If someone hasn’t thought about it already there should by this time be a best first book of poetry award in a poetry-challenged country such as ours, where verses can be read while standing up in the elevated train coach and commuters can ponder on the lines of Rizal, Recto, Neruda during rush hour. Forget the inconvenience of sometimes feeling like sardines, when poetry is before our eyes the mind expands and so gives us space even if only in the imagination.
There’s a first book of fiction-award sometimes also known as the NVM Gonzalez award, it’s high time young or late-blooming Filipino poets get their due with their first books.
Ask any author, poet or fictionist, and the common answer is that the first book is always special, quite like a debut album for a recording artist, where a chapter is marked in the creative life of the writer or artist. Things are never quite the same again afterwards, so will it be for three poets who came out with their first books last year: Maxine Syjuco, Mookie Katigbak, Adonis Durado.
The youngest of the three is Syjuco, whose A Secret Life (Artquest Worldwide) shows the tentative first steps of a poet venturing into the world of poesy, prosody and other peripheral rhapsodies.
Named after a song by ex-Steely Dan member Donald Fagen, Maxine has been around the art and performance circuit since she was so high, specifically as member of the avant-garde group Faust with her siblings. Then she seemed to have progressed naturally into the spoken word, of which her book of poems is like a cipher.
A number of lyrics in A Secret Life indeed have a rhythm and cadence of their own, and we could well imagine her reciting them at, say Penguin or Mag:net, with some atmospherics provided in the background by an instrumentalist.
So it would appear that the work cut out for the young poet is how to make the written word stand alone on the lonesome page, and if it springs a separate life on stage or in smoky pubs that would just be a bonus, icing for our depraved senses.
Rare is the verse that cuts both ways, is successful while read quietly and also opening an ocean of possibilities when performed, and we volunteer that Maxine’s “Hotel Motet” is one of these.
Full of wild swings and curves and yet hypnotic with its mantra-like repetitions, this unusual hotel as conceived by the young poet has an equally unusual persona worthy of Alice’s initial foray into Wonderland, ending somehow with a meow from a probable Cheshire Cat, Puss in Boots, or even Cat in the Hat as Mad Hatter.
A few years older than Maxine but not yet quite 30 is the surprising Mookie Katigbak, whose debut collection The Proxy Eros (Anvil) was released late last year and has since quietly taken local literary circles if not by storm, then by low-pressure area.
A series of lyric implosions the Proxy Eros is, from a well-workshopped voice spanning oceans. Yet Mookie is able to transcend any latent self-consciousness of the hovering objective correlative, and winds up sounding wise beyond her years.
Katigbak, sometimes also known as Ana Maria, comes from that rising generation of poets that includes her fellow Ateneans Naya Valdellon and Mikael de Lara Co, Joel Toledo, Lourd de Veyra.
There is one poem of hers (“Nostalgia”) where home is seen like a waystation, and where the suitcase is always waiting, the persona apprehensive that she may be late for an appointment or rendezvous with a possible lover or gory parturition.
There’s a phrase that’s repeated at least twice in two poems, like “a partial view of an entire thing” (“As If and What in the World Have You Found Out”), almost as if the reader were a card shark slowly trying to decipher the card underneath, which contains the poet’s quicksilver signs.
There’s a poem titled “Intermediate Geography,” which we recognize to be a spawn of Gamalinda and Evasco, only better, because wilder than the wind when an angel is on the hill.
The shorter poems too are a delight, kind of Emily Dickinson meets post-New Criticism meets Borobudur auction house in the “summer before boys” whose gender-bending lyricism would confuse even the great Cesar Ruiz in far-off Dumaguete.
Who would have thought this slight quiet poet, many years later after taking a walk through glittery Policarpio Street during a holiday time hand in hand with a boy not more than 12 and with a common friend now dead, would write stuff strong as this?
Memorable too is her poem on her parents conversing on a certain half-forgotten topic, which the poet crystallizes in her work that is all ears, full of beauty and terror, Mookie having nurtured the muses and nursed other fragrant demons as well.
Last but not least of the first book poets is Durado, who writes in Cebuano out of the south, and Dili Tanang Matagak Mahagbong (Not All that Drops Falls) has the Tacloban-based poet Merlie Alunan translating the works of the habalhabal poet, defying the laws of Newton and all his little green apples in the process.
Thanks to Alunan, us non-native speakers with only an affinity for the southern cross can appreciate the verses of Durado, whose sketchy biographical note only adds to the mystery.
With a foreword by the equally mysterious Butch Bandillo, now the country’s envoy to Dubai, this modest collection printed on recycled paper by Arteismus publishing reinforces an old notion of Neruda, that poetry may be poor and simple and of this earth, but even in its most unassuming form can be mystical if not altogether transcendent.
The seemingly commonplace and everyday have a sense of the sublime, and it may be correct to surmise that not much is lost in the most inspired translations.
“A Poem Babe While We’re on This Fuckin Ride” is as good a poem as any to start a first volume, riding on sheer velocity and the speed lyric of the moment.
A section deals with rain and other water images, which the poet is most at home with, the sea being second nature to Visayans.
There are dabs of impressionism as in the windows and doors closing as the monsoon approaches, and some abject realism too as in the puzzling parable on one who offers a plastic flower to a ladylove, in memory of lovers slain by a jealous husband and a family poisoned by a rotten fish they shared for dinner.
There’s the funny absurd tale about a wife beater drunk on sioktong who gets hacked to death by his spouse, and whose corpse thereafter is made to feed the family for a week, with the child persona blaming it all nonchalantly on the kulafu.
If he reads this good in English how much more in the original, which we assume to be very Cebuano and with that unmistakable southern feel, even we who haven’t been down to those provinces in years can revel in the local color courtesy of this son of the sea-swept islands, it’s like tasting the old binakhaw and balbacua again.
(Oops, wrong context. In the Dec. 29 column, the phrase “That’s what you deserve” was uttered by Nick Joaquin not to F. Sionil Jose but to Krip Yuson who was taking his picture and Nick just swished his hankie at the camera. Apologies to Mr. Jose).