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember writing that poem. And for years, I didn’t really pay it any mind. Until now.

Google search for The Dead Face of My Beloved

Because somehow in the deep recesses of my brain is this vague familiarity, a ghost. Although I had ignored this particular ghost for so long, a sudden jolt of curiosity got the best of me. The “dead face” could be my father who passed 17 years ago now. I could have written this poem then, and just like what I did to many things that happened around that time in my life, I could have left it to disappear in my past. The death of my father, beyond familial and parental reunion of conflicts, was horrifying for many reasons. Whoever said that you see the real versions of people in times of death is correct. Most of that bad experience I would attribute to the cruelty of relatives from my paternal side. Thus, in 2004, the year after the death of my father, I quit my job and left for Puerto Rico to live. Puerto Rico, particularly San Juan, had been the island where I had been spending a whole month every year to write my literary works. It would become the island of my grief, and also a place where I would write many things I would never revisit. Could this poem be one of them?

Sometimes making peace with the past means shutting the door behind it and walking far away. There may be collateral casualties in the process: people, memories, and in my case, literary works. There were relatives I had no desire to speak with or see again. There were memories that still trigger an immediate shift in thought upon remembrance. And there were my personal writings left in some digital folder somewhere that I never saw again. And there was Puerto Rico, my island of inspiration and healing that I would never return to again after living there a few months. Perhaps, just perhaps 17 years is a long time and all signs of trauma would be gone by now. After all, I had gone through many transformations in life that I wouldn’t even recognize the person that I was then.

Investigating the poem in the age of social media opens a lot of possibilities. I searched the poem once again and posted the google search image on my Facebook page, hoping that it would generate interest somehow. I also posted a similar query on my own personal Facebook page to see if teachers and writers in the Philippines would recognize the title and provide some ideas on how to find the lost piece. I had already checked my archive and didn't find it there. But 17 years is a very long time in the digital age. I am a product of major disruptions in digital technology--from hardware to software to everything that seemed to be lost in their complexity, the floppy disks. While I kept most of my historical floppy disks, I could not open a few of them and retrieve the files.

Found on the internet: Philippine Literature Syllabus that included The Dead Face of My Beloved

Found on the internet: Philippine Literature Syllabus that included The Dead Face of My Beloved

The following day, the writer Ian Rosales Casocot instant messaged me the said poem with a copyright at the bottom next to my name and the year it was possibly written. Seeing my name and year was one thing, reading the text was another. Before my emotions got the better of me, I read the poem quickly. The ghost came in full, head to toe, heart to mind. There was no denying this was a poem from a file that I never revisited. I don’t remember the circumstances behind its publication. I could have very well sent it to someone in the Philippines without thinking about it twice. It looked very much first edition, raw and emotional. It was an era poem—a time in my life I wrote confessional narratives. I wrote many of these—what the literary industry these days devour for their structural simplicity and for the love of identity politics in poetic story form. Most of all, it was about my father’s death, the day after his death, when I had to choose a coffin for him with my sister. My mother’s screams were in the poem. All of us staring at this grand loss. My father was after all our bridge to America. Without him, we wouldn't be here and I wouldn’t be writing this. He was always much much older than the rest of us. He was a survivor of WW2 and a concentration camp. I grew up in VA hospitals because of him. I grew up around very old soldiers. I grew up around history and oppression. He taught me the language of social justice. All of that is in this poem.

So dear you, my dear reader of this work,

You are reading this because you Google searched The Dead Face of My Beloved. If you are inclined to email me, please don’t. I cannot explain the poem to you. I will not explain why I write what I write. Poetry is not as dense and far-fetched and mysterious as it has been made out to be. I know the resistance to read poems. I was taught poems in high school in the Philippines that made me hate poetry because I could not understand them. The teachers thought they understood them. In retrospect, none of us did. I became a poet early on in high school, publishing my first poem at 11. It has been a journey since.

When you read this piece, find yourself in it. Don’t look for me. When you read it, it’s not about me any longer. It’s about you. If you haven’t experienced death up close, find the experience in those around you who had known death: distant relatives, neighbors. But we will all experience death. So if this poem doesn’t tell you about yourself now, keep it until it does. Eventually, it will be about you.

So don’t try to understand what you can’t. Try to feel the words and ask yourself--What is it your sensing? What are the words making you feel? What is it you see with the language? Don't try too hard to understand the story behind it--the more you do that and make it about the poem, the less personal it becomes. It is a poem. There isn't always a story. We can’t understand other people’s experiences in full. We live our lives to only understand our own. And even that will always be a mystery.

The same exact image Ian Rosales Casocot sent to me

The Dead Face of My Beloved

The funeral director knows it best, how to paint a face that imitates life, one that nestles between a smile and a frown, a normal face that makes one say, "he's at peace now," or "heaven," makes one forget the days before, the dying rooms of intubated soldiers, empty beds of forgotten wars, a sleeping face, the light face of a child’s laughter, of their dreams, the innocence of dawn, a face of love, warm against a beloved’s, indifferent face, no expression, eyebrows not lifted, tilted, or crossed, only slightly raised above the level of sleep, the thoughtful face of his first blue moon, a breathing face, breathing in between tastes of the finest white rice, a simple face, forever simple in the simplicity of the departed, a forever face, but what i see, what i see-- is the dead, dead face of my father, inches under my mother’s outpour of screams, his cold face before the mortal vanishing, boxed in yellow light, in silk, in maple wood, my soldier's dead face, a canvas brushed by the mediocre hands of the living.

My father, Augusto Roa Realuyo, on his last days in the Veteran's Hospital in New York City, and my mother, who will always be our ever dearest angel.

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