Friday, September 11, 2015


Eileen R. Tabios introduces BABAYLAN: An Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers edited by Nick Carbó and Eileen R. Tabios
(Aunt Lute Press, San Francisco, 2000)


            "…one of the most effective ideological instruments for establishing U.S. colonial domination was the teaching of the English language"
-- from THE PHILIPPPINE TEMPTATION: Dialectics for Philippines-U.S. Literary Relations by E. San Juan, Jr.

            "Poetry is like painting. You say you are going to paint a portrait. You start with a blob of color and then wash, and when the lines are taking shape, you see a landscape, perhaps people. You are not quite sure what you're driving at, but it means something in the end. And the first person to be surprised is the one who made it."
-- Tita Lacambra-Ayala (born 1931), a leading member of the first group
of Philippine poets to write in English

I am delighted to join Nick Carbo in introducing the first comprehensive anthology in the United States of Filipina women writers and poets writing in English.  When we distributed our submissions call, we placed no constraints on the type of fiction and poetry which could be sent to us for consideration.  Thus, I am pleased to note that the wide range of topics and writing approaches reveals the hidden wealth of Filipina literature which long has been ignored by American publishers as well as by American universities and their English Departments.  Babaylan includes a story by Paz Marquez Benitez and three poems by Angela Manalang Gloria—both were among the Philippines' first generation of writers to use English as their creative tool of expression.  To contrast the works of these literary matriarchs with the writings of some of the book's younger, emerging artists, such as Luba Halicki-Hoffman in fiction and Michella Rivera-Gravage in poetry is to see how far the Filipina writer has evolved.

The rich variety of expressive styles can also be viewed as a latent response to the colonialist introduction of English to the Philippines.  The contemporary women writers in this book challenge the reader to pay attention, not just to the stories themselves, but to how they tell their stories, whether it’s through the pungency and underlying music of Jessica Hagedorn’s language; Gina Apostol’s smooth, adept lapses into irony and humor; the sweet beauty of Evelina Galang’s diction; or the steel muscle in Lara Stapleton’s technique.  Though perhaps not any different from how writers generally seek to control their craft, it seems to me that a certain self-consciousness of language is appropriate for the English-language Filipino writer and, further, that any fragmentation of text (e.g. Catalina Cariaga and Jean Gier) or reconsideration of syntax (e.g. Celine Salazar Parrenas) can be considered inevitable.

Since Nick Carbo has provided a general introduction to Filipina women’s literature, I would like to offer an analysis of my work as an example of how one Filipina writer might proceed from the historical context shared by all writers in this book.  I note that the majority of Babaylan’s writers seem more welcoming of narrative than I am in my work, which delights me, for the postcolonial Filipino writer would never allow the silencing of one’s stories—the priestess-poet “Babaylan” has never been successfully colonized.  Babaylan’s insistence on artistic freedom has resulted in a multiplicity of characteristics and methodologies; rather than speak on behalf of my comadres, I thought it best to discuss the process of writing a poem dedicated to—and based on the works of—the writers in this book.  In doing so, I believe I also offer an example of the long reach of my shared history with Babaylan’s writers.  I begin with a memory from Thanksgiving 1998:

I was in Paris looking at the Millet/Van Gogh show at the Musee d'Orsay. Images of shoes, peasant farmers tilling the fields or taking a break by napping, haystacks, star-filled nights, individual laborers, a resting woman with a shawl and cane—again and again the comparisons depicted Jean-Francois Millet’s influence on Vincent Van Gogh. With stunning clarity, the show illustrated how much Van Gogh "copied" Millet. But the show also proved that Van Gogh's artistry was not due to the images but to how he painted them. By the time I finished perusing the exhibition, I had a crick in my neck, having frequently nodded in recognition as I contemplated the paintings. For me, the show validated the approach I have come to practice in writing poetry—an approach that was birthed from each of my poems's consistent insistence that the Poem transcends authorial intent.

            Recognition —the presentation of the two artists' juxtaposed works confirmed what I have come to realize as a poet: originality cannot be my goal. For my poems cannot help but reflect my identity as, in the words of Lara Stapleton, a "bastard of the Philippine diaspora." As a poet, this means I have no desire to be original in my use of a language that was introduced to my birthland, the Philippines, as a tool of imperialism and colonialism. I prefer to experiment with subverting words’ dictionary definitions or the cultural contexts in which I perceive the words posit their referentiality. With this awareness infusing my poetry, I began to write in a surrealist vein before moving to collaging fragments from other people's writings in order to begin the poem. With the latter in particular, I wanted to use "found" words in order to evade the conventional stress on individuality and originality and, therefore, push both myself and the poem's reader to grasp a new level of meaning and emotion. If "plagiarism" is the most extreme application of my disinterest in originality, I believe nevertheless that such "plagiarism" is a valid way to begin writing the poem. For the Poem (or the type of poem I wish to write) surfaces as its own entity—just as Van Gogh's art transcended his copying of the images in Millet's works.

