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Krip's old '55

If the title of Alfred ‘Krip’ Yuson’s latest poetry collection, Poems Singkwenta’y Cinco (Anvil 2010) sounds verisimilar enough, this is because it completes the triad of poems 55 after two other major poets released books of more or less the same title decades ago: National Artist Jose Garcia Villa and, a while later, Jose Lansang Jr. whose lyric madness paid tribute to Doveglion. “This completes the tatsulok,” Yuson would say, effectively beating contemporary Xawi Aquino to it like Lebron evading Dwyane Wade to the basket.

If Villa was of course NA, Lansang was a cult figure in and out of institutions, on his bicycle eating sandwiches made of sampaguita and bagoong, may his vagabond soul rest in peace. In Poems Singkwenta’y Cinco, we can reasonably expect Yuson to pay tribute to his own past masters in the often vertiginous world of poetry.

Another tatsulok: In writer’s workshops the fellows would be very blessed and lucky indeed if they had in the panel simultaneously Yuson, Aquino and Gemino Abad, not necessarily high priests of the craft, but as per Aquino, hirit, birit and sirit. Yuson would be hirit, trying to break down the poem into its deconstructive basics without losing sight of the new criticism; Abad birit because it is almost as if he would break out into song during the heat of his critique; and Aquino sirit because the taciturn method would have him smiling and smiling until the panelists and fellows themselves pass out in exasperation.

But levity aside, what concerns us now is hirit, and this his latest collection of verse is significant in that it is the first time he has included several poems written in the native Tagalog, making 55 arguably as groundbreaking as his first, Sea Serpent.

It may take some getting used to reading Yuson in Filipino, but soon enough it becomes clear that the poet is to the language born. “Luhod lang,” which Yuson read during the book’s mass launch with other Anvil titles last November at Greenbelt 3, has the persona playing hide-and-seek with God in Quiapo church amid the religious throng. He’d be the last person to write a poem in such a setting, except that the old agnostic shines through, coming full circle from “Living, Dreaming, Dying” in Sea Serpent.

An inspired, seeming nonsensical verse is “Kabalbalan,” that echoes Lorca and Sendak in their children’s verse, but here the alliteration and objective correlative deadlier: “Magkabuhol-buhol man ang bulbol, nakabalabal pa rin ang ulol na ulupong sa ulyaning anghel.” Like Aquino, Yuson is a master of puns, both spawns of Nolledo.

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As for “Aqui Sila Tumba,” that’s a poem begging to be written since Spanish times, it’s just that Krip beat the conquistadores to it. Well, he’s come a ways since that Dumaguete workshop in the late 1960s where he had translated a poem by Rio Almario, and earned the comment “terrible” from then panelist Franz Arcellana, confounding both Yuson and Almario whether what he meant by terrible was the original work or the translation.

In English though Yuson is most comfortable, and even his shorter poems are outstanding. “Elvis Leaves Building after Building” is strictly meta poetry, like playing strip poker with those Russian dolls.

“The Bodies You Paid For” has the persona as citizen of the world and though worldly, not a bit weary, like Dante surveying the view both above and below in Purgatory.

What roasted chestnuts there are too here, e.g., “Empanada Royale,” which is as touching a poem can be for anyone’s mom, emotions held back like layers of crust to get to the meat of the matter of caring.

What a nice metaphysical drive, too, does “The Deaths, the Deaths” represent, and has the persona face to face with mortality and conveying news thereof by text, how cyberspace may bridge the distance between and at the same time accent our separate spaces. Gives a clue also of the mantra of friends’ names the book is dedicated to, the nine who went ahead.

Let’s also get lost with the poet in his many side trips and interludes while attending international conferences and poetry festivals, where verse is the very air you breathe, whether in Colombia, Africa, or off the UCLA campus. Reading Poems Singkwenta’y Cinco is like looking at a map, a strange geography, each corner replete with the possibility of icons and shocks of recognition.

It is in the man’s dirty old contemplative love poems where Yuson is strongest, we almost cringe and can barely look at the personal proceedings, but for the poet a necessary self-exorcism or purging, in the rather vain hope that by writing about it the pain would be somehow dulled.

“Vow,” “If this be…,” “A.,” and “Song for Ana” are right up there with the greatest poems requited-unrequited, along with Neruda’s Twenty love poems and one ode of desperation, Aquino’s Caroline in Cubao, and on the rock and roll side, Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” and Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.”

There are classics here waiting to be found, and that shock of recognition always inevitable, like Mom Edith Tiempo lecturing the fellows last summer about form versus content in poetry, and the old lady quoting a profound observation of her house help: “Oo nga, ma’am ang hirap talaga gumawa ng tae,” referring to how daily we have to shame the devil and eke out a living.

It is so hard to make shit, then again I may be biased, having helped the poet change a flat tire of his vintage car in the dead of night near the Quiapo underpass on the way home to UP Village many years ago, and an old Eagles’ cover of Tom Waits’ Ol’ ‘55 humming in our brain after coming from the Penguin of our young adulthood: “The sun is coming up, I’m riding with lady luck, freeway cars and trucks, stars beginning to fade.”

As you pull away slowly from reading Poems Singkwenta’y Cinco you’ll be feeling so holy but God knows you’ll be feeling alive.

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