WILFREDO PASCUA SANCHEZ Engages
COMPANIONABLE VOICES: Five Filipino Poets
(Quincunx Publishing, Manila, 2013)
TRUANTS OF THE WORD: FROM DOVEGLION TO QUIJANO TO QUINCUNX
All to each said Good-bye as we dispersed,
Bursts of flowers of prairie grass:
May God by signal-fire, by symbol, art
Or artifact help us find each
Other soon again in time
--Erwin E. Castillo, p. 117
Exeunt Doveglion and Quijano de Manila. Enter the Quincunx generation of poets.
Here’s a 148-pg limited edition of poems & photos just released by Quincunx Publishing which is living up to its initial billing, featuring five largely unread Filipino poets some of whom, just as their literary extinction seemed assured, have sprung back with a vengeance.
The five poets, sometime partners-in-crime and the oldest of friends, include: Cesar Ruiz Aquino, Recah A. Trinidad, Erwin E. Castillo, Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez and the late Juan Jose Jolico Cuadra. Sometime in their youth in the sixties they lived, schooled and got drunk in Manila, then a rank and burgeoning city where all their paths crossed and where they intermittently ‘locked horns.’
If a sixth man could be said to hover over the book, it would be Manila’s de facto laureate Nick Joaquin aka Quijano de Manila who among other companionable ghosts (as would seem to scowl through the cover image painted by Sonny Yniquez way before the book’s conception) would have guffawed, not in the pejorative, to see his savage chickens coming home to roost.
Joaquin strongly promoted their works in the early ’60s only to see them, with the exception of Aquino, dropping out of the literary scene. At the time they were beginning to hold their own while seeming to always fall short, with no resources to finish. Then, in a word, they went missing. Decades later they each came out with individual books, Castillo with Firewalkers in 1992, Sanchez with New and Later Poems in 2003, and just this year Recah with Tales from My Lost River. While Aquino continued publishing, the increasingly reclusive Cuadra, who died at age 74, has yet to have a book published in his name.
This impoverishment of output is dismaying but not entirely to be blamed on the martial law years, a period when even Joaquin himself—whose influence on the five poets seemed even more firmly entrenched than [Jose Garcia] Villa’s—returned to reportage instead of literature.
Castillo put a finger on it when he said: “Now, with the happy exception of Cesar Ruiz Aquino, the poets gathered in this volume come from a line of poets who have not, who could not, will not accommodate themselves to the new, harsh realities. They continue to hold out, out-of-touch, estranged, grumpy, scandalous and every single one unique, singular, alone.”
Agreed, this small book is inadequate in itself to account for the hiatuses in the missing poets’ careers. Still there is enough interest in it to invite us to take a backward look into how our poetry in English, in its 100+ year-history, was developed and where ultimately it is heading.
So let’s look at the timeline particularly leading to the Quincunx generation, from the 1940s to the present, with special emphasis on Villa and Joaquin. Bringing a welcome focus on their not antithetical but contrasting influences might help to clarify where the Quincunx poets are coming from (and, to be fair, there may be six to seven other poets that could be grouped under the Quincunx label, though some of them have passed on or ‘stopped poetrying’—to use Castillo’s words).
Before Quijano de Manila, there was of course Doveglion. Pause to consider where our poetry was before Villa arrived. Well, when exactly did he arrive? Who remembers Cornelio Faigao, Manuel Viray, C.V. Pedroche, Toribia Mano, Angela Manalang Gloria? (These names are plucked not just for euphonious reasons, but these are poets that Villa thrashed early on in his career.) It would take more than a stick of dynamite to reignite their reputations; which is not to stigmatize their poetry, of which we know little, but to make clear by comparison that the something that makes Villa valuable is his aura of complete competence though the unarticulated rap against him, perhaps unfair, is that he somehow left his hubris at the door in dealing with foreign critics and was quick to suck up to them when they favored his work.
To quote an original cliché: “It must be very clear/That arrival is non-arrival.” Definitely not vintage Villa, but it will do to remind us that poetry is always on the make, the possibilities are exhausting and endless, but how difficult it is alas for this ‘sullen art’ to take hold. Judging by the shrinking number of quality poets on the local scene, it’s very much a disappearing art for and by the disappearing few. We are coping but appear in reality to be two steps behind.
