Fireflies, Fog, and Poetry Elsewhere

I’ve spent the better part of the past year collating, editing, and proofreading poems for the release of a literary folio, “Misc.” It’s a collection of stories and art written by high school and college students for the Philippines, and as one of the editors behind the publication I found myself reading and selecting and revising and cutting for days on end until I often got lost in stray tenses and verbs. That’s the thing — I say I love writing, but on some days I wake up and forget that love, lost as it is or scattered in the syntax of a sentence. But there are days, too, when that love returns to me.

In March I visited Taipei for my summer vacation, a tour guide driving me and my family around Taiwan until we arrived in the capital city. In Taipei, tourists flock to the Shilin night market in droves, sipping naicha, watching HotStar chicken cutlets sink into simmering oil, and haggling for factory-price Nikes of dubious origin. When I arrived in Shilin, my plan was to rush to the first street food stall I found for a cheap snack, but instead, stepping foot into the market, I remembered a poem. It had been one of the earlier submissions to our folio, a series of short haikus by a friend of mine, Johann Go, detailing a similar visit to Taipei:

Day 2. 4/9/15. Xindian, New Taipei

After the sun sets
And all turns black, fireflies
Light up the way home.

As the poem’s lines ran through my head, I looked up and caught the glimpse of a few stars past the rising smoke from pans and vats of oil, imagined that those stars were fireflies flitting through the eleven-pm haze. Seventeen syllables and an old work I’d edited months ago transformed the sky, so I sat down on a nearby bench and watched the twinkling of the stars for a minute, almost wondering if I’d see them grow small wings and flit across the night.

The pattern stuck. On Alishan, a snowcapped mountain bridging the northern and southern halves of Taiwan, I pressed a handkerchief against the lenses of my glasses, fogged up by peals of swirling air. I shivered in the cold, but remembered another of Johann’s haikus:

Day 11. 4/18/15. Wulai, New Taipei

The fog swirls around
Slowly descending upon us
Like a warm blanket.

Recalling the cold of the mountain air I placed my glasses on the bridge of my nose and exhaled, wondering at the blanketing chill. I thought of Johann in Wulai, caught by a separate fog which left small droplets of water on his father’s eyeglasses; I thought of warmth in the place of snow, the heavy lull of a rainforest pressed against winter’s chill. Fog here, embracing Alishan’s white peaks; fog there, encircling Wulai’s plains — air descending, perhaps, from the mountain where I stood to where Johann stood a year before. In a small moment, all distance was bridged by that image — fog, encircling all, embracing both miles and years.

I write this now to look back on in case, whether in the drudgery of editing or the pain of redraft after redraft, I forget what poems can do. When remembered even in fragments or glimpses poems can change stars into fireflies, make bridges out of fog, turn the flickering lights of a Seven-Eleven on the edge of Shilin into a reminder that someone was once here in your place, dreaming verses where you now dream in echo and silhouette. And reading Johann’s poems one more time on the flight back home I wondered at the steps I’d taken across stone-sandy beaches, at the tea sipped in a makeshift house midway down Alishan — wondered whether those steps were mine, or just the unfolding of another seventeen rhythmic syllables. Upon landing on the long NAIA runway I exhaled, fogging up the lenses of my eyeglasses. For a moment I imagined that something had come home with me — a piece of a poem left behind somehow by mountain fog and droplets of soft rain..

(Johann’s full poem, “22 Days of Poetry Elsewhere,” is part of the folio I mentioned, “Misc.,” which I’m launching alongside other writers and artists on April 30, from 2–6pm, at Exile on Main St., 299 Katipunan Ave., Quezon City. If you’re interested to learn more about who we are, visit