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Birds and verse

At the Philippine PEN Conference held in Cebu City a month ago, the keynote address was given by Simeon Dumdum Jr. — whom I have always admired as a remarkable person, poet and essayist. He also happens to be an executive judge in Cebu City. That’s why we sometimes call him “Judge Jun.” He’s won National Book Awards for his distinctive, seemingly quiet but often mischievously marvelous poetry, as well as for his last collection of essays — the gently disarming, spiritually soaring Ah, Wilderness!: A Journey through Sacred Time (published by AdMU Press in 2008).

His speech, reproduced below, is a fine example of the kind of heartwarming, wizened writing that we as a nation would do well to see as a Supreme Court decision, with Jun as ponente.

I was just relishing his description of his latest poetic process, involving verse on birds, when as luck would have it, AdMU Press sent over a mint-fresh review copy.

If I Write You This Poem, Will You Make It Fly? (a book of birds and verse forms) is wonderful — the concept, the poetry, the metrical exercise, the scholarship, the illustrations and design in equal, synergistic parts. The book will be launched in Cebu sometime in February. I heartily recommend it, for enlightenment on the birds of our very own nature.

Here’s Judge Jun Dumdum’s exemplary address, titled

“Solidarity in literature without borders.”

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I had planned to write the keynote speech last week and for the purpose made sure to clear my table of business. But when I was about to begin writing, the clerk reminded me of a decision to be promulgated in a day or two — a murder case inherited from another judge. This meant going over the transcript of stenographic notes and piecing the story together from the narration of witnesses. The trouble was, there were missing transcripts and the stenographer who made them was equally missing.

Clearly, as between the murder case and the keynote speech, the former had the precedence. And so I set aside everything else and riffled through the finger-smudged pages of the case record. I hoped to finish the decision before the PEN Conference. Because I did not hear the case myself and there were gaps in the evidence, I took the cue from Sherlock Holmes and used the Science of Deduction, and left the rest to God.

I convicted the accused. To my great surprise, he rejoiced when he heard the verdict and thanked the court for it.

This illustrates the common fate of writers who hold day jobs. Often their writing is pre-empted by work and events. One morning last week, as I entered the courthouse, I saw a little girl, not yet seven. She wore a smart, green dress and held a bright-yellow parasol. She stood beside her mother and peered from the crepuscular interior of the hall of justice at the people who were arriving. I knew who she was waiting for — her father, a detention prisoner, who was coming to court that morning for the hearing of his case.

It was an occasion for her and her mother to link up with him.

When I saw the girl, I asked myself — did it matter to her and the other children waiting for their parents who were accused and detained for this or that crime that I wrote poems and essays, and spent hours trying to perfect every piece? Indeed, does writing — or literature, if you wish — matter at all?

The question has been asked many times before, and as many times answered. In other words, it has naturally evolved into a non-question. Of course, literature matters, or else the literature department of the British Council would not use this as name for its newsletter. But to that little girl in the green dress and with a yellow umbrella nothing matters more than the proximity of her father, and ultimately the handing out of justice that would clear him, for every daughter believes in her father’s innocence. And father and daughter would be together again, and he would be back to work, and she to school and the nights and days would no longer be as anxious and troubled.

Is not that what writing, deep down, seeks, that it should matter? The refinement of the spirit that results from all good, true writing yearns for the peace that thrives in fairness and dignity, which even the haiku presumes in its juxtaposition of images from the natural world.

Last year, someone on Facebook made a call for a hundred poems about Maguindanao to protest the massacre on November 23, 2009, of 58 people, a good number of them journalists. Many responded to the call and in no time the poems exceeded the limit, prompting the coordinator to declare the submissions ended. I was among those who participated with this piece:

Maguindanao

What have I learned about Maguindanao?

It seems a place I’ll never get to know

Except in stories — images that flow

In the imagination, or that plow

It, because they can turn up and endow

The mind with fresh furrows that gape as though

They were a series of wounds a big hoe

Had cut across the hill’s capacious brow.

But what I know of childhood, be it brief,

And love, they have them in Maguindanao,

But it can happen that something robs us

Of these, and life, and what I know of grief,

That something may again be here, that now

Splinters speech into syllables and sobs.

I had no illusions about what the sonnet could do, but I knew that my voice would join the voices of many others and all our voices together would become one and grow in volume and intensity and be impossible to ignore.

I found it significant that overall the poems, though not deficient in their expressions of grief, were not strident, and were irenic, seeking beyond the punishment of the killers the inauguration of a prelapsarian Maguindanao, a land of friendship, fair-dealing and tolerance.

Somehow what the local poets did was in line with what the PEN Charter calls upon its members to do on a global scale: “Members of PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect among nations; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class and national hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in the world.”

Writing seeks not so much the just word, as justice, and this justice is not merely a justice that punishes but more significantly a justice that restores — both the removal of discrimination and hatred and the healing of wounds caused by them.

Before that healing can come about collectively, it must happen to the writers individually. In himself, the writer must be whole. By all means, he must find healing through and by reason of his writing.

