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Arts and Culture

Verse novella as intriguing whodunit

KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson - The Philippine Star
Verse novella as intriguing whodunit

Seldom do we encounter a verse novella, one of the least attempted among literary genres. It’s somewhat like a sphinx or griffon or our own tikbalang, a crossover creature that makes the best of both parts in its singularly unique way, neither wholly here or there, this or that.

This is what Michellan Sarile-Alagao attempts with Black, published by 8Letters Bookstore & Publishing.

At a slim 66 pages with 13 separately titled parts of an extended poem with a central premise, it impresses with its intricate narrative structured as a chain of motley verse in intriguing inquiry.

In an informative blurb that is excerpted for the back cover, DLSU Professor Emeritus of Literarure Dr. Marjorie Evasco writes:

“Michellan Sarile-Alagao’s training in criminology and literature us evident in the narrator of the verse novella Black, who is hired by the scion L. to craft a black-out ‘press release’ for general consumption, after first getting the alibis of each of the characters implicated in the death of the 68-year-old family patriarch. Alagao’s hired investigator-spinner begins with the judgment that the rich brazenly lie through their teeth, and knows that lies can be constructed into a story that everyone would believe. This narrator-protagonist not only lays out for us the five different kinds of questions (and its limits) to get to the truth. As a liminal figure in this family — ‘set designer, assistant story teller’ — the narrator also delivers a satirical social critique of the oligarchy in the country — old rich families who act as though they were beyond the law, and who would do anything, even murder, to maintain their wealth and power among their ilk.”

The mystery behind the murder is central to the story. For a verse novella is a story — here of a family relation called in not so much to serve as a Hercule Poirot whose clever deductions finally point to the butler, or in this case the mayordoma, but to come up with the central story. It may be contrived, as long as it’s what’s publicly spoken by the collective family voice.

Now that’s not the only configuration that the poet has to come up with, or resolve. Technically, what distinguishes the verse novella from prose, or a short story? What delineates the lines in a stanza as other than arbitrarily cut-up fragments of what may otherwise be read as straight sentences?

These are the challenges and risks the poet takes, other than the need to be canny in unveiling imagination, unraveling discoveries in the exposition.

First, she inserts fragments that also define the “I” persona.

“My old-rich grandmother said / women don’t need an education. / They just need to be pretty. // So she would turn my alarm clock off / so I would miss school. / But I wasn’t pretty. / So I studied many things. Mostly death.”

Then she allows the other characters their individual voices, such as the daughter (unica hija): “The men of this family are weak / eclipsed / by the vibrancy of our women. / But I suppose they are strong, / able / to put up with the lot of us.”

Conscripted are typographic oddities as graphic lines of verse, producing words as an image pattern, as when L. and the I-persona go up “past / closed rooms / and up stairs” in reverse diagonal mode, that is, from the lowest line upwards. The visual trick is repeated when L. decribes how the hysterical mayordoma fetched him and he ran up the same stairs to find the body.

Some of the titled parts (like “Interlude 1” and “Grandson”) are typographically laid out as unremitting prose, not even as a prose poem, but in straight paragraphs absent any inclinations for line breaks, and unquestionably reading like essays.

On his turn at interrogation, the grandson introduces a multi-player video game.

Sci-fi films (musical epics at that) are served up in “Interlude Two” — a procedural on interrogation tactics that begins with: “There are five types of questions: forced-choice, open-ended, multiple, leading, and specific-closed.”

It’s a fascinating voice, although one can’t be sure who exactly it is that sounds almost disembodied and yet haughtily showing up everyone, maybe even the professional investigator herself, with a masterful tutorial.

A children’s story is told as a poem, by the very victim, and given to his granddaughter hours before he’s murdered.

The mayordoma’s speculative version mentions a tikbalang as part of the family’s mythic history, in fact the happenstance provenance of its wealth. With her staggered lines as broken streams of consciousness and memory, she illuminates the class divide with a lesson from the Master: that the rich are traditional but not superstitious; “They have faith / of a certain kind. // Any other / offends them.”

Speech patterns, idiolects and inflections are suitably varied.

And the house contributes its own voice, for the briefest part titled “The Whispering House”: “Once, late at night / I told L. that his house / Whispered. / ‘What does she say?’ / He asked. / Different things. // But mostly // she cries.”

Then there’s a society columnist’s successive takes on an eventologist dubbed as the Enchantress.

When the penultimate part, titled “Ending,” reverts to the investigative narrator’s voice, we expect a summing up. A stanza goes:

“Should I have told L. the truth? / Some people want change / some don’t. / Not all those who are old / are set in their ways / Some want to re-tune their worlds / turn suffering to symphony / futility to praise.”

The mystery remains. Is the cosplay puzzle meant to stay hermetic? Are we expected to decipher the heiroglyphs by reading between the lines of fantasy made real, or vice versa? Or is the ploy simply to elevate the reader to a level of intrigue that matches the usual perception of poetry as a tough nut to crack?

For what it’s worth, I say it’s the whispering house that did it.

Sarile-Alagao is a book editor, freelance writer and educator. She was a fellow for the Silliman University National Writers Workshop as well as the IYAS La Salle National Writers Workshop. She finished her BSc. in Criminology and Psychology at the London Metropolitan University and her MFA in Creative Writing at De La Salle University Manila. She authored two previous poetry collections: After the Sunstone (2016) and Maps of Tenderness (a chapbook, 2018).

BLACK

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