EILEEN TABIOS Engages
BALIKBAYANG MAHAL: Passages from Exile by E. San Juan, Jr.
(Philippine Studies Center, Washington D.C., 2007/2017)
My exposure to E. San Juan, Jr.’s poetry has been haphazard over the years, in part because much of his original poetry has been in Pilipino and published in the Philippines (I’m not fluent in Pilipino as I emigrated to the U.S. as a young child). My first readings of his writings probably were of his scholarly works as he is as well known as a scholar as a poet, and I didn’t have a reason to have a prolonged dialogue with him until 1998/99 when I included one of his essays in my edited book THE ANCHORED ANGEL, a book on Jose Garcia Villa put out by Kaya. All this is to say that I robustly welcomed my read of his poetry collection, BALIKBAYANG MAHAL: Passages from Exile.
Since BALIKBAYANG MAHAL comes out in 2017 (updating a 2007 edition), it also bears the point of view of a seasoned human being—one who’s fully gone through the Philippine diaspora and traveled around the world. As such, there’s a spirit of elegy that wreathes through its pages. That impression is based on my first read-through of the book, and re-readings certainly will cause other emotions to well-up: enjoyment at his finely-turned phrases and music, amusement at his wit, appreciation at the expanse of his address, and so on.
But it is hard to disregard its most discernible undertone: grief. And its presence makes sense given its theme(s): “balikbayang” refers to the Filipino/a returning to the Philippines after sojourns outside the country’s borders, and “mahal” means love. To be balikbayan means to have been part of the Philippine diaspora that encompasses how the Philippines is the world’s third largest recipient of remittances from its overseas workers (World Bank, 2015). An entire culture of loss, homesickness and sacrifice has surfaced from its diasporic history. A publisher’s book description includes: “Less a Baedeker for remembering or reaching a destination, this palimpsest of tropes/signs hopes to construct zones of departure for discovering new territory built out of a history of collective sacrifices grounding our dreams and desires.”
For Dr. San Juan, his experiences have been more “white collar” than most, given his scholarly and intellectual background (which can be summarized by Wikipedia):
Epifanio San Juan Jr., also known as E. San Juan Jr. (born December 29, 1938), at Sta. Cruz, Manila, Philippines), is a known Filipino American literary academic, Tagalog writer, Filipino poet, civic intellectual, activist, writer, essayist, video/film maker, editor, and poet whose works related to the Filipino Diaspora in English and Tagalog writings have been translated into German, Russian, French, Italian, and Chinese. As an author of books on race and cultural studies, he was a “major influence on the academic world”.He was the director of the Philippines Cultural Studies Center in Storrs, Connecticut in the United States. In 1999, San Juan received the Centennial Award for Achievement in Literature from the Cultural Center of the Philippines because of his contributions to Filipino and Filipino American Studies.
His intellect, though, has enervated his poetry, not always the case for those in the academy (cough). He has managed to hang on to a welcome lyricism while offering references earned through a philosophical bent, including the political (as regards the latter, I consider him my “favorite Communist” though that’s more a personal rather than critical assessment). For example, this excerpt from “PUNTA SPARTIVENTO” is no less than an address to “Beloved” even as it hearkens “violated victims”:
[Click on images below to enlarge]
His knowledge results in a poem like “VICISSITUDES OF THE LOVE AND DEATH OF VLADIMIR MAYAKOVSKY” excerpted here—
—though the travails of the Balikbayan are also explicitly parsed, as in the book’s title poem; here’s an excerpt:
Further befitting the Balikbayan theme, the book also presents his English and Filipino poems translated into Russian, German, Italian and Chinese. These translations don’t intrude—they, rather, highlight the collection’s wide expanse.
I had read other poems before by “Sonny,” as the doctor allows me to call him. But for me, BALIKBAYANG MAHAL is also an effective introduction to his poetry. It is effective in that it is mostly pleasure-inducing in the way great poetry collections are. Whether, therefore, one is steeped in Philippine history or affairs or not, BALIKBAYANG MAHAL is recommended for poetry lovers. Let me close with one of my favorites--it is a favorite poem for being successful despite including such non-poetic words like "capitalism" or the "Stock... Exchange," which is to say, it widens what an unsuspecting reader had assumed to be poetry's expanse:
Eileen R. Tabios loves books and has released over 40 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental (auto)biographies from publishers in eight countries and cyberspace. More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com