Friday, May 30, 2008

Rereading de Ungria, Reassessing Alunan

Rereading de Ungria,
Reassessing Alunan

In its attempt to popularize and make accessible contemporary Philippine literature to scholars and the general public, the University of the Philippines Press has been publishing an ongoing series of books collectively called the U.P. Jubilee Student Edition. Written by very young but talented poets, fictionists and playwrights, some of these tomes are seeing print for the first time. The rest are reprints of contemporary classics penned by more established senior writers.

Belonging to the second category are the poetry collections of Ricardo M. de Ungria and Merlie M. Alunan titled Decimal Places: Poems (121 pages) and Selected Poems (84 pages), respectively. Decimal Places and Alunan's two previous compendiums (Hearthstone, Sacred Tree and Amina Among the Angels) have been out of print for quite some time, which makes the two wordsmiths best-selling authors.

But the term "bestseller" used in the Philippine context is quite misleading, since we are not a reading republic, and the usual print run for a book of poetry is a measly 250 to 300 copies. For even if our literature in English has not remained inchoate as predicted by Fr. Miguel A. Bernad, S.J. in 1957, the fact remains that because of the dearth of readers our writers cannot still earn a living from their writing.

By making the books of these two exemplary poets more affordable, the UP Press is leading the crusade against literary illiteracy and the death of the Filipino author. But aside from introducing de Ungria and Alunan to a new generation of readers, the 2004 editions also invite long-time informed readers, this critic included, to reread and reassess these writers' poetic outputs.

Decimal Places, first published in 1991 by Anvil Publishing, Inc., traces de Ungria's poetic peregrinations in America as well as in other more exotic places like China and Japan. "North Star Sonata" eloquently expresses the persona's attempt to make sense of his first encounter with America: "Hardly a thing here to recognize,/ but a new beginning."
Other poems that enunciate the decimating effect (to reduce by one tenth) of the States on a third word visitor include "Avatar at the Gas Station, Lower East Side," "Media Noche in St. Louis," "Carillonneur," "Bibelots," "Wahrtraum," "Island," "Civil Liberties," "The Staten Island Ferry Ride," and "Angel Radio," among others.

De Ungria is a master magus of both the long and the short poem. He can wax lyrical like in "The Aspiring Theorist," "The Krag-and-Bayonet Phase," "White," "Archeology," "Bella Bona Roba," "Sovegna Vos," "Lore" and "Pillow Talk." Or he can be more narrative like in "The Seed of Ten Thousand Things," "Commerce and the Man," "Genius Loci," "Antschel Quintet," "Pure Mind Mile," "Bienvenido," "Festina Lente," "The Necessary Distances," "Room for Time Passing" and "Angel Radio."

The most fulfilling of these extensive verses is "Sui Veneris/ The Poet of No Return," the lengthiest poem of the entire collection, and an erotic one to boot: "Yet between our arms retrieved from the other/ The groinwarmth hammers a ciborium of space/ Where the sky retains a blue above this night/ And the slippery shine of celestial rims/ Domes her as she unsnarls and rises,/ Patting her hair, to open a window/ Draw air to breathe, implicate in her warmth/ Accretions of feelings and affections snug/ With the motes on the screen and grillwork.//"

Like all excellent poetry, the pieces in Decimal Places paradoxically are direct and oblique, public and private, narrative and lyrical, both.

Unlike de Ungria's poetic terrain, the domain of Alunan's poesy is more domestic, focusing on family affairs, whether happy or sad, comic or tragic. A cycle of poems from Hearthstone, Sacred Tree celebrates her children's rites of passage and her own moments of ahimsa in connection with their coming of age: "Time decrees, you must leave/ your elfin friends behind./" ["Anjanette: first communion"]; "when what's at stake/ is loyalty or love,/ hers are the true rights./ Her own faiths she must keep, not I." ["Bringing the dolls"]; "If prophets have mercy,/ oh let him be/ master still/ of a world edgeless/ and forever." ["The boy Abraham"].

On the other hand, the selections from the second collection Amina Among the Angels have a wider gyre, covering more spaces, both real and imaginary. Her Baguio poems are brimming, not only with stark images, but with sharp insights as well: "I'd warrant, my love,/ more's to gain in a night's history of drinking/ than crabby saints or poets can say in a lifetime's telling.//" ["Crab Story"]; "All we could bring on the long trek home/ The old knowledge --- we cut the same trail/ Through which to return.//" ["Baguio, the last day"]; "Swallowing hard our emptiness/ we rushed down again, driven still/ by this terrible urge --- for friends,/ it may be, we thought, for talk,/ the warmth round the communal fire,/ our hands dipping for meat/ from the common bowl.// ["Hunger"].

But the most poignant piece of the second section is the title poem that commemorates the poet's mother, who had passed away long before the catastrophic flashfloods and landslides that overwhelmed Ormoc, Leyte in 1991 and took the lives of her husband and other members of her immediate and extended family: "But you've gone ahead to this hill earlier,/ three years, you weren't there to witness…/ how in a panic,/ we pried and scraped and shoveled from the ooze/ what had once been beloved, crammed them/ coffinless without ritual without tears…/

Alunan's poetic powers have remained potent, despite the constant intrusion of the mundane world of the academe into the magical realm of the Muses. For even if she is not as prolific as the other bards of her generation, the consistent alchemy of her versifying is beyond doubt one of the finest among our female conjurers.

By offering the marvelous works of these sorcerers and their apprentices at very reasonable prices, the UP Press and its former director Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, the mastermind behind the series, deserve all the acclaim from everyone of us who still believe in the ability of the written word to redeem the world.

Mangohig's Visual Pleasures Versified

Mangohig's Visual Pleasures Versified

Desire in its many declensions is seldom tackled in Philippine poetry with such a great amount of candor and charisma, for sexual matters, like so many things better left unsaid, have always been considered as a taboo topic in our traditional, almost medieval, Roman Catholic society. But Arvin Abejo Mangohig, in his first volume of verses titled The Gaze: Poems [Quezon City: UP Press, 2004, 87 pages], dares to transgress this forbidden ground twice over by textualizing the dangerous geography of gay love and lust.

The 74 poems in this collection chart the homosexual body's manifold hidden valleys of pain, as well as its mountain peaks of pleasures. For Mangohig commemorates in his gay erotic poetry the consummation of passion and its aftermath, love reciprocated or unrequited, and the myriad constellation of stars and scars connected to the fantasy/ reality dichotomy of romantic relationships.

The title poem provides the thematic thread of the entire collection, which revolves around the bittersweet landscape of casual encounters and sexual escapades: "I am what makes you go to fractal places/ what makes you believe in meetings by chance." ["The Gaze"].

There is much voyeurism and scopophilia in Mangohig's work, and nothing and no one is spared of his persona's penetrating homosexual gaze: nameless gay men having sex in restrooms, lovers real or imagined, himself masturbating, even the lovemaking of his own parents. Here are some exemplary samples: "When I saw them, my first two men, making love/ right in front of me, beautiful in their context,/ in a public toilet, in the middle of the day,/" ["Anonymous"], "After the first bout of lovemaking, spent/ yet strangely very much rested, gathering energy,/ I would ask only lovers who I knew loved me back/ when and where they got that particular scar//" [How Not to Forget a Lover], "Days and weeks and months of staying inside/ the house, touching no one but myself/ I feel my skin growing thick above me,/ ["Metamorphosis"], "Someday I will ask my mother/ how they made me: doggy-style?/ missionary? some position that/ can be represented by a number?// ["The Voyeur"].

Mangohig also celebrates certain components of the male anatomy in a subsection of the book aptly titled "Body Parts." In evocative-cum-provocative poems like "wrist," "armpit," "nipples," "ear," "birthmark," "toenail," "pubic hair," "back," "thigh," "eye," "finger," he catalogues every minute detail of the homosexual physique. But my personal favorite is "asshole," in which the paronomasia becomes both sexual and self-depreciating "… puckering/ like an asshole being rimmed, asshole/ that you turned out to be,/ asshole that I loved.//"

Jamake Highwater, in his very fascinating book titled The Language of Visions: Meditations on Myth and Metaphor, compares "The Hanged Man" of the tarot pack with homosexuality as metaphor. He avers, without batting an eyelash, that "Homosexuality haunts the public conscience because it is feared as a latent and contagious matter of choice. Yet, through all of this, homosexuality remains a profound metaphor of the unbounded possibilities of desire, just as homophobia persists as a symbol of the limits of the capacity of human beings to cherish one another."

Interestingly enough, Mangohig makes use of the hanged man as a central trope, whether consciously or unconsciously, in one of his poems: "I am hanging upside down. I have fallen/ off the earth for sure this time…" [Out-of-Body Experience]. For the homosexual situation is a life in suspension, but this inverse position is also the source of his resistance, if not outright rebellion, against the strict moral codes of patriarchal society. Since the hanged man, despite his predicament, manages to smile playfully at the world and its prevalent heterosexism, which the black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde describes as "the belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving and thereby its right to dominance."

