Fearless Peerless Kasu-kasuan Poetry:
Notes on Eileen Tabios’ The Thorn Rosary:
Selected Prose Poems & New
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2010)
|...her storytelling enthralls and captivates us the way the binukot had, for centuries, sang of Labaw Donggon's journey; and that she employs the same strategy of the Tagalog women poets of Liwayway and Taliba...
One could perhaps consider Eileen Tabios to be the [Philippines'] Angela Manalang Gloria of the 21st century, her poems all at once crisp, flowing, interrogative, tender, innovative, funny, thought-provoking, sensuous, revolutionary. Manalang Gloria (1907-1955), author of the collection simply entitled , was known for her snapshot-like poems oPoems, 1940n unconventional women (the "old maid" walking down the street, the querida or mistress, the woman who fell in love with a priest), and her fearless approach to themes women dared not speak of during her time—such as marital rape ("Revolt to Hymen"). Both Tabios and Manalang Gloria had the ability to use the English language in writing lyrical and powerful verses and the fearlessness to articulate silences.
However, comparing Tabios with Manalang Gloria seems to be an exercise in stating the obvious. This is similar to arguing that perhaps Tabios channels José Garcia Villa (and his comma poems) simply because she wrote The Secret Lives of Punctuations (2006).
Instead, in contextualizing Eileen Tabios' work, we could look into the following: Leona Florentino (1849-1884), the 19th-century Ilocano poet; the unanthologized Tagalog women poets who published in Liwayway and Taliba in the 1920s and 1930s, during the United States occupation of the Philippines (1899-1945); and the binukot, the storyteller from Panay of pre-colonial Philippines.
The best thing about a book of Selected poems is that we are able to follow the poet's journey—and by doing so, go beyond recurring themes and innovations in form so that we can appreciate what I call the kasu-kasuan (literally, joints)—the interconnections, the tropes—of Tabios' poetry. We read a few poems and discern that Tabios is informed by art and ancient myth. We read more and marvel at how she invokes us to consider the most basic elements of language and the possibilities of hybrid poetic forms. As we look at the collection in its entirety, however, we realize that Tabios has the same keen eye and feel for her community as Florentino; that her storytelling enthralls and captivates us the way the binukot had, for centuries, sang of Labaw Donggon's1 journey; and that she employs the same strategy of the Tagalog women poets of Liwayway and Taliba—using themes such as values, relationships, and motherhood to speak against the colonizer/former colonizer. Tabios' genius lies in her ability to use shopping lists, balikbayan boxes and memoirs, as well as narratives of adoption, domination, city spaces, the self—to participate in discourses on imperialism, globalization, and diaspora nationalism.
The Poet as Jester
Why compare Eileen Tabios' poetry to Leona Florentino's verses written more than a century apart? Who is Leona Florentino?
|As Florentino wrote for her community, so does Tabios write for Filipinos in the diaspora....the humor found in her works that speak of immigrant experience...privileges the Filipino diaspora community as an "inner circle of readers"...
Considered to be the first published Filipina poet, Florentino had an "exhibition" of her poetry at the Exposicion General de Filipinas in Madrid in 1887. Her poems were also included in the Bibliotheque Internationale des Ouvres de Femmes or the International Library of Women's Works. In more recent decades, a few of her poems have been anthologized in Bienvenido Lumbera’s and Cynthia Nograles Lumbera's Philippine Literature: A History and Anthology (Revised Edition), 1997, and in Lilia Quindoza Santiago's Sa Ngalan ng Ina: Isang Daang Taon ng Tulang Feminista sa Pilipinas (In the Name of the Mother: One Hundred Years of Feminist Poetry in the Philippines), 1889-1998, 1997.2
Her son, Isabelo de los Reyes, wrote of his mother (de los Reyes 313-315):
She did not go to school and learn Spanish with a private native teacher. Her poems are interesting for their naturalness and originality; they are not composed in the European style; but in the crude, confused, and unaesthetic manner of chapbooks of Ilocano drama that proliferated in the region. They are written in the genuine Filipino style for the lady hated plagiarism and spoke contemptuously of plagiarists.
She wrote with uncommon facility, and would sometimes dictate three different letters to three clerks while she wrote a fourth. She loved to read and write Ilocano books.