            I have found this approach to be synchronistic with my exploration of "Identity" through language. In this process, I have found a home in "abstract poetry"—that is, poetry that doesn't rely on narrative so much as my desire that it be the reader's subjectivity that completes the poem. It is an approach that I consider consistent with my unease with the English language which, in turn, allows me to avoid having to concoct a narrative before I can begin to write the poem. I write the poem only to offer a means for generating an emotional relationship between the poem and its reader.  And I do not wish to supplant the role of the Poem's reader by being the one to identify the narrative’s story or idea—and, thus, constrain the possibilities—of that relationship.  (Similarly, the abstract painter needs not identify the brush stroke for the viewer, leaving it to the viewer’s eye to imagine a tree, a shoreline, a human being or other images—if any—from the brush stroke.)

            What does this have to do with being Filipina American? There is first the obvious effect of being part of the Philippine diaspora.  I was born in 1960 and immigrated to the United States in 1970. Had I remained in the Philippines, the influence on my poetics would have been different—certainly I don't believe that I would have been unaffected by Ferdinand Marcos' Martial Law regime.  Like many Filipino poets, I might have ended up writing overtly political narrative poetry; I even might have stopped writing in English altogether to write in one of the Philippines' many dialects in order to protest (by avoiding English) the imperialism that continued with the U.S. support enjoyed by Marcos during most of his tenure.  Because I left the Philippines and was raised "Americanized," my poetry came to be influenced primarily by the visual arts, itself a catalytic inspiration for modernist American poetry.  I enjoy the freewheeling, wide-ranging variety of poetic styles in the United States.  Charles Simic once said that the greatest achievement of American poetry is that there is no such thing as a school of American poetry.

            Initially, my poetry was influenced significantly by abstract expressionism.  I feel I found a home in the form of the prose poem because the avoidance of line breaks facilitates my feeling of "painting" (versus "writing") the poem with lush brush strokes laden with gesture. I write "abstractly" because I wish my poem's reader to follow the painterly gesture through emotional resonance, uninterrupted by "thinking" over meaning.  Nevertheless, when I also began to "plagiarize" I didn’t think this avoided the presence of my own "I" – specifically an “I” who is concerned with Beauty.  Perhaps the use of others’ texts actually requires more from me because I have to make sure the sensibility of the poem’s final draft transcends the plagiarism.

            I should say, too, that although I think I'd formed my interest in abstract poems prior to 1998, I believe 1998 was important to my development as a poet.  1998 is not only the centennial anniversary of the Philippines' Declaration of Independence from Spain, but also of the United States' aborting of the Philippines first attempt at national sovereignty.  On June 12 1898 the Philippines declared its independence from Spain, its colonial master of nearly 350 years.  However, on December 10 1898 the United States signed the Treaty of Paris with Spain through which it purchased the Philippines for twenty million dollars and, thus, became the Philippines' new colonial master.  The Philippines protested against American intervention through a bloody war that's been called the United States' "First Vietnam"—about 30,000 American soldiers died but over one million Filipinos were killed.  After their military victory, the United States’ colonizing efforts also won on the cultural and linguistic terrains. In 1901, the United States transport ship, "Thomas," arrived in Manila Bay carrying five hundred young American teachers. The English they spoke spread across the Philippines, becoming the preferred language for education, administration, commerce and daily living -- thus the reference among Filipinos to English as a "borrowed tongue," though "enforced" tongue is more accurate.

            Many Filipino writers and artists participated in centennial anniversary related events; in the process we came to learn more about and/or heighten our consciousness of how English was a tool for American colonialism in the Philippines.  The lessons I learned from such activities bolstered my poetic approach towards abstraction as a way to transcend poetically—or subvert politically—(the dictionary definitions of) English for my poetry.  Consequently, I am not simply playing with language as material — there is a political component to my work, even as I continue to be inspired by the beauty of abstract paintings.  Certain words are also beautiful outside their meaning, like azure or jasmine or cobalt.  This is partly the place of abstract poetry, in addition to what's happening in that space between words, lines, sentences and paragraphs. Of course, others may disagree with how I consider other words beautiful — words like centrifuge, polychrome and lothario.  But it is this same subjectivity that makes interesting the response to Art, whether it's a poem or a painting; the artist Agnes Martin once said, "The response to art is the real art field."