But the best poems in the collection are those that deal with genuine desire and true love, for Mangohig is more than capable of rhapsodizing the heartfelt sentiments of a hopeless romantic. In pieces like "Bodies," "Our Own Good," "At the Train Station," "Last Night," "The End of the World," "The Heart-Gut," "At the Library," "Since," "Faithfulness," "First," "(Postmodern) Love Poem," and "A Lover is About to Break My Heart", the poetic persona's byronic self comes to the fore, volcanic but vulnerable, hurting but hurtling through the coordinates of homosexual time and space.

The most poignant of these love poems deserves to be quoted in full: "For no reason other than love/ while shaving I think of you and grow careless// So that my face has become/ a record of the slips of my razor// Each nick adding value/ to my history of bleeding.// ["Shaving"]
Mangohig's gay erotic poetry pushes the envelope of what can be properly verbalized in verses, and thus valorized as art. But by daring to speak about what for most people is unspeakable, he defies the conventions of polite society and good literature through what Jonathan Dollimore labels as a "transgressive aesthetic."

Adventurous readers who want to be startled by the stark images of gay desire and spellbound by the sharp insights on homosexual love should grab a copy of Mangohig's book while supply lasts.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Ophelia Dimalanta Reader

One Final Reader/ Reading

A living writer who has devoted nearly an entire lifetime to the service of the Muses certainly deserves a retrospective compilation of the substantial body of work s/he has produced thus far. Such is the case of The Ophelia A. Dimalanta Reader: Selected Poetry (UST Publishing House, 2004, 264 pages), the literary matriarch's two-book series of her poems, short stories and essays, as well as the academic attention given to her ouevre by some of the country's top literary critics. The first volume collates the best pieces from her six previous poetry collections, most of which have been published by the Pontifical University's press: Montage (1974), The Time Factor and Other Poems (1983), Flowing On (1988), Lady Polyester: Poems Past and Present (1993), Love Woman (1998) and Passional: New Poems and Some Translations (2002).

Meticulously selected by the grand poetess herself, the poems in the present compendium represent not only her personal favorites, but what she feels/thinks are the most significant of her verse compositions. Having done his undergraduate thesis on Dimalanta's first four collections, this critic could not help but agree with almost all of her choices.

Included in this personal anthology are the poems about being a woman in all her complexity from Montage, the transcendental travel pieces from The Time Factor, more transit poetry and four feminist dramatic monologues from Flowing On, the Iowa-inspired verses from Lady Polyester, the Mediterranean lyrics and centennial poems celebrating seven women revolutionaries from Love Woman, as well as her spiritual/erotic musings from Passional.

But what is interesting about the book is the way the poems are arranged, for they are not sequenced in chronological order. Instead, the selected pieces are grouped together into five sections based on some common thematic threads, which are as follows: 1. On Poetry, Poetics, Poets, and Music, 2. On Faiths Romantic and Transcendent, 3. On Life, Death, and the Hovering In-between, 4. Montage: The Different Images of Woman, and 5. Journeys: Persons, Places, Sites and In-sites.

The first part presents her personal poetics, her own definition(s) of what her versifying is all about, as well as paeans to exemplary writers, musicians and visual artists. For new readers of Dimalanta's masterpieces, the three overtly ars poetica poems are perfect take-off points for a better appreciation of her brand of poetry: "And poetry can only claim/ or disavow so much like love,/ its rantings beclouding what has/ finally been uttered or not,/ ineffable as dawn's too soon/ tiptoeing fingers…a smile/ that never gets to the lips.//" ["What Poetry Does Not Say"], "This strange stasis/ This something else apart/ An instant of vision/ Throat-lumps turned truths/ Bled into being//" ["Poeisis: A Making"], For that plain, unfrilled face of truth,/ For what is big and terrible, grim/ And painful and beautiful, way beyond/ Pain's range, like love's quietus.// [“Poet in Search of a Tragic Theme”].

The second section contains some of her most memorable and mesmerizing lyrics, like "The Time Factor," "A Kind of Burning," "Out of the Mouths of Babes," "Finder Loser," "Mayflower Pilgrims," "Romancing the Lake," "Love in a Contemporary Key," "Surreal Loves 1 and 2" and "Passional," to name a few. "Stowaway Love," a relatively unknown poem except for those who are avid followers of Dimalanta's poetry, is an excellent companion piece to the more popular "A Kind of Burning": "this far, strange,/ i still catch/ the sound and sense/ of your every emerging thought/…. like one stowaway love,/ into the burning din/ of this kind of dying.//"

The selections in the third part constellate around the issues concerning existence and extinction, as well as the experiences in between. The most significant of these pieces have the crumbling/burning house as its central metaphor, a catastrophe that did occur in August 1991. "On a House About to Crumble" and "She Must Have to Go and Soon" anticipates the actual destruction of the said edifice in some sort of poetic prophesy, while "An Unobstructed View" and "One Final Burning" transmutes the tragedy into poetic experience, thus transcending it.

Images and imaginings of womanhood dominate the fourth section. Ranging from the feminine to the feminist, the poems celebrate the multifarious and multiple aspects of the female identity. "Montage," "Amarantha," "Rat Story 1 and 2," and "Love Woman" depict the many faces of Eve as "complex, questioning/…elemental, prevailing.//" On the other hand, the joys and sorrows of motherhood are textualized in "Quickening," "Birth," "Children and Lovers," "Coming to Grief," and "Sons and Mothers." A series of feminist dramatic monologues and character sketches are presented in two subsections titled "Our Voices Our Zones" and "Other Voices Other Zones" respectively.

The last and longest part proffers travel poetry at its best. "Coasts Apart" describes the style of her journeying: "I get terribly entrapped/ in safety belts and contraptions/ tangling with camera and straps/ and postcards and homeborne deals.//" In terms of description and design, wit and wisdom, the most gratifying pieces are "Pale Thoughts Upon a Pale City," "On a Slow Boat to Bohol," "He Rages," "Nara," "Sunbathing at Malibu," "Flowing On," "The Heart of Waiting," "Flowing in with Eyes of Fire in Carmel by the Sea, October 1987," The Parthenon Seen and Shot from Hotel Aphrodite," and "At the Foot of the Sphinx," among others.

Dimalanta's idiolect has remained inimitable all these years. Her mode of expression is extraordinary, in the sense that nobody else but her can get away with juxtaposing Latinate polysyllabic words and Anglo-Saxon monosyllables with such ease and aplomb. The verve of her versifying has not diminished, despite the wear and tear of her countless quotidian tasks, like running UST's Center for Creative Writing and Studies as its Director in perpetua.

Garcia's Illuminating Graces

Garcia's Illuminating Graces

J. Neil C. Garcia's latest poetry collection Misterios and Other Poems [Quezon City: UP Press, 2005, 210 pages] proves once again his premier position as the best Filipino poet of his generation, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Composed of three sections, Misterios commemorates the enigmatic fissures between body and soul, the word and the word made flesh, the Self and the Other, home and exile, the past and the present. These interstitial but numinous spaces, replete with their contradictions, paradoxes and ironies, are articulated in poems that perfectly meld the lyrical and the narrative, the personal and the universal, the banal and the sublime.

The first part is a cycle of poems occasioned by a three and a half month visit to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The luminous lyrics produced during the sojourn are at turns nostalgic and subversive, meditative and frolicsome, celebratory and indignant.

A number of verses further explore the arcane relationship between the "craft and sullen art" of writing and the high cost of living that nourishes it, a theme that has been probed again and again in Garcia's six previous poetry collections. The difference here is the transcendence apparent in each carefully created line and artfully assembled stanza, although the persona in poem number "XV" claims that: "Unbidden, the words come./ They have done so before, but not/ this glibly.// To give you an idea:/ so far, four or five poems, a day.// I am exhausted, but also thrillingly/ alive. Like I have not been/ for years now.//"

As the gay guru of Philippine literature, the issue of homosexuality is always present in Garcia's versifying, whether veiled or overt, the latter best represented by a piece that advocates the peripheral existence of gay men as the very source ironically of their inner strength and salvation: "In my sultry Catholic country we are proud/ to be gay, despite or precisely because of ourselves.// And so, what do all these say? Perhaps, only this:/ Pride is the handmaid of that old Tyranny,// for and whom she exists. Thus, the margin/ is not the margin, merely. It is also the radical edge.// ["XXIII"]

The masterpieces of Flemish painters, from Jan Vermeer to Vincent Van Gogh, also become the subject of artistic scrutiny and poetic contemplation of Garcia's unflinching homosexual gaze. Take for instance this poem cogitating on a canvas painted by the famous suicidal painter, which in the end becomes a wellspring of personal engagement and epiphany: "This insight is so palpable,/ in my poem it's a shell.// And in this painting?/ I'm not to be misled, I look closely:// there, folded into the brushstrokes,/ caught inside gobs of chafed pigment ---// the sandy bits of a ravaged world.//" ["XL"]

But the persona's postcolonial self protests the cost of purchase for the opulent beauty that is Old Europe: "They are here whom the Empire had divested/ of their cinnamons, their diamonds, their posterities,// of their women and their men in their nakedness./ Pushed into the chaste habiliments of culture,/ away from the dank gardens of a savage past,/ here they walk, and ogle, and fail to remember// their lost memories raised this city from the sea.//" ["XVIII"]

Nothing escapes Garcia's incisive poetic eye. An ordinary incident like bumping one's head on the ceiling can lead to the not so ordinary realization that physical pain heals faster than emotional suffering, if indeed a broken heart can be completely mended: "Only time will heal you./ Oh good doctor, will it, really? See, it's been/ years since I was hurt by a man. Here I am,/ still clumsy all over, banging into things,// reeling from the same heartache."["XX"]

The second section is a poetic retelling of the mysteries of the most Holy Rosary. The fifteen verses narrate in a slightly ironic tone the life and passion of the Christ, from the moment of conception until the inevitable crucifixion. What is interesting about these pieces is the lack of awe and amazement so common in other religious poetry, for Garcia seems capable of penetrating the mind of God himself at the moment when He is most human, and thus most vulnerable to the torments of "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

The last of the series is a testament to the paradox of Christ's ineffable divinity, how he embodies the mortal and the immortal on the hill of Calvary, the binary opposites of flesh and spirit, God and sacrifice both: "Finally, he understands/ what being mortal means:/ it means you are alone in this world./ In the charmed beginning, as in the end.//… Everything in between is that great act of giving/ to reach the one, inescapable end ---/ the Self must be emptied, till it turns/ into the Other.//" ["The Crucifixion"].