She wrote bitterly satirical farces vividly portraying those she wanted to censure. I regret that I have not been able to retrieve any of them.
This satirical voice is evident in the poem "Pagbating Pagbiro (Greeting in Jest)," ca. 1880. Florentino seems to be writing for a woman celebrating her 28th birthday, an age considered to be too problematic for women who wanted to get married. Florentino compares the woman to a "wilted jasmine flower" and says that she understands why the woman is worried. She has three pieces of advice directed to the woman: celebrate your beauty; do not be angry; and keep your mind sharp. These words of wisdom have nothing to do with "finding" a husband (think of the proliferation of books such as Rachel Greenwald's Finding a Husband After 35 [Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School] and articles such as Tonja Welmer's "Finding a Husband—Four Tips for Success" in ezinearticles.com). Florentino is focused on the woman, not the act of attracting a man, nor the potential husband she is supposed to attract. The man is absent or unimportant in the woman celebrating her own beauty, developing her intellect, and taking care of her emotional state.
Yet the poem is funny, teasing the celebrant and yet ironic about society's expectations on women—it is, after all, a birthday poem, not intended for publication, but spoken/performed for an occasion. Such was the role of the poet in the community in 19th-century Philippines. By working into the poem other community members—identified only by initials such as S., B., D., G., and M.—the poem, the poet writes not only for the woman celebrating her birthday, but also for her family, neighbors, and friends.
As Florentino wrote for her community, so does Tabios write for Filipinos in the diaspora. While it can be argued that she is appreciated by a larger audience in the United States, the humor found in her works that speak of immigrant experience is rooted in irony, pain, and empathy—and thus privileges the Filipino diaspora community as an "inner circle of readers" who identify with the poems.
Consider, for example, the poems from Commodities: An Autobiography. In the poems "1969," "Military Goodies," "Overseas Filipino Worker," "Ground Meat," and "Blue Trunk," we find lists: an immigration shopping list of a family bound for the United States; another shopping list of goods bought at a "PX" store (a grocery store at a military base in the Philippines— valued for its imported goods); an overseas worker's list of electronic items she would like to buy for her daughter; a family's list of Filipino goods that they think would be pleasing to a relative residing abroad; and her parents' list of items they packed to send to her in college.
|By a simple shopping list, Tabios indicts the following: the colonial way of thinking of Filipinos, the presence of U.S. military bases and its toxic relationship with the communities around it; and the exportation of "unhealthy" goods to the "Third World" as one of the effects of globalization.
The lists are funny and poignant. The rattan hats, wood carvings of farm animals, plaques depicting Filipino swords, and bamboo-framed watercolors of rice terraces scenes are meant to decorate living rooms so the family doesn't "forget where they came from." These visual reminders "mark" the family's ethnicity, even as they (perhaps) struggle for assimilation in American society.
The lists are funny and informative. The list of electronic goods from Korea (Samsung TV, Samsung stereo, Sony play station, Hello Kitty tape recorder) juxtaposed with a list of Filipino "native" products (pastillas de ube, kalamay, tikoy, broas, pili nuts) is framed by statistics on migration, remittances, and jueteng. Moreover, as we study these lists alongside each other, we come to understand the trade imbalance characteristic of the Philippine economy.
The lists are funny and interrogative. Any Filipino family that is either middle class or with middle-class aspirations would recognize the Hershey bars, G.I. Joe lunch Box, Oscar Meyer bologna, Cracker Jacks, Puddin' snacks, and Tang as "dream goods" from a PX store. But this list is followed by another list: aldrin, deildrin, lindane, chlordane, heptachlor, and HCB, as well as an enumeration of health problems apparently experienced by her family and her neighbors: high levels of kidney, urinary, nervous and female system problems, respiratory troubles, irritating skin problems, cancer, leukemia. By a simple shopping list, Tabios indicts the following: the colonial way of thinking of Filipinos, the presence of U.S. military bases and its toxic relationship with the communities around it; and the exportation of "unhealthy" goods to the "Third World" as one of the effects of globalization.
