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Arts and Culture

Hail and farewell, dearest Virgie!

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson - The Philippine Star
Hail and farewell, dearest Virgie!
Virgie Moreno: “The race needs mute women for the long wail.”

Knowing someone for over half a century allows for a surfeit of blessings and intimations. Iconic, legendary, the subject spawns memories that could command a doorstop. For now, that door can only open up for a breezy arc of remembrances.

Virginia R. Moreno sashayed into my consciousness in 1965, as a fascinating Humanities professor who indulged the happy few that joined her in a 3rd-floor classroom at the UP Library building.

Memorably, the group had Citas Arellano, Adelaida Lim, Dexter Doria nee Taccad, Felipe Mendoza “Jun” de Leon, Ruben David Defeo, Santiago “Jack” Pilar, Iskho Lopez and Ramon “Monet” Serrano. Dexter appeared in movies. Citas, Monet and Iskho have left us, while the rest continue to associate as creatives and colleagues. Laida, Ruben and I became closest with Virgie through the years.

Last week, Jun de Leon would reminisce about that class with “a most creatively eccentric teacher of … (such) memorable quotes: ‘In my class, you may eat, you may smoke, you may even reproduce.’ ‘Look at how pinkish, how ‘kurotable’ the women are in Renoir’s art.’ She never ran out of the poetic, descriptive phrases for the most ordinary things. She also had the sharpest of wits.”

Later that year, I found myself shimmying with the prof in the newly-opened The Black Angel discotheque run by Beatrice “Betsy” Romualdez (later Francia) on Shaw Blvd. And about a year or two later, we would engage almost nightly at Café Los Indios Bravos on A. Mabini St. in Malate, also opened by Betsy.

As a latecomer to the group of UP poets that were Virgie’s original consorts — among them Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez, Erwin Castillo, Jorge Arago — I got to take over the duty of seeing her home by cab to Gagalangin, Tondo. Ah, but her beau was non-writer Phil Cabanos, an engineer if memory still proves spry, whom she identified as “Piling-pili” or The Chosen One.

Virgie Moreno at Tikoy Aguiluz’s art exhibit in June 2019, with Heber Bartolome

Her more frequent mature escort was Larry Francia, fellow poet and equal member of the literary group The Ravens, together with Adrian Cristobal, Raul Ingles, Alex Hufana, Elmer Ordoñez et al. When Jose Garcia Villa was in town and lorded it over Indios’ center table with Nick Joaquin, Virgie was their lady of the roses. An oft-recounted episode had Xoce remarking, when she fondled his chest-strung globe pendants in appreciation, “Virgie, you’re the only one who knows how to handle my balls.” At an art opening, Billy Abueva unveiled his sculpted rifle and offered it to Virgie as it shot a red rose at her. And, ever ebullient when armed with a San Mig beer bottle, Nick would bellow his version of Cole Porter: “You’re the top, you’re Mayon Volcano. / You’re the top, you’re Virgie Moreno!”

In 1967, her one-act play The Straw Patriot was translated into Bayaning Huwad by Willybog Sanchez. It became the first PETA play staged by Cecile Guidote (later Alvarez) at the newly inaugurated open-air Rajah Sulaiman Theater in Fort Santiago. Cecile and Virgie had charmed top journalist Teodoro Valencia to make it happen. Monet Serrano and I were cast as silent extras, as the hefty young men who would pinion Vic Silayan’s character’s arms upon his arrest. From disco floor to theater stage, Virgie just kept reeling us in.

The following year, Cecile asked Frankie Osorio and me to translate Nick’s Portrait of the Artist as Filipino into Larawan. I played Pete the journalist, who this time had to boogie onstage with Lorli Villanueva and Joy de Castro. Those were heady days, with Nick, Doroy and Virgie often leading the climactic candle-bearing procession along the riverside rampart overlooking the stage and audience.

It is recounted how she dictated her full-length play The Onyx Wolf in three days to Jorge Arago for typing. In 1969, it won the National Historical Playwriting Contest, and had continuing iterations through the decades as La Loba Negra and Itim Asu, since Anton Juan staged it in Liliw for the first Third World Drama Festival.

When Los Indios Bravos moved on to the nether side of Martial Law, Virgie transformed part of her place on Malvar St., beside her brother Pitoy Moreno’s high couture shop in Malate, into Café Orfeo, for poetry readings, music concerts and other cultural events. Live piano music to dine by came courtesy of another buddy, Carlitos Calaguian.

As High Priestess of Philippine poetry in English, she published her first and only collection, Batik Maker and Other Poems, in 1972. Handcrafted by Larry Francia, only 13 copies were launched at the CCP. I think it also had 13 poems, to which she didn’t add another until she wrote one in dedication to BenCab when he exhibited works that included a portrait of her. And so much later, there was another poem I can’t get hold of for now. Their precious individual qualities make light of the paucity.