Prior to the 1940s, we can cite a number of poets, among them Luis Dato and Virgilio Floresca, who were writing poems equal or superior to Villa’s. Already, there was Nick Joaquin (b. 1917) who didn’t just sneak up on Villa, on the contrary he was a more promising poet than the Villa of the late thirties, having written his celebrated Sheba poem “The Innocence of Solomon” in 1937. Villa then has yet to write anything remotely comparable, of the same Yeatsian depth.
The years 1940 to 1953 saw Villa’s meteoric rise as a poet; after abandoning story writing he seriously hunkered down and became a technician of the word, exploring experimentations with prosody and verbal techniques along modernist lines. One remarkable aphorism of Villa (Aphorism 69) goes this way: “Not,all,birthdays,/Are, Inhabited.” We believe he is talking here about the creative act as either stillborn and therefore unlived-in, or via “parthenogenesis of genius” (169), self-engendered yet taking a supreme life of its own, isolate and de-linked from its temporal surroundings.
After writing “The Anchored Angel” in 1953, which was also the year of Dylan Thomas’s death, Villa’s serious poetic output declined. Admittedly he stopped writing for fear of repeating himself but more likely he concluded that the experimental verseform for which he had become famous, the comma poem, had reached an unproductive dead end. While he did not altogether quit writing what he produced thereafter was largely negligible, confined to adaptations, poeticisms as opposed to aphorisms, and spurious light verse. His announced critical opus, from what we can gather, is not likely to enlarge our current assessment of his achievement.
Villa (b. 1908) and Bulosan (b. 1911), often considered polar opposites, experienced America and for all the differences in their upbringing were bruised by the experience in comparable ways, particularly during the depression years followed by the war years. They wielded no influence on each other or if they did only minimally. But it is no stretch to assume that both of them, in differing degrees, felt their migrant status to be a millstone around their neck during these 10-odd years when many writers were sweating the offices of WPA and were drastically searching for work. Around this time, too, Quezon was meeting with H.L. Mencken of Baltimore, who in his diary patronizingly remarked of the president that he spoke English “with a curious accent, but uses words correctly and even idiomatically.”
Villa chose not to explore class conflicts in his poetry, describing himself simply as a humanist, while Bulosan was openly embracing of American democratic ideas, taking his cue from a narrow left-leaning circle of writer friends such as Fante, Saroyan, Carey McWilliams, et al. He also befriended a few American women who faithfully doted on him through his years as a TB patient, until his death in 1956.
Though not blind to its frailties, Bulosan romanticized America, and staunchly supported its egalitarian ideals for the working class, which by the same token made his work more commercially viable especially in the U.S. in a heightened wartime atmosphere. Diaspora-conscious he was not, in the sense that he didn’t agonize over his foreignness and instead craved assimilation socially and artistically. Villa, on the other hand, had no such direct aspirational ambitions. Incidentally, his vaunted internationalism has now become anathema to the multiculturally-inclined.
Villa took the route of exile, deliberately attempting to extirpate his nationality from his poetry and with Have Come, Am Here (1942) became the only Philippine poet of his time to have wowed the Anglosphere. At the time he was increasingly receiving accolades from the likes of Marianne Moore, Mark Van Doren, Richard Eberhart, Babette Deutsch and others, he was in his early thirties, doing poetry tutorials at Columbia University and clerking full-time at the university bookstore. There and subsequently around Greenwich Village most of his American poetry contacts were originated.
The point is, in 1958, Dame Edith Sitwell, by extravagantly praising his Selected Poems & New, seems officially to have coronated Villa’s arrival as a poet. Here, at last, was somebody from a backwoods somewhere endowed with a divine gift. Never mind that she, as many Villa-bashers have since pointed out, condescendingly referred to him (once, as a “dark green creature”-- aboriginal, ecological green mind you!) in private correspondence with her friends. More in the nature of fond mockery, we take it, and should in any case not diminish the fact that he was honestly esteemed by Sitwell whose Collected Poems contained a poem dedicated to him. Note that Cummings too, paid him for his devotion with a similar compliment in Adventures in Value (1962).
