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The Self Revolution of Radical Love—
Externalizing Internal Worlds of Freedom
in Filipina Poetry

Dedicated with infinite gratitude
 to Wilber Hernandez and William Santos Schaefer.


The poetry of Joi Barrios and Eileen Tabios offer an alternative conceptualization of the struggle between the subaltern’s agency and imperial oppression. The poetry of these two writers reveals the potential for writing radical love, whether of the self, the other or humanity, as a way to externalize internal spaces of liberation and freedom. This reconceptualization offers a more empowering formulation of self. This serves  as a counterpoint to imperial propaganda which promotes the idea of oppression as unavoidable and inescapable and makes visible the spaces where these reconceptualizations are created.

“White Love”, as documented in Vincente Raphael's book of the same name, is the imperialist notion that systemic oppression of the Philippines by America was a manifestation of brotherly “love” - a “love” which kills.

Hegel—The Master/Slave Dialectic as Imperial Propaganda

In Hegel's Master/Slave dialectic, the slave is compelled to rise up and overthrow his master (Hegel, 1967), but to be a master is to never know equality and therefore never truly know love. To engage in a dialectical cycle such as this, as conceptualized by a colonial European voice, is to know self-destruction. This paradoxically creates a situation in which, even though the dialectical space is always shifting, the power dynamic within it remains frozen. This power dynamic, as conceived in the European mind, never allows for escape. Once instigated, the roles of perpetrator and victim are calcified by the instigation itself. In the dialectical imagination, the relationship has no beginning or end, but in the reality of a colonial world, there is a space of before and after. The colonial force positions itself as “master” and thereby creates and defines the relational space. In Hegel's dialectic, there is no space for consent after this initial instigation for either party. The dynamic, once entered, can never be exited. The shift of role, between “master” and “slave”, cannot erase the initial invasion, the rape perpetrated by the colonial master. In this way, though the dialectic is traditionally seen as one in which the master never gains permanent control over the slave, the initial assault (often ignored in theoretical formulations) and the initiation of the endless cycle of the dialectic speaks to a power dynamic that is always unequal and cannot be rebalanced within the space of the dialectic. What is the solution?

White Love—A Love that Kills

“White Love”, as documented in Vincente Raphael's book of the same name, is the imperialist notion that systemic oppression of the Philippines by America was a manifestation of brotherly “love” - a “love” which kills. Is “killing” political oppression though revolutionary poetry or art a manifestation of the return of this “love”? It might be as instinctual as returning an (in this case ideologically deadly) embrace.

The initial colonial assault is manifested by Rafael ideologically and literarily as the recategorization (and therefore destruction) of Filipino selfhood through the census. The response, in similarly literary and ideological terms, was to recreate these identities and reclaim the power of self-identifying through art, in particular through nationalist drama. While literal, physical, lethal violence was being perpetrated in a variety of means against Filipino people, and being answered with the violence of rebellion, ideological assault and response was equally powerful.

If anything, it is the inclusion of spiritual, psychological and ideological violence that deepens colonialism from being merely an isolated assault to a pathological relationship. Like with all abusive relationships, the wounds of colonialism remain long after the perpetrator has exited the physical space of the relationship. Scars remain, the abuse is internalized within the victim. To apply Hegel's dialectic, one could say that the abused then has the potential to move into the position of the abuser—but such a limited transformation does not erase the foundational dynamic of the abuse. Here is therefore the limitation of Hegel's conceptualization of oppression—even as the dialectic recreates itself, it cannibalizes its current form to create the new. All future recreations are likewise cannibalizations. The dialectic is a closed circuit that can feed only on itself. The dialectic, therefore, cannot forget its original configuration. All ensuing configurations of power are birthed of that original assault. Therefore the slave can never truly become the master. The slave can perhaps take up the yoke of power but he cannot erase what has gone before, and inevitably awaits the reassertion of imperial power, as the dialectic promises no end to the cycle of oppression and re-oppression.

Yet it is Enheduanna who acts as agent, seeking out encounters with her ancient goddess in an urban world of steel and concrete, finding these moments of spiritual ecstasy in unexpected times and places.