In the ’70s, I served as her assistant at the UP President’s Council for the Arts, helping design posters and arrange for the tertulia events she initiated. In 1976, she realized her long-forged dream that was the UP Film Center, of which she became Director. She went on to inspire and guide generations of young filmmakers, among them Nick Deocampo, Tikoy Aguiluz, Raymond Red, Teddy Co. I’d only see her occasionally, when invited for a tree-planting at The Perfumed Garden she created beside the Center.

Now follows a big jump past decades (oh, in 1995 she showed Ernie Enrique and me her usual atelier cum boudoir whenever she stayed in Paris) — when frequency of association gave way to accidental meet-ups at socials. The extended tête-à-têtes reeked of déjà voodoo. A decade or so ago, she joined Alliance Francaise’s spring poetry reading, playfully swinging an opera-length pearl necklace to mark her stanza breaks.

June of 2019, she was a yellow canary cutting the ribbon with Jun Factoran at the opening of Tikoy’s art exhibit at Cinema Square. January of 2020, she attended the wake for Sylvia Mayuga and spoke at length during tribute hour, announcing La Loba Negra’s remake in time for her 97th birthday in April. It was the last time many of us saw her.

This past Aug. 14, sad word came from Butch Perez that our much-beloved sui generis “Aling Barang” had left us. She was in a hospital for some time, but had been taken home, where she passed away in peace. And in power, lady admirers commented in FB tribute, among them writer Jhoanna Cruz in Davao.

From Tacloban, poet Merlie Alunan mused: “Strange that I would be thinking of Virgie Moreno in these last few days. I was in awe of her, never exchanged one word with her. Yet she said goodbye, it seems to me.”

Ramon Sunico immediately posted her signature poem, “Batik Maker”: “Tissue of no seam and skin/ Of no scale she weaves this:/ Dream of a huntsman pale/ That in his antlered/ Mangrove waits/ Ensnared;// And I cannot touch him.// Lengths of the dumb and widths/ Of the deaf are his hair/ Where wild orchids thumb/ Or his parted throat surprise/ To elegiac screaming/ Only birds of / Paradise:// And I cannot wake him.// Shades of the light and shapes/ Of the rain on his palanquin/ Stain what phantom panther/ Sleeps in the cage of/ His skin and immobile/ Hands;// And I cannot bury him.”

Other poets like Marne Kilates shared her other famous poem, “Order for Masks.”

Dick Malay recalled that he learned the word “adumbrate” from her. And Mahar Mahangas, the word “soigné” — the way she had characterized his father Federico.

“The poet is dead. Long live!” wrote Erwin Castillo, who shared a picture of the cover of Asia Magazine dated April 7, 1963, which had an article on UP poets that included him and Sanchez at 17, together with the older Arago, Jun Lansang and Fernando Afable. They all gravitated around Virgie, then at 39.

From abroad, long-time friends sent their love, among them Amb. Virgilio Reyes, Alfredo Roces, Caroline Kennedy, Ninotchka Rosca, Vince Rafael, Lila Shahani, Rowena Torrevillas, Zen Lopez, Evelynne Horilleno, Gigi Dueñas de Beaupre, Marian Aguiluz Eastwood, Corito Fiel, Virgil Calaguian and Angel Velasco Shaw.

And from here, fond adieu from the collective: Laida Lim, Noel Añonuevo, Manny Baldemor, Cesar Aquino, Alex Cortez, Marj Evasco, Susan Lara, Karla Delgado, Annie Sarthou, Phyllis Zaballero, Grace Nono, Charlie Samuya Veric, Red Mansueto, Fil Delacruz, Karina Bolasco, Lutgardo Labad, Jaime Fabregas, Jing Hidalgo, Danton Remoto, Bibeth Orteza, Marian Pastor Roces, Marra Lanot, Mila Aguilar, Rita Gadi, Jenny Llaguno, Edna Manlapaz, Rashmi Giriie Singh… More names add up as I write this.

Catalyst, progenitor, impresario, orchestrator, auteur, raconteur, Virgie threaded people like pearls.

Extended, eloquent tributes have been shared by Ruben Defeo, Celina Cristobal, Anton Juan and Myra Beltran. Anton recalled that he had “danced her ‘Order for Masks’ all over the world with a fan.” And now he has to “dance again in homage.” Her latest heiress, with whom she had planned reiterations of Itim Asu as dance theater, Myra reminds us that Virgie had written: “The race needs mute women for the long wail.”

She was interred at Manila Memorial Park on Sucat Ave. last Tuesday. Today, a 9th Day Mass and Tribute for Virginia R. Moreno features tribute/eulogy videos from friends, at about 5 p.m. One may ask for the link from [email protected]

There will always be so much more to say about Virgie. For now we hail and bid farewell to the author of the Roman Prize-winning novel “The God Director” and the nascent play “Indio Spoliarium.” May her unpublished manuscripts soon dance together in a book that would pay full tribute to her genius.

VIRGIE MORENO

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