ANCHORED ANGEL by Jose Garcia Villa
Edited by Eileen Tabios
Kaya 1999 288 pp., $14.95
I first read Jose Garcia Villa's poetry about sixteen years ago. At that time, I was trying to develop my own writing skills, and reading all the poetry I could find. Living in a small California town with a predominantly white population, I'd had little exposure to Filipino writers. I had discovered Jessica Hagedorn's Dangerous Music, but I was disappointed that there wasn't more work by Filipinos on the library and bookstore shelves. Then, one day I found a collection of poems by Villa in the library, and took it home. His poetry surprised me: it was stunning, singular, not like any other poetry I had ever read, although its risky flights of language recalled Lorca's surreal lyricism, and Dickinson's brief, but powerful poems.
Villa's disturbing poetry often seems torn between a 16th century mystical lyricism, and a violent modernism...
Villa's disturbing poetry often seems torn between a 16th century mystical lyricism, and a violent modernism that does not shrink from tearing apart syntax, obsessing on commas, and creating word "collages" from fragments of poetry and prose by other writers. One poem in particular struck me, from the 1942 collection, Have Come, Am Here:
I will break God's seamless skull,
And I will break His kissless mouth,
O I'll break out of His faultless shell
And fall me upon Eve's gold mouth.
This first stanza employs a conventional rhythmic meter countered by blasphemously violent and sensual content. It is a poetry of rebellion against the father, and perhaps against all authority figures; it claims for itself the world of passion and eros at the price (I later learned) of dispossession and exile.
I had no context for his poetry at the timeeven my readings in Filipino literary history were not able to explain the dark workings of this poet. Those who wrote about him seemed to treat him as an anomaly. I discovered only that Villa has been a powerful literary influence in the Philippines throughout much of the 20th century, that he was considered an eccentric, whose stubbornly-held opinions on writing often made him enemies, as well as disciples.
...for at least two decades, especially during the formalist period, many American writers and publishers admired Villa's work, even as they puzzled over its strange intensities...
I learned that, for at least two decades, especially during the formalist period, many American writers and publishers admired Villa's work, even as they puzzled over its strange intensities: "...So natural yet in its daring so weird, a poet rich and surprising, and not to be ignored," wrote Mark Van Doren, for Villa's Selected Poems and New (1958). Recently, Garret Hongo described Villa as "one of the greatest pioneers of Asian American literature...our bitter, narcissistic angel of both late Modernism and early post-colonialism..."
Yet, this daring poet all but disappeared from American literary circles after the 1960s, despite being nominated for several major prizes, including the Pulitzer, receiving the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and Guggenheim and Bollingen Foundation fellowships. Four volumes of his poetry and one volume of short stories were produced by major publishers including Scribners and Viking, and his poetry often appeared in magazines and journals like New Directions (where he was an associate editor from 1949-51) and the Quarterly Review of Literature during the Depression and post-World War II eras.
While some of this obscurity can be attributed to America's "forgetful" attitude towards its early colonial (and later, neo-colonial) relationship with the Philippines and Filipinos, it might also be attributed to the forgetfulness of the generation of Filipinos and Asian-Americans who were involved in the Third World movements of the 1960s and 1970s, both in the Philippines and the United States. These writers tended to focus on social issues at the expense of those writers who were most concerned with poetic language itself.
Villa's work was unabashedly formalist, and for this reason, he was labeled by many as a petty bourgeoisie. What little attention the American publishing industry gave to Filipino writers during this period only helped to fuel oppositions between proletarian and formalist writing. This conflict may have contributed to Villa's self-imposed obscurity, until the advent of the anthology, Charlie Chan Is Dead, edited by Jessica Hagedorn (1993).
Villa died recently...the messages of tribute that flooded Philippine newspapers and Filipino newsgroups on the Internet made it clear that many Filipino artists and writers mourned...
Villa died recently, and although his retirement to Greenwich Village, and his reticence in later years were partly of his own doing, the American literary scene took little notice of his death. Yet, the messages of tribute that flooded Philippine newspapers and Filipino newsgroups on the Internet made it clear that many Filipino artists and writers mourned, realizing that the event marked the passing of an important era in Filipino literature. It was an era of adventurous and risky writing that dared to explore new avenues of statement.
Thus, I found the new collection of Villa's work, Anchored Angel, to be a moving tribute to an artist whose work deserves much more attention. Perhaps even more important, this edition begins to fill in gaps of knowledge about this author, the impact of his work and critical thought on Filipino, Filipino American and Asian American writers, and its literary significance to modernist writing in the United States, as well as in the Philippines. Editor Eileen Tabios explains that this volume is a "recovery" project, and as such, it serves as an "introduction" to an oeuvre that, hopefully, others will continue to mine. The volume opens with a forward by Jessica Hagedorn, and includes a series of essays, reviews, and reminiscences that help to flesh out the biographical and literary contexts of this challenging writer.
Anchored Angel contains a modest (in terms of quantity), yet varied selection of poetry from Selected Poems and New, enough to give us some idea of the range of Villa's work. One can find his famous "comma" poems, for example, #114:
In, my, undream, of, death,
I, unspoke, the, Word.
Since, nobody, had, dared,
With, my, own, breath,
I, broke, the, cord!
...Villa's poetry is that of a man who has turned away from one home, to find another home in words.
