Phantompains by Therese Estacion

Phantompains by Therese Estacion carries readers through the narrator’s healing process after surviving a rare bacterial infection, but not without losing both legs below the knees, several fingers, and her uterus. The poems are mostly autobiographical, and delve into both physical and “non-physical” phantompains (51-55). This collection is about trauma, healthcare, loss, culture, bodily autonomy, and much more. This collection blew me away.  

While much of the book is autobiographical, most of it is not written in the first person. Estacion separates the narrative from herself in a few ways: the opening untitled poem introduces us to a “once upon a time” fairy tale about another woman (10); then the first section of the book is told through Filipino folklore and horror tales; and the final portion of the book is comprised of a series of “EF” poems, which tell of some other “Eunuched Female.” Only about a third of the collection is written in the first person. In my own work, I will write in second or third person when the piece is tackling a trauma. It’s a tactic I use to separate myself from my own experiences so that I can write about them without panicking or becoming depressed. I imagine Estacion does the same thing here. The pieces that write from a separate perspective also communicate how drastic this specific trauma is: so much of her former self is lost in surgery that she becomes other than what she’s always known. 

The first portion of the collection uses Filipino myth and folklore, monsters, to grasp this feeling of complete otherness post-trauma. The monsters however also represent home, history, autonomy, language, and culture. All of these mythical poems are written partly in Visayan. The first monster readers are introduced to is Agta. Estacion says at the end of this first poem: 

“I died in August/ I swear I saw something like an agta    At the foot of my/ hospital bed     a form with no eyes/ / He said to all the devils that came/ / Ayaw Pag Ari Do not come here/ / Ayaw Pag Hilabot Do not touch” (17), and in the final pages: “ a guard lights a cigar at the/ edge of my bed     /he crosses his legs/ / filling in the edges  / agta? / so, I decide to/ finally rest with him by my side/” (87).  

These cultural stories, monsters if you will, play an important role in healing for our narrator. While a part of her died, her history and culture— the “was”— remains and protects her. Tells the demons: “Do not come here, Do not touch.” 

The story of Aswang particularly struck me because of the near absolute bodily autonomy the creature Aswang possesses:  

“She/ laughs and pretends she is interested in your cock [. . .] Dismembers. Hides her/ legs by the garbage.     Grows fangs and wings” and later, “When you leave, that’s when she gets you [. . .] Then/ she puts herself back together again, FULL” (23). 

While the Aswang becomes hideous, much like our narrator feels, the Aswang holds immense power to seduce and kill, to voluntarily dismember her body and put it back together. It is further notable that Aswang hides her limbs by the garbage as another motif in this collection is that of being or becoming garbage. Estacion continues to return to this image, right from the beginning untitled poem: “my body   belonging to my body for years/ go into— / / trash in a trash can” (13).  

Estacion thanks the doctors and nurses who saved her life in the acknowledgments and says that she wrote these poems from a place of mourning. It is, however, possible to be grateful and also critical, and I think Estacion showcases the infantilization and shame imposed on amputees and the hospitalized well. Mean nurse tells other nurses that EF is “a lot of work” (80), and thereby shames the completely vulnerable Eunuched Female for a condition she did not choose and has no control over. The day her reproductive organs are removed it is an emergency procedure and she finds out from her sister after-the-fact. The end of the fifth section in “Pee” is addressed to her partner: “You remember everything    this is your part to tell/        to feel/ / I wish I could take this part away from you” (41). Estacion is suddenly placed in the childlike position of being at the whims of those around her and everyone knows more about her than she does. I would highly recommend this book to anyone, but especially those working in or wanting to work in healthcare— a field where empathy is so often lost.  

What I have written barely grazes the surface of what’s in this collection. I am so glad this book exists. 

Therese Estacion is part of the Visayan diaspora community. She spent her childhood between Cebu and Gihulngan, two distinct islands found in the archipelago named by its colonizers as the Philippines, before she moved to Canada with her family when she was ten years old. She is an elementary school teacher and is currently studying to be a psychotherapist. Therese is also a bilateral below knee and partial hands amputee, and identifies as a disabled person/person with a disability. Therese lives in Toronto. Her poems have been published in CV2 and PANK Magazine, and shortlisted for the Marina Nemat Award. Phantompains is her first book.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Book*hug Press (March 31 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 112 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771666862
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771666862

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Emma Rhodes is an emerging queer writer currently living on the unceded territory of the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee people, where she will complete a Master of Arts in English Literature at Queen's University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in places such as Prism International, Riddle Fence, Qwerty, Plenitude, Ormsby Review, and elsewhere. You can find her at