RALPH SEMINO GALAN Reviews
Museum of Absences by Luis H. Francia
(University of the Philippines Press / Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, CA, 2004)
[Previously published in the author’s Discernments: Literary Essays, Cultural Critiques and Book Reviews (UST Publishing House, 2013)]
Powerful Poetics of Loss
Luis H. Francia’s third poetry collection, aptly titled Museum of Absences (Quezon City: UP Press and California: Meritage Press, 2004, 72 pages), is a virtual gallery of the dearth of sympathy and empathy the entire human race has for one another on the war-scarred face of this dying planet. War here must be read in all its multifarious guises and disguises: actual warfare, international terrorism, religious fanaticism, racial discrimination, the battle of the sexes.
The 38 poems attest to the brutality and barbarity people in power are capable of inflicting on their inferiors, perceived or otherwise.
The book is divided into three sections. The first part, “Dis/Appearances,” is devoted to the articulations of expatriate Filipinos in America and their state of exclusion, effacement and eviction.
A series of five poems collectively called “The Manong Chronicles” expresses most eloquently the resentments of a Filipino old-timer to his adopted/adapted land and his yearning for the imaginary motherland: “Where now is that boy’s innocence/ My exile’s faith, nuclear/ Large but in shards of beauty/ In shapes of an apocalypse?/ Where in a white world can/ This grain of unhusked rice spin?//” [“I. A Manong Meditates”], “Padre, I demand my god to be dark,/ Squat, thick-lipped, bright with/ Garlicky speech and/ Full-pledged erection,/” [“III. A Manong Complains, as the Star-Spangled Banner is Played”].
Other interesting pieces included in this exilic Filipino-American section are “Catholic Anonymous,” “A Snail’s Progress,” and “Cinderella at Fifty.”
The first poem deals with racial discrimination inside the church, in what is supposed to be the most sacred and spiritually liberative of spaces: “Don’t even/ look, don’t even/ move your head half an inch/ I remembered the group’s advice/ to stare straight ahead//.”
The second and more subversive composition tackles the rat race, which is emblematic of the North American ethos. The passive-aggressive persona pretends to be docile during the daytime, but becomes hostile after dark: “Who are Wildmen and/ Conspirators at night/ Martyrs by light//.”
“Cinderella at Fifty,” on the other hand, is a continuation and/or deconstruction of the (in)famous European fairy tale. In his version, Francia dismisses the traditional happy ending in the third stanza, by making the blond bombshell suffer the infidelities of an alcoholic husband with a predilection for Asian beauties: “How were you to know about his drinking,/ his fondness for Third World girls?/.”
In his seminal essay titled “Filipinos in the United States and their Literature of Exile,” Oscar V. Campomanes, foremost Filipino scholar on Asian-American Studies, observes that “(m)otifs of departure, nostalgia, incompletion, rootlessness, leavetaking, and dispossession recur with force in most writings produced by Filipinos in the United States and Filipino Americans, with the Philippines as always either the original or terminal reference point.”
Read in this light, “Dis/Appearances” is a valuable contribution to the growing corpus of writing about the diasporic and exilic experiences of migrant Filipinos.
The second section, “Zero Ground,” expounds Francia’s poetic persona’s personal reaction to the September 11, 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center’s twin towers and the other atrocities committed by people against one another ironically in the name of love or the god they adhere to.
“Agatona of Aringay, Henry of Philadelphia” retells the love affair of the persona’s grandparents: “Sent north to the Ilokos/ To shoot the damn insurrectos/ What Lolo found instead was Lola./ Battle enough.//”
But their wedlock is also replete with sociopolitical implications, for it is a microcosmic replication of Filipino-American relations: “Henry of Philadelphia/ Devoured her country as/ Hungrily as she devoured him./”
The 9/11 tragedy is transcended by Francia’s powerful poetics of loss, which is also a poetics of recovery, if not redemption: “All have gone but are not lost./ In each of their deaths we live./ In every one of our lives, they are born.” [“September 11, 2001”], “How beautiful the two of you are/ Even at that moment of horror, in/ That instinctive assertion of your humanity./” [“On Reading the Times Memorials for the 9/11 Victims”] “Our bones are marrow’d with hope/ Our childhood gods and duendes in tow// Cradles and graves on our backs.//” [“New York Mythologies”].
The last part, “Meditations,” is a sequence of reflections on writing, on the word made flesh, on love and loss, and on the inevitability of war and the remote possibilities of peace.
The first of these cogitations is a poetics of sorts in which the persona begins by being slightly amusing and culminates with him musing on the apocalypse of the word, the world: “It starts with an itch, you see, so you scratch. Psoriasis? No. Metamorphosis.//… In the end is the flesh running after word./ In the end is the sword running after flesh./ In the end… I hope it will never.”
Whether in the form of death, departure or divorce, loss is a difficult psychological phenomenon to handle, to transcend. The gaping abyss one has to confront requires a leap of faith, for all kinds of flesh-gnawing and spirit-devouring monsters flourish in its mazelike depths.
But in his life-affirming book Care for the Soul, Thomas Moore reminds us that the man-eating Minotaur of the labyrinth is named after the Greek word for star — Asterion. He concludes the preliminary chapter by stating that “(w)e have to care for this suffering with extreme reverence so that, in our fear and anger at the beast, we do not overlook the star.”
It is during the darkest moments of our lives when there is the most possibility for light and enlightenment, for out of the chaos of uncertainty, the livid truth of lived experience emerges, the balancing of opposites, the harmonizing of the yin and yang of Eastern philosophy.
Francia’s poetics of dispossession and desolation, therefore, is actually no other than a poetics of convalescence and comfort incognito.
Ralph Semino Galán, poet, literary and cultural critic, translator and editor, is the Assistant Director of the Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies of the University of Santo Tomas, where he is an Associate Professor of Literature, the Humanities and Creative Writing. He has a B.A. in English (Major in Literature), magna cum laude from the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology and an M.A. in English Studies (Major in Creative Writing) from UP Diliman. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Literature in the UST Graduate School. His poems in English and Filipino have won prizes in national literary contests. He is the author of the following books: The Southern Cross and Other Poems (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2005), Discernments: Literary Essays, Cultural Critiques and Book Reviews (UST Publishing House, 2013), From the Major Arcana (UST Publishing House, 2014), and Sa mga Pagitan ng Buhay at Iba pang Salin (forthcoming, UST Publishing House, 2016).