Saturday, September 12, 2015


Eileen R. Tabios introduces Bridgeable Shores: Selected Poems (1969-2001) by Luis Cabalquinto
(Galatea Speaks / Kaya Press, New York, 2001)

Poetry As A Way of Life: Luis Cabalquinto

“life itself is poetry…though few seem to want to realize it”
--October 4, 1999 letter from Cid Corman to Eileen Tabios

Driving through the fields of Napa Valley in January, I pass through vineyards on both sides of Highway 29 stretching toward the mountain ranges. Rows and rows of vines in winter repose, each silvery row edged by a rose bush in bloom—the yellows, pinks and reds flaring like dawn melting a Van Gogh night. As I admire the graceful combination of roses with grapevines, I remember how the tradition of planting roses in vineyards began. In the nineteenth century in the wine-growing territories of France, farmers would plant rose bushes to test for the deadly presence of phylloxera. The scourge-which decimated virtually all of the world's grape crops during the 1870s-would reveal itself by crippling the rose bushes, thereby alerting farmers to the presence of this disease.  Thus, this beautiful legacy of roses in vineyards was birthed from a more insidious application, from a type of combat. It is a legacy that evokes how history contains many layers, and how seemingly the most auspicious picture may be a story of less-benign elements such as sacrifice, such as war. From such reflections I came to write "Legacy," the first poem I wrote after moving to St. Helena from New York. It became a poem about commitment—"about those who never cheated/ who laid their bodies on the line."  Luis also evokes the theme of commitment in his poem, "For Emmanuel." The poem references Emmanuel Lacaba—a Philippine poet turned rebel who forsook academia to join the guerrilla underground force, the New People's Army, after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972:
He is with his brothers now in the rain
Forest. At night, hunched over a growing
Fire and holding a gun, not the pen,

He composes death, out of love.

At the age of 27, Lacaba was killed by a military patrol. I was glad to remember my poem "Legacy" as I read Luis's account of the poet-warrior who once wrote the line "Routes are jigsaw puzzles he must piece together." Indeed, in the type of coincidence that questions whether coincidences truly exist, Luis describes Emmanuel Lacaba in his poem as possessing a "mouth, which had bloomed/ A rose."

I learned to write poems like "Legacy" partly from reading the work of Luis Cabalquinto. Luis's poems are like roses: moments of beauty extracted from an engagement with brutality and degradation as much as with the divine. In Luis's poems this all-encompassing perspective creates connections between seemingly unrelated matters-as he does in arguably his most famous poem "The Dog-Eater" (which inspired the title of Jessica Hagedorn's award-winning first
novel, Dogeaters):

It was the piss on the snow
On a sidewalk in New York
That brought up the thought of a moon
In his childhood: in a cloudless sky,
A clean sphere like a huge new lamp
Under which, for the first time, the boy saw the dog-eater.

However, Luis doesn't simply make connections. He also aims for balance, for alignment, between the forces, which can be the same ingredients for creating chaos-the turmoil that would cause mortals to behave despicably so that a gentle man like Luis is compelled to write poems like "Bosnia"; "Edge of the Woods," which depicts a brutal murder; and "Island Reports," which briefly but powerfully touches on various types of losses, from the prostitution of a child to the rape of a woman to the torture of a poet. He writes about these low moments for Luis is a poet who does not use words to separate himself from his environment. Indeed, some of his most beautiful poems result when he searches for unity, for commonalities, in a world where differences often hold sway over the course of decisions and events. In this manner, the poet reaches out in such affecting poems as "Movements" where one can join "the cosmic dance" of "innumerable motions that make up a sum of life" by simply plucking "one starlit orchid," then "eating." Luis accomplishes something similar in "Thundershower" where "the cellophane/ stream running into/ the gutter" becomes "a/ movement that recalls// the best Baryshnikov" and "The lights that beam/ across from the Daily News" evoke "other touchstones/ do they still torch the hillsides? Does/ the backdrop creek slither/ with catfish and perch?// Poke at woodfires on the earth/ stove: seeds of wild trees/ broiling under hot ashes,/ a mother's wok scenting/ the lost ancestral house."  He delves more abstractly—yet no less resonantly—in unifying elements through stunningly gorgeous poems like "Thoughts From The Seine" and "Alignment":

It comes unsummoned, a shift
Now familiar, a quick
Turning over of an event.
It comes as a small wind in Central Park,
The noontime hammering heard in a Philippine village.
It is an afternoon walk on a rain-wet street in Agra,
Neon lights seen from a hotel at midnight in Tokyo.
It came once from the bend of a woman's body in Rome,
And, again, in the odd light of an old man's eye
Photographed in New Mexico.

