FRANCIS C. MACANSANTOS Reviews
Passional (New Poems and Some Translations) by Ophelia A. Dimalanta
(UST Publishing House, Philippines, 2002)
PASSION IN THE HIGHER REGISTERS
Over the years that I have had the occasion to teach writing at the Dumaguete National Summer Writers’ Workshop and in the few times that I have been discussant cum lecturer at the UST Workshop held at my own Baguio City, I have had the great fortune of working together – and having great fun as well -- with the living and breathing legend of Philippine letters, Ophelia Alcantara Dimalanta, no less.
This personal acquaintance has been, for me -- to adapt Horace -- quite as much a mode of instruction as –to speak truly- a delight. But the case of Ophie as Orphic, person as poet, is a case like no other. Perhaps, the only way to truly know her is to read her. Her poems are her feelings and thoughts writ large, intimate and human, not less personal than the person (but if anything, more intensely so) and yet, for all that, never fashionably confessional, never self-exploitatively biographical.
Passional , her latest book of poetry, is a treasure-trove of evidence to her kind of intimate intensity – to no surprise of her avid readers, who would, if they could remember that far back, merely cull Keats’ definition of poetry as the “surprise of fine excess.” For Passional indeed is poetry, and a fine excess of it: feelings, emotions, and insight, in dynamic, felicitous, often serendipitous combinations, just as you like your Ophie to be. And then some …
The book begins on the deck of m.s. egilika, a Nile cruise-ship, in a quietly powerful poem called “Beginnings” where the poet shares with us her musings on life’s brevity, against the background of the infinite: Outside, forever moves/ Through granite rocks, palm groves,/ And color-drenched boulders. The poem is the first step in the journey (for this book is a page-turner in its own right because it is a journey – nay, pilgrimage) for passionate souls. The reader is carried away to exotic stopovers like Bangkok, for a romantic interlude on a ferryboat, and to Singapore (though this one, more for relief comique ) where inveterate confessionalists expose themselves in oh-too-public poetry readings where they are wont to …Flaunt wares by being impaled/ Naked…Then the book swings back to Egypt, where, gazing at the image of the Sphinx the traveler recalls Oedipus, and as though that troubled soul were hers for company, ponders with him the recurring riddle of human existence.
Then the book swings up across the Mediterranean to the old/modern cities of the north (Barcelona, Paris) lightly, vibrantly, undeterred by the weight of its themes, leading us oddly but significantly to a small town in France called Lourdes. Here no reader should miss the keen point of the travel metaphor. For this is no mere wandering, no ordinary travelogue but the making good of the poet’s promise/hope to sing in the higher registers.
But so long as we exist, there are no final arrivals. What obtain are merely harbors, stops in the journey where one takes an existential breathing spell – perhaps a deep one, preparatory to a vision. But even vision comes only as a momentary break in the clouds. It is the journey, the search for meaning that makes us and keeps us human – the eternal travail, the passion. In At the Foot of the Sphinx, the poet counsels the ever-puzzled Oedipus:
Live the question as if it is
The very key you seek,
And slowly, unwittingly,
You shall have fully lived,
Living your way towards
And into the very answer.
Here the poet – because she is poet – outwits… nay, outsphinxes, the Sphinx. A reader of Ophelia Dimalanta does well to live the question—that is, to immerse oneself in her verse as though it were life itself, allowing oneself to be buffeted, teased, soothed, seduced. Fine poetry, like life lived intensely is often its own reward. And Ophie D.’s poetry is justly famous for ambushing us with her ‘existential’ fervor, through images that stun and haunt, and verbal pyrotechnics that ignite the heart and quite ‘tease us out of thought.’
Already we expect this high level of artistry from her, marvelously culled even from the quotidian, but transformed, made uncannily resplendent. But if memory serves, in her preface she had promised us something more: “Meantime, here is Passional, poetry that I hope probes deeper and sings in higher registers.”
That is the poet’s promise and it scintillates. One wishes for our own dear sake, that every eminent Filipino poet at the prime of his/her career could promise as much – and deliver.
But how is that promise fulfilled? “Discover,” Ophie D. says, tantalizingly in her preface. And perhaps to convince us that she means business, she adds: “ For poetry, after all, is still meant to be always on the side of being (no matter how pained) and against nothingness. And Passional speaks of a life more intimately lived.”
The phrasing here is crucial, underscoring a poetics, perhaps indicating a shift or reappraisal. The phrase ‘is still’ rings a bell, suggesting the reaffirmation of established principles as against present trends, prevailing modes of assessing the function of poetry.
Is Passional Dimalanta’s vehicle for the reaffirmation of certain verities now deemed outmoded? “Beginnings”, the very first poem in the book, will, I think, bear this out. It virtually sounds the thematic key to the book: the human journey, human solidarity, its destiny, its meaning. Which is also to say that Dimalanta has put the author (rumors of whose death are grossly exaggerated) back to the navigator’s seat, personally involved in making the language of poetry perform its semantic function to deny nothingness.
In “Beginnings”, the boat Egilika is symbolic of the fate we human beings share, our destiny. We are “in the same boat of existence” and the voyage is on Time’s endless stream. But when the symbol makes its appearance before us, it is decked in the trappings, the idiom, of post-modernism: Egilika is newfound discourse/ Contained within its decks,/Beginning and ending with us.
