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Poet as dancer, and vice versa

Sure-footed as always, Simeon Dumdum, Jr. leads the reader through masterful choreography along the pages of a poetry book, published by Ateneo de Manila University Press, titled The Poet Learns to Dance (The Dancer Learns to Write a Poem).

The way Obama did recently in Havana, initially Dumdum allows the perception that as poet in a ritual of visitation, he is the one being led through terpsichorean obligations. But as Barack might have also done in his usual revelatory fashion, “Judge Jun” in this his seventh poetry collection goes on to unveil a characteristic hat trick of grace, graciousness and gracefulness.

At the outset, the poet states in his own Introduction:

“I have two left feet. But this did not deter me from marrying a gazelle of a woman—in terms of grace not speed, because her endowments have not made her aerodynamic.

“My wife dances well. During a tango, her toes touch the floor with the lightness of a Chinese brush on silk, her head and neck inclined like a lily. She knows my desire to trip the light fantastic and does not waste an opportunity to teach me the crossovers and chicken walks of Swing, for instance. Which effort only deepens my realization that birth has destined my feet for no more than country walks.”

Despite the self-deprecation, however, in his poems Jun Dumdum turns into Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Ray Danton in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond. Why, neither Baryshnikov nor Travolta, despite their energy, has shown as much playful prancing power as this poet does. We cannot turn a blind eye, like Pacino in Scent of a Woman — nor a tin ear as possessed by Jose Garcia Villa’s pet peeves — to the grand jetés or the swoosh of a Sufi dervish whirling in a refined circle of self-containment.

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But is the poet contained? With words that aspire to music, and magisterial wisdom as a partner, he can glide from first to last tango. Why, when his verse unfolds with its quiet wit, the tantalizing appeal outdoes a single line of Can-can performers.  

As an exercise of vice-versa adaptation, of mutuality of osmosis, here too the dancer in turn adopts poetry not as a self-confessed clodhopper, nor with gauche toes abandoned in the throes of klutziness. Dumdum as poet-dancer or dancer-poet has long shown how he fulfills the intricate requisites of multi-tasking. 

His fellow premier poet Ricky de Ungria attests to this in his own waltz of a back-cover blurb:

“Day by day, the temptation is just growing stronger for me to commit a crime in Carcar or Talisay in Cebu so that when the reckoning comes, I will get to hear Judge Simeon Dumdum Jr. render his opinion on and judgment of my case and I alone of everyone else standing in his sala that very morning will recognize the easy lope of pentameters in his sentences, the playfulness with internal rhymes and end-stopped and enjambed lines, the special clarities of his everyday images, the carefully wrought repetitions that would unveil its structure as sestina or villanelle, and his warm wit that encapsulates what it crystallizes, and I would be telling myself, above the uproar on the death sentence upon me, that my deed was well worth the pleasure of hearing the verdict unerringly versed before me and danced to in my mind. That is how dangerous art can become—like the very law itself.”

Judge Jun Dumdum has retired from the bench, but his personal chair or roost continues to gain altitude, for an even more expanded if also deeper view, as he expresses further in his Introduction:

“Dance has put its soul within rhythm, under an overlay of pattern and repetition. But it paces about like a caged animal. The passion arises from the dancer’s having to merge into the moves the preoccupations of the heart and the resurgence of dreams deferred. Which only adds tension to the performance, because all the while, through inner ruses, ploys or schemes, they seek to break out and wreak havoc. For indeed the affective, the stream of thoughts and feelings, continues whether one dances or not, no matter what one does, even when one sleeps and the riverbed of rationality turns into shifting sand. What can we do, the rules say that life should find freshness and power by conforming itself to the moves and the music and become a dance to the music of time. Chaos partners with meaning in a dance.

“The same thing happens or should happen in a poem. One dances with the meaning and sound of words, which necessarily one must harness into a team. No matter how free the verse, the words must trot in tandem, like foxes that despite their wildness must keep to a clip-clop on the road of a morning in the country. A poem must dance. A poem must foxtrot or forever walk as prose.”