With these lists, Tabios also challenges one's notions of poetry (as characterized by the lyrical and the narrative to most readers), reminding us of de los Reyes's description of his mother's poems as "crude, confused, and unaesthetic" (obviously during a time when poets had a strict adherence to the elements of poetry). Can a shopping list be a poem? Only poets who have a mastery of the poetic form succeed in subverting it. Tabios employs the shopping list as a strategy the way that Florentino uses "teasing" and the incorporation of names of community members in her poetry. Audiences and readers are drawn to what they know and understand; it is by eliciting their laughter that she calls attention to colonial relations and globalization. With Tabios's lists, we read not only product names and labels but longing, love, despair, anxiety, anger—all the while recognizing that tragedy resonates in punchlines. The poet, as jester, after all, can be society's most effective critic.
The Poet as Both Binukot Storyteller and Epic Hero
While Tabios can be likened to Florentino because of the way her poems speak to the diaspora community, her link to the binukot storyteller lies in her autobiographical work, not only because she identifies some of the poems as autobiography, but more importantly, because she invites us to interrogate the very question of the autobiographical.
Two kinds of women "writers" existed in pre-colonial Philippines: the babaylan or healer, and the binukot, or storyteller. It was the babaylan who was considered to be the religious leader of the community as she led rituals asking the deities for good harvests and the healing of the sick. In describing the babaylan, William Henry Scott explains (Scott 25):
"Babaylans were shamans or spirit mediums, given to seizures and trances in which they spoke with the voice of their diwata or other spirits, and acted out conflicts in the spirit word, brandishing spears, foaming at the mouth, and often becoming violent enough to require restraint...They can be male or female, or male transvestites called asog, but were most commonly women."
|As the binukot sings of the hero's life, she changes or rewrites the epic she has learned. The epic has the charac-teristics of oral literature—the binukot adapts the narrative to the occasion...
In her study of Filipina feminist poetry, Quindoza-Santiago paid tribute to the babaylan by saying that there were three categories of poetry written by Filipina women: the "tulang pansarili o panloob (poems on the self);" "tulang babaylan o panlabas (babaylan poems or poems about society)"; and "tulang pang-canon o pampanitikan" (canon poems or literary poems). Because the babaylans were considered to be "tagapangalaga ng sentimyento ng publiko (keepers of the public's sentiments)," the babaylan poem is a poem described as "iniluwal sa seremonyang publiko, pinamumunuan ng espiritwal na lider ng tribu at komunidad, nagpupugay sa kapaligiran, at naghahandog ng awit at pasinaya (birthed by public ceremonies, presided over by the spiritual leader of the tribe and the community, pays tribute to the environment and brings songs and offerings)" (Quindoza Santiago 144).
Similarly, the binukot performs a specialized function in her society. Trained to be a storyteller at birth, the binukot never sets foot on the ground. She is usually very fair, because she does not work in the fields and instead focuses on her craft. At the 1992 National Theater Festival of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, a binukot named Elena Gardoce sang the epic "Hinilawod." She was carried from the island of Panay to the festival site in Manila.
But what was this literary form performed by the binukot? Like other epics from cultures around the world, Philippine epics are long narratives in verse. From Arsenio Manuel’s and Isagani Cruz's studies of the epic, we learn that Philippine epics have the following structure: the hero, usually male, sets forth on a journey, often in search of a loved one; he engages in battle; he is aided by his friends’ relatives; he dies; he is born again; and he is reunited with the beloved. Thus, the epic is the biography of the hero, as told by the binukot. It is a biography that needs to be told because it teaches courage, speaks of beliefs and values, and documents the life of the community.
As the binukot sings of the hero's life, she changes or rewrites the epic she has learned. The epic has the characteristics of oral literature—the binukot adapts the narrative to the occasion, audience reaction, or recent events so that she may further engage the audience to listen.3
It is these characteristics of the epic as told by the binukot, that we find in Tabios' work. There are three collections the poet identifies as "autobiography": Silences: The Autobiography of Loss; The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes: Our Autobiography; and Commodities: An Autobiography. In these works, the poet is both storyteller (the binukot), and epic hero, the person who undertakes the journey.
But what journey do we speak of? Is it that of the self to the self through the work? Consider for example, "Excerpts From an Aborted Honest Autobiography." The title itself shows how the poet interrupts and constantly evaluates her own narrative, leading us to ask: Why is the text "aborted?" How could it have been completed? How is an autobiography honest/dishonest? Why is this selective adjective "honest" privileged in framing the narrative?