The third part of the book is a compendium of previously uncollected poems. The most memorable of these pieces are also the most personal, heartfelt verses that are dedicated to family members and poet-friends, like "Sestina: For My Father," "For My Sister," "Door" (for Linda Panlilio), "A Martian Encounter" (for Ronald Baytan) and "With Words" (for Ricci Guevara).

But my personal favorite is "Dream," which is both an elegy and an ode for the late Maningning Miclat, whose incandescent presence is sorely missed in the Philippine literary scene: "You especially liked my use of water,/ its rippling figure/ of clear and luminous destruction:/ how perfectly like love water is.//… The battles of love are over now./ Dream, sweet starlight, dream.//"

All in all, the poems in Misterios shimmer like crepe de chine, shine like crystal, scintillate like flame. The insights are sharp and illuminating like a shaft of light in a Vermeer painting, while the images are stark and intense like a landscape or a still life by Van Gogh. The poetic voice, on the other hand, is resonant with longing, resolute in its convictions, redolent with myth and memory. Garcia's seventh poetry collection is certainly a trailblazer in the firmament of Philippine poetry from English.

Baguio, the Return


I whisper to the wind
as I fold myself
like a fan.
I have no one to hold:
No fingers fusing
like candles melting
in the dark.

In Burnham Park
I walk
with nobody to talk to
but myself.
of my own making
stalk me in silence,
repeating everything
I do.

Is it your absence
I seek
among the pines?
Or the reek
of your presence
like the needles
pin-pricking my senses
with their scent?

Are you heaven-sent,
an angel invisible
but omnipresent?
Or the devil
come to torture my soul
with the mist,
like dragon's breath
that shrouds
Baguio with myths?

Guevara's Perpetual Quest for Home

A Poetess' Perpetual Quest for Home

Nerisa del Carmen Guevara's Reaching Destination: Poems and the Search for Home [Manila: UST Publishing House, 2004, 131 pages] chronicles metaphorically her poetic persona's many meanderings in the perpetual quest for that holy grail called home.

This much-awaited, long-overdue first volume of verses, which took the poet ten years in the making (1993-2003), has for its central metaphor the most fluid of the four basic elements: water in the shape of rain, river, tears, the sea. Arranged in reverse order, the 50 poems in this collection eddy around the subject matter of loss: lost loves, lost causes, lost moments, the loss of home.

For readers who are not too familiar with Guevara's brand of poetry, it is highly recommended that they peruse the book from the back to the front to witness her development as a wordsmith, especially since Reaching Destination ends with an exegetic essay explaining her creative process. Read in this way, one becomes privy to her transformation from a timid, spare, almost haiku-like lyric poet to a more intrepid, profuse, ballad-oriented troubadour.

Her earlier pieces, like "Baguio Poem", "Garden Pond", "Nocturne", "Scars", and "Full Moon", are very Japanese in both inspiration and execution. "Garden Pond" and "Nocturne", in particular, are written in tanka form, each poem consisting of five lines made up of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables. Like the typical tanka, the two poems manifest restraint, depending on concrete, puissant images to elicit an emotional response rather than employing abstractions to directly declare feelings and ideas: "A pale stalk standing/ Among the purple lilies,/ Drooping into a woman.//" [Garden Pond]; "We walk scented by moonlight,/ Staring at the bracts of stars.//" [Nocturne].

Although not forged in the limiting structure of the five-seven-five syllables of the haiku, the three other verses still retain the flavor of Japanese poetry with its usual ingredients of exactitude, clarity and suggestiveness. In lieu of a kigo or seasonal word that denotes the time of the year being depicted, Guevara employs key images to evoke the time of the day, which is usually after dark: "And the night bleeds/ A green sadness.//" [Baguio Poem], "Two hungers/ Cut by the edge/ Of stars.//" [Scars], "Reflecting/ The pale fullness/ Of Ourselves/ Back to/ The moon.//" [Full Moon].

Her latter works are more narrative in nature, some of which are written as poetic anecdotes or prose poems, like "Stuffing", "Acid", "The Last Rite", "For Neil", "Home", "Movement", "Kabuki", "In the Heart of Malate", and "Hunger". The virtue of these compositions, despite their sometimes apparent lack of lyricism and organic unity, resides in Guevara's virtuosity to verbalize the pain of parting, which by itself is the most sonorous of sufferings.

For a sensitive reader of her ouevre will soon discover that Guevara's poems are awash with leaves in the form of images, similes and metaphors, as well as leaving in its diverse verbal variations (italics mine): "The wind leaves/ Its voice/ In this house The dead leaves/ Are fallen tongues" [Chime House], "We are speckled by pieces of sun/ Sliding between the leaves" [Boulevard Tree], "Playing on a pattern/ Of pavement and leaves" [Grandfather on a Sunday], "If the leaves and playing children/ Did not make larger ripples" [Forever in August], "You tell me words/ Change colors like leaves" [With the Fading of Poets and Leaves], "And the rain that left/ The leaves of acacias/ Drooping on the Boulevard" [Distances], "It will leave me/ And I will be/ Alone" [Nightbird], "His touch is music,/ Copper like the late leaves" [Copper Like the Late Leaves], "Shadow by shadow/ Leaf by falling leaf" [Cicada], "Leaving the memory/ Of other roads/ In thinning petroleum/Rainbows" [Urbanities], "No leaves fell/" [Understatement], among others.

But the pervasive paradox, or even pathos, in Guevara's poetry is her persona's dual desire for complete unity and total freedom. Most of her poems are attempts to articulate and reconcile these opposing tendencies for attachment and flight, the Apollo and the Daphne principles of a relationship, romantic or otherwise.

It therefore comes as no surprise that a good number of her poems gravitate around the image of trees, symbolizing what Thomas Moore describes in Soul Mates as "the upward yearning for simplicity, order, meaning, and freedom, with the downward need for complexity, change, moodiness, rootedness, and attachment."

Aside from "Boulevard Tree", "Distances", "The Last Rite", "Home", and "The Death of a Bar", where tree(s) somehow function as the focal trope, some of her poems surprisingly turn arboreal in the middle of nowhere: "Trees bristle in the wind." [Sacred Mountain], "Trilling/ The sound pulls the night/ From the sky/ Into a circle of trees,/" [Cicada] "Our laughter/ Disturbed the trees./" [Ibaan-Descending], "The trees always leave an instant mix," [27], "Once/ There was a River/ Winding warm,/ And Trees./ And Trees." [Reincarnation].

In her introduction, Edith L. Tiempo, 1999 National Artist for Literature and poet-critic par excellance, aptly describes Guevara's poetry as "the consequence of slanted perceptions." And this critic cannot help but agree, for Guevara views the world from a most peculiar perspective, perceiving things in her own unique and oblique way(s). Abandonment, alienation, absence abound between the lines of her poetry, in the interstitial spaces between what she sees and what she says. For her self-fashioning as a poet often skewers her discernment of life, which is not necessarily bad, as long as she shares her many fresh insights to one and all: "The word absence would not/ Make sense./" [27], "We have packed them all,/ Scrubbed the place clean/ Of memory.//" [In the Heart of Malate], "Everything will end/ Soon/ Like all love will.//" [End].

It is hoped that Guevara will soon reach her final destination wherever that may be, slowly realizing along her arduous passage that home is not a dwelling place, but a sacred state of indwelling.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

December Rain

December Rain
(for Edith L. Tiempo)

A sudden downpour
drenches the City, washing it clean
of sin and residual memory,
quenching its thirst
for water and renewal.

Likewise, my parched soul
craves for benediction, the surge
and splurge of inner rain
watering the landscape of the heart,
a new Self flowering.

-Ralph Semino Galán

Edith L. Tiempo's "Bonsai"

A Close Reading of Edith L. Tiempo's "Bonsai"


All that I love
I fold over once
And once again
And keep in a box
Or a slit in a hollow post
Or in my shoe.