It is unfortunate that Villa’s influence sparsely impacted younger American or British poets, at least the ones that mattered. Ginsberg, Creeley, Lowell, Larkin, Merrill, Ashbery, just to name a few, must have had a nodding acquaintance with his work but seemed not to have benefited from his example. He got scathing reviews from Jarrell, a certified Germanophile, and Thom Gunn, a sometime disciple of Yvor Winters, and was generally overlooked by proponents of new transcontinental poetics. There is a fine irony in the fact that the last memorable allusion to "The Anchored Angel" comes in the form of an orgasmic remembrance from the narrator of William Gass’ novel The Tunnel, a Professor Kohler embarked on an aborted study of Nazism in Germany. As we know, unknown to either Kohler or maybe even Professor Gass, one of Villa’s central themes is the ousting of the generic fuehrer god.
The waning of Villa’s reputation happened not so expectedly in his own country where too many poets have jumped on his bandwagon, and his colorful persona seemed to fit the public stereotype of an artist, even to the extent that his flippant witticisms became fodder for the local press. However, his approach to poetry involving melding literary odds & ends into a harmonious mould, remained 80% paramount and was mimicked by a younger generation of Philippine poets who preferred him over his American counterparts because of his origin, just as they preferred him over his local rivals because of his ‘name recognition’ abroad.
Putting that aside, and besides the fact that his status was briefly mainstreamed by his foreign peers, what it was they really found so attractive was Villa’s high seriousness and uncompromised commitment to the poetic craft. There is no question that intrinsic weaknesses in his approach prefigured his decline, but his achievement, as embodied in a handful of poems (SPN 75, 102, 115, 117, 130, 159, 162), stands. Remove the ‘ice-cream chrysantheme’ factor, and we’re left with a very vital poetry, as resonant as the poetry of Dylan Thomas and as rigorously adhesive as Laura Riding’s.
One thing is certain. Some and some of the same poets who followed Villa gradually shied away from his poetic and were propelled in different directions. At least three identifiable reactions took shape, as follows: 1) a movement from rhymed rhetoric to raw objective imagery, 2) a shift from lyric to more ethnocentric genres, including satire and prophetic verse, and 3) a return to the long poem and the narrative vogue.
In truth, all these elements latent in poetry throughout the ages are brought to a boil not deliberately in reaction to one person or two, but under pressure of locally grown events and circumstances, as for example, in the years subsequent to Tydings-McDuffie, when nationhood jitters were most acute or in the ‘70s when the nexus of politics and poetry was elevated. We see these tendencies overlap in as many ways as we have poets, and as variously as our poetry has gone through transformative waves of brilliant creativity, from Villa to Lansang, from Joaquin to Bautista, from Moreno to the Quincunx generation of poets.
As early as the Commonwealth era, the long poem gained popularity through works like Sohrab and Rustum, Leaves of Grass, and The Song of Hiawatha. Now the vogue seems to be regaining some esteem. Not too long ago, the poet Alfred A. Yuson essayed a kaleidoscopic poem of 252 lines, “SUITE AS CYCLE: Captives of the City,” based on a semi-fictional event. Many others have tried, in English (and here a helpful guide would be Abad’s--the first part coedited with Edna Manlapaz--three-volume anthology, whose capsule bios of the poets are probably its most illuminating feature) notably Virgilio Floresca, Ricaredo Demetillo, Cirilo F. Bautista and Ricardo M. de Ungria.
Now, Zulueta y da Costa’s Like the Molave (1940) was a dismal failure, and so was Demetillo’s Barter in Panay (1961). Bautista succeeded partially, magnificently in the third book of The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus (1999), and de Ungria totally in Waking Ice. Bautista’s first book, The Archipelago, appears to have been cobbled before his ‘grand’ design was internalized. Despite occasional poignancies it strikes the reader as a lazy mosaic, perfunctory at best. The second book is similarly loosely unified, and like the first it is padded up with unrelated verses which are better left to stand on their own, as independent poems. In all, Telex Moon reimagines Rizal’s persona on an astral plane, which might have inspired a gnostic parallel in Cuadra or not, depending on your poetic bias. On the other hand, de Ungria’s brilliant sequence of poems hews to a personal storyline and succeeds in a way that say, Ted Hughes does in his Birthday Letters, or Alfred Corn in his long poem “1992.”