To answer these questions, we can be guided by Paul L. Jay's essay "Being in the Text: Autobiography and the Problem of the Subject," 1982. In this essay, Jay discussed the autobiographical texts of St. Augustine and Wordsworth, pointing out (Jay 1051):
"...the two writers faced the inherent contradictions of the autobiographical enterprise itself, in which their own past identities could be disappropriated by the very texts which were to mirror them.
"Notwithstanding these contradictions, however, both Augustine and Wordsworth saw themselves through to a completion of a totalizing kind of self-history which by its very nature, posits the idea of a unified, historical self."
|The persona in the poem, like the epic hero, rises above despair, lives again. The poet, like the "binukot," edits and adds to the narrative, moving between the present and the future.
And here is where Tabios' work triumphs—at the onset, she not only challenges the notion of autobiography—that which is "unified" and "historical"—but also employs autobiography as discursive practice. Other writers such as Valery and Roland Barthes4 have also interrogated autobiography through strategies such as non-chronology, the "re-writing" of the self, the rejection of nostalgia, and the presenting of a "shattered, scattered, decentered" text. Tabios, in addition, knowingly or not, channels the binukot as she shifts the focus of her texts from the self (the focus of autobiography) to the reader/ audience, and encourages intertextual readings made possible by the reader/audience's own positioning of themselves in the text.
We read, "Excerpts from an Honest Autobiography," for example, with the same addiction we have for "Real Housewives of New York City"5 (Bravo TV, reality show, Cast: Alex McCord, Bethenny Frankel, Jill Zarin, Kelly Killoren Bensimon, LuAnn de Lesseps, Ramona Singer. Director: no data. 2009)—avoiding getting lost in the details of affluence (tuxedoed butler, heavy silver bowls, 1964 Cheval Blanc) to glimpse at irony. We reread it (or do double takes at a line or a paragraph) to capture hints (the poet whose call she awaits is not the husband; yes, the client with the bulbous nose made a pass). And we savor Tabios' well-chosen words because she speaks to us (women readers) on friendship, marriage, kindness/ unkindness, happiness/the absence of happiness, and the worth of that which cannot be measured.
Towards the end of the piece, this autobiography does not speak of the past nor the present but the future—"next's year's diary," told in the past tense. The poet invites us to read Parts VIII and IX, "From This Year's Diary" and "From Next Year's Diary" as binary oppositions, and leads us to examine once again the autobiography from the contexts of the adjectives "aborted" and "honest" and the word "excerpts."
What then completes this autobiography? The persona in the poem, like the epic hero, rises above despair, lives again. The poet, like the "binukot," edits and adds to the narrative, moving between the present and the future.
Another collection identified by the poet as "autobiography" is The Light Sang As It Left Your Eyes: Our Autobiography. Within this collection, we find the piece, "What Can a Daughter Say?" From this, we deduce that the "our" refers to a father and daughter—Ferdinand Marcos and Imee, the poet and her father, all fathers and their daughters.
Tabios constructs this piece from Imee's statements given during interviews, biblical references, facts about dictators and fascists, and word definitions—and succeeds in weaving a discursive text on memory, exile, gender, and accountability. It is an "autobiography" that focuses on a specific time-period, "Martial Law" (1972-1986, from the point Proclamation 1081 was declared to the end of the Marcos regime in 1986); although technically "Martial Law" was lifted in 1981.
The choice of Ferdinand Marcos as the central patriarchal figure in the text is not surprising. Imelda Marcos, Marcos' wife, referred to herself as "mother" of the nation, and to her husband, as the "father." This is reflected in the literature and art that the government produced consciously using traditional forms: Guillermo Vega's biography Ferdinand E. Marcos: An Epic, 1974; Alejandro Hufana's Imelda Romualdez Marcos: A Tonal Epic, 1975; and the matching portraits of Ferdinand and Imelda depicting them as "Malakas" (The Strong) and "Maganda" (The Beautiful), characters from the indigenous creation myth.
|The poet refuses "to be jailed inside a poem," —and with this line echoes the testimonial prison poetry of Mila Aguilar, Alan Jazmines, Rogelio Mangahas, and Jose Ma. Sison...