For his first poem, he flashes back to a career moment in “Justice Aspires to the Condition of Music”:

“In court my gavel is authority/ Whenever I bang it all noise ends/ I sent two women out who talked too loudly/ And warned a lawyer when his cellphone rang/ If both the truth and the lie were a pin/ Dropped in the courtroom, I would like to hear it/ Its ting might be the small, still voice of justice/ So just imagine my shock when one morning/ While the accused was insisting that he/ Was somewhere else on the night of the crime/ From a tree outside came the trill of birdsong/ So sweet that we all looked at where it came from/ And the complainant felt set to forgive/ And I, the useless gavel in my hand,/ Yielded the moment to a better witness.”

Only eight of the 59 poems here employ plural stanzas. Decidedly a majority are one-stanza poems, no matter brevity or length, frequently as a disguised sonnet, its camouflage inclusive of minimal or zero punctuation.  

But the rhythms of give-and-take are masterful, as in the title poem:

“Let your hand rest like a bird on my left hip/ Let your mind rest where it is cool and quiet/ With your left, hold my right hand at this height/ With your lips let the words roll out and skip/ So move your foot with mine for just a snip/ So catch that word flying away—it’s right/ Relax, your hold on me should not be tight/ Relax, the images have their own script/ Now turn as if to accept and decline/ Now use a rhyme and do your best to keep it/ At times the swaying makes you feel bourgeois/ At times words send a tingle down your spine/ It looks as if I’m writing a sonnet/ It feels as if I am dancing the Cha-cha”

Some poems celebrate being in situ but not standing in place, rather in frolicsome cerebration of cities in Europe, plus Osaka, Bangkok and Cebu. Here’s “Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris”:

“I must be blank to make all this adhere/ To my footloose and easygoing soul,/ Disguised as a tourist out for a stroll./ Nothing will stay of what I see and hear,/ And not just the Galerie des Chimeres./ Unless I keep still, each pane or gargoyle/ Will just pass through a tear in time, a hole/ In memory, and then will disappear./ The stories told are of infinity,/ The reason why the stained glass lights are singing/ An oratorio as a choir of rainbows./ Without this emptying, I would just be/ A totally tattooed man contemplating/ The uses of the north and south rose windows.”

Here there are commas and periods. Maybe a cathedral as reverential setting enjoys pride of punctuation in the poet-dancer’s pantheon of inherent zeal.

Then too he arranges domesticated stanzas in a poem for his grandson, “Art History (for Jared Sebastian)”:

“Until I saw a satellite view/ Of the earth, and the thin line separating/ Day from night, which moved as the earth turned,/ I never really understood/ Caravaggio.// Until I caught in Caravaggio/ The conversation between light/ And darkness, and the wisdom,/ Which only silence could impart,/ I never really understood/ The meaning of story.// Until I told a little boy/ A curious tale, and he was afraid/ And ran outside the room, and then,/ When I had lost hope that he would/ Return, and I could end my story,/ I heard his steps and saw him stand// Within the shadow of the door,/ I never really understood/ The meaning of love.”

Much later he offers a meaning and a magnification, let alone reverberation, as he dances with the notion of nature in the final poem, “Than Trees”:

“Love we may call what is greater than trees/ Because it rises much taller than trees// They sit before a little waterfall/ And they to me appear bigger than trees// I’m on a bridge standing across from them/ They see nothing of me other than trees// Because love does strange things to gravity/ They must be flying now higher than trees// Because what grows has a voice of its own/ But love can be so much louder than trees// Because their love will last beyond their time/ The mortal lovers live longer than trees// But then most things end with the afternoon/ Whose light has brought the dark closer than trees// They walk towards me who must move away/ And find another place farther than trees// Because your love now bids me come home, calling,/ ‘Simeon,’ and to me you’re dearer than trees.”

Of dances private and universal the poet writes. Such learned poems the dancer has written.

* * *

This special book will be launched at 4 p.m. this Saturday, April 9, at the Cube Wing, SM Seaside, South Road Properties (SRP) in Cebu City.

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