Incidentally, Hufana’s Poro Point (1961) cannot be considered a long poem, but rather a series of related poems, much like Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology from which it derives its overarching conception and scope. Masters makes his characters directly interact in a way that Hufana does not. Poro Point is no less dramatic in content, with its rich anecdotal grasp and vigorous syntax.
Hufana, party allegiances notwithstanding, exemplifies the movement toward satire and political invective alongside the poetry of Bulosan, Tinio, San Juan, Maranan, Aguilar, Dauz down to the Lacaba brothers, Eman and Pete.
From the mid-fifties through the sixties, a number of remarkable poets joined ranks with Villa and Joaquin, among them EdithTiempo, Ilio, Daguio, Angeles, Moreno, Veloso, Hufana, Dimalanta, Ayala, Larry Francia, Tinio, Nolledo (sic), San Juan, Lansang, Manalo, Guillermo, Tadena, Espino, Casuga, Dumdum, Yuson and Marra Lanot. Each modernized their poetry in their own way, veering away from mere verbal artifice, reliant on universal symbolism, to objective clarity, grounded in critical formulae and formalist tradition. Two outstanding examples would be Poems 55 (1961) by Jose Lansang, and Batik-Maker and Other Poems (1972), by Virginia Moreno, which not surprisingly for a poet of great delicacy and finesse, took a full 20 years to collect.
It can be said that from a strictly literary perspective there isn’t much to the ongoing faux Villa/Bulosan divide. Bulosan is a fine poet, with a sociological edge, but put simply, Villa is the better poet. Bulosan remains, to his credit, excruciatingly relevant to swelling hordes of Pinoy eco-refugees in the U.S. Nor would it be correct to conclude that Bulosan, for all his justifiable acclaim as a proletarian writer, is more relevant to our national literature than Villa (as his more ardent explicators would lead us to believe).
Literature is far more complicated than that. Villa, by reason of his name alone, could not have eluded if he tried to the radical implications of his birth no more than Bulosan could. Make of it what you will, but Villa blurbing himself “the son of a physician who was the chief of staff for General Aguinaldo in the Philippine revolution against Spain” sounds hardly like someone anywhere close to antagonistic to his paternal roots. We must grant that Villa knew what he was doing when he quit writing about coconuts, Mirinisa, and “The Man Who Looked Like Rizal.” It was so much an affectation, a burlesquing of his talents to have continued on in that vein. It just wasn’t his cup of salabat.
Immediately this leads us to Nick Joaquin, who one can say embodies the flipside, the soixante to Villa’s neuf (excuse the joke!), and who has admirably filled the vacuum that Villa left. Without losing sight of their limitations Villa and Joaquin, offsprings of revolutionaries both, are the only writers that could be said to have achieved culture-hero status in our time, and in my opinion they’ve triggered a dynamic dyad of forces which has convincingly shaped the progression of our literature in English, particularly its poetry.
In the context of competing strategies in poetry they are precursors and antipodes both, representing on the one hand a nonobjective poetry drawn to archetypal symbols and on the other, a poetry of objective content, encompassing historical and contemporaneous events. As Villa had to grow out of his Doveglion phase in order to produce a purist poetry, emptied of any local associations, so Joaquin contrastingly had to implant native roots into his poetry in order to invigorate it. Here there is not a false dichotomy, as the approaches may be incompatible but the same aesthetic objective (which is good poetry as opposed to bad) is attained.
When Joaquin wrote “Stubbs Road Cantos” in 1949, he was already moving in the opposite direction to Villa, introducing a manner of poetry as perfectly expressive of personal feelings as old-world delicadeza would allow, a mode he later amplified in poems such as “Bye Bye Jazzbird” and “Come My Coach.” No one can read “Come My Coach,” without being moved by his portrayal of three ladies, not uppity ladies in ironic shades of Eliot and Pound, but true believers in the delicate “art of patronage.”