That is, at first glance the poem seems to be echoing one of those favorite notions of our fashionably skeptic literati to the effect that everything is a text, that all that we perceive are merely the product of our ideas expressed in words. But the m.s. egilika, garbed though it be like a post-modern phantom boat with passengers whose substantiality is suspect, is new wineskin with old wine in its hold – and the sweeter for it. Because all discourse, indeed, begins and ends with us – and we should always be proud of that fact. Without our puny talkative race, there would be no search for meaning, nor expressions of meaning, and no texts whatsoever, meaningful or otherwise. And Dimalanta, serious chronicler of human feelings and passions that she is, is not likely to dismiss existence as illusion. In her poetry, we human beings are supreme, even as
…we fritter away in little rites
Simulating joy and becoming
Ecstatically alive extracting
Lastminute beginnings from each
Dying spasm and squeezing them
Into everywhere and while
There is breathing space and time.
Thus while the poem is indeed about discourse, it is also, and more importantly, about human beings, the inventors of discourse: Even as this moment we hang in/ There, taking each other on faith/ Lasting no more than a fitful day, / One remembering, one lifetime. Dimalanta reinstates the human theme back to its rightful place at the center of poetic expression. And if, indeed, the fashionable skepticism of academe does assail us with doubts on our own being, our own existence, the poet bids us to “[take] each other on faith.”
Beginnings having struck the key sounding the return to themes human, poet-critic Dimalanta, essentially in the service of poetry, restores the poet to poetry, thereby re-empowering creative energy. Two poems, which are, incidentally, also a virtual showcase of some of the most elegant and mellifluous lines of erotic verse ever written since Villa, shall serve to illustrate.
One is adroitly titled The Lyric Exchange. Taken in the context of contemporary academese, this poem could easily be construed as a take-off from Reader-Response theory. And indeed it is a take-off, but more in the sense of a departure from as well as disclosure, revelation. Whereas the gaggle of formalists, structuralists and deconstructionists would banish the author, or the reader, or both – or even the poem from the poem – Dimalanta seizes her right as poet and human being to dramatize the shared dynamic of poet and reader, in the human transaction called poetry:
I write you, you read me
Into the farthest strangeness
Beneath the skin and into it,
Blind lovers grasping at signposts
More felt and finger-shaped
Than seen, as we invisibly
Connecting, collision and
Collusion, transfer and transport,
Clear, dream, drift and dance
Our paths to each other, strangers,
Caught in the swoon of song.
In On “A Lady Writing” by Vermeer, passion and feeling achieve form in words, and, as words are wont to do, attain a kind of volition, a dynamics all their own. For all this, however, it is human feelings and passions, and the human will, that are the real motive force behind words: The pen nudges, empowered/ As if with a life of its own/ But as she dictates the moves…
Passion and words, in their dynamic fusion rise to a climax: Jauntier and surer towards/ The instrument’s fated peaking/ Till touch is indexed in dainty/ Prints and is charged high-pitched/ in a gathering momentum. Passion and words conjoin to conceive the poem, the “text.” Yet the writing of poetry, this …lonely surrogate act.. that seems to be mere simulation/stimulation, or worse, mere words, contains yet an explosive blend of passions, the reader’s as well as the writer’s. This lonely surrogate act/ nonetheless fulfills, where/ Spaces between are annealed/ Sad valleys spring with life/ And rainclouds burst at the seams.
The poems in Passional hew close to the tradition of poetry as journey and poet as pilgrim as established by poets such as Boccaccio and Dante. So prepare yourself for depths and heights of passion and thought – eroticism not exempted.
But I have kept my special favorites for the last!
A Child’s Fall is verbally virtuosic as well as heart-wrenching. The woman-child of this poem (a mentally challenged deaf-mute) reminds me of some of the characters in Dr. Ed Tiempo’s short stories, particularly the “maliliit na tao”, those seemingly condemned to insignificance, but who through the genius of the fictionist, become memorably meaningful. Glossing Over Chappel’s “Gone” is presumably the verbal translation of a musical piece. It happens to be music I have never heard. But I’m not all too sorry. The poem has done its work on me. All I can do – and gladly – is echo Keats on the sweetness of music unheard.
A notable feature of the book are the translations of some of the poems into Filipino by two young masters of poetry, Rebecca Anonuevo and Mike Coroza. Aside from making Ophie more accessible to Filipino readers, the excellent renditions offer a wealth of material for scholars in the art of translation.
Francis C. Macansantos was born in Cotabato City, grew up in Zamboanga City, and has been a resident of Baguio City since 1981. He earned his MA (Creative Writing) from Silliman University in Dumaguete City and is a five-time Palanca award winner in English Poetry. He won the NCCA (National Commission for Culture and the Arts) Writer”s Prize for Epic Poetry in 2003, and has three books of poetry: The Words and Other Poems (UP Press 1997), Womb of Water, Breasts of Earth (NCCA 2007), and Balsa: Poemas Chabacano (NCCA 2011). Balsa is a collection of 31 poems in Chabacano, with translations into English. Balsa was finalist in the National Book Awards in 2012 for Poetry in English. Macansantos has taught at several universities, including Mindanao State University and the University of the Philippines, and has served in panels of critics in creative writing workshops throughout the Philippines. In 2007 and 2014, he was elected as Baguio/Cordillera representative in the Executive Committee for Literary Arts of the NCCA. In 2014, Macansantos was one of the recipients of the Martha Faust Sonnet Prize in Minnesota. He is married to writer/mathematician Priscilla Macansantos and they have one daughter, the writer Monica Macansantos.
[Each review provides the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily the opinion of THE HALO-HALO REVIEW staff.]