Of course, in the historical context of early colonialism, the possibility of the slave ever ascending to the place of the master was nothing more than a theoretical figment of the colonial master's imagination. It is that imaginary threat that if anything helped to justify continued oppression under the guise of self-preservation. 

Eileen Tabios— “a kingdom waiting to happen”

Political oppression is manifested primarily through gender in Eileen Tabios' Menage a Trois in the 21st Century. Her series of poems contained within, Enheduanna in the 21st Century, is situated in an entirely female space devoid of the dialectic of gender oppression. Here we see spirituality as a devotion devoid of the coupling of political oppression with religious institution. Enheduanna is a woman consumed with need, ever locked into a dialectic of love with her goddess, Inanna.

Yet it is Enheduanna who acts as agent, seeking out encounters with her ancient goddess in an urban world of steel and concrete, finding these moments of spiritual ecstasy in unexpected times and places. Here, Tabios' Enheduanna uses her poetry to summon forth her goddess into the urban landscape. No matter how fully saturated by her environment, Enheduanna's relationship to her ancient goddess render the modern cityscape intrusively foreign. The “Menages a Trois” of these poems, between the reader, the narrator and her goddess, produces this feeling of unrest.

Though Enheduanna and Inanna may, within the world of their dynamic, exist in a space of female power, the reader and the urban landscape know the realities of a patriarchal world. Tabios' neglect of the patriarchal power embodied in the modern city render the gender politics of the poem-space inert. Tabios has through this found a way to unseat the power of the colonial dialectic itself by reanimating figures of a time predating it. Of course, the art and mind of Tabios itself lives in the real context of a world in which oppression is the cloth from which human interaction is cut, but her ability to fashion an internal world where patriarchy is present but powerless disturbs traditional notions of colonial power as all-powerful. The internal space, when externalized as poetry, therefore empowers the reader to consider whether within themselves too is a space of freedom and power. Hegel's dialectic, read through this lens, is transformed into little more than colonial propaganda. The colonial explanation of colonialism is itself an assault of the minds of the subaltern.

Even as this self-discovery unseats the power of the propagandized dialectic, the nature of the dialectic supports the existence of this internal space. In Hegel's dialectic, the rape of colonialism is never complete—the attempt spirals into a never-ending struggle. Neither subaltern nor colonializer is obliterated. This itself is a (perhaps unintentional) acknowledgement of the humanity of the oppressed, the capacity to overcome, the potential for escape from oppression.

That the Enheduanna poems are separated into two different sections (YOU and I) whereby the perspective shifts from second person to first situates the experience of the poems within the reader and compels them to enter into the fantastical space of a world where patriarchy has been rendered powerless. As Tabios expresses in a letter to her publisher printed at the end of the book, the reader “must dispel disbelief to facilitate new 21" century lives for Enheduanna and Gabriela Silang” (Tabios 2004, 119). The last words of this letter, however, are not a demand that furthers oppressive paradigms of force but an invitation to the reader that underscores how engaging in this “disbelief” can be an experience of healing and liberation for the subaltern reader as similarly expressed by this quote the last of the Enheduanna poems.

Before the beginning,
before you became you
and I became I,

you were in my skin
as I was in yours.
But the beginning arrived

with the Word
that separated
"You" from "I." (Tabios 2004, 50-51).

Tabios is demonstrating that our own internal freedom as human beings is what powers us to advocate for ourselves.

Here we see Tabios locate the source of oppression with the disconnection between colonial subjects (specifically here, women). This disconnection causes the absence and the desire felt throughout the Enheduanna poems, and its resolution causes a shift toward unity, and with it love. The act of inhabiting the skin of others is precisely the move that Tabios later asks of the reader in order to engage with and make real the world of the poems. Therefore it is not merely Enheduanna's longing for connection that will be resolved, but also the reader's. And the disunity the poem is seeking to heal within the reader is that caused by the continued trauma of colonial wound and the resulting isolation of systemic oppression.