Indeed Joaquin engaged history in a much deeper way in his historical cycle of poems, for instance in “El Camino Real” and others published under the heading Five Foreign Chronicles in his Collected Verse (1987) than he did in his earlier works, where we might detect a latent trace of bourgeoism and religious zealotry that present-day proponents of social literature have found slightly off-putting if not outright wrongheaded. It must be noted that his poem “Coming in From the Cold” antedates “The Cardinal Detoxes,” a verse play written by Thomas M. Disch in 1994, which is somewhat more straightforwardly critical of the Church.
Post-Villa, and following the death of Nick Joaquin in 2004 the unsettling and then nine years on the gradual demoralization of our literature began to rear in, despite good efforts from the radical left and from the soigné poets of the PLAC troop, Bautista, Yuson, Abad and de Ungria leading. One cannot exclude expat poets such as Eric Gamalinda, Bataan Faigao, Bino Realuyo, Luis Francia, Felix Fojas, Fidelito Cortes, Luisa Igloria, and Eileen Tabios, who like it or not have gotten themselves categorized in the interim as American poets of Asian descent. (As have we, though we are practicing poets only in our homeland, not away from it.)
Clearly, a peculiar mindset fueled by internet had set in, and what is now in the ascendant is generalized academic verse, imported from overseas and compliant with American standards. Diaspora, anyone? Shifting to Tagalog or the vernacular may seem the obvious and inevitable alternative, but that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. (Could one ignore the fact that our best-loved poem ever is “Florante at Laura,” a flabby moralizing tale set in Albania with nothing to commend it except its enduring musicality and commanding language. And even more confounding, what is now regarded ‘cool’ is that we have a president who unapologetically talks to the local media in Taglish!) Villa’s poetry should be appreciated for what it is, on a practical level, as a darn radical solution to the lack of language. Paradoxically he was trying to escape a tradition of which he became a vital part. For Villa, language has become an ideology, not a denial of lineage—which is impossible—but a reaching for language whatever the language that is conversant in poetry alone. His corresponding rejection of local-colorism that the fledgling market was encouraging at the time also goaded others of his contemporaries with opposing views to burrow deeper into their own milieu instead of kowtowing to undifferentiated global demands.
Comparing himself in 1997 to NVM Gonzalez who was then named National Artist, Joaquin had said: “I pretended that reportage expressed me better than literature. I realized my subterfuge in the light of The Bamboo Dancers, which is literature reporting on the times--and far more acutely than the efforts of us truants of the word.”
Did he really believe that, Yes or No? Obviously he did, for he ended his career with a production of freshly relevant plays and a late flowering of master opuses, set in contemporary times, to match his phenomenal early work in Prose and Poems published in 1952. But it’s a qualified Yes, in the sense that his early work, though mostly set in Spanish times, already answered the same perennial issues of gender politics and dichotomies of culture more compellingly if in less than explicit fashion than in his latter works, where the pull of current events is put on overdrive. Martial law altered his method, but not in a significant way.
What then were he alive today would Nick Joaquin have thought of Companionable Voices, a curious production of his self-appointed heirs in their own late years? If there’s no denying the quality of their literary engagement, albeit in this book there is an almost palpable sense of windows closing, there would be no need for him to trumpet their achievements, but he would chastise them certainly for not doing enough.
This is a souvenir book, in every sense of the word. It contains 76 poems, for the most part selected and arranged by the authors themselves. A few are a reworking of old poems. These tribal artifacts, for that is what the majority of the poems are, transitioning easily from light to somber to elegiac instill the same sense of gamesmanship and nostalgic ardor as mirrored in the hunters’ bacchanal on the book’s cover, with its idyllic amalgam of fruit, game, fish, ginebra, canned goods and white rice. There are 29 photos, including montages showing the young bards grinning with expectations, and now--still grinning--rumpled with age. And this begs the usual questions. In what ways have their poetry changed from where they picked off in the sixties? How have they changed, and have their attitudes towards poetry changed? Long-term slump on the poets’ part can take a weightier toll on affections rather than on vulnerabilities. Poetry comes from an innate need and, if lucky, can even improve with age. (Or can it, really.)
Every one of our five poets who began writing as they did in the ‘60s, grew up reading Villa and wouldn’t be embarrassed to own to imitating him in their early poems, compounding words, turning nouns into verbs, etc., and developing short lyrics with zero regard to other than their linguistic value. For him, as for them, poetry became the distillation of an elixir constituted by language and founded subordinately in universalized myth.