Judging from Tabios' (b. 1960) age, she was/was not a "Martial Law baby" (one who was of elementary age when Martial Law was declared), since she had migrated to the United States when Martial Law was declared, but would probably have been in elementary school during that time. Had she stayed in the Philippines, she might/might not have joined the "Kabataang Barangay," a youth village council that had Imee Marcos (b. 1955) as its president. Moreover, had Tabios entered college at the height of Martial Law (perhaps in 1976 or 1977), she might/ might not have encountered Imee (who studied at the University of the Philippines College of Law in the early 1980s) or Imee's sister Irene (who entered the university in 1979), and might/ might not have been part of the radical student movement at the university.
I look into all these possibilities as a woman and as a Martial Law baby (born 1962). Like the "privileged community audience" of the binukot (who were familiar with the signifiers in the epic text she chanted), I read Tabios' poem with the same contradictions inherent in its writing: How reliable/unreliable is my memory of the Marcos years? How is my own "truth" subjective? How is the seemingly passive observer (the daughter Imee, the poet as a Filipina in exile, and myself as "Martial law baby") complicit in the crimes committed by a fascist regime? Or on a more personal level—how can I even think Imee is witty and intelligent, when she was, in fact, part of the Marcos machinery, as president of the Kabataang Barangay?
Thus, to me, there are three narratives in the text: that of Imee through her quoted statements; that of the poet writing the poem and consciously choosing what to include and exclude in the text; and mine, as I respond to/refute the statements of Imee.
It is the last six lines of the poem that, while possibly read by some as the author showing sympathy to Imee (they are both daughters; they are both women in a patriarchal society), I read as an assertion of the poem's participation in anti-dictatorship, anti-fascist discourse.
"...My name is Eileen.
I break this music’s shackles.
My name is Eileen and I will not be jailed inside a poem.
I am Imee and my name is Eileen.
My father is also Ferdinand Edralin Marcos."
How can these last lines be anti-dictatorship and anti-fascist? This lies in pairing “shackles” (signifying detention, prison, torture, fascism) and music (an art form that lifts the spirit, liberates). The “breaking” of “shackles,” an act of empowerment, is the final action taken. The poet refuses "to be jailed inside a poem,"—and with this line echoes the testimonial prison poetry of Mila Aguilar, Alan Jazmines, Rogelio Mangahas, and Jose Ma. Sison, all of whom affirmed their principles in prison, even speaking of the "outside world" as a larger prison).6
The last two lines lead us to ask: Is the poet comparing her own father to Marcos? Is she acknowledging Marcos as also her father? Are all fathers in a patriarchal society fascist dictators? The poet chooses to be silent about specific details about her own father in contrast to the voluminous data provided on Marcos and other infamous people.
|However, there are clues from the narrative that show that such marriages were entered into not simply because of lust but because of the need to accumulate power and/or form alliances.
And so we go back to Labaw Donggon7, the Panay epic sung by the binukot Elena Gardoce. Labaw Donggon first sets out on a journey to go to Handog and, there, chooses Anggoy Gibitnan for his wife. Then he journeys again, this time to the underworld and takes Anggoy Doronoon. These two marriages of Labaw Donggon (as well as his later union with Malitong Yawa) can lead contemporary readers to think of him as a man "na mahilig sa magagandang babae" (who is fond of pretty women) or a playboy. These were the words used to describe Labaw Donggon in a re-telling of the story that I found in a blog called "Lilinfo" (http://lilinfo.wordpress.com).
However, there are clues from the narrative that show that such marriages were entered into not simply because of lust but because of the need to accumulate power and/or form alliances. When Labaw Donggon is defeated by his enemy Saragnayan, it is his two sons, Buyung Baranugun and Asu Mangga, from his two wives who come to his rescue. Thus, it is to Labaw Donggon's advantage that he has expanded his influence in several "communities."
The website, which passed judgment on Labaw Donggon as a "playboy," thus failed to take into account pre-colonial life or the context of the epic. Thus, as we read the poem "What Can a Daughter Say?," our reading is rendered incomplete by the incompleteness of the text.
