With words Akimbo
Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez (The Philippine Star) - October 13, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - This book, the first of a series by Quincunx Publishing, promises to be one of the outstanding literary events of the year 2013. It contains 76 poems to satisfy every taste from classical to contemporary, from a group of five largely neglected Filipino poets – Juan Jose Jolico Cuadra, Cesar Ruiz Aquino, Recah A. Trinidad, Erwin E. Castillo and Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez.

Let’s begin by saying from the start that we are presented here with poetry at its best, originating from poets, one dead, to whom the book is dedicated, and a few others long written off as dead, the happy exception of course being Cesar Ruiz Aquino, who has authored four runaway poetry collections in a span of 20 or so years of poetry publishing. Oeuvre is everything, as the French would say, but equally important and luckily for the others he is also a solid critic always keen to demonstrate his determination and desire to keep all of their individual distinctions alive.

Juan Jose Jolico Cuadra, who died painfully from complications of M.S. on April 30, is the true catalyst for the book. He tops off the collection with a memorable 1040-line monologue centered on the mythopoeic hero Jose Rizal. For a poet known for his formal brevity it is uncharacteristically long and open-ended. Though it is untitled as intended and ends with a comma, perhaps in emulation of previous poets, e.e. cummings for one, it exemplifies a significant departure from his usual mode. Its epigraph from Jose Garcia Villa he made up himself in an arresting gesture of concession to a poet whom he had long revered and whose influence he wanted to get out of.

Cuadra first came to notice with his poem “Dogstar” which was anthologized in the iconic Doveglion Book of Philippine Poetry in 1962. Most of his poetic output (which is not much to begin with) images Sirius one way or another, in its various incarnations. This long poem is no exception, where underlying the phrase “we’re made dog in the mangers/ of this great country,” and implicit in its Aesopian reference, is the image of the bright star in its corrupted state. His poem postulates three consistent themes, of which the above throwaway line is the first. The second, appearing in line 560: “the face must fit the brain,” is his haughty way of conflating the hero’s attributes with his own, in a way as to exclude and derogate by comparison what he contemptuously calls the “lispers.” The third, and most inflammatory I think, is his assertion “1898 is the Revolution Year” on line 906. Whether the poet intended to deflate Bonifacio’s self-justifying role in the Philippine revolution or not is less clear.

The next batch of poems, 29 in all, introduces some new as well as newly revised poems by Cesar Ruiz Aquino (aka Sawi). It ranges from short aphoristic poems to medium narratives, culminating in one bizarre masterwork “Eyoter,” where the pun barrier broke and poetry is stood on its head. Much has been said about his fondness for punning and clever rhymes, concrete puzzles and anagrams, and less about (though lyric is always the predominating impulse behind his poetry) his mastery of the abstract, in the sense in which abstractness has become the cul de sac of every modernist poet. Here happily as in his recent book, Caesuras: 155 New Poems, both elements are shown in profound conjuncture.

Here is Sawi’s “A Comma Poem,” and this is how poetry is made:

The great mirage is that the earth is still

by this only is rendered visible

the motion of things, as it were the will

to motion of all things except the whole

earth’s own which alone is invisible

Aquino’s poems are a product of continuous revision, a forever search for the “word without end.” Even when the pattern betrays a wavering, even when intent on inventing a smart poem he somehow manages to come out in the end with a ready explosion of vital insight. He’s resident shaman in the Silliman campus, and is a good exemplar to our younger poets, for he is truly a poet’s poet who has put himself unremittingly at the service of literature.

Recah Trinidad contributes 17 poems to the book. His opening “Song of the Owl” preludes a miracle of healing, sometimes granted, sometimes rudely withheld. It is a moving poem. It is also interesting to see “Rule” in isolation as well as in a serial context with the other poems, which in fact accentuates its verbal beauty and expands its melodic reach. In “Lovestruck” the title is ironic because the poet referred to (who shall remain nameless) castrates himself out of an acute physical revulsion of sex. As in his Hemingway poem, Trinidad here tackles the subject of violence with superb objectivity. There is a dagger at the heart of his poetry, wrapped in Nazarene cloth.

