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Francis C. Macansantos: Poet of light

I always hark back to a particular memory whenever the poetry of Francis C. Macansantos comes up — that when Ermita magazine published his poems way back in 1976, the next issue had this brief reaction from poet-doyenne Tita Lacambra Ayala: “He’s daguerrotype.”

The allusion to a milestone of photographic history meant that Macansantos’ poetry was a virtual throwback. Somehow it had reminded Tita of how “a picture made on a silver surface sensitized with iodine was developed by exposure to mercury vapor.”

In Dumaguete years later, colleague Dr. Cesar Ruiz Aquino and I would rib “Butch” Macansantos about the alchemical process he had applied on his early use of imagery. He had written those poems in his late 20s.

Grinning like the hail-fellow-well-met that he was, Butch released his usual string of repartees, quickly bonding up with arcane humor of his own. It stopped only when we surmised that what must have been meant was that he was “vaquero”-type.

Your regular cowboy — who saunters bow-legged into a salon in Dumaguete or Baguio, with good cheer and full comic intent lightly packed in twin holsters. Indeed, his humor was both mercurial and vaporous. 

In contrast, his poetry was seditious in its sober sensitivity, employing themes that drew from his academic training in the classics as much as his affinity with nature that is becalmed with acute language.

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Macansantos’ first poetry collection, The Words and Other Poems, was published by UP Press in 1997. In 2003, he won the NCCA Writer’s Prize for Epic Poetry in English. I was happy to have been a judge together with Marjorie Evasco and Elsie Coscolluella, with none of us having any inkling on whose work we had chosen for the award. Womb of Water, was eventually published by the NCCA in 2006.

His next book was Balsa: Poemas Chabacanao, a collection of 31 poems in his native Chabacano (for he had grown up in Zamboanga), with his own translations into English meriting its nomination for a National Book Award for Poetry in English. Which of course Butch found quite odd.

Last November, his fourth book, Snail Fever: Poems of Two Decades (UP Press, 2016), won that National Book Award. Sadly, it turned out to be a posthumous prize, as Butch had passed away last July. His widow, fellow poet Priscilla Supnet Macansantos, and their writer-daughter Monica, visiting from New Zealand, received the prize.

In his Preface, Butch had written of the long hiatus between his two collections published by UP Press:

“I get the eerie feeling that I have come perilously full circle. Yet there’s perhaps a positive aspect to long intervals: one is given a broader than usual perspective of one’s own work. One is afforded the privilege to think of such mysteries as recurring motifs, or of changes in style or theme.

“I surely cannot deny composing verse with theme in mind, even if only half-consciously, even if only intuitively.”

The 62 poems span an array of thematic allegiances: poems on or for his wife and daughter and other family relations, tributes to place (“Baguio Fog,” “The Ex-Mayor’s Monologue — in memoriam, Cesar Climaco,” “Return to Maryhurst”) and personage (“Early Morning in Samoa — for Margaret Mead),” “Chopin’s ‘No Other Love’,” “Bishop Aglipay Recalls His Conversion,” “Rizal Ponders over Some Letters from Europe” …

There’s a “Paraplegic’s Sonnet” and a “Villanelle” on childhood, where lyricism is at its most mellifluous (“Stones winked at the stars from their dusty floor,/ And ennobling darkness chose the bird for mate,/ Which meant you could not hurt it evermore,/ Its heart being light, swaddled in darkest gore.”

Lyric adroitness serves as much to loft discoveries into a dance with the rara avis of consummated intellectual flight. Here’s the last of the five long stanzas of “Emblems, Echoes (for Edith L Tiempo)”:

“In the end we leave cave, jar, cathedral —/ Emblems, echoes of that saline womb/ That would have been our life and grave/ Had she not expelled us, wave by rippling wave./ Pushing us to give light, air, room —/ Preferring to set us free/ Than to pen us in a thrall of coral./ But that is not quite all:/ The solicitude of the rhythmic sea/ Is echoed by the element of air,/ Kindling a fire so secret and rare/ That the journey becomes angelic flight/ On troughs and crests of radiating light.” 

A shorter poem, “Lingua Franca,” ends with this second of two stanzas:

“Often we slink back guiltily/ To where we are children always/ With our first words—touching,/ Tasting them again, knowing their meanings/ As they emerge from the glimmering silence,/ Our first home. But dawn is always leading us away/ Into the light — first light. We climb over mountain rims/ Beyond all the words ever invented./ Every word we say is always outstripped./ Where the mad tangle of language has no meaning/ Is the silence. We have broken free./ We have returned.”

In a video tribute to her husband narrated by Priscilla, Butch relates how she had noted the recurrence of the image of light in his poems, so that he was “a poet of light.” He remarks with characteristic self-deprecation: “I wish I were, since I’m usually in the dark.” But Priscilla pursues her point: “Truly, he was a poet of light. Through his works and deeds, he brought light to people’s lives, as a mentor and teacher.”

She cites his experience as a literary mentor and publications instigator — in Mindanao State University, Silliman University, Baguio Colleges Foundation, UP Baguio, Ateneo de Zamboanga, and with the Cordillera Creative Writing Workshop. From Northern Luzon to Western Mindanao, Butch Macansantos’ poetry had served as an inspiration for many young writers.

Priscilla speaks the truth. This poet of light would not have it any other way but to invoke lyricism that tautens into thought, even as it exalts language that proceeds from a theory of dark. As in his “Homage to the Star-Masters”:

“When God said ‘Let there be light,’ it must have been/ As though he had spoken in a language no less/ Than that of light. The act, the deed itself, proclaimed/ The truth beyond mere articulation—/ Light was medium, message, deed.”

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