Poems before the Spaniards came

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - February 13, 2021 - 12:00am

Let us begin by talking about poems written by our anonymous ancestors before the Spaniards made landfall in what was then an archipelago of Muslim kingdoms. These oral poems were later transcribed by Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar. These two gentlemen tried to preserve the “purity” of the poems, for – unlike other short poems during the era – there is no mention here of town plazas and Catholic churches, along with the imprint of didactic literature – writing meant to impart a moral lesson – that were characteristics of the Philippine town as a Spanish municipio.

Short poems were a specialty of the precolonial Filipinos. At the heart of these poems was the talinghaga or metaphor. A metaphor is a suggested or implied comparison between two things. It does not use “like” or “as” when it does the comparison, the way a simile does. The two things being compared are different from each other. The pleasure in the text is the realization that there is a link between the two things being compared. This realization then leads to some form of enlightenment.

How does one read a poem? Here are the various stages in analyzing a poem.

1. What is the poet saying? What is the physical setting of the poem? What is its literal or physical meaning?

2. Check out the words or references that you do not understand. Looking at the etymology (origins of words) can also help clarify or even deepen some meanings.

3. What is the concept, statement or idea behind the poem? What is the poet saying beyond the literal?

4. Does her method of saying it help or hinder the intention? Does her way of stringing the words together embody the concept of her poem?

The tanaga is a four-line poem from the Hanunuo-Mangyans of Mindoro. It is lyrical and full of vivid images that seem to leap from the page. Their poems are like mirrors to the lives of our ancestors. One of their poems says that the depth of a stream can be fathomed but it is much harder to know the goodness of another person’s heart. This insight is similar to what the Western philosophers said about the unknowability of the other: we each are our own selves, shivering like stars in the sky.

Another poem shows the resilience of the doso vine, which cannot be felled by a blast of wind and the lash of rain. This is in contrast to the high and mighty paho tree, which can be easily felled by one of the many typhoons that cut across the archipelago.

There is also a poem that seems like an Rx on how to manage pain. It is almost Zen-like in its insight that we should just let everything be – the ebb and flow of joy, as well as that of sorrow. To submit one’s self to the ordeal – or the journey, as our ancestors would have put it – is to let go. It is to allow life to take its course.

The short poems show the keen perception and intelligence of our precolonial Filipinos. For to be able to intuit meanings through poetry, through similarities between nature and insight, is a mark of a civilized people.

The Hanunuo-Mangyans also wrote the ambahan, which is composed of seven-syllable metric lines and the poem 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 knives, the ambahan is carved onto pieces of bamboo or barks of trees. The Hanunuo-Mangyan script is one of the three forms of ancient baybayin (alphabet) that is still in use today. 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 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, whose felling is not allowed by law. Without batting a corrupt eyelash, he looked at me and said, “But those tree trunks fell because of the typhoon and the river currents just carried them downstream. And that is how the furniture makers got those big tree trunks.”

The precolonial Filipinos lived near the rivers and the sea. These bodies of water provided them food in the form of fish, clams and crabs, shrimps and seaweed. They also served as avenues for mobility and transportation. It was said that the water did not divide the islands of the precolonial Philippines. Instead, they served as bridges and links from one island to another.

Aside from the river and the sea, the precolonial Filipinos also ventured into the interior in search of food. From the forests they hunted for game like wild boar and deer, and gathered food like fruits, vegetables, tubers and mushrooms.

Thus, the river and the sea, as well as the forest and the woodland, served as the setting and subject matter of their poems. The anonymous poets found similarities between nature and concepts, and wrote poems that still speak to us today.

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Email: danton.lodestar@gmail.com The writer’s website is www.dantonremoto.com

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