Poetry of the soul
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - February 3, 2018 - 12:00am

During the last quarter of 2017, I was lucky enough to be invited to give a talk on the ambahan, the traditional poetry of the Hanunuo Mangyans of Mindoro. Their poems are inscribed normally on bamboo using a pre-colonial syllabic writing system called the Surat Mangyan.

Earlier, I had done pro-bono translation work for a book of the ambahan poems called Bamboo Whispers, edited by Quintin Pastrana and Lolita Fansler Delgado. It was published by the Mangyan Heritage Centre, which kindly sponsored my travel back to the Philippines from the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, where I now work as Head of School, English, and Professor of Creative Writing and Literature.

The ambahan is composed of seven-syllable metric lines and it can run to more than four lines. It is usually chanted, like many forms of oral literature, and owned by no one but the community. The author of the text is not a single individual but the whole community, in whose womb the words of the poem sprang. The ambahan usually teaches lessons about life and love. It is recited by parents to educate their children, by young people to express their love, by the old to impart their experiences, and by the community in its tribal ceremonies.

Using daggers, the ambahan is carved onto pieces of bamboo or barks of trees. The Hanunuo Mangyan script is one of the three forms of baybayin (alphabet) that is still in use today. The exhibit that ran at the Ayala Museum last October was a memorable one. On the green walls of the museum near the park that is the green lung of Makati were poems, artifacts, paintings, and even verbal games about the ambahan. Some of the poems are haunting: they have the clarity and depth of the haiku.

One of them is a beautiful love poem for us who are separated from our loved ones by distance. Listen: “You, my friend, dearest of all/ thinking of you makes me sad;/ rivers deep are in between,/ forests vast keep us apart/ But thinking of you with love./ as if you are here nearby/ standing, sitting at my side.”

The lyrical utterance is there, the cry of longing sharp and keening. But the ambahan is not just a repository of personal feelings; it can also give strong statements about contemporary concerns like illegal logging and the destruction of the environment.

Look at this poem: “I would like to take a bath/ scoop the water with a plate/ wash my hair with lemon juice;/ but I could not take a bath,/ because the river is dammed/ with a lot of sturdy trunks.”

This poem of protest reminds me of an interview I once had with a politician from the north. I was asking him why, in spite of the ban on illegal logging, there are still many furniture shops selling chairs and tables made of narra, the national tree, whose felling is not allowed by law. Without batting a corrupt eyelash, he looked at me and said, “But Danton, those tree trunks just fell because of the typhoon and the river carried them down the river. And that is how the furniture makers got those big tree trunks.” Right on, congressman.

I also talked about the people whose life work it was to preserve the rich cultural legacy of the Hanunuo Mangyans. One of them is Ginaw Bilog of Mansalay, Oriental Mindoro. He was awarded by the national government for faithfully preserving the Hanunuo-Mangyan script and the ambahan poetry. He has promoted the local script and the poetry so that the art would not be lost but preserved for generations to come.

Another cultural hero is Antoon Postma, SVD, whose original work on ambahan poems was called Treasure of Minority, published by New Day in the 1980s. Postma was later given the highest honors by the embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for his work of archival knowledge that retrieved, published, and spread the good word about the beauty of our indigenous poetry.

The triple subjects of birth and infancy, childhood, and adolescence are contained in many ambahan. A sample poem runs like this: “When the bush knife is still blunt/ You should whet it on a stone/ Then you try it on the wood./ Its effect you then will see/ On a bamboo or a tree.” Among other things, I think this poem talks about how to raise a child: how you raise your child now will be mirrored by his or her acts when the child grows up.

This small gem sounds like a parent telling the child to be aware of the world and its wonders – or its many horrors. Listen: “Says the bird lado-lado:/ Far away you shouldn’t go!/ Mind the snares of evil spooks/ That are scattered in the woods!” The “evil spooks” would refer to the mischievous elementals and spirits that abound in the forest, the river, the hill and the plain. A Western literary critic would be quick to coin this as an instance of “magic realism,” or la maravelloso real. But here, in a world of spirits where wonders never cease, we just call them simply as “classic realism.”

Courtship, home, food and work are other subjects of the ambahan. This one is light-hearted and fun: “Lubidyawan is my aunt./ Once she had a stomach ache/ Her relief? She went outdoors!/ There she rearranged her hair/ And perfumed it with some plant.”

Hospitality, friendship, marriage, old age and death are the final concerns of the ambahan. This sounds like the tolling of the bells: “It’s a fact that we all know,/ A truth wherever we go;/ the sun in the afternoon/ Will be setting very soon.”

Bamboo Whispers is available at Bookmark, Fully Booked, Ayala Museum, and Tesoro’s. The gift box/wrap and Bamboo Whispers are only available at a Salcedo Village condo.

Email: mangyanheritage@gmail.com, call (8103135) or text (0917-8244846). Please give your name and contact information so they can confirm the arrangements with you.

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