Alliterating in Albay

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - April 14, 2014 - 12:00am

A memorable highlight of our two-day visit to Albay a couple of weekends ago was a brief look-see at an impressive, century-old bahay na bato in the town of Tabaco. We were on our way to Mayon Resthouse on our second day when the elegant large structue standing on a corner of the road was pointed out to us as the former home of Angela Manalang Gloria.

Now, that name certainly rang a bell inside a van full of poets and writers. As Albay poet laureate Abdon “Jun” Balde quickly noted — for he was our tour guide, annotator, raconteur and jokester all rolled into one — Angela Manalang Gloria is usually touted as our first Filipina feminist poet.

She was known to have had a literary and gender rivalry with Jose Garcia Villa while they were both in the University of the Philippines in the late 1920s. As Wikipedia presently has it, “Both poets vied for the position of literary editor of The Philippine Collegian, which Manalang eventually held for two successive years.”

Graduating summa cum laude in 1929 with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree, the evidently intelligent young lady worked briefly for the Philippine Herald Mid-Week Magazine. By then she had already married Celedonio Gloria, a fellow Pampango.

Angela continued writing poetry in the 1930s, and eventually published a poetry collection simply titled Poems, in 1940. She entered the book in the most prestigious literary competition at that time, the Commonwealth Literary Awards, but it lost out to Rafael Zulueta y da Costa’s Like the Molave.

And here is where controversy attaches itself to the lady’s literary stature. It is believed that the all-male jury that judged the contest denied her the prize owing to the inclusion of a particular poem, titled Revolt From Hymen — which has invariably been interpreted as metaphorical verse protesting marital rape.

Angela was born in Guagua, Pampanga, but their family moved to Albay where she studied at St. Agnes Academy in Legazpi City. She emerged as elementary school valedictorian, then took her senior year in high school at St. Scholastica’s College in Manila, where her writing talent came to the fore. Her father had wanted her to take up law in UP, but she showed an independent mind and stance early, as she shifted to literature and began to engage competitively with male poets.

In any case, we just had to stop to take photographs of the house. When we did, we spotted a couple of plaques attached to the façade of the lower floor, part of which had already been turned into a Lotto outlet. From the plaques that had been installed in 2007 by the National Historical Institute, we learned that the bahay na bato was built by a Mariano Villanueva during Spanish times, that it had been transformed into a trading house by an American firm, and that Angela Manalang Gloria had purchased the property in 1965.

We went in through a side entrance, noting that another part of the sealed ground floor seemed to be operating as a stockroom for rice, among other things, since a tricycle laden with rice sacks took off through what must have been a grand grill gate but which was now boarded up with corrugated iron sheets. We were told that what used to be a vast garden beside the house was now being used as a motor pool.

The staircase still seemed grand, and the second floor sported wide wooden planks that stretched through entire rooms, which were all capacious, from the foyer to the main sala and the bedrooms. A sheathed billiard table still stood in a room that must have also served as a pantry, close to the kitchen.

Hardly any furniture was left, save for a couple of modest seating arrangements and a desk that bore several framed photographs showing the lady poet in various ages.

A caretaker led us to what had been the poet’s bedroom, which still had a rather narrow bed with its solihiya bared, no mattress. As Pablo Tariman sat on one end of it, and fingered the weave like a careful piano tuner, we imagined again what might have led to the crafting of the poem “Revolt From Hymen.”

Here are the eight lines in iambic hexameter that forned that famous or notorious poem:

“O to be free at last, to sleep at last/ As infants sleep within the womb of rest!// To stir and stirring find no blackness vast/ With passion weighted down upon the breast,// To turn the face this way and that and feel/ No kisses festering on it like sores,// To be alone at last, broken the seal/That marks the flesh no better than a whore’s!”

Since that visit to Angela’s house, where she had settled 20 years after her husband was slain by Japanese soldiers — making her eschew writing in favor of what turned out to be a successful abaca business that helped her raise three children — I have spoken to a few people about the possibilities of turning the feminist poet’s life into a feature film.

