10 Jan No Comments Aileen Ibardaloza-Cassinetto Essays, Issue 44

by Aileen Ibardaloza-Cassinetto

I decided to learn the language of walls. Twenty years later, I painted them cameo pink, and then broke them in a poem.

The bearing wall bore a crack. A hairline gap that widened to a slit, through which our little secrets slithered and scattered. Out they came in a flurry of whispers, insistent and incoherent. For years, nobody could tell exactly what happened and why. What I do know is that my murdered pregnant great-aunt was 17, not 18, when strange men broke into the house. And if she did curse the place while the men were defiling her, she would have done so in the language of her foremothers: “Wǒ huì chánzhe nǐ.” She would then have been a ghost with a grievance, roaming restlessly, rageful and relentless. As to why she stayed behind after Manila was declared an open city on December 26, 1941 – I cannot say.

I can say, however, that the old stone house survived the war, and so did the rest of my family.

Aileen's mom, Corazon, in Manila, circa late 1950s

Aileen’s mom, Corazon, in Manila, circa late 1950s

Another war would be fought decades later. The Philippines would fall under Martial Law, and almost every word would be deemed volatile and political. I was born during this time, and grew up learning to speak softly, mimicking the women in my family, with their silvery voices seemingly stripped of spite or spunk. I was about six years old when I noticed a crack on the wall. Whenever my elders held a finger to their lips cautioning that “the walls have ears,” I would instinctively look for a long, thin line dividing an otherwise white and uninterrupted vertical space. I gathered that if walls could hear, then they must be privy to so many communicated thoughts; they must also be stalwart keepers of so many secrets. They sometimes crack, I reasoned, because secrets and thoughts can be so powerful and so forceful, they can strain even the strongest resisting body. I decided to learn the language of walls. Twenty years later, I painted them cameo pink, and then broke them in a poem.

“The Hay(na)ku of the Broken Fourth Wall” (initially titled “Manileñas”), was inspired by images and stories of growing up in a house supposedly haunted with a curse. Having lived with “ghosts,” I had no desire to flesh them out. Instead, I had hoped to versify what I saw as fortified domestic spaces, and the lives lived within them. I wrote “Manileñas” in 1998, a year I devoted to poetry, while I was preparing to leave for the United States. I wanted to write a poem that would reflect how complex women’s interior lives can be; I wanted to remember the sensibilities and thought processes that brought us thus far; and I wanted to have a sketch of scenes that were already vanishing before me.

In the U.S., my writing evolved under the mentorship of Remé Grefalda. Remé was unyielding. She drove me to a point where I was ready to scream, and I did. I called her my (tor)mentor, and she laughed, although not unkindly. I wish to point out that in Remé’s world, everyone is important, because everyone has a story to tell. My poems and prose found their way into Our Own Voice, a literary ezine for the Filipino diaspora, which Remé founded. Also, through Remé, I came to know the poetry of Eileen Tabios. Eileen’s poems are unlike anything I had ever encountered. I find them provocative, obviating language as I know it. I started paying more attention to postcolonial concerns in a multicultural setting; to the significance of decolonization, and the implications of being a diasporic writer drawing on cultural memory. At this point, I thought it fitting that “Manileñas,” a poem I wrote as I was on the cusp of becoming an assimilated immigrant, should also metamorphose into a poetic form which reflects the “Filipino transcolonial experience.” Hence, I re-arranged the lines according to the hay(na)ku form, a variant of haiku invented by Eileen Tabios. Traditionally comprised of one-, two-, and three-word lines, I find this form almost effortless (albeit, intentional in its effortlessness). And by “borrowing” a theatrical element, I was able to “break down” the metaphorical wall that figured so prominently in my childhood. Other than the form, and a few re-wordings to fit the new form, I left the original text largely intact. Although awkward in many places, “Manileñas” was my breakthrough poem for it gave me a voice during a time fraught with silence, in a language that was never truly my own.

Fortitude takes many forms. I write because of the women in my family. Untiring, enduring warriors and inventors of the language of walls, they always got the job done, no matter how mundane or how grueling. They taught me how to navigate and silently subvert those spaces that confine just as much as they fortify. And in the language of walls, this, too, is true Pinay grit. Having found my voice, I write from a place of gratitude. From the generosity of women, I learned an important secret – that everything is survivable, even silence.

Excerpts from “The Hay(na)ku of the Broken Fourth Wall”
(in Traje de Boda, Meritage Press, 2010)

Sand,
plaster, eggshell,
stone. Paint blisters,

painted
walls. Paint
over paint, rooftop

vine,
twin lettered
gate. Two girls

behind
walls that
were white and

then
blue and
then pink. Things

will
be added,
things will change,

and
it will
all be the

same.
Two births
in the midst

of
a raging
war, a ravaged

city
and white
walls that were

grimed
then ground.
Two breasts one

each
for a
suckling child, broken

down
pride and
bladder before the

bayonet,
buying and
selling for a

couple
of rice
cakes. Severed breasts

and
murdered children,
a weak nation

before
a weaker
one, and a

scattering
of enemies
looking for lives

to
blight, virgins
to suck, pigs

to
steal. Kisses
that wake sleeping

beauties,
sleep that
showers kisses for

deeper
sleep. Old
Manila after it

fell,
a river
to get dirty,

a
nation in
soot and grime,

in
debt, indebted.
Two wars to

brew,
one for
the future, one

for
the past.
Two little girls

in
twin frocks—
one with a

giggle,
one with
her pride. Nuns

and
a convent
school, a prayer

every
hour, rosary
beads and three

mysteries,
the first
Friday out. Little

girls
with rice
cakes and red

dresses,
looking for
their playground, huddled

with
homemade dolls,
one with a

rice
cake, one
with a bleeding

gum.
Heavy breasts
on stopped motherhood,

and
hungry knitting
in the hungry

dark.
Empty womb
and wasted milk

to
brew a
war, one for

the
future, one
for the past.

© Aileen Ibardaloza-Cassinetto