Lines like “Sir, there’s a tower of fire in me” and “Proceed to dazzlement, Augustine” struck us novitiates of the word as poetry of the first rank, that sure enough didn’t spring coincidentally and full-strength out of the Philippine soil, but was evolved (and we bring this up to emphasize his value as a poet ) out of progressive confrontation with language. What was wrong with our poetry before Villa was language, not the absence of ethnicity, and he understood that well.
Then, of course as our five poets went along they too eventually soured of Villa’s poetic self-posturing and his self-created ‘theology,/Of, rose,and,/Tiger.’ More importantly they were learning from poets other than Villa. They were reading Lorca, Valery, St. John Perse. They were ingesting Russian poets, German poets, Nordic poets, and other European poets known to them mainly in translation. They were reading “The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock” alongside Mayakovsky’s “Cloud in Trousers,” and “Dark Night of the Soul” alongside “The Drunken Boat.” They were discovering drama, local color and meaningful narrative and were starting to write poetry as different from Villa’s as their earlier ones were similar to his, and as a result their total verbal zeitgeist was revitalized.
Nowadays, when ironically we have many more assiduous poets practicing than before, we tend to overlook the fact that both Villa, not so dominant now, and Joaquin are still very much looming if no longer preponderant influences in our poetry. Indeed they set the bar high and, for reasons we have indicated, their dual legacy changed the course of our literature and must be considered as still providing the strongest challenge to our emergent poets.
In summary, let’s point out the reverential and not-so-reverential ways in which Villa and Joaquin are treated in the works of our five poets. Cuadra’s untitled poem, to start with an obvious example, ends with the word ‘comma’ followed by a comma. It is a quasi-paean to Villa the quintessential comma poet who left most of his poems untitled. There are other Villa references in his long poem, as in the mock epigraph and in line 295, quoted from Villa’s own paean to Lucifer, poem 45, “this First, pioneering Genius.”
In one poem Cesar Ruiz Aquino gives in to a surreal fantasy about Villa commenting on one of his poems, Aquino’s that is. There are references to both Villa and Joaquin in Sanchez’s long satirical poem, “Eman Spelled Backwards.” Joaquin is made to hook up with Gertrude Stein in another poem and is invoked, mock-solemnly, as Nicodemus in “Homage to Geron Munar” and as St. Melkizedek in “Freundes.” Both Villa and Joaquin get a nod as well as in Erwin E. Castillo’s “Poetic License.” And what about Recah Trinidad’s laconic “A Tree Song”? It’s Villaesque, to say the least.
Some might shrug all this off as clinging to the outdated notion of luminosity as the end-all of poetic art, as Villa preached, though that is only half of the equation. Even recognizing that his work lends itself to parody and is prone to quasi-metaphysical rhetoric, to simply dismiss Villa’s poetic as out-of-date would be irresponsible. (His idea of god as an adversarial devil on equal footing with the poet is something he profoundly believed in, though we suspect he is like Cummings totally irreligious at the core.)
Cuadra’s new vehemence of style is something outside the scope of his previous poetry, and his immersion in current events is a shrewd re-tweaking of Villa’s neutralizing stance. In contrast to its formulaic opening, “No, no: no tale sad or gay” Cuadra floats two remarkable lines “imponderable/comma,” at the very end, putting his entire diatribe in messianic suspension. Thus the poet becomes JR’s strident mouthpiece, assuaging his ‘Musa perfidia’ by annexing the hero’s fate to his own feckless personality. Cuadra’s gambit, along with his adroit handling of peripeteia, is impressively superior to anything he has attempted before.
Besides his allusions to classical figures and to modern poets, Graves and Dylan Thomas among others, he uses biblical references interlarded with gallicisms and hispanisms, reflective of his iconoclastic upbringing, his activist romps in Paris, along with his late-developing interest in the cult of Rizal – all comprising a veritable rant that Villa himself might have disavowed.
