CRISTINA QUERRER Reviews
Names Above Houses by Oliver de la Paz
(Southern Illinois University Press / Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, 2001)
The Secret Language of Oliver de la Paz's "Names Above Houses"
Oliver de la Paz brings Filipino folklore and superstition all to life in his book of prose and verses, Names Above Houses. It is a quandary of sadness and hope seen through the eyes and told through the voice of Fidelito Recto, a little Filipino boy with a nimbus, a little boy who felt destined to be an angel wanting to take flight, a little boy only a select people notice to be of extraordinary quality and not of this world. It is through a world and characters that de la Paz created, almost bordering autobiographical—though very much mystical and surreal and valid at the same time. de la Paz also brings in supporting characters with their own issues and quirkiness to present the dichotomy of the inane and the cruel life of the impoverished Filipino people he wrote about.
Using imagery of pestilence: raiding ants and rats, of gossiping and bickering market people and neighbors, de la Paz imbues the harsh realities of Fidelito's world, of the realities of an indigent Filipino barrio and meddlesome Filipino American neighbors. But de la Paz does not withhold softness either, as in the portrait of Fidelito's parents, the beautiful mole in his mother's armpit that his father guards, and other endearing qualities of his father in the poem, "Nine Secrets the Recto Family Can't Tell the Boy", broken down in eight paragraphs.
Most Filipinos who grew up in the Philippines, who came from fishing families, and have immigrated elsewhere, can identify with the secret language of Oliver de la Paz's Fidelito in Name Above House," such as in the poem "From the Ocean, Fidelito Pulls":
Far out at sea, the long boat of Fidelito's father sighs, a blue flame on the/ horizon. In his yellow slicker, Domingo tugs at his net and pulls up more/stars. They give themselves from the ocean.
This secret language, which may be inherent and understood to people from third world and marginalized cultures, is primarily a post-colonial phenomenon. It may seem to be something like a mystery to the rest of the world; however, some literary critics may call it magical realism.
Some writers of magical realism are Alberto Rios, Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende. Magical realism is now not just the domain of Latin American cultures anymore.
Alberto Rios on magical realism:
Magical realism is not escapist; it's there, witnessing. It is a literature fermented in oppression and cultural struggle as much as anything else, the spinoff of saying: this can't be happening--But it is. This is magical realism, with its true edge in view (Rios 1).
de la Paz tells Fidelito's story from his travels: from the Filipino barrio to the United States, from losing his first teeth, first signs of the nimbus and wing nubs on his back, to actual flight. de la Paz also so artfully orchestrates the closing with his second to last of the poems in his collection: "The head arched/back so far the ground disappears and the name, in meditation, opens in/cold air like a parachute," (de la Paz 77).
It is not surprising to see the similarities to de la Paz's Names Above Houses to Gabriel García Márquez's, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. Marquez's fallen angel has been exploited, shunned and finally takes flight as does Fidelito, who may very well be an angel in the making. Also in Marquez's short story, Marquez describes to us the incessant crabs that overcame the house after the rain. In Marquez's work, a lot of elements that seem to parallel de la Paz's Name Above Houses are so perceptible. However, what is the major difference, of course, is that de la Paz chose to tell his story as fragments, snippets—as in one verse/poem per page. Many reviews would describe de la Paz's poetic form as a novella because most of the poems are in prose form and so easily melds into the next poem in a chronological fashion.
What is so successfully employed in Oliver de la Paz's work is the ability to thread the fantastic into lush imagery and lyrical language. Fidelito is representative of the impoverished, the immigrant whose suppressed dreams come to life, and that the symbol of wings and flight transcends the mundane and struggle for all those who live at the margin.
de la Paz, Oliver. Names Above Houses. Crab Orchard Review. Southern Illinois Press. 2001. 1-78.
Rios, Alberto. Magical Realism: Meditations & Notes. Arizona State University. 2002.
Cristina Querrer was born and raised in the Philippines, post Vietnam War, during the Marcos regime, pre-Mount Pinatubo eruption, as a (US Air Force) military child. She graduated high school from former Wagner High School, Clark Air Force Base, Philippines, in 1985. Her works have appeared in The Adirondack Review, The Fairfield Review, Stirring, and in print anthologies such as Pinoy Poetics, Babaylan, Bombshells, The Mom Egg, and Field of Mirrors. Querrer received her MFA in Creative Writing from National University and her BA in Creative Writing with a minor in Visual Arts from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL. She currently lives, works and creates in the quaint town of Palm Harbor, FL.