Villa "compared his use of commas to 'Seurat's architectonic and measured pointillismwhere the points of color are themselves the medium as well as the technique of statement." For some, this is a strange innovation which is disturbing, even irritating. The poem itself unspeaks our conventional expectations of word, breath, and poetic line. It slows you down, forces you to the moment of the word's emergence, resulting in what Villa calls "a lineal pace of dignity and movement." So different from Whitman's long spew of lines, Villa's poems do not expand aggressively upon the breath; rather, many of his poems seem to pause in brief, singular moments of exaltation. These moments of freedom are not won easily, however. Throughout Villa's work there are images of breaking, cutting, and dethroning. Choices have been made, and they have been hard choices. Closer to Dickinson's poetry of isolation and awe, Villa's poetry is that of a man who has turned away from one home, to find another home in words.
I was pleased to see his "Adaptations" included in this volume, verse created out of already existing prose, some of which take the form of "Collages," which term Villa tells us he borrowed from painting, the other love of his life. The following excerpt from #205, is adapted from Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, volume 1:
And then suddenly,
A life on which one could
Stand. Now it carried one and
Was conscious of one while it
Carried. A stillness in which
Reality and miracle
Had become identical -
Stillness of that greatest
Stillness. Like a plant that is to
Become a tree, so was I
Taken out of the little container,
Carefully, while earth
Ran off and some light
Came to my roots; and was
Planted in my place for good, there
Where I was to stand, until
My old age, in the grest,
Whole, real earth.
Villa's adaptations were modernist experiments in converting "found" prose to poetry; he agreed with William Carlos Williams that "Prose can be a laboratory for metrics." Yet, Villa makes the words his own, honing them down to moments of "stillness," which serve as "roots." Through his innovation and attention to poetic language, Villa, the exile, finds his "place" in the world.
Tabios has also included several of Villa's early short stories and prose poems from Footnote to Youth, and several essays on the short story and poetry. Villa's opinion of what makes good poetry reveals some of the contrariness of personality that inspired many, and infuriated others: "Poetry should evoke an emotional response. The poet has a breathlessness in him that he converts into a breathlessness of words, which in turn becomes the breathlessness of the reader. This is the sign of a true poet. All other verse, without this appeal, is just verse." As expected, Villa's definition contains an odd mixture of dogmatic opinion and romantic ambiguity. It runs counter to the progressive thought of many American poets from Whitman to Olsen, that breath and the poetic line should be free and expansive.
Although many of Villa's poems attain the stillness and light of haiku, there is a darker side to his work that contains some elements of the gothic genre...
It is difficult to know exactly what Villa means by "breathlessness," unless one connects it to the sublime, a state of awe bordering on fear often described in gothic literature. Although many of Villa's poems attain the stillness and light of haiku, there is a darker side to his work that contains some elements of the gothic genre: violence, loss, obsession, archaic and sometimes overly dramatic language, sexuality combined with religious awe. Poem #17 is reminiscent of Poe's elegiac poems:
I can no more hear Love's
Voice. No more moves
The mouth of her. Birds
No more sing. Words
I speak return lonely.
Flowers I pick turn ghostly.
Fire that I burn glows
Pale. No more blows
The wind. Time tells
No more truth. Bells
Ring no more in me.
I am all alone singly.
Lonely rests my head.
O my God! I am dead.
The link between Poe and Filipino writers may seem odd, but Poe's theories of composition and poetry were important to Filipino poets and short-story writers during the early twentieth century. "Who was the Philippine writer, from the twenties to the forties, not influenced by Edgar Allan Poe?" writes Edilberto K. Tiempo. In Azucena, the first book of poetry by a Filipino poet published in the United States (1925), M. de Gracia Concepcion observed that Poe's "life and lines early awakened in his soul a minor strain..." Poe's ability to convey feelings of loneliness, strangeness and disorientation appealed to Filipino writers who traveled to the United States after the Philippine-American war, and found themselves alienated, and longing for home.
In Anchored Angel, essays by various scholars, writers and friends make for fascinating reading. In her Editor's Afterword, Eileen Tabios describes her nervous, and not entirely successful meeting with Villa, and her subsequent appreciation of the subtleties of his work. Nick Joaquin gives us some insight into Villa's defiant break with his authoritarian father, Don Simeon, an old "revolucionario" deeply embittered by the fall of the Republic. Luis Francia writes, with fond humor, about Villa's infamous writing workshops in Greenwich Village. Nick Carbo taps into his fund of gossip about the master, and conducts an imaginary interview with him. Especially notable is Jonathan Chua's intelligently considered reevaluation of Villa's oeuvre and his influence upon Filipino writers. Chua examines the extent to which Villa's works and critical dicta may have "blunted the edge" of Filipino subversive literature, or functioned (according to Tabios, quoted in the essay) as "politically radical act."
My only criticism is slight: the focus on Villa's personality in most of the essays seemed a bit overextended in this volume, although this may itself be the result of the poet's intense and rather dominating presence in Filipino literature, and in the lives of these writers. In any case, perhaps we can now expect further critical attention to Villa's work in the future. Here's hoping that this important (re)introduction is the first among many collections and studies of Villa to come in this new century.
© Jean Vengua Gier
(This essay has been published in Pacific Reader Literary Supplement (1999), and Poetry Flash (2001).
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