Carlos Bulosan, the Postcolonial Poet
In this age of globalization, nobody is more globally-oriented than the Filipino. The country began the full-scale export of workers in the early 1900’s when the first sugar workers were shipped to Hawaii—and of course long before that, Filipinos were on the shipping lanes and lines, manning the Spanish galleon trade, and, some say, jumping ship to set up Filipino communities in New Orleans nearly a hundred and fifty years earlier. Now there are Filipinos everywhere in the world—the government estimates 8 million overseas workers. Every barrio and barangay, nearly every family, has someone living and working outside the country. So much for rural isolation!
| ...he loved the details of sight and sound and feeling, whether he was idealizing the more pastoral aspects of his homeland or struggling with the wide, alienating landscapes of the U.S.
When I first read and began working on Carlos Bulosan’s poetry, I considered it in the light of a “Third World” framework, and this seemed to fit the data well, especially since the poems often deal with the themes of struggle and liberation. But now more than 25 years later, the newer ideas of Postcolonial writing seem to provide a better fit, as it was the colonial relationship between the United States and the Philippines that impelled Bulosan to go to the U.S. in the first place, and to go with such fine expectations of what he might find and how he might fare there, and it was perhaps that relationship that made the Filipinos subject to special hardships and resentments. It is a framework that seems to allow for an easy mix between the romanticized and sentimental, the personal, and the hard-nosed political. And thus it seems to fit the poetry of Carlos Bulosan—and to be of particular significance to the present day global Filipino as he finds his way to every corner of the world, always dragging with him the baggage of race, culture, and history—colonial history—in addition to pasalubong for everyone and his cousin.
Bulosan liked to think of himself first as a poet, even though most of his readers are more familiar with his fiction—when he is included in school anthologies, it is usually one of his light (but bitterly satirical) short stories, such as “My Father Goes to Court”, that is chosen. More serious readers generally head for the loosely autobiographical America is in the Heart. Nevertheless, he did seem to have a poet’s sensibility—he was extremely emotional and had a very vivid, highly sensuous imagination; he loved the details of sight and sound and feeling, whether he was idealizing the more pastoral aspects of his homeland or struggling with the wide, alienating landscapes of the U.S. Note, for example, the sensuousness of “My Father was a Working Man”:
My father was a working man
In the land of the big rains,
The water glistened on his arms
Like the cool dew in the morning
When the rice was growing tall:
The rich clay clung on his legs,
Dark brown clay of great fertility,
Dark brown like his body in the rain.
On the other hand, note how he writes of the Depression in America:
I saw it. I saw the banks that failed.
And the crowds rioting. I saw the crops plowed under,
And the masses starving. I saw the fields flower once
And the stock exchange rise in panic again.
I saw the rise and fall of nations.
His sensitivity to visual imagery gives us industrial images that are just as startling and vivid as his natural images:
I saw sunlight mount intricate
Webs of steel and stone
Will you . . .
Remember the bewildering upward thrust of buildings,
The amazing conflagrations of stabbing lights?
He also has a very unique way of inserting his own physical being into a much broader context:
I find it hard to walk in the night.
But I watch history rush through the heart of America,
From one ocean to meadow to another ocean, feeling
The voluminous downpour of blood from the lung,
The sudden snapping of red wires upon my side.
- “Interlude of Dreams and Responsibilities”
But he also commented that it was his poetry that offered the clearest, most complete form of his political thought—and he was a highly political being. For some of us the union between poetry and politics is a bit problematic, since poetry seems by its very nature to be personal and concrete, and a poem that ends with an abstract political generalization of some sort thus strikes a false note.
| He never sounded like a left wing intellectual talking about these social ills—he always sounded like he had seen them without wanting to, and they hurt him personally, which they did...
Bulosan managed to bridge this gap successfully most of the time, despite the occasional ‘false note’. He did have very strong political ideas, generated by the interface of the extremely interesting and eventful times he lived through and the rather disadvantageous circumstances he found himself in as a ‘colonial’ immigrant to the mother country, poor, and brown.
So he wrote on the Depression—and the war—and the struggles of the working man—and the Civil War in Spain—and he wrote from the unique perspective of the outsider in America. He wrote about love and idealism—and he really was a romantic—but he was always quick to undercut the ideal with the harsh realities of racism, fascism, greed. He never sounded like a left wing intellectual talking about these social ills—he always sounded like he had seen them without wanting to, and they hurt him personally, which they did:
There came a day in my childhood, in the beginning
of my conscious
life, that swung like a drawn sword and struck me full
upon the face
and sent me bleeding into the world of lies.
(The first of the “Passage(s) from Life” which punctuate the poems of Letter from America.)
He had indeed internalized the lessons that his American or Americanized teachers taught him, and he had no doubt gone to the U.S. with a sentimental love for the place, the America of the Heart, and a belief in the spirit of democracy—and thus the realities of Depression America, hurt him even more. There is something raw and almost painful about his poetry.