So, with the same quotient of subjectivity do the narrative poems of the other poets, Trinidad, Aquino, Castillo and Sanchez depart from the Villa tradition while adhering to poetry’s synoptic power as an ideological vehicle of language. In a haiku-epigram not included here, Aquino commented on this wittily, thus: “After long time no/ see, Villa said to Daguio/ ‘Why do you insist?’ ” Not only is it not enough to master the language, or the art remains narrowly a part of a borrowed literature, with all the provincialism that that implies, but to language must be added Fact and Content, knowing that intelligent content is ultimately an integral part of the whole equation. That is the crucial value of Joaquin’s position.
With reference to clashing cultures, with which thematically so much of our literature is enmeshed, Castillo goes one better than Joaquin or Bautista in his forage for native materials, exhuming them as it were from history’s corners, reconstructing them in depth through a series of brilliantly sketched characters, such as in “Bajai-Manuc,” “The Saber of Leonard Wood,” “Inang Miyang,” and “The Dead Walk North” where the implications of our colonized history are worked out to the full.
In every respect, one cannot underestimate the influence of Joaquin on all of our five poets. Pro or con doesn’t matter, only the insights gained from close knowledge of his work and methods. In taunting reversal of Joaquin, Cuadra rails against a populace colonialized by imperialist greed. And Joaquin’s patronesses, in spite of their middle-class backgrounds, share a noble kinship with Castillo’s warrior prototypes. Aquino’s verbal mutations hint at supernatural activities, reopening gothic avenues paved by Joaquin. Trinidad’s poems derive from religious currents in Joaquin. Also, in terms of historic narration, Sanchez’s meanderings into myth, including his later tinkerings with the narrative genre, are a throwback to Joaquin’s feudal world.
Finally the one great lesson learned, that the lot of our poetry is interconnected with nationhood, is a truth of style enunciated by Joaquin, and tied up to that is the awareness that to forge new models, as our poets here are continually endeavoring for, they must learn to tap into deeper roots. Unchurch unwanted idols if you will, and look past revered funereal icons and the big clichés of history. Even today, as this book shows, there is no absence of ethnicity but a surfeit of it, the difference being there are no unsanctioned frontiers anymore, with language no longer the hobbling issue that it was when we apprenticed ourselves knowingly to Western models.
Some of the poems, 31 total by our count, mostly short poems (the count here, just like the matter of scansion or rhyme, is minorly relevant in the long run) persist in a pure lyric impulse, denuded of realistic or topical content. And that’s all right, too. Take “Adarna” or “When Last We Said Goodbye” for example. If they’re combed with honey and hived with bees these poems are a far cry from the verbal mélange erupted by our refined coterie of syllabus poets, from Lumbera to Abad. On a poetic level neither Villa’s nor Joaquin’s more versatile and wide-ranging formulation in itself gives comfort or clout to the unwary. Each poem must be hammered afresh, as the slogan goes, one poem at a time.
Looked at from Joaquin’s standpoint, it would be gratifying to note that the bulk of the poems, 45 out of 76, and none of the five sections (each assigned to one poet) are devoid of indigenous content. They revel in history and speak to a broad concern with contemporary issues. They also reference actual happenings, chronicling people and events with arcane precision as well as journalistic gusto. In fact what the poets belatedly have tried to achieve in this book is in masterful extension of Joaquin’s template, of literature as a mirroring of the times with commensurate fealty to the written word.
With Villa, they’re saying again “Have come, we’re here” and with Joaquin, conscious for the most part that they’ve long severed themselves from the poetic scene and now have shepherded themselves back, exhilaratingly, into the fold, that was all for a reason, no slackers’ alibi, for here we are left with clear and dissonant voices, picking on the dead horse of language, language, language—with a motley of native flummeries to boot.
Unincorporated Notes: p. 97, H. L. Mencken, The Diary of H.L. Mencken; p. 161, Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, National Artists; p. 246, Victoria Glendinning, Edith Sitwell A Unicorn Among Lions; p. 294, Jonathan Chua, The Critical Villa (see also pp. 307-309, appendix D, which—kidding aside--provides an amphisbaenic slant to my ‘69’ joke)
Copyright 2013 @ Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez
Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez grew up in Manila, Philippines and was educated at UP Diliman. He is author of New and Later Poems, published by The University of the Philippines Press in 2003. He lives with his wife, Maria Teresa Quijano, in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.