This "incompleteness," however, is the very strength of the text. It is also what makes Tabios most like the binukot, whose narrative is never a "stable" text. As mentioned earlier, the chanted text changed each time it was "performed," adapting to audience, occasion, and recent events. In the same manner, we appreciate the poet's silence on her biological father (who we do not really encounter) in the text. It enables us to focus less on the relationship between him and Marcos, and more on Imee and Eileen (and, in other cases, Imee, Eileen and the female reader who might also be a "Martial Law" baby).
I read this text today, 2009, two years after it was first published, thirty-seven years after the declaration of Martial Law, and twenty-three years after the EDSA revolt that overthrew the Marcos government. For me, Tabios has written a counter-epic (to the commissioned epic written to glorify Marcos) revealing a non-hero, that utilizes the personal (the relationship between daughter and father, reminiscent of the father and son subplots of the epic) in paying homage to the courage (again, breaking the “shackles”) of the anti-dictatorship, anti-fascist movement during Martial Law.
The Poet as "Reyna ng Balagtasan" or "Queen of the Verbal Joust"
While "What Can a Daughter Say?" is obviously political with its references to dictatorships, most of Tabios' poems in the collection employ the strategy of the Tagalog women poets of Liwayway and Taliba during the American colonial period. Tabios' poems seemingly speak of love and desire, and yet are powerful statements that participate in discourses on gender, class, and power.
Who were these Tagalog women poets? In my previously published essay "The Poet as Muse (Women's Voices During the American Colonial Period)," I looked into the works of Epifania Alvarez, Trinidad Antonia, Feliza Benjamin, Rosario Flores, Jovita Gutierrez, Felicidad Herrera, Virginia Ignacio, Urbana Manajan, Emilia Felipe Jacob, Magdalena Mendoza, Lorenza Pagiligan, Arsenia Rivera and Andrea Vitan-Arce. None of these poets have been anthologized in the canonical literary or poetry anthologies of scholars Bienvenido Lumbera and Virgilio Almario, nor even the pioneering work on women's literature by Soledad Reyes, nor the book on women poets by Lilia Quindoza Santiago. There was no particular reason why they have been excluded, other than the fact that they did not produce "a body of work." None of them published an anthology of poetry like the poet in English, Manalang-Gloria, and thus did not gain recognition as "poets."
|The balagtasan was extremely popular and the poets of the period were considered to be "superstars." They had huge followings with people flocking to stadiums to watch their "idols" battle it out...
My interest in their work was not in the individual texts but, rather, in the poems studied alongside each other. Consider, for example, a special feature of the magazine Liwayway, entitled "Kudyapi sa Wika, Kamanyang sa Dilag, Panulat sa Bayan” (A Harp for the Language, A War Song for the Maiden, Literature for the Country), in 1926. This section highlighted women's poetry by featuring several poems.
In these texts, the poets seem to be engaged in a debate reminiscent of the balagtasan. But what is the balagtasan? The term was coined to pay tribute to the Tagalog poet Francisco Baltazar, who wrote the "awit" Florante at Laura, 1838. This metrical romance is widely acknowledged as one of the most outstanding Filipino literary texts because of its superior use of language, poetic style, audience impact, and nationalist undertones.8
The balagtasan was a verbal joust in verse, involving two dueling poets, with a mediator called the Lakandiwa. It reached the peak of its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s during the American colonial rule in the Philippines. Among the topics debated were tradition and modernity, labor and capital, colonial rule and independence. The balagtasan was extremely popular and the poets of the period were considered to be "superstars." They had huge followings with people flocking to stadiums to watch their "idols" battle it out, and sometimes the results were so controversial that fans had their own altercations.9
The balagtasan poets, however, were mainly men. In the few instances that women participated in it, they read texts that had been written for them by the male poets. Thus, the sub-title is a myth. There is no "Reyna ng Balagtasan" or "Queen of the Verbal Joust" in Philippine literary history.
In my essay, however, I argued that we can find the sagutan (cue-response) in the balagtasan in the women poets' texts, as they addressed the hypothetical male suitor. For example, in Arsenia Rivera's "Alisin ang Takip," (Remove the Shield), 1926, the poet confronts the suitor she believed showed insincerity when he showered her with laudatory verses, praised her beauty to high heavens, and used hyperbolic images. Rivera is unimpressed by the suitor's lofty concept of love and even seems to disdain his preoccupation with physical beauty.