All that I love?
Why, yes, but for the moment ---
And for all time, both.
Something that folds and keeps easy,
Son’s note or Dad’s one gaudy tie,
A roto picture of a young queen,
A blue Indian shawl, even
A money bill.

It’s utter sublimation
A feat, this heart’s control
Moment to moment
To scale all love down
To a cupped hand’s size,

Till seashells are broken pieces
From God’s own bright teeth.
And life and love are real
Things you can run and
Breathless hand over
To the merest child.

- Edith L. Tiempo

* * *

A first reading of Edith L. Tiempo’s signature poem is a tad confounding, for the first lady of Philippine poetry in English deploys the centripetal-centrifugal-centripetal (or inward-outward-inward) motion in expressing her profoundest thoughts and deepest feelings about love. The title itself, “Bonsai,” is a bit misleading, since nowhere else in the poem are there any further references to plant life or the ancient Japanese technique of cultivating miniature trees or shrubs through dwarfing by selective pruning. Some might even argue that “Origami” is the better title choice, for at least the persona’s act of folding objects is a bit analogous to the Japanese art of paper folding to make complicated shapes. But this reader will prove at the end of this essay that “Bonsai” is the most appropriate title for the poem, something that is not quite obvious to most people after their perfunctory appraisal of this often misread literary masterpiece.

However, despite the false lead, even a cursory perusal of the poem reveals to the sensitive and sensible reader that “Bonsai” is about love, if only because the four-letter word is mentioned in all four stanzas. In the first stanza, the persona declares that she folds everything that she loves and keeps them hidden in secret places: “a box,/ Or a slit in a hollow post,/ Or in my shoe.//” What then are the things she considers imperative enough to keep?

At first glance, the catalogue of her beloved objects in the second stanza appears to be disparate, unrelated, almost random, if not completely aleatory. But since a literary sorceress like Tiempo seldom commits mistakes in conjuring appropriate images, then there must a be reason for singling out these particular items and not others. The more important query therefore is this: What do “Son’s note or Dad’s one gaudy tie,/ A roto[i] picture of a young queen,/ A blue Indian shawl, even/ A money bill.//” share in common? Besides being foldable and thus easy to keep, they must symbolize for the loving female persona important individuals and incidents in her life. For as the semiotician Roland Barthes correctly observes in A Lover’s Discourse: “Every object touched by the loved being’s body becomes part of that body, and the subject eagerly attaches himself to it.”[ii]

If we are to assume that the speaking voice of “Bonsai” closely resembles the poet’s own, then the first three objects must represent members of her immediate family: son Maldon; husband Edilberto (It is a well-known fact among writing fellows and panelists of the Silliman Writers’ Workshop that Edith fondly called the late fictionist and literary critic “Dad,” while being addressed by her husband as “Mom,” which is a common practice among Filipino couples.); and daughter Rowena (Unknown to many, the current Program Administrator of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is a former winner of the Miss Negros Oriental beauty contest sometime in the 1970s, another indicator of the Filipino flavor of the poem, since the Philippines is a pageant-obsessed Third World country.).

The referents of the last two items are more covert and thereby more difficult to decipher. At best, we can only speculate on the persons and/or events that make the two things significant: blue Indian shawl (Edith’s engagement date with Edilberto, her first winter in Iowa, her last autumn in Denver?); money bill (Her initial salary from Silliman University, cash prize from the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature?).

In the long run though the indeterminacy of the allusions does not really matter, for the opaqueness of the symbols leads not to generic obscurity and obfuscation, but to personal mythology and mystery. Perhaps part of the poem’s message is that the things a person considers memorable and therefore valuable most other people might think of as debris, detritus or dirt. (Note that the adverb “even” modifying “money bill” is used to indicate something unexpected or unusual, which in the context of the poem seems to suggest that a money bill is not a conventional object to collect and treasure even by the most sentimental of persons.) Suffice it to say that all five objects, which are outwardly ordinary and nondescript, acquire associative significations because they serve for the poetic persona as conduits of recall, like mementoes, souvenirs and keepsakes.

Interestingly, the second stanza commences with what appears to be a rhetorical question (“All that I love?”), which the persona answers with a paradox: “Why, yes, but for the moment ---/ And for all time, both.” The significance of these seemingly self- contradictory lines will be discussed towards the end of this essay, but for now this reader will focus on the fact that the persona pauses to contemplate on the germane issue of the scope of her love, before she proceeds to enumerate her loved ones’ memorabilia that she has decided to vouchsafe. Love for the female persona therefore is a conscious choice, a cognitive act not only an affective one, a motif that recurs in various degrees in most of her other love poems.

In the third stanza, the persona explains the rationale behind her action:

It’s utter sublimation
A feat, this heart’s control
Moment to moment
To scale all love down
To a cupped hand’s size,

The keyword here is sublimation, which in psychology is the deflection of sexual energy or other atavistic biological impulse from its immediate goal to one of a higher social, moral or aesthetic nature or use. In chemistry, on the other hand, sublimation is the process of transforming a solid substance by heat into a vapor, which on cooling condenses again to solid form without apparent liquefaction. Inherent in both definitions is the act of refinement and purification through fire, since to sublimate in a sense is to make something sublime out of something sordid. In the latter a literal fire dissolves through a crucible the dross from the precious metal, while in the former it is furnace of the mind that burns away the superfluous from the crucial experiences.

The second most important idea in this stanza is the procedure of scaling love down, which Tiempo asserts is a feat by itself, an exceptional accomplishment of the female persona’s sentimental heart which is achieved through utmost discipline and restraint. But aside from mere manageability, why is it necessary to miniaturize love, to whittle it down to the size of “a cupped hand”?

The answer to this pertinent question is given, albeit in a tangential fashion, in the fourth and last stanza: “And life and love are real/ Things you can run and/ Breathless hand over/ To the merest child.” Love as “real things” or concrete objects rather than as abstract concepts is easier to pass on, since it has become more tangible and thus more comprehensible to most everyone else, including children and one’s beloved offspring. It also underscores the importance of bequeathing the legacy of love to the next generation, since as the cliché goes “children are the future of the world,” which makes “the merest child,” and not the wisest woman nor the strongest man, the ideal recipient of such a wonderful gift. The image of the cupped hand also emphasizes the idea that in the act of giving the one offering the bequest is also a beggar of sorts, since the beneficiary can always refuse to accept the heirlooms being proffered.

But another important element is introduced in the ultimate stanza, for the persona by some extraordinary leap of the imagination perceives the seashells on the beach as “broken pieces/ From God’s own bright teeth,” which for a better understanding of “Bonsai” must be elaborated on, so that readers of Philippine poetry from English can fully appreciate the tight structural organization of the poem. Gémino H. Abad in his remarkable essay “Mapping Our Poetic Terrain: Filipino Poetry in English from 1905 to the Present”[iii] connects this image to the paradoxical lines of the second stanza “for the moment ---/ And for all time, both.” This reader cannot help but agree, since indeed the five objects mentioned by the persona being mementoes of the people she loves are metonyms of memory, shattered but shimmering fragments of chronology, captured important moments immortalized in the heart and mind, if we are to visualize Time itself as a manifestation of God.

Of greater consequence, thought, is that this divine figure completes Tiempo’s poetic picture about love and remembrance by adding the spiritual detail, for love like the unmentionable Hebrew name of the Almighty is also a Tetragrammaton, a four-letter word, which has probably engendered the often-quoted adage that “God is Love, and Love is God.” Structurally speaking, her most famous poem can thus be diagrammed in this manner:

TREE/SHRUB ------- bonsai

LOVE ------------- son’s note, Dad's one gaudy tie, etc.

GOD -------------- seashells

MAN/WOMAN -------- merest child

On the left side of the chart are the huge objects, concepts or people: full-size flora (Tree/Shrub), big abstract words (Love, God) and grownups (Man/Woman). Their miniature analogues, in contrast, are found on the right side of the chart. However, these diminutive parallels, especially the mementoes, retain the spirit of their larger versions, since the process of sublimation reduces things only in terms of size but not in essence. Ultimately, this makes “Bonsai” the perfect title of the poem, for a bonsai has all the necessary parts that make a tree or a shrub what it is: roots, a trunk, branches, leaves and flowers, albeit in smaller portions; in the same manner that love even if sublimated by the heart and the mind still preserves its sum and substance, its lifeblood in the truest sense of the written word and the word made flesh.


[i] Short for rotogravure: a photomechanical process by which pictures, typeset matter, etc., are printed from an intaglio copper cylinder to the pages of a newspaper, usually the magazine section.
[ii] Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, Hill and Wong, New York, 1978, p. 173.
[iii] See Gémino H. Abad's introductory essay in The Likhaan Anthology of Philippine Literature in English, University of the Philippines Press, Quezon City, 1998.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

GAWAD BUHAY! Citations

PHILSTAGE Jury Announces GAWAD BUHAY! Citations

Productions by Tanghalang Pilipino (TP), Repertory Philippines (Rep), Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) and Ballet Philippines (BP) dominated the first and second quarterly citations of Gawad BUHAY!, the performing arts awards program organized by the Philippine Legitimate Stage Artists Group (PHILSTAGE).

Tanghalang Pilipino's Kudeta romped off with a total of nine citations while Rep's Hamlet and PETA's Skin Deep tied with six citations each. Ballet Philippines' Latin Heat placed close third with five citations.