In “Landscape with Figures”, one of the poems from Letter from America, the fact of foreignness—Bulosan’s own biographical situation, of course—is used as a symbol of alienation, and this is generated largely by the fact of colonialism:
Home is a foreign address,
Every step towards it is a step towards three hundred
Of exile from the truth . . .
It seems the Filipino cannot go home again:
Homeward again under foreign stars,
History was a strange gush of wind from memory
That came to echo waterfalls of those years:
Home to find the place lost among
Galaxies of signs; the hills were gone, the river
Trail was forgotten . . .
History and the attempted journey home expose the seeker to “a vast heritage of war and destruction breaking too soon for the living and willing to die”. The poem ends with the final dismal statement of the alienated soul:
Life is a foreign language; every man
| In his long poem “The Voice of Bataan”...he takes on the voices of soldiers from all three countries involved in that struggle: Filipino, American, Japanese, and manages to understand their situations and feel their pain.
He understood immigrants from other lands too, both their essential humanity and their strength of character as they fought injustice in what had probably been the dream land for them too. In a poem called “American History” he gives voice to the two Italian radicals Sacco and Vanzetti, tried on trumped up murder charges in 1926, found guilty, and executed, over the loud protests of such writers as John Dos Passos (who then wrote his famous line “all right then, we are two nations.”)
This is what I say:
I am suffering because I was a radical,
And indeed I am a radical;
I have suffered because I was an Italian,
And indeed I am an Italian . . .
But I am so convinced to be right that . . .
If you could execute me two other times,
I would live again to do what I have done already.
I have finished.
Vanzetti, the dreamy fish peddler,
Hurt but not alone in the alien courtroom,
Voicing the sentiments of millions in his voice,
To scorning men voicing the voice of starved nations
In one clear stream of sentiment in his gentle voice,
That justice and tolerance might live for everyone.
* * * *
Our agony is our triumph: Sacco and Vanzetti.
(“American History”, from Letter from America.)
And it is this warm sense of humanity which enables Bulosan to sympathize with good-hearted people of every nationality and perhaps even every political persuasion. In his long poem “The Voice of Bataan”, which incidentally was published and promulgated in several languages during the war, he takes on the voices of soldiers from all three countries involved in that struggle: Filipino, American, Japanese, and manages to understand their situations and feel their pain. Thus even the Japanese soldier is not a true enemy but has this to say for his country:
All through the years in that mythical land,
We followed the martial voices.
They burned the profound books of history,
The old and new books of science.
They made us believe the power of the sword;
The splendor and glory of conquest . . .
“Move eastward to the rising sun”, they shouted,
Pounding upon the horrid maps on the tables;
And our planes bombed and burned islands.
Is it splendor to destroy human lives?
Is it glory to ruin cities?
. . . . . .
The journey continued. Exiled from native land,
We thought of the little voices of home.
Time died in our country . . .
They told us we were superior men . . .
Why am I dying in this unknown island?
Why do I remember my son running in the village?
Sometimes Bulosan’s poetry referred quite specifically to the political struggles of Filipinos in America, including the union struggles. He was a member of UCAPAWA, the radical cannery union which dispatched workers from Seattle up to the salmon canneries in Alaska, doing mainly publicity for union causes. In his “Song for Chris Mensalvas’ Birthday”, he writes:
How many years did we fight the Beast together,
You in your violent way, in your troublous world,
I in my quiet way, with my songs of love?
Over the years we fought apart and together,
Scarring our lives, breaking our hearts,
For the shining heart of a heartless world.
For the nameless multitude in our beautiful land,
For the worker and the unemployed,
For the colored and the foreign born:
And we won and we will win,
Because we fight for truth, for beauty, for life,
We fight for the splendor of love . . .
They are afraid, my brother,
They are afraid of our mighty fists, my brother,
They are afraid of the magnificence of our works,
They are even afraid of our songs of love, my brother.
He also wrote a very well known poem “I Want the Wide American Earth” specifically for a union fund raising drive for union members (notably Chris Mensalvas and Ernesto Mangaong) facing deportation charges for legitimate but radical union activities during the McCarthy era. In effect this Whitmanesque poem demands that America live up to its own glossy ads presented by American school teachers in colonial Philippines in Bulosan’s childhood:
Free men everywhere in my land—
This wide American earth—do not wander homeless,
And are not alone; friendship is our bread, love our air;
And we call each other comrade, each growing with the other,
Each a neighbor to the other, boundless in freedom.
I say I want the wide American earth . . .
I say to you defenders of freedom, builders of peace.
I say to you democratic brothers, comrades of love:
Their judges lynch us; their police hunt us;
Their armies and navies and airmen terrorize us;
This particular poem is reminiscent of a prose version written as an essay called “Freedom from Want” and published by the Saturday Evening Post in 1943 as part of a wartime series on the four freedoms. Strangely enough, the cover of this issue featured what has become a classic Norman Rockwell painting, of a typical overfed American farm family sitting down to an overwhelming turkey dinner. This must have amused the small, post colonial man, chosen to write the essay because he had truly known real need, as he demanded, even threatened, the colonial power to dish out what it had promised.
© Susan Evangelista