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Poetry’s musculature

Time and again I’ve lauded the strength of the poetry being written abroad by poets of Pinoy blood and extraction.

Making up a significant number are the immigrants who moved to the US when they had already made a name for themselves as notable poets in the home country. Among these are our personal friends Luis Cabalquinto, Luis Francia, Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez, Felix Fojas, Rowena Torrevillas, Luisa Igloria, Eric Gamalinda, Fatima Lim-Wilson, Fidelito Cortes, Mike Maniquiz, Marie La Viña and Lilledeshan Bose. For Canada, there are Albert Casuga and Naya Valdellon.

Among those who became full-fledged poets as longtime residents in the States are Oscar Peñaranda, Vince Groyon, Antonio Jocson, Angela Narciso Torres and Eileen Tabios. Those who left the Philippines no older than as adolescents include Jessica Hagedorn and Bino Realuyo.

Then there are those whose personal circumstances I am not familar with, but who have certainly made their mark as excellent poetry authors often billed as Fil-Ams: Nick Carbo, Patrick Rosal, Jon Pineda, Oliver de la Paz, Barbara Jane Reyes, R. Zack Linmark, Eugene Gloria, R.A. Villanueva, Rick Barot, Joseph Legaspi, Aimee Nezhukumutatathil and Sarah Gambito.

Many others have bylines I’ve come across, ranging from much older Fil-Ams in the West Coast, such as Al Robles, Jaime Jacinto, Jeff Tagami, Virginia Cerenio, Samuel Tagatac, Serafin Syquia and Luis Malay Syquia, to the younger generation that would include Reggie Cabico, Alison de la Cruz, Paolo Javier, Marie Bismonte, Joseph Nepomuceno, Joseph Sabado, Charles Valle, Tony Robles, Melissa Roxas, Carla Vega, Lily Ann Villaraza and Lola Skye. As with those cited in the preceding paragraph, a few may have been born in the US.

But wow, that’s over 50 Pinoy poets out there. Add Merlinda Bobis in Australia, Ivy Alvarez in New Zealand, Jim Pascual Agustin in South Africa, Ella Wagemakers in Holland, Eric Tinsay Valles in Singapore, and Neal Imperial somewhere in diplomatic service.

Why, they could outnumber our homegrown and still homebound poets writing in English — that is, those who have been honored with prizes or have had poetry collections published.

Of late, R.A. Villanueva has been gaining the nod among American critics for work appearing in prestigious publications, among these Poetry and American Poetry Review. His debut collection, Reliquaria, won the 2013 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He was born in New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers University. I understand that he is presently based in London.

Eugene Gloria, author of three poetry books, is expected back in Manila early next year, to fulfill a Fulbright grant if I recall right, for which he’ll be associated with University of Santo Tomas. His latest collection, Drivers at the Short Time Motel (Penguin 2015), had Naomi Shihab Nye raving that his “gift is breathtaking.” Three of his poems have also been selected for the July/August 2016 issue of The American Poetry Review.

Recently, a 20th anniversary edition of Zack Linmark’s Rolling the R’s rolled off Kaya Press with a US tour and climaxed with a tribute held at Philippine Women’s University several weeks ago. But that was Zack’s first novel; we’ve also been looking forward to more poetry from him.

The same may be said of Bino Realuyo (busy with a novel) and Aimee Nezhukumatathil, a standout of a poet. Both have revisited the Philippines in recent years.

Another Fulbrighter was Patrick Rosal. Was it three or four years back when he rebonded with his Ilocano kin and joined up with our young poets at Mag:Net Café & Gallery on Katipunan Ave. and at other reading venues on Xavierville Ave., Q.C.? Might have been earlier, as he had also read before my Ateneo class.

Patrick was on a fellowship from the US State Department and Rutgers University’s Faculty Research Grant program. And now we’re happy to note that some of the poems occasioned by his homecoming are included in his 4th book, Brooklyn Antediluvian, recently released by Persea Books of New York.

His three previous collections of poetry — Boneshepherds, My American Kundiman, Uprock Headspin Scramble & Dive — have been honored with the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, Global Filipino Literary Award, and the Asian American Writers Workshop Member’s Choice Award. He teaches in the creative writing program at Rutgers-Camden and lives in Philadelphia.

Here’s an excerpt from “Despedida: Quezon City”:

“And to the beer guzzlers of Xavierville/ who dream in ska, my dreadful philosophers,/ my punk rock sweethearts, please don’t laugh// from the other half of the world if in a year/ I’m still summoning you into the rooms/ of Brooklyn, among dear poets there,// one by one, and my loved ones of that island/ will know you—who are loved ones/ of this island—and we’ll fling rum to the floor// from our fingertips asking the god of cane/ to bless us all with long life, sweet breath,/ and the demons’ blasé drums gone funky.”

