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.

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