It has to be written by a woman, and directed by a woman. Why, “Revolt From Hymen” gives it an arresting title that would draw attention in Cannes or elsewhere.

I know that my amiga Edna Zapanta-Manlapaz wrote a literary biography of her, published by AdMU Press in 1993. And I have since learned from colleague Bibeth Orteza that she had actually been at work on a script for such a project. Yet another literary frend, Isabela Banzon-Mooney, has analyzed her poetry’s “prosody and rhapsody.”

I hope the material, the narrative, and the literature that compose Angela Manalang Gloria’s exemplary life can still move on to another creative plane.

Seeing that house, that narrow widow’s bed, I now ardently wish for a fine film that would plumb the psyche of a Filipina poet so ahead of her time — and who gloriously manifested it through the acquired strength of letters, until as widow and mother she had to abandon that avenue of precocity.

Before we treated ourselves to picture-taking in that now historic house, we had a similar experience in the town of Camalig where several vintage residences were also pointed out to us. The one we managed to enter briefly was known as the Anson-Valenciano ancestral home, which was eventually divided into occupancy by two feuding clan sections.

We admired one extended frontage from a front garden that seemed not to be too private, with banana stands lining the grassy path that might have welcomed visitors in their horse-drawn carriages many decades ago. Then we circled around to check out the back part (I can’t recall now which part was whose), which seemed a tad bit humbler, but proved to be infinitely interesting.     

An idling male resident waved us in through a door that led to a ground floor that seemed more of a basement or even a dungeon in olden times. Then too, it resembled a movie set with one decrepit wall painted to make it appear to be of brick. Other parts of that basement offered more enticement for camera bugs, with sunlight shafting onto an atrium wall green with creepers.

So absorbed was I taking pictures that I hardly heard the commentary about the place: something that included use by the Japanese occupiers as a garrison, or even as a torture chamber. Later, others in our company were to come up with photos of walls inscribed with the year 1888 was it?

We were told that nearly a dozen such ante-bellum houses still stood in the area — in varying states of neglect. And once again we wished that the NHI can be given a much stronger mandate — and budget — with which it can save, restore and preserve old structures.

El Hogar building in the heart of Manila, by the Pasig, comes to mind. Many other landmarks all over our country cry out not only for historic plaques but resolute maintenance, so that future generations will not suffer the loss of such patrimony.

Our brief sojourn in Legazpi City and environs — primarily to cover the Outstanding Albayano Awards for Arts, Culture and Tourism as part of the province’s Daragang Magayon 2014 Festival on its 440th anniversary — rewarded us with so many bonuses, such as an appreciation of our heritage sites and structures. 

Thanks to the enlightened leadership of Governor Joey Sarte Salceda, Albay currently enjoys not ony a reputation for having unarguably the most efficacious climate change and disaster preparedness programs in the country, but as well the cognizance of the value of history and culture, inclusive of all the arts and the proper promotion of tourism.  

The governor has seen to the publication of numerous books, thanks in turn to proficient counsel and research from Jun Balde (including fascinating material on native mythoogical creatures) — himself a multi-awarded author and editor.

One such book that promotes and helps preserve the rich Albayano heritage is Soul of the South, which offers images of and pertinent text on the natural attractions of Albay, Masbate and Sorsogon, or ALMASOR.

In his Foreword as Chair of the Regional Development Council (RDC) of Region 5, Gov. Salceda writes that “The Bicol cluster primary tourism development area created between the provinces of Albay, Masbate and Sorsogon (ALMASOR) is a simple turning back into a glorious past of a group of islands, not separated but joined by water.”

He describes it as “a natural alliance that has been in existence long before the Spanish colonizers came to this area.” That was all of 440 years ago. That is a heck of a lot of heritage and patrimony that practically demands preservation — like the old houses in Camalig and the one in Tabaco where an assertive poet named Angela allowed herself angelic assurance in Albay.

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