The Gods We Worship Live Next Door by Bino Realuyo
(University of Utah Press, Salt Lake Gity, 2006)
[First published in The Literary Review / Farleigh Dickinson University, Fall 2006]
The Gods We Worship Live Next Door is the winner of the 2005 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry. I mention this because it makes sense to me to do so. It makes sense to think of Bino Realuyo's poems as being in conversation with those of the late poet for whom this award is named, for the Philippines which emerges out of Realuyo's collection is, like Ali's Kashmir, a decimated landscape, a place populated by often shelterless survivors, a country, to use Ali's words, "without a post office." In fact, many of those for whom Realuyo speaks have been deprived of not only addresses but names as well. In the prose poem "1899: The Forgotten Leaf," a man killed in battle during the Philippine-American War describes those fallen around him, "all dead, and their names, no, they had none." Later he asks, "Who would remember me on my knees, begging, and this soldier thrusting through my mouth fifty years of Juan-to-John?"
But because not everything can be erased and forgotten. The Gods We Worship can excavate the nation's brutal history of successive foreign occupations in order to point toward what grows now from events set in motion more than five hundred years ago. "Did my children know how I died?" the soldier asks. "Did they know that my body was buried in the same soil they strode? I was the tree that grew from it, the hibiscus blooming at dusk, the roots, the memorial of pebbles and dust, the old amputee sitting in his shadow, the glue-children begging for a few coins."
The current political climate in the Philippines is not unlike that of the Middle East. Muslims and Christians have been contending for land, power, and the basic materials of survival—against each other and against various empires —since the arrival of Magellan and the Catholic missionaries. Arab traders had introduced Islam to the Philippines two hundred years earlier, in the late 13th Century. As Realuyo moves through time— beginning with a cluster of poems in the voices of displaced Filipinas, victims of the present Diaspora, and turning to the periods of Spanish oppression, American oppression, and Japanese oppression—we as readers come to a clearer sense of a growing systemic exhaustion. Though these poems never push the argument to its inevitable conclusion, Realuyo brings us into an unflinching confrontation with the erosions of identity and home that make violent rebellion an increasingly appealing, though nevertheless desperate, act of self-reassertion. Realuyo's personas always remain the victims, yet we sense that each carries a growing anger that nurtures something else. And the spirits of those who have gone remain in the air, transformed into the fireflies of "The Cycles." "They sit on twigs, between." In the same poem's second movement, a seemingly universal character, a dying "you," imagines resting on the pregnant belly of the angel of death. She speaks, "Inside all of us, there has always been a child. Yours has been killed many times." Yet the last consideration, even as we travel through the centuries and seemingly into the afterlife, is for the future of this world and what might wash it clean: "your ears on her mound where life kicks within, then the final thoughts —a name, a name for a child who will one day bring rain."
It is difficult to write a poem that aspires to something like global significance. Overtly political poems run the risk of devolving into polemic. One of the strategies which elevates these poems above invective is the distance the poet puts between himself and the tales to which he gives voice. Realuyo cedes his singular Filipino identity in order to generously open a space which can then house the perspectives of so many others. Every poem in the collection is either spoken in character or delivered with a measured third person narration. "Filipineza," the opening poem, is a persona poem told from the point of view of a woman who has gone abroad to work as a maid. Through her particular experience, the motivation of a whole class of women is made succinctly evident, eminently sane.
My whole country cleans houses for food, so that
the cleaning ends with the mothers, and the daughters
will have someone clean for them, and never leave
my country to spend years of conversations with dirt.
The likelihood that this mother's hopes will meet with success is undercut, however, by the story she tells about Elena, another maid, who has disappeared after bearing a child to her married employer. But, as is the case with so many of the vanished in The Gods We Worship, her demise has transformed her into something that cannot be forgotten: "Like the silence in the circling motions / of our hands, she becomes part myth, part mortal, part soap."
The most common physical objects, a soap bubble, a light bulb, fish, folded shirts, have been made into something more, something that points ominously, but not obviously, to the significances behind them. The collection's central metaphors return, and in this way accrue added weight. There is an immediate pleasing strangeness and associative power to the beginning lines of "Filipineza."
If I became the brown woman mistaken
for a shadow, please tell your people I'm a tree.
But we come to a deeper understanding of the centrality of the image when it reappears in "1899: The Forgotten Leaf." More often the metaphors feel hidden, concealed within phrases that might be primarily read as literal. Yet Elena has not literally become part soap. What then does it mean to be soap metaphorically? Has she become part of a mythology which will one day inspire those who seek to purge their country of the institutional labor policies, like those behind "Japayuki," that manufacture suffering? This tension between the clean and the soiled runs through the collection. "Find Me," another poem spoken in the voice of the dead, recounts an event at the Payatas dumpsite. A shantytown built along the edge of the landfill in Metro Manila is buried under a landslide of garbage. One of the many extensive notes in the back of the book, a resource I found myself referencing as though it were a hypertext, informs us that 160 bodies were eventually recovered.