            I choose to believe that my personal history as a poet ranges from ancient Greek sculptors to nineteenth century French painters to twentieth century American artists and contemporary poets who fragment text. When Filipinos claim global history as ours, we are only hearkening back to the history of the Philippines itself, which Filipino poet Eric Gamalinda has described to be "as intricate as the mosaics of the Alhambra, and which can be traced to the refugees of the Sri Vijaya empire, up to the traders of the Madjapahit, China, Siam, Mexico, Peru, Barcelona, London, Paris, New York, California, New Orleans, and the Arabic empires."  And, our history is also informed by the Philippines, whose troubled history teaches passion, compassion, hope, of hopes thwarted, perseverance, of human frailty, humor, irony, humility, pride—influences that well up during the writing process to stain the surface of my poems with shades ranging from the lightness of watercolor to the heaviness of oil.  Specifically, because my people’s history teaches me hope and compassion, I wish to continue reaching out to the reader to develop a relationship: ultimately, this means my overriding goal through writing poetry is Beauty. Because my goal is Beauty, it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the possibility of communication despite my approach of rupturing language.  Simply, what I wish to show through poetry is how the definition of Beauty includes the Rapture that comes from Rupture.


            As a manifestation of my poetics, I offer the prose poem "COROLLA," which I began in homage to Filipina women’s literature.  I began to write this prose poem by "plagiarizing," then collaging, and then rewriting fragments from the works of many of the Filipina writers represented in BABAYLAN. I show below the original fragments that I used as “Raw Material” for the poem. After the “Raw Material” section, I offer the poem.  I titled it "COROLLA" because when I think of Filipina women, I think of flowers: the beauty and variety of flowers—including the lush bloom who is my mother—that comprise my motherland.


I.          RAW MATERIAL:

Gina Apostol:  The unembodied truth, a disinterested, full adoration: she could feel this in her fingers, sometimes, as she prayed.  It was a cold, pointed feeling.

Lilledeshan Bose:  I am quiet as hell, and I prefer being placed at the edges: of my classroom seats, of pictures taken of me, of too long dining tables. . . . And she played herself perfectly.

Caroline Cheng:  She seemed so light, lighter than any of the babies that I had cared for...; I wondered then if her bones were hollow, like a flute made out of reed, and if music ran through them instead of marrow.

Michelle Cruz-Sinner:  The Virgin Mary looked newly painted in her white gown with the blue cloak. She held her arms out from her side and looked up to heaven. For a Virgin Mary I thought she had very prominent breasts...After a while, I prayed because I thought I should.

M. Evelina Galang:  She is not interested in calming down.  She has no use for it.

Susan S. Lara:  Perhaps even a mouse, he thought, between a cat's swipes and jabs, might be thankful for a reprieve to appreciate the softness of its tormentor's paws.

Reine Arcache Melvin:  Her first lover.  Who had wanted to marry her, with an insistence she would later find only in virgins or fools.

Tara F.T. Sering:  It looked like it had been a beautiful crystal chandelier but now it simply hung there, ignored, unattended, sorry-looking, like an ex-beauty queen still hung up on former glory.  Things here were not as lively as the family that owned them, and she blinked, fighting back a growing resentment.

Lara Stapleton:  ...the controlling mechanism, the driving force behind the decision which directed this life to come, was a fear of his own capacity for degradation.

Eileen Tabios:  My body was a Christmas tree.  I never considered the black-faced children stumbling out of tunnels dug deep enough to plunge into China's vagina.

Linda Ty-Casper:  My head was hurting.  Could I drown on air?

Marianne Villanueva:  Her roommate groaned with abandon and she was embarrassed, as if she were doing something bad by listening.

Jessica Zafra:  This town was celebrated for two things: most of its men went into the priesthood, and most of its women took up prostitution.  This is an example of the balance of nature.

Cyan Abad:  flying kites

Babylu Abaya:  on the purple number 7, suck my lollipop

Mila D. Aguilar:  The meanness of the mien

Luisa A. Igloria:  I would be stunned by the world

Joyce Alcantara:  for my mouth that longs to be fed

Nerissa S. Balce:  exchange. Love is haggled before it is

Michelle Macaraeg Bautista:  Balikbayan they call her, but she does not know what to call this country she returns to.

Sofiya Colette Cabalquinto:  rope hammocks and roasted pigs

Catalina Cariaga:  how a high fever can turn into pneumonia--in an instant

Virginia Cerenio:  how to help my child find in this dark

Corinne Leilani Domingo:  silencing the afternoon with a finger

Marjorie Evasco:  Of the world's magnificent indifference

Jean Vengua Gier:  Green tomato pickers wanted.

Erna Hernandez:  And the dark red lipstick . . .

