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Gravitas and grace in poetry

Like thumbprints or snowflakes, no two poetry books are alike. Here I take up a couple of recent releases by friends who are obviously so dissimilar in their approach to the craft — but at no expense to either, nor the particular style or “school” each poet may seem to represent.

Histories: Poems by Charlie Samuya Veric (AdMU Press, 2015) has the distinction of going into its third edition after its first two printings sold out quickly. That’s distinction enough for a poetry collection, especially for a first one.

On the back cover of the relatively large, handsome format of 116 pages is the blurb: “At once memory, theory, verse, Histories by Charlie Samuya Veric reveals a sensibility remarkable for its breath and ambition. This is poetry of great integrity, unburdened by the conventions of writing programs, workshops, contests, coteries. Above all, it is poetry at its most private, probing deep into the lyric imagination of an observer who speaks in a genial tongue. Here is poetry as the achievement of personal autonomy in which the fragments of lived life are hauntingly illuminated.”

Of the author, the book’s penultimate page says: “Born in Aklan, … Veric was educated in Diliman, Katipunan, and New Haven where he earned his doctorate in American Studies from Yale University. A widely published author, he teaches at the Ateneo.”

Where I taught myself, for over a decade, and where my last years may have coincided with Veric’s starting ones. In any case, his poetry continues a long tradition of excellence and strength in the vaunted craft as practiced from Loyola Heights.

The first 30-plus pages are billed as an Introduction, titled “Let the Missing Be Poetics” — a series of prose statements filling up, or rather taking up little spaces in page after page. Is it an extended prose poem? More of a proem, in my regard, which is entirely different from a prose poem. It’s a preamble, a proffer of inclination and intent.

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The first several page-paragraphs sound like notes for a research paper, with trivia on an archeologists’ dig in a 16th-century Ottoman village — among its items of significance the purported presence of “the missing heart of the 10th and most famous sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Maginificent…” This goes on for seven pages, with brief page inputs, mystifying in how it will credibly introduce a book of poetry, until the entry: “In October of 2013, news came of art historians and archeologists stumbling into a village while searching for the sultan’s heart.”

The eighth entry simply states: “I, too, am looking for a missing heart.” The ninth continues the shift into first-person POV, detailing a café meet with an Ateneo colleague who asks “what it meant for me to write poetry.” The poet protests silently to himself that he need not explain, but likens it to “an archeologist’s devotion to excavation. It is the heart, the passion.”

Three pages later, a brief entry reads: “I am not your usual poet.” Subsequently, extended page-paragraphs detail the arguments for non-conformity (or non-trad tack/track) of this particular poet, much like what the back-cover blurb had hinted at. He has not been to writing workshops. “No Silliman. No Baguio. No Iligan. No Malate. No Antipolo.” No Iowa. “I started writing not fearing the thought that established writers would take turns savaging me in public.”

Now that’s an exaggerated conceit. Maybe quadruple hearsay that’s been blown out of realistic proportion. And true enough, the next paragraph is an unintentionally false entry born of a misheard urban legend: that it was Nick Joaquin who once told a UP workshop fellow “to plant kamote rather than write.” Chinese whispers sort of conflation here: that wasn’t NJ but Recaredo Demetillo.

But no matter. At this point the poet has clearly set out to profess his ars poetica as a way of introducing his book, the way he writes poetry, and why. “(N)o literary father to murder… Without resentment, I wrote….” Never joined the Palanca. “For writing need not begin and end with the approval of others.” Never “been one for literary groupies…” Never “received an MFA…”

He parses all these seemingly blithe tricks of avoidance or escape, and comes up with an ism for it. “In a word, another path exists to become a poet. It is the path of expressive autonomy. I also call it anti-professionalization.”

The last 13 page entries, still adamantly in prose, then proceeds to perorate (yes it does, albeit with occasional charm) on this found stance of the “anti-professional poet” — weighing on sundry matters, from rate of production to a defiance of “regimented time” to quotes from and references to various poets, among them Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Saadi Youssef, Walter Benjamin and Anna Akhmatova. Until the penultimate summation in this self-Intro: “Written for over a decade in different continents and cities, these poems are my histories. They record my growth as a human being, my failures as a man of fierce independence.”