A Filipino translation of Mustapha Matura's black comedy about a coup that toppled a country'spresident, TP's Kudeta was cited for outstanding play, stage direction (Floy Quintos); ensemble performance (cast of Kudeta); male lead performance in a play (Mario O'Hara); featured performance in a play (Bong Cabrera and Riki Benedicto); adaptation/translation (George De Jesus III); sound design (Janice Dee); lighting design (Dennis Marasigan); and set design (Tuxqs Rutaquio).

Rep's Hamlet, a futuristic take on the William Shakespeare' s classic, was cited for outstanding play;ensemble performance (cast of Hamlet); featuredperformance in a play (Cris Villonco); sound design (Jethro Joaquin); lighting design (Martin Esteva); and costume design (Faust Peneyra).

Billed as a musical comedy on ordinary people's search for beauty and happiness, PETA's Skin Deep was citedf or outstanding musical, stage direction (NorDomingo); ensemble performance (cast of Skin Deep); male lead performance in a musical (Robert Seña); female lead performance in a musical (May Bayot, GailGuanlao Billones and Isay Alvarez); and original libretto (Vince De Jesus).

Ballet Philippines' Latin Heat earned five citationsfor outstanding dance production, ensemble performance (cast of Latin Heat); original choreography (Bam Damian and Alden Lugnasin); male lead performance in a dance production (Biag Gaongen); and featured performance in a dance production (Camille Ordinario-Joson) .

Another TP production, EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay Nina Edgar Jopson at Evelio Javier, was cited for outstanding male lead performance in a musical (Jett Pangan and Juliene Mendoza) and sound design (Jethro Joaquin).

Other citations include Jose Mari Avellana for outstanding male lead performance in a play (Rep's Tuesdays with Morrie) and Lisa Macuja Elizalde for outstanding female lead performance in a dance production (Ballet Manila's Le Corsaire [The Pirate]).

Altar Boyz, Repertory Philippines' production of an off-Broadway musical about a Christian boy band, was the lone qualified entry for the second quarterly citation cycle. The production garnered citations for outstanding musical, stage direction (Charri Arrespacochaga), ensemble performance (cast of Altar Boyz), male lead performance in a musical (Red Concepcion), choreography (Jason Zamora), musical direction (Jojo Malferrari), and sound design (Gidget Tolentino).

PHILSTAGE President Dennis Marasigan explained that Gawad BUHAY! honors outstanding accomplishments in theater, dance and music among PHILSTAGE member-companies. Quarterly citations, nominations, and winners are juried by an independent panel of performing arts practitioners, critics, academicians and enthusiasts invited or selected by the PHILSTAGE Board of Directors.

"The jury members are required to watch all productions of Philstage members and only those who have watched all productions are allowed to cast their final votes for the quarterly citations, nominations and winners," Marasigan stressed. The jury meets quarterly for the citations from which will be culled the nominees qualified to vie for the annual award to be announced and honored in fitting ceremonies during the National Arts Month in February 2009.

PHILSTAGE groups together the country's leading and established performing arts companies which include Actors Actors, Inc. (AAI), Ballet Manila (BM), Ballet Philippines (BP), Gantimpala Theater Foundation (GTF), Organisasyon ng Pilipinong Mang-aawit (OPM), Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA), Repertory Philippines (REP), Tanghalang Pilipino and the Triumphant Peoples' Evangelical Theater Society (TRUMPETS). It can be reached via email at

The complete list of Gawad BUHAY! citations for the first and second quarters of 2008:

Outstanding Play: Hamlet (Repertory Philippines); Kudeta (Tanghalang Pilipino)

Outstanding Musical: Altar Boyz (Repertory Philippines); Skin Deep (PETA)

Outstanding Dance Production : Latin Heat (Ballet Philippines)

Outstanding Stage Direction: Chari Arrespacochaga (Altar Boyz); Nor Domingo (Skin Deep); Floy Quintos (Kudeta)

Outstanding Ensemble Performance: Altar Boyz (Repertory Philippines), Hamlet (Repertory Philippines); Kudeta (Tanghalang Pilipino); Latin Heat (Ballet Philippines); Skin Deep (PETA)

Outstanding Male Lead Performance in a Play: Jose Mari Avellana (Tuesdays with Morrie); Mario O'Hara (Kudeta)

Outstanding Male Lead Performance in a Musical: Red Concepcion (Altar Boyz)), Jett Pangan and Juliene Mendoza (EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay nina Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson); Robert Seña (Skin Deep)

Outstanding Male Lead Performance in a Dance Production: Biag Gaongen (Latin Heat)

Outstanding Female Lead Performance in a Musical: May Bayot, Gail Guanlao Billones and Isay Alvarez (Skin Deep)

Outstanding Female Lead Performance in a Dance Production: Lisa Macuja Elizalde (Le Corsaire [The Pirate])

Outstanding Featured Performance in a Play: Bong Cabrera and Riki Benedicto (Kudeta); Cris Villonco (Hamlet)

Outstanding Featured Performance in a Dance Production: Camille Ordinario-Joson (Latin Heat)

Outstanding Original Libretto: Vincent De Jesus (Skin Deep)

Outstanding Translation/Adaptation: George de Jesus III (Kudeta);

Outstanding Original Choreography: Bam Damian and Alden Lugnasin (Latin Heat); Jason Zamora (Altar Boyz)

Outstanding Musical Direction: Jojo Malferrari (Altar Boyz)

Outstanding Set Design: Tuxqs Rutaquio (Kudeta)

Outstanding Costume Design: Faust Peneyra (Hamlet)

Outstanding Lighting Design: Martin Esteva (Hamlet); Dennis Marasigan (Kudeta)

Outstanding Sound Design: Janice Dee (Kudeta); Jethro Joaquin (EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay nina Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson); Jethro Joaquin (Hamlet); Gidget Tolentino (Altar Boyz)

Note: If you have enquiries regarding the GAWAD BUHAY! citations, you may get in touch with Elmar Beltran Ingles, PHILSTAGE Executive Director, at

One Hundred Love Poems

Love's Centenary

by Ralph Semino Galán

The many forms and formulations of Pinoy love and loving are collated as lyrical utterances in One Hundred Love Poems [Quezon City: UP Press, 2004, 128 pages] edited by Gémino H. Abad and Alfred A. Yuson. Subtitled Philippine Love Poetry Since 1905, the collection contains 100 poems by 100 poets arranged in chronological order according to the poet's birth year. The composition or publication date of each poem is also provided in what could only have involved a laborious archival work on the part of the editors.

Some of the "classic" Filipino love poems in English are included in the anthology, like Angela C. Manalang-Gloria's "Soledad," Jose Garcia Villa's "I Can No More Hear Love's," Trinidad L. Tarrosa-Subido's "You Shall Be Free," Francisco Arcellana's "The Other Woman," and Carlos A. Angeles's "Landscape II," among others.

But the limitation of representing one poet with one poem becomes apparent when an informed reader searches for favorite pieces memorized by heart. Absent in the collection are Manalang-Gloria's "To the Man I Married," Edith L. Tiempo's "Bonsai" and Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta's "A Kind of Burning," to mention a few. (Like Manalang-Gloria, Tiempo and Dimalanta are represented by other poems: "Mystical Union" and "The Time Factor," respectively.)

In his introduction to the book, Abad, premier poet and foremost philologist of the Philippines, declares that the poems in the compilation encompass the three manifestations of love: Eros, Amor and Agape. It is not my duty as a critic to perform the tedious task of sorting out the poems according to their particular passionate or compassionate affiliation. The best I can do is point out to prospective buyers of the book the most fulfilling poems, in terms of both form and content, which in the exemplary pieces are perfectly interlaced that it is difficult to trace where one ends and the other begins, like a finely-woven tapestry of sights and insights, words and worlds.

Among the poems written by the more senior writers, the following deserve a second reading: Bienvenido Santos' "In Fair Exchange," NVM Gonzalez's "A Need for Love," Nick Joaquin's "The Innocence of Solomon," Tita Lacambra V. Ayala's "Echo," Myrna Peña-Reyes' "Ruth Was Not Penelope," Cirilo F. Bautista's "Song," Cesar Ruiz Aquino "Kalisud à la Rizal," Merlie M. Alunan "We Kept a Jarful of Keys," Marra PL. Lanot's "You Tell Me," Alfred A Yuson's "The Fate of Rain," Elsa Martinez Coscolluela's "Adam's Rib," Jaime An Lim's "Breathing without Accompaniment" and Anthony L. Tan's "Letter to Ling."

The more remarkable pieces written by the younger writers (poets born in the 1950s onwards) include Ricardo M. de Ungria's "Shrimp Moves," Marjorie M. Evasco's "Elemental," Jose Y. Dalisay's "To June, On Her First Winter," Ma. Fatima V. Lim-Wilson's "Crossing Dreams," Luisa Igloria's "Rings," Isabelita Orlina Reyes' "The in between," Danton Remoto's "Rain," Antonio L. Jocson's "Utsu Mountain at Okabe," DM Reyes' "Affection," R. Zamora Linmark's "The Muse This Time," J. Neil C. Garcia's "Malinche," Ruel S. De Vera's "Moonlight Sonata," Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra's "hi-density," Conchitina R. Cruz's "Bedtime," Carlomar Arcangel Daoana's "Negros Museum, June 13," and Angelo Suarez's "Flood."

