Vicente G. Groyon III presents Afterword to Trading in Mermaids by Alfred A. Yuson
(Anvil Publishing, Manila, 1993)
[Excerpts from: "Lyricism and Logic: Alfred A. Yuson's Poetic Influences" by Vicente G. Groyon III, LIKHA, Volume XVIII 1997-8, published by De La Salle University]
Among all the contemporary Filipino poets writing in English, Alfred A. Yuson alone pulls off the neat trick of being intimidating and inviting in equal measure. Reading his poetry can be difficult, with its layers of meaning and nuance, and its linguistic contortions. However, it can also entice for the same reasons. Sensing the labor involved in plunging into his poetry, one resists being drawn to it. Still, his riddles fascinate and draw the reader into his celebration of language and image. By then it is too late. The reader is trapped, but happily.
Studying Yuson, particularly his influences, offers a different set of challenges. Being a Filipino poet writing in English, he straddles two streams of tradition, two cultures, two worldviews. Centuries of poetic theory and technique lie at his, and at any other contemporary poet's, disposal. The problem is further compounded if one considers the different types of English that he could be writing from.
The poems in question are taken from Yuson's Trading in Mermaids (1993). Initial readings of his poetry reveal Yuson to be terse, laconic between complete sentences and fragments. The persona projected is that of the quintessential macho: strong but silent.
This terseness is the key source of one of his poetic strengths—his unerring ear for the precise word to use when sketching an image. ...
In his search for the inevitable word, he often arrives at the images that startle in their freshness and familiarity.
He also reveals a dry wit and a sharp sense of irony, but allows the tenderness that lies behind the stern, deadpan exterior to peek through.
Upon closer reading, Yuson's work appears to be a jumble of traditions and contradictions; he seems to draw freely from the stream as it suits him.
... (A) strong sense of playfulness pervades his choice of words and images, resulting in the startling quality that has already been noted. However, while the images tend to surprise, they also arise organically and logically out of the situation or metaphor that the poem presents and pursues.
This playfulness manifests itself particularly in the juxtaposition of the most widely unrelated or irreconcilable elements, resulting in a kind of dreamlike vision that strongly suggest Symbolist tendencies.
In many of his poems, Yuson describes situations with fantastic, dreamlike imagery, utilizing the Symbolist technique of synaesthesia. ...
However wild the juxtapositions are, Yuson never fails to anchor them within the context of the poem. The combinations are always perfectly appropriate.
... (W)hile Yuson reveals a tendency towards Dadaist playfulness and Symbolist/Surrealist imagery, he never fails to check the playfulness with logic and order. The Symbolist influence, therefore, while prominent in his work, is only partial.
The return to logic is a significant feature of Yuson's poetry. ...(H)e never allows himself to be carried away by an image to the point of complete nonsense. Other aspects of his work reveal him to be another son of John Donne.
In his poems, the images are constructed in a manner that either reveals or suggests an underlying logic. The connections between the abstraction and the concrete image are always clear, definable, and ingenious, indicating a dominant Metaphysical procedure at work.
Edith Tiempo has identified the manner in which metaphysical and Symbolist procedures acted upon one another to produce the "Modern Metaphysical" procedure, as exemplified by the works of T.S. Eliot. The similarities that she points out are all readily applicable to Yuson's work: the juxtaposition of diverse elements, the intellectual and ironic tone, and accuracy in word choice and image. This comes as no surprise, as Yuson cites Eliot as an early influence (A Passionate Patience, edited by Ricardo M. de Ungria, 1995).
Yuson utilizes logic in his poetry, but not as John Donne would have done. Some of Yuson's poetry are couched in the form of an argument, but are not strictly syllogistic. Many times he is content to present the argument and leave the resolution hanging. Tiempo identifies this as an innovation of the Modern Metaphysicals.
Tiempo identifies key contemporary characteristics, all of which Yuson exhibits and defies.
Realism is readily perceivable in the situations and images that he presents. His poetry is always grounded in the real world, in real concerns. His poetry's reliance upon a specific image of situation is apparent. However, he presents these situations and images in a wild combination of images, thereby creating an unworldly vision of his reality. His sense of irony cuts close to the bone, often directing itself to the persona and the persona's disadvantages and failings as being a mere human observer of the situations and images. Finally, for the most part, he uses everyday speech, adopting a personal, casual tone, yet in many instances he loses himself in semi-ecstatic word play and imagery.
The conversational tone is a crucial difference between the modern or contemporary mode of self-expression and the more old-fashioned Classical or Neo-Classical modes. Yet Yuson flies in the face of modernity by using obscure and high-flown language and diction. He speaks in fragments that often resemble ejaculatory phrases uttered in the throes of some indescribably delicious experience. The terseness that marks him as a possible Hemingway of poetry sometimes spirals into an elevated, dignified, and decidedly un-contemporary tone. His sentence structures are often complex, much like Henry James sentences. He uses clauses and punctuation pauses to great effect in the tautening of a poem's tension, yet in doing so draws himself up into loftier heights.
Yuson himself states that his own "poetic process relies much on a lyric predisposition that, through joyful or quiet song, shows the way to either celebration or contemplation" (de Ungria, 152). It is the lyric quality of his poetry that forms the other half of the picture of his ouevre. He cannot help but revel, but be ecstatic. The smallest things, often related to the concepts of home and family, drive him to it ...
Ultimately, is is the lyricism that shakes sense into the private, infallible logic of his metaphors and analogies, and makes them real, tangible, to the reader. Even when, as in his more difficult poems, the meaning is only barely grasped, the emotion comes through in full force. It is the tension between reason and emotion that provides the kernel for all his poems. Far from marring each other or negating each other's contributions to his craft, they act upon each other to produce a sweet-sour blend that is distinctly recognizable as his voice, and his voice alone.
Thus in true Modernist fashion, Yuson does not allow one quality the privilege of winning over the other, but instead relishes their tension, and delights in the pleasure of tautening.
Other poets have contented themselves with appropriating an established literary form or genre and then reshaping it until it becomes their own. Yuson, on the other hand, has scanned the entire stream that came before him discerningly and has used its various trends and movements as the raw material for his own attempts.
Thus, Yuson, for one, confirms to (Gémino H.) Abad's vision of the modern Filipino poet as being deliberate, purposeful in the decisions that he or she makes in relation to craft; and more importantly, the Filipino poet as moving towards a clearing of his or her own "within the psychic realm." In Trading in Mermaids, we see just that: Alfred A. Yuson clearing a space of his own within the clearing; a space that is at once informed by all the poetry that had passed over it, and is distinctly, uniquely his own, hence Filipino.