The next part is billed as a Prologue, titled “How to Read a Poem.” Finally, after the poetics, a poem. Here it is: “A student misreads/ a poem about losing love/ to be about love between a mermaid and a fisherman./ I do not know how it comes to a young man,/ learning to read between the lines./ How a poem about love lost could mean/ other than its disappearance.// And I recall reading Weldon Kees/ who leapt to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge: ‘I watch the snow, feel for the heartbeat that is not there.’// When a student misreads a poem,/ does he not leap from a bridge with golden gates?/ Feel for water that is not there, and, in its stead,/ a mermaid and a fisherman come into being,/ dreaming of love? There is// no other answer. For a poem to be, it must/ be misread, beautifully.”

Do I like this poem? Yes. And I have no MFA either, in lieu of experiential pedigree. That too is how I relate to the poem titled “The Walk of Good (For Roque Ferriols, SJ)” — from which I excerpt two stanzas (of broken lines with arbitrary spaces in between, so that they can’t even be simulated here): “Nobody knows/ the dance of ideas/ in his head./ Or what his eyes read/ when his gaze// falls/ in the void/ he navigates. Fills/ with/ experience.” 

Lack of space constrains us now from indulging in more of Veric’s poems. Despite an initially arched eyebrow over that pasakalye (in the Pinoy urban meaning, circa my jaded time) of a stance at once both personal and cerebral, suffice it to say that I find them generally appealing and fulfilling, often quiet but beholden to sage intimacy, nothing unnecessarily ponderous even given the gravitas goals. Something to be said, too, about having to be prepared for someone’s poetry, in place of the more common option of having it hit you between the eyes if it will.

But hey, if a poetry book sells out its first two runs (whether at 500 or a thou copies as the usual practicability), that makes us happy, and we hope to help it further along with this third edition.

The second book, Maybe Something by Isabela Banzon (UP Press, 2015) is a very recent release, the third collection by a fine vintage friend whose poetry has also been on the quiet side, if infinitely lyrical, graceful and gracious. She teaches literature at UP Diliman, and used to raise Dalmatians. 

This book may also be prized for its Preface written by her academic colleague and anthology co-editor, Rajeev S. Oatke of Yale-NUS College & National University of Singapore. I must share his first paragraph:

“Words are a strange part of what makes us human: they come to us easily for the most part, even spontaneously; but not always when they matter the most, as when things hurt, or something unexpected delights us, or a memory or an incident makes us think hard and long. That is precisely when we become most achingly, vulnerably and most precisely human: when that which we feel, think, make, hope, fear, love, hate, and cherish comes to a realization in a word or two, a phrase, a line, a page, an act of making that is also an act of finding. This capacity for finding words that might suffice, which is the knack of putting the right words in the right place, becomes also the ability to make us believe that something has been said, perceived, felt, conceived, and held that had no words before.”

These criteria the poet Banzon may easily be said to meet with peekaboo aplomb. I love her first poem, “Muse”: “My congratulations to the woman/ readied up for a tryst, in a bare-/ all mood, on a king size bed, the red// of her mouth opening like a bud./ No doubt she’s been imagined/ in a poem or two, snug between// syllables or perfected in rhyming/ couplets/ each act of exposure, each/ attempt at tenderness, at heat, her gift// of meaning. No doubt she hasn’t been/ taking the show-don’t-tell lover role/ too much to heart, calling out// to the poet to fluff up the pillows/ and hand her a change of sheets/ and the vacuum cleaner which only/ the other night, while watching him/ mumbling in sleep, she had thought/ to surprise him by having it fixed.”

Eh di wow! Each fat word is charged, and of a purpose: tryst, red, mouth, opening, bud, snug, couplets, exposure, heat, lover, pillows, sheets… until the come-down with the “vacuum cleaner … mumbling in sleep.”

Many other poems bear that judicious blessing of word choice and phrase originality, that capacity, that knack for making poetry stand out with adroit eloquence even when it stays horizontal.

Here’s the brief, punchy, poignant “Consuelo”: “Like you said,/ I’m a whore to want you/ (on streets,/ among maps/ and metrorail tickets,/ along fountains, ruins, cul-de-sacs,/ at museums, the opera, gelato and tea,/ by the entrance or exit,/ weeping,/ again, you)/ weeping in me.”

From civility to carmageddon, the city is me is us in distress. Allow me that misreading. 

A third sample, “Brief Letter,” is equally, equably sad and exquisite: “Dearest, how could it be/ that to embrace another/ is not a betrayal—how many/ (one too many) were there—/ how soon slack/ the kisses—to make sense/ of the present is to turn back/ to quiet turbulence—/ as if love that dread word/ was never enough—/ as if to hoard/ promises could snuff/ out the lie—that love—/ all touch in time—/ resolves.” 

Brava, Isabela!

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