But my personal favorite of the entire compendium is Eric T. Gamalinda's "Las Ruinas del Corazon," a narrative poem chronicling Queen Juana the Mad's "adamant desire" for her dead husband, Philip the Handsome: "She wanted to possess him entirely, and since not even death/ may oppose the queen, she found a way to merge death and life// by eating a piece of him, slowly, lovingly, until he was entirely/ in her being. She cut a finger and chewed the fragrant skin,// then sliced a thick portion of his once ruddy checks. Then she ate/ an ear, the side of a thigh, the solid muscles of his chest,//."

This intense, cannibalistic mode of loving is reminiscent of "an ancient Zoroastrian legend of the first parents of the human race" mentioned in Joseph Campbell's illuminating book titled Myths to Live By. The profound affection of these progenitors for their offsprings has brought them to this bizarre incident: "and there were born to them two children, whom they loved so tenderly and irresistibly that they ate them up. The mother ate one; the father ate the other; and God, to protect the human race, then reduced the force of man's capacity for love by some ninety-nine per cent."

As a subject matter love is inexhaustible, despite the countless poems and verses written about it. For this four-letter word is universal and personal, bitter and sweet, sacred and profane, painful and pleasurable, elusive and allusive, both. In his introduction to The Penguin Book of Love Poetry, Jon Stallworthy observes that "there are almost as many definitions of love as there are poets, because most poets, like most other men and women, have something to say on the subject… Like any other actors in the human comedy, they speak most piercingly when they speak most personally, and because they speak personally their statements are as various as their fingerprints." These poems, therefore, are testaments to the diversity of love as versified by some of the best Filipino poets writing from English.

Every hopeless romantic and lover of good literature out there should buy a copy of the book, for it is reasonably priced, since it "is part of the UP Jubilee Student Edition designed to bring the best of Philippine literature within the reach of students and the general public." But this volume of verses is far from being cheap in terms of production design. In fact, it has a very professional, university press look. Special citation should be given to the elegant rose-red cover design of Migs Villanueva, an accomplished writer herself.

Disease and Discernment

Disease and Discernment

by Ralph Semino Galán

In this postmodern day and age ruled by science and technology, sickness is often seen only in terms of its medical and mechanical components, ignoring entirely its metaphorical and metonymic possibilities. An illness, thus, is reduced to a series of symptoms lacking in symbolic significance, and the human mind and body as mere indicators of a person's physical condition.

My Fair Maladies [Quezon City: Milflores Publishing, Inc., 2005, 215 pages], a compendium of funny essays and poems on various ailments and afflictions, looks at diseases and disorders not only with a clinical eye, but also as a veritable source of personal anecdotes and poetic insights.
Edited by prizewinning fictionist and essayist Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, the book covers a wide range of afflictions, from mild peculiarities to extreme dislikes, different types of phobia and paranoia, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and suicidal tendencies, and even a complete nervous breakdown.

The confessional nature of the essays and poems reveal the more human and humane facets of the erudite people who are featured in the book. One discovers, for example, that premier poet and literary critic Gémino H. Abad ("Somewhere I Have Never Travelled") has a poor sense of direction, a malady he shares with the equally illustrious Lourdes Reyes Montinola ("Where Am I?"), FEU Board of Trustees Chair and recipient of a couple of National Book Awards trophies.

One also learns that Susan S. Lara is a neat freak ("My Name is Susan, and I Am Anal-Retentive"), Butch Dalisay abhors cheese ("No Cheese, Please"), Susan Evangelista suffers from claustrophobia ("Canary in the Coal Mine") and Vicente Garcia Groyon has a penchant for counting quantifiable things, including the syllables in all forms of oral communication ("Ock Ock").

The list of physical ailments include migraines and headaches, stress urinary incontinence, all sorts of eye trouble, alopecia (baldness), polio, sinusitis, hemorrhagic fever (dengue), appendicitis, influenza, epistaxis (nosebleed), asthma, tonsillitis, various allergies, osteoarthritis, as well as cancer.

There is also a special section on growing old, which our visually-prejudiced world, bombarded as it were by the ideological state apparatuses with simulated images of youth and beauty, now considers as a kind of disease, if not total disaster. As objects of desire, females are most susceptible to do everything and anything to stop the aging process dead on its track just to satisfy the male gaze. Remember Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in the movie Death Becomes Her?

Ma. Josefina T. Barrios's "Botoxday" chronicles a middle-aged woman's first encounter with the latest craze in non-invasive cosmetic enhancement. In keeping with the spirit of the book, the tone of the poem is mock-serious, although it turns unabashedly romantic in the last stanza: "Ano nga bang maisusukli ng binata/ Sa kanyang katanghalian?/ Isang ngiti,/ Bulalas ng pagtangi,/ At naglaho sa aking puso,/ Biglang-bigla,/ Bawat gusot, bawat gatla.//"

Another physical condition that contemporary women suffer from, which the odalisques of Rubens were worshipped for, is the "curse" of being horizontally-challenged. Charlene Fernandez in her essay "You Know I Know I'm Fat (So Stop Telling Me That!)" confronts the issue head on, stating categorically that, "I figure that people who tell you that you're fat by way of a social greeting labor under some misconceptions: (1) that being fat is a deliberate choice rather than the result of a medical condition or some cosmic accident; (2) that fat people wish to be fat in order to offend other people with their fatness; and (3) that it is fun to be fat."

Tara FT Sering, on the other hand, writes about that form of madness better known as love in "The Divine Affliction: Nine Signs You Have it Bad," an expository essay that outlines the symptoms of this deadliest and most debilitating of diseases.

Each of the 64 writers in the book has dealt with his or her particular malady in his or her own unique way: using liniments (Nestor Leynes, Jr. in "Borher-ding" and April Timbol Yap in "Knee-deep in Oinment"), wearing corrective glasses and/or contact lenses (Erlinda Enriquez Panlilio in "My Confused Eyes" and Migs Villanueva in "Eye Do, Eye Don't," among others), through sheer perseverance (Jose Wendell P. Capili in "Coping with ADHD"), or even the proverbial fighting spirit in the face of a degenerative disease like leukemia (Tita Taule Mina in "The Diagnosis").

But what all of them share in common is the tendency to rely on self-reflection and self-reflexivity to provide them with meaning and mythmaking in relation to their ailments and afflictions. Those who have lost the battle in the medical front have decided to declare a truce with their diseases and disorders, which is the right attitude.

For in his illuminating book Care for the Soul, Thomas Moore has this to say regarding how we should expand our view of sickness: "Illness is an enemy, but we've already lived out that myth with conviction. Now may be the time to see illness as the stranger who needs a place to stay and be cared for."

Unlike Susan Sontag who is suspicious of metaphors and prefers a thoroughly medical perspective of sickness as illustrated in her two books Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, where she demystifies "the punitive or sentimental fantasies" surrounding certain diseases to expose the so-called "truth," the writers in My Fair Maladies celebrate the imaginative aspects of their ailments and afflictions.

Thus disease, in whatever manner it manifests, is correctly seen by the contributors of the anthology not only as the root of unbearable pain and suffering, but also as the wellspring of personal discernment, be it funny or otherwise.

Pinoy Big Brother

PINOY BIG BROTHER: Reality TV, Panopticism,
Political Economy and the (Pseudo) Drama of Everyday Life

Ralph Semino Galán

Inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four, George’s Orwell’s futuristic novel about a totalitarian world where the surveillance of its citizens through close-circuit cameras has been institutionalized, the reality TV series titled Big Brother produced by endemol is a global sensation. The main premise of the program is to record the interactions of a given number of strangers residing inside the same house for a given number of days. Although it is similar to MTV’s The Real World in its deployment of multiple cameras, seamless editing and seemingly unscripted scenes, Big Brother has the added feature of contractual confinement, for the participants have acquiesced that they cannot leave the house, nor can they have contact with the outside world unless deemed by big brother. Moreover, since it is also a competition, contestants must nominate at the beginning of each week the person whom they think deserves to be kicked out of the house, a characteristic it shares with the extremely successful Survivor series. But unlike the latter, at the end of each week, TV viewers get to vote for the so-called “housemate” they want to save by calling or texting, thus bringing into the picture Big Business and the corporate world.

The popularity of its local franchise, ABS-CBN’s Pinoy Big Brother, is just as phenomenal as its foreign counterparts, catapulting its participants from relative obscurity to celebrity status and producing spin-off shows like PBB Celebrity Edition, PBB Teen Edition, PBB Uplate, etc. It is imperative, however, to scrutinize through a close semiotic reading this highly-watched audiovisual text, since Pinoy Big Brother capitalizes on the seductive power of panopticism to satisfy the voyeuristic and scopophilic impulse of Filipino mass audiences who thrive on showbiz tsismis. For to view uncritically this reality TV show is to collude with, rather than resist, the all-seeing eye as it aims its shifting but unflinching 24/7 gaze on the contestants whose privacy have been lost for good. This cultural phenomenon has far reaching social implications, since the loss of these people’s privacy, albeit with consent, through media technology in its monitoring mode, grooms the mind of the common Filipino to accept the impingement on his freedom by state surveillance systems in the name of national security against local and international terrorism.

