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.

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