In contrast, the Gabriela Couple(t)s with the 21st Century depict a woman resurrected from after the initial colonial assault. Here, we are presented with the modern cityscape itself, the lived reality of what it is to be a woman wholly of and in the 21st century. Tabios, in the introduction to these poems, makes a point of stating that she situates the character within her own lived experience as a modern woman (Tabios, 2004, 57). Gabriela is resurrected into a time and space where she is still subject to multiple oppressions, gender inequality being the most apparent in the poems. The major signal of difference between these poems and the Enheduanna poems is the presence (and with it, the power) of a nameless male being. That Gabriela's poems are “couple(t)s” underscores the new focus on “two” and on the monogamous couple, arguably a manifestation of patriarchy (Ryan and Jetha, 2010). The focus on the number two gives the male figure power within the poem, even over the reader. Gone is the sense of a true Menage a Trois which invites the reader into the poem—when the male figure enters the poem he automatically precludes the presence and engagement of the reader. Through this, Tabios is subjecting the reader to the oppression that connects the space of the poem to the reality of the modern world. When read after the liberated space of the Enheduanna poems as Menage a Trois is laid out, the presence of this oppressive structure is particularly tangible.

Moreover, it is these poems in which oppression is directly confronted. Through offering us both the vision of an internal space of freedom as seen in Enheduanna in the 21st Century and the confrontation of oppression in the Gabriela poems, Tabios is demonstrating that our own internal freedom as human beings is what powers us to advocate for ourselves. That this resistance takes place at the hands of a rebel hero like Gabriela Silang, connects gender oppression with other manifestations of colonialism and is celebrating the struggle against all forms of tyranny.

The Gabriela poems directly confront the material trappings of gender oppression. In  "Domestic" (subtitled “At Which Gabriela Would Have Been Better If A Revolution Had Not Interfered”), Gabriela bemoans (at times playfully) that the skills she has developed are not the ones which are valued in women by society:

my sisters are
in demand

for "domestic skills":
they are priceless

unlike I
who responds with words

when asked for

(Tabios 2004, 64).

This reflection on gender oppression also connects to the plight of working class Filipina “domestizas” who work overseas. Another poem which explores the intersectionality of oppression is “The Effort”, revealingly subtitled “As Gabriela Considers The Price She Pays”. Here she identifies her experience as a woman of color and the way that skin color anxiety interacts with the way she as an Asian woman is exoticized by Western society.

History sculpted
my current face

its complexion rougher
than pineapple skin

Weren't you the advocate
of sunscreen?

That was a narrative
device, I tell my Muse

mocking me, smoking
through lips smeared

with "Geisha" lipstick
while jousting with nights

(Tabios 2004, 67).

Through this intertwining of experiences and identities, Tabios explores the way that Gabriela and women like her are forced to engage in their own oppression in order to exercise their agency in the world. However, her poems also offer other possibilities to women and other oppressed people. Even in the Gabriela poems we receive a glimmer of the internal world free of oppression that we see in the Enheduanna poems:

We were in a kingdom waiting to happen,
where a palace contained empty double-thrones -

No one would have shouted a challenge
had we chosen to sit on silk damask cushions -

(Tabios 2004, 112).

Here, the ability to sit on empty double-thrones unchallenged in a “kingdom waiting to happen” communicates the possibility of a world where power can be reclaimed from patriarchy, and more so that such a world is expectantly “waiting to happen”. This can be seen as another externalizing of the internal world to an even greater extent than in the Enheduanna poems. Here, artistic rebellion is further radicalized (perhaps by the presence and influence of Gabriela) into more direct political action. In the same poem, the path to such action is revealed:

Somewhere I have prevented a murder
by entering a church and committing a blasphemy-

Somewhere I have hindered a divorce
by seducing one spouse, then the other-

(Tabios 2004, 112).

Clearly, one key method of revolutionary change is to buck oppressive societal norms, to elevate humanity and empathy above expectation. What, then, of the alread  examined obligation of women to sometimes participate in their oppression? Tabios again offers a solution:

Somewhere I have kneeled in a back alley
conducting “research for a poem” -

which was another in my long string of lies
as I only meant to please you—

(Tabios 2004, 112).

