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Letter to a young Philippine poet

The most we can do is a poor imitation of Rilke, who had written letters to a young poet of his time, which work having lasted through the years has turned out to be any time. The advice of the German poet today still cuts to the bone, hits the spot even in translation. Needless to say, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke is a must read for any poet, young or old: for the young in order to learn the ropes, for the old to be reminded of what it’s like to be starting over.

I haven’t yet read the entirety of Crowns and Oranges: Works by Young Philippine Poets edited by Cirilo Bautista and Ken Ishikawa (Anvil 2009), launched one rainy afternoon last July at Powerbooks Megamall, though I’ve covered a good swathe of the works, great gesticulations both lyric and abstract, impressionist and experimental of the poets mostly in their 30s and 20s, certainly not a one among them 40, which cut-off point separating the young from the not so young the editors must have agreed on.

There is plenty here that delights, quite a number of names familiar as having won literary prizes in recent years, former enfants terrible who have not blown all of their wad while reaping grants and fellowships here and abroad, oh to be young again and have the world at the tip of one’s fingers.

Here’s Mookie Katigbak with her “Page torn from the Book of Devotions” that stops us in our tracks to do a double take: “…I think of harbors/ Giving leave to tiny skiffs all over the world,/ How, by the leave they’re given, the skiffs/ Return, solving impossible oceans/ Between duty and love.”

Face to face she is with Arkaye Keirulf, neither arcane nor wolf in “For example: A flower”: “…What goes in the rooms of houses/ is kept from us. A hand slams a door shut. Someone remembers/ to close a window, windows. Whatever was said or done,/ night will come, eagerly, to clean up.”

Or the Baguio-based Jennifer Cariño muy cariñosa a la hejira in “At Quezon National Park”: “…From the rolling motion/ And vacant skies./ I picked my music carefully/ To go with the scenery. One note sustained/ On the jazz sax of Coltrane/ … perfectly/ Matched the wind-whipped/ Branches…”

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Certified counterpoints are the works of contrapelo poets Ramil Gulle and Angelo Suarez. It may be just me but I believe it is best to read the poem of one followed by the other or vice versa to get a full grasp of the dynamic of Philippine poetry in English today, as opposed to Philippine poetry in England, both poets incidentally from the pontifical university along España.

Gulle’s “Brasserie Speak” is technically adept and slyly humorous, a poem we wouldn’t mind reading again with background music to boot, while Suarez, who has a more generous contribution to this anthology, has the capacity and wherewithal to follow an idea or symbol to the depths of wherever it takes him, is admirably daring but occasionally seems lost and thus, loses the reader in turn.

There’s more where that came from, and how. The switch hitter poet bilingual Mikael de Lara Co as wild as the wind in “Beatific Visions” best read with the song What If God Was One Of Us as soundtrack: “That night I walked you home, God was a bum sitting on a sidewalk,/ asking for a cigarette./ We walked over and I gave him one/ and lit it for him./ After he took his first drag,/ he said, Thank you,/ and asked you to smile./ When you did, I swear,/ right there, I worshipped him.”

Or Marie La Viña, who I’m afraid can’t get any younger, any less brave in “Young Girl in Drugstore, Waiting”: “ …Her gaze tilted/ toward the blue bruise of skyscrapers/ beyond the drugstore window./ And where there’s a ribbon/ in her hair, the painter can’t decide/ Yet he knows if there were one,/ it would certainly be red.”

Not to forget either the (excuse me Butch), "multi-awarded" Joel Toledo, now well past what little he knew of luminosity. Please read “The Zoo,” then follow this up with Mayo Uno Martin’s “Animal Planet,” and we have another great counterpoint worthy of Miles and Coltrane.

Some more to give you an idea of how strong a collection this is: Ime Aznar with her impressionist lines and photographic technique, whose simplicity and humility are rare in a young poet these days; Rodrigo dela Peña, a revelation in “Aubade,” the title hardly original but for the sentiment of coupling and uncoupling; Lawrence Ypil, who in his highest hiding place affords the reader a sweeping view of the potential of young Philippine poetry, not so much young as it is already quite accomplished in “Prophecy” and “Summer”; Czeriza Valencia in “Daddy We are Girls” that has father draping his socks over the TV, obliterating the view of dancing ballerinas; the late Ana Escalante whose rare and precious verse has the poet drawing stars and chasing dawns forever young at 29.

Quite a rich and representative anthology Crowns and Oranges is, though as usual there will be questions: why for example the expatriates Naya Valdellon and John Labella are not around (baka ‘di nasabihan), neither the chef recluse Corinna Nuqui nor the chameleon-like Carlomar Daoana.

But there’s already enough to go around as it is. The book a virtual companion piece to the “Future Shock” special issue of Sands & Coral of Silliman University some years back, which featured the prose works of young writers and was edited by Ian Casocot.

Write the editors in their introduction: “The poets have examined their world to make us understand its basic components, from its anguish, poverty, tension, ennui, and nobility to its desire for fulfillment, crowns and oranges.”

Orange and lemons, the verses here in between the wings of an angel both coming and going.

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