His suite of poems counterpoints a tautened intensity, compounded of sharp detail and sound diction. Faith is the hammer that drives his poetry, and the poem “My Lost River,” extracted from his prose book is simple and heart-warming:   

Farewell my dear Pasig

My Mother River

The only river   

You cannot live again

We’ll never meet again

Thank you Dear Mother

Blessed Virgin of Fatima

For a slice of Paradise

Thank you for Being there

For the hope in my heart

To sing is to believe.

Sixteen poems by Erwin Castillo, and what a delight to see this agile poet running the gamut from pure song, as in “Harana” or “Manzanitas” to the highly visualized narrative poems that form the nub of his whole work. His “Harana” has appropriately been set to music, and it is a flawless gem. In “The Dead Walk North,” which is The Firewalkers reprised, the diminished Alapaap, denied burial on Christian ground, is feted by hundreds of zombied clansmen, “empty skulls rattling, clatters of long bones and ribs,” kith and kin to Inang Miyang, la Cavitena and the eponymous heroine of another poem.

There’s three others at least, and here I’m betting on “Lord Iolikos at Lakeside,” “B’lum-B’utu” and “Bajai-Manuc” that will long be remembered  in the only way for poetry to be remembered, and that is for the beauty of its writing. Castillo writes painterly vignettes with scorching precision. “When Last We Said Goodbye” is a swansong in arctic blue. As a whole these are poems that only Castillo could have written, endowed with archaic elegance and a vernacular music that are a clear testament to the potency of his genius.

Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez closes the almanac with a clutch of poems whose merits, if any, will have to be judged by others although it is hoped these will prove transparent enough even to readers uninstructed in the tactics of modern poetry.

It starts off with “Adarna,” as did  his collection of New and Later Poems published in 2004 by the UP Press. Section 3 has been considerably altered and mention of “o-rings” omitted altogether. It is of all his work a piece of symbolism post 9/11, although preceding it in its original draft. His poems can be satirical and parodistic, as for instance in “Homage to Geron Munar” which affects the manner of the late poet in something of a ventroloquistic feat. By the poet’s own admission it took him 13 false starts before finally hitting it with a composite poem. The oddly misshapen passage “Were he eyed three, could’ve unseen her myrrhed/And kohled in connubial bliss” is a burlesque of Hufana, one-upping his unique diction not in a bad way but to tease out its real excellence.

Sanchez is at ease with the sonnet form as well, as in “Eden Wake,” where he suggests a rift between male and female apprehensions of knowledge, the former being based on certainty and the latter on a guilt-provoking feeling of vulnerability. On the other end of the spectrum, “Hello Beautiful; or, the Art of Doing Windows” is a phantasy of subjection, set in a modern boardroom and a suburban carwash, where the intercessional powers of heroism, passion, and lust have objectified into workaday commodities to be consumed and bargained for. The concluding line says it all: “Love is not yet. The jaguar springs.”

One can relish the last poem “Eman Spelled Backwards” as a superior muddle or a tour de force, a ferocious assault on conventional thinking.  It tracks the evolution of the poet Eman Lacaba (1948-1976) from swinger to radical, from small-town communicant to stoic martyr. He is admired for facing death and putting everything on the line but is characterized in jocular terms as a poet-adventurer who was incited into the NPA and its Maoist agenda. But the poem, reflecting a host of literary allusions, goes beyond that. Sanchez makes everybody an object of his savage satire, including himself. Every possible objection to, is answered with brutal fluency in the poem itself.  “Everything comes back to the quixotic eschatology of balut,” writes the poet.

All in all, then, what are we to take from the poets in this collection? Their generally small outputs belie their importance as poets. It doesn’t surprise that the bulk of the poems ranging from elegiac to satirical and enacted through the context of history or personal memories of people and places passing on, yet rarely strike a uniform depressive note of sadness or vapid nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Instead they dramatize a variegated, lyrically energized celebration of manhood and the mysteries of grief.

Rival voices indeed, yet companionable. To group them as writers is not to ignore the fact that they’re each very much their own man. No doubt there is a sense in which all five, connected in friendship and brought together by a dream project such as this book truly and inconceivably is, may have cross-fertilized at some point, having been long readers of each other’s works. 

With this commemorative portfolio, illustrated with handsome photographs and artwork by Sonnie Yniquez and Benjo Laygo, the gang of five has acknowledged the imminent passing of a generation, and so have they unwittingly acquitted themselves as well.

The book will be launched on Oct. 24. For more information, visit the Quincunx Publishing Facebook page.

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