Similarly, in "Ang Hambog" (The Braggart), 1929, Emilia Felipe Jacob berates the man with the sweet tongue and the fickle heart. The poem addresses other women, urging them to avoid such a man. Thus, these poems, along with similar others with titles such as, Trinidad Antonia's "Kabaitan (Kindness)" 1929, and Magdalena Mendoza's "Kahinhinan (Of Gentle Ways)," 1926, were not simply didactic poems that extolled virtues but poems that can be read as texts that interrogated prevailing concepts of beauty and confronted the male poets who wrote about their idealized "muse."
To respond to the male poets' use of flowers as metaphors to describe woman (such as Mateo Ocampo's "Ang Bulaklak,” [The Flower], 1926), Lorenza Pagiligan's poem of the same title did not focus on beauty and fragrance. Instead, Pagiligan talked about the inevitability of change, and emphasized that flowers lose their fragrance, alluding to an aging woman cast aside by her unfaithful lover.
The Tagalog women poets also specifically addressed women readers, transforming the aforementioned "Kudyapi" section into a forum. This brings to mind advice columns written by "aunts," recipes and gardening tips exchanged between women, and long hours spent at a neighbor's house at the pretext of borrowing a cup of sugar. In contrast to the male poet who adressed only the beloved, the woman poet showed concern for fellow women, warning them of dangers brought about by men.
|Tabios, like the Tagalog women poets, addresses the woman reader, in a strategy also akin to that of romance novelists who cater to the woman's "imagined" object of desire...
Finally, the Tagalog women poets emphasized the value of the woman worker, shunned materialistic values (as an indictment of the over-emphasis on capitalism brought by the American colonizers) and used what seemed like pastoral poems about the hometown to assert that "Pilipinas sana tayong matagal nang nagkalaya (We should have long been a free Philippines)." (Alvarez 1935).
Tabios similarly employs these strategies. The poems in the collection seem to be responses to the male voice in poetry, address the woman reader (and by this, I do not mean that the poet intentionally addresses the woman reader but that the woman reader feels addressed to) and using wit and humor, indict imperialism, specifically, global imperialist culture.
In the same way that the Tagalog women poets employed the strategies of the traditional Tagalog literary form, the balagtasan, Tabios's poetry can be read as "verbal jousts."
In the Enheduanna poems of Menage a Trois with the 21st Century, for example, Tabios privileges the woman's voice, and even when she speaks of the man longed for—"you"—it is from the woman's imagined perspective. Tabios explains that through these poems she "explores the sensibility of Enheduanna's anguish"—desire—something not often articulated by women. It is, however, not only the articulation, or the exploration of the dynamics of anguish and desire, that is most crucial in the poet's notes, but the "warning" that this is the "woman's imagined perspective" of "you" which seemingly echoes the warnings we read before films and television shows ("all characters are fictional"). Thus, we do not really know "you" nor care to know "you," because what really matters is the woman imagining "you." Moreover, the poet's "you" transforms into the reader's own "you."
In this light, we come to understand that Tabios, like the Tagalog women poets, addresses the woman reader, in a strategy also akin to that of romance novelists who cater to the woman's "imagined" object of desire (that is why in these novels the man in the beginning seems to be uncaring, disinterested, even haughty, but in the end turns out to love the woman deeply). In the same way that Tabios reminds us that Enheduanna is "considered to be the world's first recorded poet," she also reminds us that it is really our construct of the loved one (the object of desire) and not the loved one in himself (or herself) —that matters. Thus, even when the poet speaks of "anguish," we also realize that this anguish is summoned/chosen by the woman who realizes that there is "no anguish without desire."
Similarly, "Conjurations" address a "you." With poems identified as "Spells" and marked by numbers, Tabios again speaks of desire, and yet what is striking is that she speaks of desire from a position of power. Moreover, the presence of desire in the poems is underlined with the absence of a proclamation of love. Read alongside each other, the Enheduanna and "Conjurations" poems echo the "sagutan" of the balagtasan because they respond to the objectification of women, the dichotomy of stereotypes (the virginal vs. the seductress as exemplified by the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene icons of the Catholic faith), and the inevitability of equating desire with love.