Leslianne Hobayan:  Lolo Eddie's leg massages stretched us tall

Dolores de Iruretagonyena de Humphrey:  You smothered votive lights.

Fatima Lim-Wilson:  Upon my burning tongue.  Who is my father

Cristina Martinez-Juan:  in fitless sleep.

Farah Montesa:  the phone off the hook. May you be barren

Barb Natividad:  feed the animal I was, through the bars, feed me

Yolanda Palis:  Space must be used to be of value

Celine Salazar Parrenas:  dripping n the rice cooker flirting with its lid

Barbara J. Pulmano Reyes:  At that point where land meets water

Darlene Rodrigues:  And the daughter is afraid like the father

Melissa S. Salva:  There, veiled ladies sing out of tune

Marisa de los Santos:  Her pain spreads open, a gray wing, a sky

Nadine L. Sarreal:  Sprinkle dust upon the stairs

Irene Suico Soriano:  You may still be hiding in a delicadeza moonlight

Edith Tiempo:  Green calyx around its burden.

Rowena Torrevillas:  An instant lifted whole out of context

Doris Trinidad:  the layered auras of decay entranced her

Cyn Zarco:  I put Bing cherries in his bluegreen bowl.

II.         THE POEM:


Sometimes, I pray.  Love is always haggled before it becomes.  I clasp my hands around my disembodied truth: I am forever halved by edges—in group photos, on classroom seats, at mahogany dining tables whose lengths still fail to include me.  I play myself perfectly, containing a Catholic hell within my silence to preserve the consolation of hope.  Hope—once, I tipped Bing cherries into a blue bowl until I felt replete in the red overflow.

If my bones were hollow, like flutes made from reeds, I might savor the transcendence of Bach flowing through me rather than the fragile movement of marrow.  "These are thoughts which occur only to those entranced by the layered auras of decay," my mother scolds me.  I agree, but note the trend among artisans in sculpting prominent breasts on immobilized Virgin Marys.  She replies, "But these are moments lifted out of context."

The green calyx emphasizes the burden of generously-watered corollas, though beauty can be emphasized from an opposite perspective.  I have no use for calm seas, though I appreciate a delicadeza moonlight as much as any long-haired maiden.  You see, my people are always hungry with an insistence found only in virgins or fools.  It is my people's fate for focusing on reprieves instead of etched wrinkles on politicians's brows and mothers's cheeks.  We are uncomfortable encouraging dust to rise.

I feel pain spread like wine staining silk—a gray wing, then grey sky.  "Only God," I begin to whisper, before relenting to the tunes hummed by ladies with veiled eyes.  The definition of holidays becomes the temporary diminishment of hostile noise.  I do not wish to know what engenders fear from my father, even if it means I must simulate an aging beauty queen clutching photos of tilted crowns.  I prefer to appreciate from a distance those points where land meets water: I prefer the position of an ignored chandelier.

When lucidity becomes too weighty, when the calyx sunders, I concede that I make decisions out of diluting my capacity for degradation.  I frequently camouflage my body into a Christmas tree.  I cannot afford to consider soot-faced children stumbling out of tunnels dug deep enough to plunge into China's womb.  You say the rice cooker is flirting with its lid; I say, I AM DROWNING IN AIR.  I have discovered the limitations of wantonness only in the act of listening.  There is no value in negative space without the intuitive grid.

Sometimes, I pray.  For, often, I am stunned by the meanness of the mien.  It makes me search for rust-covered bars so I can plead like an animal in an impoverished Berlin zoo: "Dress me in a pink dress, stranger.  Forgive me.  Feed me."  I possess the dubious honor of an ex-lover whispering, "May you be barren."  In response, I kept the phone off the hook until I swallowed the last crumb from a seven-layered wedding cake.  This seemed a logical decision for someone born in a town where most men become priests and women become prostitutes.  I am always flying kites through my fitless sleeps.  Consistently, string breaks and I wake to a burning tongue wrapped around the question: "Who is my Father?"

I am called "Balikbayan" because the girl in me is a country of rope hammocks and waling-waling orchids—a land with irresistible gravity because, in it, I forget the world's magnificent indifference.  In this country, my grandmother's birthland, even the dead are never cold and I become a child at ease with trawling through rooms in the dark.  In this land, throughout this archipelago, I am capable of silencing afternoons with a finger.  In this country where citizens know better than to pick tomatoes green, smiling grandmothers unfurl my petals and begin the journey of pollen from anthers to ovary.  There, stigma transcends the mark of shame or grief to be the willing recipient of gold-rimmed pollen.  In my grandmother's country, votive lights are driven into dark cathedrals by the flames of la luna naranja, a blood-orange sun.

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