9 Sep No Comments Geejay Issue 41: NVM Gonzalez, Poems

by Emily Porcincula Lawsin

In Memory of N.V.M. Gonzalez
(September 8, 1915 – November 28, 1999)

NVM 1992 Hayward, Photo by Emily Lawsin

NVM 1992 Hayward, Photo by Emily Lawsin

in my stacks of old milk crates, arms of photo albums awaken.
my favorite pose: NVM and Narita Gonzalez
feeding Asian American writers at their home in Hayward.
the elder spins stories while playing his
fiddle;
saying poems like this should not be read aloud,
lest they become a bad
riddle.
but my tears read on.

i cannot picture him lying in state in Manila–
nor in a Greenhills hospital,
probably not far from where i visited
my Auntie Auring almost four years ago.
that trip afforded this first-time-balikbayan a better photo:
when NVM took August Espiritu and me to the Press Awards,
with wife Narita on his arm,
introduced us as his students and writers from “The States”.

earlier that day, he hosted us at his home on the U.P. Diliman campus,
Narita’s paintings abound,
had his granddaughter drive us to a restaurant in Quezon City,
where we ate blue crab karé-karé,
while serenaded by a violin quartet
and a window of synchronized swimmers:
true NVM style.

he had just launched Work on the Mountain
and between bites, told August that he would republish Winds of April
so he could write the preface.
i should have taken a picture then,
this moment of history floating by–
NVM’s silver hair laughing.

it was the same smile and laugh
that we shared four years earlier
when he won a teaching fellowship at UCLA,
courtesy of the Rockefellers–
befitting of this international treasure.

on the second day of class,
NVM said he found a photograph of when we first met:
at a FANHS history conference in Sacramento two years earlier,
dubbed “The Legacy Lives” — indeed.

i told him that i “met” him long before that,
through his stories assigned at Seattle’s Franklin High,
an amazing, life-changing feat,
considering America’s eurocentric curriculum.
every day, i thank Bathala for blessing me so.

i’ve told this story before, when we toasted NVM
at the Philippine Consulate on Wilshire:
how we used to butt heads in the classroom,
how i disagreed with his ancient philosophy that
without centuries of tradition and unified form,
“There is no such thing as ‘Filipino American Literature’,”
when in all respects, we considered him its Dean,
or at the very least, its Grandfather.
i never knew if he argued out of modesty or tenacity
to makes us all ponder and
“paint more pictures with words.”

on the outside, he would find me
shopping at the Bruin Bookstore,
always ask me, “What are you reading this week?”, and
“Are you writing? What are you writing today?”
he would urge me to sit for coffee, even on a hundred degree day,
saying the hot liquid provides a “balanced equilibrium to the elements.”
since he hailed from the tropical Philippines,
who was i to not believe him?

we rode the campus shuttle to his faculty apartment.
on the bus, young students cleared a seat for NVM and his cane,
slowly slurring at me, “Your grandpa can sit here,”
as if he didn’t understand English!
only in America, i fumed.
but NVM just smiled his wide smile,
saying a proud thanks,
continued debating my thoughts, interspersed with his ideas
of sailing with his bride to Catalina,
wondering out loud if it would be anything like
a boat ride to his hometown province of Romblon.
i had been there through his stories and laughed:
i doubt it.
the other passengers listened,
either shocked by his perfect Grammar,
or mesmerized by his lyrical tone;
i should have taken a picture then.

when he returned to the Southland last year,
this time a UCLA President’s Fellow,
i saw him only once.
we missed each other between his dialysis
and my writing paralysis from teaching;
i think i took a picture then.

by coincidence, my former Cal State Northridge student, Allan,
enrolled as NVM’s only student,
during his first quarter in grad school too,
sharing coffees and stories
that only silver-haired grandfathers can tell.

these remain my only pictures.

November 28, 1999
Northridge, California

© Emily Porcincula Lawsin