Tabios carefully frames this experience not as sexuality on Gabriela's own terms but “research” and “lies”, her disempowerment in these actions symbolized by her position on her knees. Tabios's strikethrough of these words often an alternative to shame for female readers who already bear the weight of society's judgment. To strike one's unwanted, inauthentic actions out of one's externalized interior space (the poem) offers the potential to remove the burden of these actions from the self.

Joi Barrios—“to find freedom and defend it”
Joi Barrios take a similar, if not more direct stance in her own poetry. In “To Be a Woman is to Live in a Time of War” Barrios states:

To be a woman is to live a warrior
to hold life and sustain it
to find freedom and defend it.

(Barrios 2010, 129).

This war is not just fought merely on an ideological front. In the same poem, Barrios explains:
In my country,
to fight against oppression
is to lay down with the struggle.

(Barrios 2010, 129).

Barrios does not conceptualize this as merely a struggle for women, however, but a struggle for men
as well who are likewise negatively impacted by the patriarchal barriers...

It is therefore within interpersonal and ostensibly sexual relationships with men that the battle for freedom and life must be fought. As the title of the poem alludes to, this struggle within interpersonal relationships is constant. And as one must “lay down” with the struggle in order to fight against oppression it can be read that in order to fight for freedom one must engage in love. In this poem this love takes the form of physical love, but in others the meaning is expanded. And to fight for love is to fight against the patriarchal “instinct” among many men to confuse possession with love, an instinct likely born out of colonial and patriarchal paradigms.

Lover, I will never
be yours alone.
As you will not
be mine.
But to love is not
to own.

(Barrios 2010, 29).

Barrios does not conceptualize this as merely a struggle for women, however, but a struggle for men as well, who are likewise negatively impacted by the patriarchal barriers against equality and love. The struggle to overcome these obstacles is depicted as an endeavor of courage and great risk:

We risk everything
to love this way.
We hazard all,
to know this

(Barrios 2010, 31).

To love in such a way is to decide to “love myself as well” Barrios states in another poem (2010, 85). But the transition from societally mandated possession-disguised-as-love to an equal love that honors itself is not an easy battle. Barrios describes this “awakening” to the other and self as such:

First ire
For the years of confinement,
Then melancholy
At the continuing abuse,
Followed by fear for tomorrows
Likely never to change.

(2010, 83-85).

The poetry of Joi Barrios and Eileen Tabios offer a formulation of self-creation through radical love of self, interpersonal love of others and love of humanity...

Barrios reiterates the impact of these individual struggles on society at large. In a poem illustrating the treatment of women during different imperialistic occupations, the struggle for personal freedom and equality through love equated to the surrendering of weapons (Barrios 2010, 111). Yet even when that freedom is “relinquished” by society as a whole, ostensibly when women are sacrificed for imperialism, Barrios states with certainty that the war is not lost (2010, 111)

While Barrios demonstrates that this battle is waged by both men and women, she also owns that the burden, consequences and limitations placed on women in this struggle to love radically is heavier for women than men. In a poem written about the imagined experiences of Jose Rizal's sisters, Barrios paints a portrait of the struggle of a woman with revolution in her heart with her limiting daily obligations:

She keeps the home
hungers still to make revolution,
she breaks her skin
to write the reddest letters
the crimson shape of her very own name.

(Barrios 2010, 77).


The poetry of Joi Barrios and Eileen Tabios offer a formulation of self-creation through radical love of self, interpersonal love of others and love of humanity that elevates subaltern individuals to a place of personal power in their struggle against the oppression they face in their daily existences.  This is achieved through the externalizing, both through poetry and direct action, of internal worlds free from the power of oppressive forces. The poetry of both Barrios and Tabios argues for the existence of such an internal space, contradicting the notion present in some imperial conceptualizations of power that oppression consumes the subaltern utterly and permanently in an inescapable dialectic.

Works Cited

Barrios, Joi. Bulaklak sa Tubig: Mga Tula ng Pag-ibig at Himagsik. Manilla: Anvil. 2010.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Mind. New York: Harper & Row. 1967.

Ryan, Christopher & Cacilda Jetha. Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality. New York: Harper. 2010

Tabios, Eileen. Menage a Trois with the 21st Century. Espoo, Finland: xPressed. 2004.

©Michaela Spangenburg

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