When asked what he thought of a writer who beat up his wife, John Gardner replied that the writer was a better person when he was writing than when he was hitting his spouse. If that writer were to write a romantic novel, I most certainly would not read it — I would not like to risk having mental constipation.

I remember submitting a poem by the late Cebuano writer Temistocles Adlawan to a literary magazine.

The poem was a monologue, the monologue of a wife berating her husband. After almost a page-long, verbal abuse, the wife stopped. But the poem did not stop. It continued with a last line, a postscript — the husband floored the wife with a left hook. For some reason, the editor of the magazine, a lady, rejected the poem.

Wholeness is mainly of the heart — the healing is mostly inner, spiritual. But I myself have experienced how writing helped in my physical healing.

Early last year, I was found to have cancer and underwent surgery. After that I had chemotherapy for six months. My wife Gingging, whose presence here I acknowledge, and who never left my side, told me that, before we left his clinic, the doctor advised her to keep me busy during the months of treatment.      

I know why the doctor gave her that advice. Thoughts are the enemies of one in my situation then, and, more than the medicine that devastates both the malignant and healthy cells, these thoughts can enervate the patient. They are an invitation either to have faith or despair. I chose to have faith and to pray. The wife must have been wondering what to give me to keep me occupied, as the doctor suggested. But before she could think of anything specific, such as Sudoku, I remembered a project that I began years ago, a collection of poems about birds using different verse forms. I had written about 15 birds so far. Using a reference book I had borrowed and had failed to return before the owner lost his memory, I resumed writing, two birds and two verse forms a day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. When I reached a hundred birds I decided to stop. I felt I had enough for a collection. But when I checked the bird list, I realized that I had left out 29 species. They seemed to plead with me to include them. I yielded out of pity. When the six-month period of treatment ended, I had completed the project — 129 birds and 131 verse forms in all. I gave the collection the title, If I Write You This Poem, Will You Make It Fly?

When I reflect on our convention theme, “Solidarity in Literature without Borders,” especially on the phrase “without borders,” I think of birds. For me they exemplify what it means to live without borders.

Of the more than 600 bird species found in the Philippines, about 400 are migratory, such as the egrets, sandpipers, terns, plovers. They generally arrive in the country in September and depart in April.

Sometimes I imagine a poet from the country where these birds come from banding the leg of, say, a Gray Plover, and inserting inside the band a sijo, ghazal, luc-bat or copla de arte mayor, whatever might be the peculiar verse form of that country. And if that plover chooses to winter out on the shores of Talisay in Cebu, where we live, I might replace the sijo with an ambahan or tanaga for the bird to take with it when it flies back in April to its country of origin. The unknown other poet and myself will have established a sort of solidarity between us, and as far as we’re concerned writing knows no borders.

Of course, that solidarity and that borderlessness now take on more sophisticated forms, consistent with advances in technology. But the basic things remain — our commitment as writers to justice and compassion, and the rest of the virtues that advance the causes that dignify and fulfill the human race.

To sum up, writers and birds should not be put inside cages, whether territorial or political. Perhaps we do not know that birds are likewise members of PEN, the reason why they too have quills.

To end this rambling keynote speech, let me read the last poem of the collection, a sestina, which I dedicate to the respected and loved National Artist, Dr. Edith Tiempo, who would have been here giving the keynote speech instead of me if only she had stronger wings:

Sestina

Before I go I’ll mention six rare birds,

And I know there are more that have been blessed

To survive, but now hardly ever soar

To fill our early evenings with their singing,

Many of us would want to see them fly

So much we would throw caution to the winds.       

Such as the Philippine Eagle that winds

Cannot scare, though they may send the small birds

Scampering for cover, afraid to fly.

The forest canopy is to it blessed

Ground — it seems it prefers silence to singing,

And often takes its time and space to soar.

It occurs to me that were I to soar

On a hot air balloon despite the winds

Blowing from every direction and singing

In my ears, I might spot among the birds

The Wooly-Necked Stork — that would be a blessed

Day, indeed, for me to launch up and fly.

Some saw the Cebu Flowerpecker fly

From a luxuriant bush that seemed to soar

From a cliff, and like a swaying hand blessed

The rice land then being combed by the winds.   

They claimed to have spotted a group of birds

Of the species, sitting in pairs and singing.

Sarus Crane, Spot-billed Pelican — non-singing

Birds, now all but extinct and quick to fly —

And Blue-Backed Parrot — in the book of birds

The one that would rather converse than soar,

But untaught it could only speak the wind’s

Tongue, which souls use in the land of the blessed.

When all is said and done, we need this blessed

Thing, compassion — to hear the rare birds singing

Again, those of them that can, and the winds,

I’m sure, will settle down to let them fly,

And once more find the abandon to soar.

Now, I urge not just the rare but all birds,

As birds did when St. Francis had blessed them,

To soar up singing while forming a Cross,

Then fly off to the four winds praising God.

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