Furthermore, although subtitled “Ang Teleserye ng Totoong Buhay,” thus signifying that “sa bahay ni kuya” authentic characters are involved in genuine situations, Pinoy Big Brother is far from being a mere TV documentary show, since the housemates are manipulated to explore and expose different aspects of themselves through the daily and weekly tasks. The constantly probing and oftentimes insinuating questions of kuya in the confession room also lead them into possible personality conflicts and/or love teams, hence generating more interest for Filipino mass audiences whose preference for TV fare, based on the proliferation of telenovelas, is certainly romantic drama. Lastly, the choice of contestants is determined by political economy, for they are apparently selected based on their potentials as product endorsers, showbiz personalities and ABS-CBN stars.

Pinoy Big Brother, therefore, contrary to its claim of being “the television series of real life,” is nothing but a semi-scripted soap opera for the common Filipino of the New Millennium, preparing him perhaps for a totalitarian but corporate capitalist future where private space does not exist, conflicts fabricated and love a simulacrum, so similar to Orwell’s fictional world of Newspeak, Thought Police and, of course, Big Brother.

Note: This is the abtract of the paper I will be delivering to the 8th ICOPHIL (International Conference on Philippines Studies) this coming July.

Francia's Poetics of Loss


by Ralph Semino Galán

Luis H. Francia's third poetry collection titled Museum of Absences [Quezon City: UP Press and California: Meritage Press, 2004, 72 pages] is a virtual gallery of the dearth of sympathy and empathy of the entire human race to one another on the war-scarred face of this Earth. The 38 poems attest to the brutality and barbarity people in power are capable of inflicting on their inferiors, perceived or otherwise.

The book is divided into three sections. The first part, "Dis/Appearances," is devoted to the articulation of the sentiments of expatriate Filipinos in America and their state of exclusion, effacement and eviction. A series of five poems collectively called "The Manong Chronicles" expresses most eloquently the resentments of a Filipino old-timer to his adopted/adapted land and his yearning for the imaginary motherland: "Where now is that boy's innocence/ My exile's faith, nuclear/ Large but in shards of beauty/ In shapes of an apocalypse?/ Where in a white world can/ This grain of unhusked rice spin?//" ["I. A Manong Meditates"], "Padre, I demand my god to be dark,/ Squat, thick-lipped, bright with/ Garlicky speech and/ Full-pledged erection,/ ["III. A Manong Complains, as the Star-Spangled Banner is Played"].

Other interesting pieces included in this Filipino-American portion are "Catholic Anonymous," "A Snail's Progress," and "Cinderella at Fifty." The first poem deals with racial discrimination inside the church, in what is supposed to be the most sacred and liberative of spaces: "Don't even/ look, don't even/ move your head half an inch/ I remembered the group's advice/ to stare straight ahead//."

The second and more subversive composition tackles the rat race, which is emblematic of the North American ethos. The passive-aggressive persona pretends to be docile during the daytime, but becomes hostile after dark: "Who are Wildmen and/ Conspirators at night/ Martyrs by light//."

"Cinderella at Fifty," on the other hand, is a continuation and/or deconstruction of the famous European fairy tale. In his version, Francia dismisses the traditional happy ending in the third stanza, by making the blond bombshell suffer the infidelities of an alcoholic husband with a predilection for Asian beauties: "How were you to know about his drinking,/ his fondness for Third World girls?/."

In his seminal essay titled "Filipinos in the United States and their Literature of Exile," Oscar V. Campomanes, foremost Filipino scholar on Asian-American Studies, observes that "(m)otifs of departure, nostalgia, incompletion, rootlessness, leavetaking, and dispossession recur with force in most writings produced by Filipinos in the United States and Filipino Americans, with the Philippines as always either the original or terminal reference point." Read in this light, "Dis/Appearances is a valuable contribution to the growing corpus of writing about the diasporic and exilic experiences of migrant Filipinos.

The second section, "Zero Ground," expounds Francia's poetic persona's personal reaction to the September 11, 2001 bombing of the World Trace Center's twin towers and the other atrocities committed by people against one another ironically in the name of love or the god they adhere to.

"Agatona of Aringay, Henry of Philadelphia" retells the love affair of the persona's grandparents: "Sent north to the Ilokos/ To shoot the damn insurrectos/ What Lolo found instead was Lola./ Battle enough.//" But their wedlock is also replete with socio-political implications, for it is a microcosmic replication of Filipino-American relations: "Henry of Philadelphia/ Devoured her country as/ Hungrily as she devoured him./"

The 9/11tragedy is transcended by Francia's poetics of loss, which is also a poetics of recovery, if not redemption: "All have gone but are not lost./ In each of their deaths we live./ In every one of our lives, they are born." ["September 11, 2001"], "How beautiful the two of you are/ Even at that moment of horror, in/ That instinctive assertion of your humanity./" ["On Reading the Times Memorials for the 9/11 Victims"] "Our bones are marrow'd with hope/ Our childhood gods and duendes in tow// Cradles and graves on our backs.//" ["New York Mythologies"].

The last part, "Meditations," is a sequence of reflections on writing, on the word made flesh, on love and loss, on the inevitability of war and the remote possibilities of peace. The first of these cogitations is an ars poetica of sorts in which the persona begins by being slightly amusing and culminates with him musing on the apocalypse of the word, the world: "It starts with an itch, you see, so you scratch. Psoriasis? No. Metamorphosis.//… In the end is the flesh running after word./ In the end is the sword running after flesh./ In the end… I hope it will never."

Whether in the form of death, departure, divorce or disaster, loss is a difficult psychological phenomenon to handle. The gaping abyss one has to confront requires a leap of faith, for every kind of flesh-gnawing and spirit-devouring monster flourishes in its mazelike depths.

But in his life-affirming book Care for the Soul, Thomas Moore reminds us that the man-eating minotaur of the labyrinth is named after the Greek word for star: Asterion. He concludes the preliminary chapter by stating that "(w)e have to care for this suffering with extreme reverence so that, in our fear and anger at the beast, we do not overlook the star."

Since it is during the darkest moments of our lives when there is the most possibility for light and enlightenment, for out of the chaos of uncertainty, the livid truth of lived experience emerges, the balancing of opposites, the yin and yang of oriental philosophy. Francia's poetics of dispossession and desolation, therefore, is actually no other than a poetics of convalescence and comfort incognito.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008



I miss the sound of hoofsteps
pattering on the pavement like rain.

How I long for the sweet scent
of summer rain between late dusk

and early evening, the croaking
of the frogs, evoking memories lost

in the stars. Perhaps the horses too
have flown to the skies as comets

acquiring pegasic wings no carriage
can resist, no memory can recall.

Note: Tartanilla is the horse-drawn carriage that used to ply the streets of rustic towns in the southern part of the Philippines prior to rapid urbanization.

Cesar Ruiz Aquino's "Word Without End"

A Close Reading of Cesar Ruiz Aquino's "Word Without End"

-by Ralph Semino Galan


East, the horizons and all the learning
Lost. Sick for Siquijor or Avalon
O I could for the sheer sight of her throw
Verses away! Let the Virgins carry

Virgule widdershins upon the fairy
Earth, the same that on the world's first morning
Left her traces, her face an eidolon
Of whiteness for the chilled blood to know

Or for one word and one word only go
Void as days all misspent for the starry
Echo of a night come without warning
Like a thousand thieves stealing on and on

Love, tongue-tied, is my Tetragrammaton
Opening no door, giving leave to no
Vendaval that, priceless, she might tarry
Even as the sands and there's no turning

- Cesar Ruiz Aquino

A cursory reading of Cesar Ruiz Aquino's "Word Without End" seems to suggest that the poem is difficult to decipher, if not utterly cryptic. It appears on the surface level that the entire poetic enterprise relies on euphony and wordplay alone, a welter of melodious and mysterious words without any internal logic or overall design. But this is not completely true, for the poem has a regular structure of four quatrains written with ten syllables per line and a revolving rhyme scheme: ABCD, DABC, CDAB, BCDA. Furthermore, a much closer and deeper reading of the text reveals that there is a hidden narrative beneath the surfeit of images and metaphors.

The poem begins with a sense of direction, or more precisely a position in the compass: East, where the sun emerges and the point of origin in most cultures, as well as a mixed sensation of dislocation and a loss of knowledge ("the horizons and all the learning/ Lost"). It is immediately followed by a yearning for enchanted places: Siquijor, the mystical island in the Visayas famous for its sorcerers and soothsayers, and Avalon, the mythical burial place of King Arthur where legend claims he will rise again to heal and unite all of Great Britain.

