Saturday, May 24, 2008

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.

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