Two poems in the book, both of which come from the collection Post Bling Bling, 2005, bring to mind the poems of the Tagalog women poets that used traditional values to indict the materialistic values of capitalism brought about by the American colonial period. The poems "Welcome to the Luxury Hybrid" and "For the Greater Good," however, take on a different approach. The poems invite us to look into the "semiotic content of words" (from Alvear as quoted by Tabios). By doing so, the poet urges us, the "consumer," to whom the advertising is directed, to examine the words used to describe the product. Is advertising poetry? Is poetry advertising? By blurring the dividing lines between the two, Tabios succeeds in pointing out that writers are not passive observers, but are "actors" in the global stage.
|Tabios, fearless and peerless, introduces the haybun poetic form, inspired by the Japanese haibun but reliant on another poetic invention, the hay(na)ku versus the haiku...
Yet Tabios brings this discourse on culture and imperialism a step further by choosing two products that are by themselves interrogative texts. The Lexus is a luxury hybrid; it not only signifies wealth, but also environmental responsibility. TIAA-CREF is an investment firm (and based on recent news items on the financial industry and the decline of the US economy, is linked to notions of corporate greed) yet the company caters to people in the service professions (professors, doctors, nurses) and prides itself on being socially responsible. These texts ask us to read, and read again, while not totally trusting the "words."
Here then, is a poet who employs the "sagutan" technique with the consumer self, and urges fellow consumers to do the same. After all, the balagtasan used objects as signifiers (bakal [metal] and ginto [gold], or palayok [soup pot] and kawali [wok]) to speak of labor and wealth. Thus, even as Tabios engages our senses and our feelings, she also brings into the mix poems that urge us to think critically of our own complicitness in global capitalist culture.
The collection that engaged me the most, however, is "Looking for M: A Haybun Journal." Tabios, fearless and peerless, introduces the haybun poetic form, inspired by the Japanese haibun but reliant on another poetic invention, the hay(na)ku versus the haiku; into the haybun, she brings Filipino literary notes, texts from websites, official correspondences, web encyclopedia facts, etc. The strength of the collection, however, does not lie only in inventiveness in form. Stripped of all these techniques, the poems stand as testaments to motherhood and yet pushes us to think—what is motherhood if not defined by blood and flesh? And here again, as Tabios walks us through the adoption process, Tabios speaks to us of the most basic human emotions: pain, longing and love.
In my attempt to contextualize Tabios in the history of Philippine literature, I have tried to share my notes on Leona Florentino, the binukot storyteller, and the Tagalog women poets. I wanted her readers to look not only at the tropes found in her work but also that which connect her to the work of other Filipino poets. We read Tabios because the kasu-kasuan in her work reaches our own kasu-kasuan, and therefore speaks to us of ourselves— wives and lovers, mothers/non-mothers, and colonial/neocolonial subjects, constantly interrogating ourselves.
1 Labaw Donggon is the hero of the Hinilawod epic of Panay.
2 My interest in Florentino was in her work as a dramatist, and the information on her I share in this essay comes from my book Mula sa mga Pakpak ng Entablado: Pagyapak at Paglipad ng Kababaihang Mandudula (From the Theater Wing: Grounding and Flight of Women Playwrights), 2006.
3 The ideas presented on oral literature are from Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1992).
4 Both writers are discussed in Paul L. Jay’s essay.
5 Obviously, the work precedes the TV show, but here I am talking about the “reading” not the writing of the work, which was done at the time the show was on air.
6 The poems of Mila Aguilar, Alan Jazmines, Rogelio Mangahas and Jose Ma. Sison are in Kamao: Panitikan ng Protesta (1970-1986) edited by Alfrredo Navarro Salanga, Reuel Molina Aguila, et. al. and published by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1987.
7 The notes on Labaw Donggon come from a Ph.D. literature class I took under Professor Rosario Cruz Lucero at the Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature, College of Arts and Letters, University of the Philippines, in 1997.
8 My notes on Florante at Laura come not only from my reading of the text (as this was required reading for second-year high school students, but also my classes with literary historian and National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera in the early 1980s, as well as his book Tagalog Poetry, 1570-1898, 1986.
9 My notes on the “balagtasan” come from Leo Zafra’s Balagtasan: Kasaysayan at Antolohiya, 1999.
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© Joi Barrios
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