The cause of the persona's bewilderment is identified in the third line of the first stanza: a virtual goddess whose mere presence ("O I could for the sheer sight of her throw/ Verses away!") can induce him to compose poems which he will scatter at her feet or toss to the wind, as if his masterpieces are not worthy of her consideration. The last line that runs on to the second quatrain expresses the poet-persona's archetypal angst ("the same that on the world's first morning/ Left her traces"): an old man's ("chilled blood") desire for a much younger woman with the fairest of complexions ("her face an eidolon/ Of whiteness"). Eidolon refers both to an idealized image [It has the same etymology as the word idol.] and an ephemeral vision, further enhancing her divine but protean nature, like the elusive nymph Daphne when she was being pursued by Apollo, the god of poetry and patron of the arts in classical Greek mythology.

The enigmatic and esoteric atmosphere of the objective situation is further enhanced by the deployment throughout the poem of unique words that are seldom used in ordinary speech. Aside from eidolon, readers might encounter for the first time such obscure terms as virgule, widdershins, vendaval and Tetragrammaton, among others. But what exactly are "Virgule widdershins"? According to the lexicon, a virgule is a small diagonal line (/) that connotes the availability of two possible choices (either/or), like yes or no, now or never, etc. On the other hand, widdershins, which is German in extraction, is to move in a counterclockwise or opposite direction to the apparent course of the sun, hence a motion from West to East. Within the context of the poem, this unusual combination can probably allude to a magical rite or a pagan ritual, since the act is to be executed by Virgins "upon the fairy/ Earth". In the Wiccan tradition, after ritual magic has been performed, a witch closes the magic circle by drawing in the excess energy with an atham or ceremonial dagger in a widdershins fashion before sending the absorbed energy back to the ground.

The penultimate stanza reinforces the persona's desperation for his winter-spring obsession, which has taken its toll on him, the way it has robbed him of precious time "Like a thousand thieves stealing on and on". But a single and singular word from her suffices to cancel out ("go/ Void") his endless waiting "for the starry/ Echo of a night come without warning", that fateful evening when the alignment of the heavenly bodies becomes auspicious for the fulfillment of his heart's desire.

The last quatrain is both a summation of the poet-persona's emotional condition and its cyclical nature. The adored and adorable lady, the object/subject of his deepest affection does not utter even a solitary word ("Love, tongue tied") towards him. The arcane term that follows, Tetragrammaton, has multiple meanings: in the Hebrew language, it is the unutterable and ineffable name of God (Yahweh or Jehovah) represented by four consonants (YWHW or JHVH), or etymologically speaking, it can be any four-letter word, which in the erudite persona's consciousness he conflates with love as embodied by the beloved woman, hinging perhaps on the adage that "God is love!"

Because she does not say something, brought about in part by the persona's failure in making the first move for fear most likely of outright rejection, no portal of communication becomes available to them ("Opening no door") and no powerful natural force is released ("giving leave to no/ Vendaval") to prevent her inevitable leave-taking. Vendaval is the gusty southwesterly wind off the strait of Gibraltar often occurring during winter time (another allusion to his twilight years), which is within the framework of the persona's mind the necessary energy to delay her departure ("that priceless she might tarry"). In the last line of the poem, he recognizes that this is the point of no return, that there will be no second chances ("Even as the sands and there's no turning"), that metaphorically and literally the sands of time are running out on him.

Tetragrammaton is the all important clue to Aquino's poetic puzzle, for it is the "word without end" of the poem's title, which is none other than love, for as the clich goes "love makes the world go round." To further enhance the cyclical characteristic of the persona's impossible desire, the poet employs a circular acrostic, in which the initial letter of each line of all the four stanzas when read downwards are actually word variations of the same four letters, the persona's own version of the Tetragrammaton: ELOV, VELO, OVEL, LOVE.

An important side note: The number four figures prominently in the poem's framework. In numerology and in the Kabbalah, four represents the physical world: There are four basic elements (Earth, Air, Water and Fire), four points in the compass (East, West, North and South), and four seasons in the temperate regions (Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter), et al. Aside from the fact that the keyword, LOVE is a Tetragrammaton, a four-letter word, the poem itself is composed of four stanzas with four lines each, a standard quatrain, which means that all in all there are sixteen lines, or four multiplied by four (4X4). Furthermore, each stanza of the entire poetic utterance is made up of forty syllables, another significant number divisible by four, which has biblical resonances: Noah and his family lived inside the ark while it rained for forty days and nights during the Great Flood; led by Moses, the Jews wandered around the desert for forty years during the Exodus; and Christ ascended into heaven forty days after his crucifixion.

It is also worth noting that the last line of the poem does not end with a period, or any punctuation mark for that matter, and that the entire piece can be read as one long and looping, breathless and breathtaking, complex and compound sentence, replete with numerous subordinate clauses, so similar to the inescapable labyrinth of love with its serial corners and serpentine corridors, where an infatuated person can easily lose his sense of direction and where time ceases to exist, turning a privileged moment into an eternity of hopeless longing.

Cesar Ruiz Aquino's "Word Without End", therefore, is a poem about unrequited love and its delicious but devastating effects on the besotted persona. For love is the most mysterious and mystical of experiences, transforming and transporting the Self into another realm in the arms of an Other, whether real or imagined, accessible or otherwise.

Giono Tale Gets Colorful Update


Children's literature, the corpus of written works with accompanying pictures created to entertain or instruct young people, is a thriving genre in Philippine letters. To cash in on this lucrative market, some publishing houses, like Adarna and Lampara, have specialized in the production of children's books in the form of fairy tales, fables, folktales, myths and legends.

Elias and His Trees (Mga Puno ni Elias) [Manila, UST Publishing House, 45 pages] veers away from pure fantasy and focuses on the more pressing problem of ecological degradation.Inspired by Jean Giono's short story "The Man Who Planted Trees," Augie Rivera's bilingual adaptation chronicles the numerous encounters of the unnamed narrator and Elias Dakila, the elderly shepherd who takes it upon himself to help Mother Nature by sowing a hundred narra seeds daily, like a Johnny Appleseed figure.

The story begins with the narrator, a Filipino expatriate living in Hawaii, yearning to see his motherland, fed as he was as a toddler by his parents with wonderful tales of Tierra Verde. Twenty years after his parents have left their hometown, he is given the opportunity to discover the delightful landscape of his dreams.

But the Tierra Verde of his childhood's imagination is now a barren and deserted town. Gone are the "verdant mountains, lush forests, pristine streams, towering trees, and crystal rivers." What he finds instead are dried up streams and rivers, and treeless mountains.

Fortunately, he becomes acquainted with Elias, a hospitable but close-lipped old shepherd, who invites him to dinner and to stay for the night, since the next town is one and a half days away. He prods the old man to tell him the history of the town by asking him probing questions about Tierra Verde.

Environmental disaster

Because of his insistence, the shepherd relents and narrates the dismal account of the town's devastation, which is a virtual catalogue of natural and manmade catastrophes: a long drought, the cutting of trees for kaingin farming, a raging storm, flashfloods.

He finds out the following day that Elias has been planting a hundred narra trees daily for the last three years to help the land recover from ecological devastation. The next day the narrator returns to Hawaii, where he finds himself when World War II breaks out.

After the war, the narrator, in need of a much needed respite, returns to Tierra Verde and beholds the narra trees that Elias has planted which are now taller than both of them. He also notes that Elias has planted during the war kamagong, acacia, molave, almaciga and other trees, which are now as high as their shoulders.

From then on, the narrator makes an annual "pilgrimage" to Tierra Verde to visit Elias and his trees. He observes that due to the inconspicuous effort of one man the environment is slowly recuperating from the manmade and natural disasters that has befallen it, a life lesson that children must learn, that they too with their small unheralded contributions can make a big difference in the crusade to save Mother Earth.

The narrator's pilgrimage to Tierra Verde is broken during the Martial Law era. But 15 years later, after the Edsa Revolution, he returns to Tierra Verde and discovers that the land is fully reforested and the people, specially the children, are as happy as the proverbial lark.

Shepherd motif

Interestingly enough, Elias is depicted in the book as a shepherd, although he is more of a goatherd because he herds goats not sheep. The use of the shepherd motif, though, seems to suggest that Elias is an environmental savior of sorts, a shepherd of trees, like the Ents of Mirkwood in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." This biblical allusion as steward of the Earth is further enhanced by his name: Elias Dakila, Elijah the Great.

The visual component of the book is just as excellent as the text. The original paintings by multi-awarded young artist Romeo Forbes enhance the storytelling with their compelling ocular suggestiveness.

For Forbes's pictorial world is elemental and childlike, replete with bone-white stars, scintillating suns and crescent moons, quite reminiscent of Joan Miro's paintings. But his human forms are less abstract and more three-dimensional in configuration than the Catalan master's, which makes them more appealing to children and those adults who are young at heart.

Forbes is also a supreme colorist like the Fauvists, manipulating shades and shapes to enhance the emotional impact of his illustrations. Based on its intensity, a pigment like red in his paintings can either connote ecological disaster or environmental renewal. Furthermore, his rotund humanoids can either look charming or sinister depending on the color of the background.

The only character who appears consistently altruistic and unperturbed, despite the various environmental and socio-political upheavals he has witnessed, is the figure of Elias and his signature striped headband in multifarious shades of green, the color of nature, the color of hope.

Parents should buy a copy of this well-written, excellently-illustrated book to educate their children about the importance of doing their fair share to assist the environment in its healing, for in the future they will end up as the stewards of the Earth, like Elias during his fictional lifetime.