Patrick Rosal walks and talks a tough, rhythmic gait, ever ready to pounce on ghosts past, present and future, with a punch that is “My hand’s quick trip from my hip to your chin…” His poetry is adroit, muscular, courageous, gutsy, shoulder-chippy, and aligned with the percussive output of the beatbox or sudden screeches of tampered vinyl. It can also turn suddenly tender before it swings back to a Sunday punch.

Here’s “Kundiman: Hung Justice” in full:

“Love, a child dreamt hard of/ bread and got history// instead. Someone dreamt of/ maggot-jewels in meat and/ brought out blades in the name/ of good science, ardor.// But who’ll list kinships in/ English between slaughter// and laughter? Who’ll recruit/ heaven’s splendid refuse,// junk, our silent brigades/ of busted blue-black horns,// swordless squadrons, the hum/ and ruckus of strung-up// ghosts, the delirium/ of angels and muddy// hilt and rust, this finch-quick/ trigger, dull dagger third-// muscle deep, gas-sopped rag?/ Who’s got lungs for song? Hoist// not a schoolyard’s one taut/ noose or red bunting bloom.// My America, you/ can’t even love a face// as handsome as a bomb.”

Rosal ratchets up the perils of memory lived and imagined, as a brown boy in the streets of Brooklyn or as young Ilocano harbinger of clan rituals, as with these lines from “Evidence: Box 1A, Item 1”:

“… In lecture halls,/ I was taught I can make a field appear. I was told/ to erase myself from the field. And then, just/ outside my family’s smoky village, I entered/ a real field with hip-high cogon grass. I followed/ my uncle and cousin who slashed a path. I carried/ a real bucket and a real blade and three children/ hurried behind me. They called this field holy/ because it belongs both to the newly murdered/ and the decades-long dead…”

His poems are rife with narrative action, while aggression is painted as a double-bladed weapon of choice. In fact, blades and knuckles, arms and fingers, knees buckling, rival kids dropping, noses busted, and heads snapped back are all graphically demonstrated. But he can veer away from the urban danger of blind corners and also remonstrate with lyrical ease against tropical seduction.

From “Instance of an Island”:

“One way to erase an island is to invent/ a second island absolved of all the sounds/ the first one ever made…” We skip to: “One way to erase an island is to invent the waters/ that surround it. You can name the waters/ which will turn all the sounds the island makes into salt./ It will teach you to listen to everything you love/ disappear… or you can invent a song so big/ it will hold the entire ocean.”

Quick cuts of monosyllabic words serve him well in his tough tango to macho music. “… I remembered how good old DJs listen/ to classic cuts we love on vinyl like a living pulse,/ how the tempo’s dragged and nudged in the rift/ between snare and kick, each meter’s kink and quirk,/ a chasm that no plain magic can tap and no known math/ can predict…” (From “Despedida: Brooklyn to Philly”)

The culminating title poem “Brooklyn Antediluvian” takes up 16 pages, in consistent couplets but for three stanzas where an extra word is inserted. It parades the history of names, his own, his mother’s, his father’s, as well as those of typhoons.

“I know how a name can dangle mid-air as if/ from a lamppost at dusk. How a mother’s name// and a father’s name can hang outside a window/ or swing from a sad maple and no one will notice// among streertcorners first ordained in honor/ of some fatcat or burning saint, but sometimes// we invent a name and its story for the hell of it,/ for neither hell nor story is only ours// to remember…

“I might not get to the body count the typhoon// left behind, how it circled back, zig-zagged/ for a second rip-and-run across the island.// Let’s just say they baptize natural disasters/ as if we could call them closer or coax them back/ to where they came from: Katrina, Sandy, Ondoy./…

“I’m the one/ who believes we have ancient names/ like dawnlight flashing into the dreams// of murderers and sunken into the hillsides/ of countries whose shanties and projects// are named for the moguls and saints, though/ children drown here, just like they do// everywhere: Manila, New Orleans,/ Brooklyn. There’s not a name that fits.// You could flood an avenue with storm-/ water or roses or the horses could suddenly// split down their bellies mid-stampede./ Your name could curse a city. And it would be// a calamity. It would be spring.”

Whatever the weather and whichever the season, Patrick Rosal weaves his way deftly, from the hip-hop nomenclature of drowning to the savvy gamesmanship of salvation.

Thanks for the book, amigo.

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