Whatever it is—this energy that joins one with the universe—as Luis persuades compellingly in "Crossing the Park," it is a force that catches all. "Whatever it is, you're part of it," he writes about this intangible that is also all of "the distant sound of a cab or a bus, friendly// as the cooing of doves in the park's trees, awaiting morning."

Alignment. Unity. Such are appropriate for Luis Cabalquinto's poems are ultimately about joy-that life is a blessing. (This is a recognition more rare than it should be among poets.) Without finding balance within the upheavals that also comprise life, Luis would not be able to live a harmonious life and write poems depicting harmony. To read such poems as "Eating Lechon With My Brothers & Sisters" and "Sunday With The Smiths" is to feel goodwill, to know that goodwill is more than possibility-it can be a reality:

The sun's long lukewarm rays
& the smell of apples in the yard
& of the pears on our clothes
& watching "Shaggy" chasing shadows
Among the yellow lilies
bring a small quake rushing
Towards the end of my √ěngers,
I pray that something gentle
& old, embracing all of us, should often
come true: something like today,
Something after this Sunday's hold.

Luis Cabalquinto's poetics are his life: Living life, not writing about it. Living poetry, not merely writing it. He illustrates how the point to being a poet is not to write-or publish-poems, but to engage in a particular way with the world. He is not interested in devoting time away from his family for the extensive effort required to explore book publishing opportunities in a country whose publishing industry offers limited venues for poetry. It seems to me that poetry would be a small thing, indeed, if the point of the exercise was the words one eventually would speak or write. A whole lot of living occurs-or not-before that first word which begins a poem. Luis Cabalquinto understands his priorities and has chosen to live first, write next.  Once, I asked Luis why he wasn't attempting to publish a poetry collection in the United States. "Particularly at your age," I brashly added to this man who was born in 1935. By the time I quizzed him, Luis had published three books in the Philippines but none in the United States despite winning major poetry awards and being featured in several prestigious journals as well as college textbooks used to teach poetry at American universities.  Luis smiled, lifted his beer (perhaps it was a martini; in any event, in my memories Luis and I are frequently in settings where we are toasting each other), and replied, "It is enough to be able to say that I have been a good father."  Unbeknownst to Luis, I determined at exactly that moment following his reply that I would do what I can to ensure that he would see his first volume of poems released in the country that has become his second home. It would be enough to say his masterful poems deserve a wider audience. But more importantly, his answer revealed and affirmed for me the kind of life that I would wish for myself as a poet: to live first and, I hope, live well, then write afterward-a lifestyle that I believe can only enhance one's poetry as words become living things. I am not surprised that, without any encouragement except by the living example of waking each day to live his life, to write his poems, Luis's only child has turned into a promising poet herself, Sofiya Cabalquinto, who once wrote about her father:

I am three
when my mother
kicks the door open

while holding me up
by the armpits,
ready to pee.

Inside, my father quickly
rises from the pot
nude; I point—


Laughing out of their wits,
they serve me my favorite:
salted tomatoes I eat like apples

A nice leap Sofiya made when she titled the poem "Carnal Knowledge." A neat connection.

Luis uses metaphors as most poets do, but his language is generally simple, both in approach and diction. This is deliberate; he once told me, "I want to evoke an unspoken rapport with the reader by using the simplest language possible. After all the workshops and readings, I have decided that I am more into communicating. I don't want to limit my connections to critics and the avant garde-I don't want to be this type of writer, especially because what I'm trying to say in my poems are things that are better said in the simplest diction. No matter how complicated my feelings and thoughts are, there's always a way to express them simply."  To read Luis's words, however, is also to sense an undercurrent between the lines-at times simmering (as in "Blue Tropic," "Before It Rains," "At This Hour" and "Satori: June 8, 1996"), and at times possessing a more electrified charge as in "They Move With The Casualness of Eels," "The Flower Vendor," and "The Ice Cream Cross"). Luis's poems aptly capture the dictum: Poetry is as much what lies between words as the words themselves. Witness this mini tour de force:

It Takes 18 Hrs to Fly from NYC to Manila
(via Vancouver / Hong Kong)
on Cathay Pacific Airlines Flt 899 / 907

There is nothing else to do:
You drink, you eat;
You pee, you shit.
(Or you write this shitty poem.)

-At 35,000 ft on 7/11/97

The heart of Luis Cabalquinto's first American poetry collection, Bridgeable Shores, may be viewed in its beginning sections, the first part "Morningland" being poems inspired by the Philippines and the second "Sun On Ice" by New York. By choosing this structure of two separate but "bridgeable" shores, Luis logically embodies the expatriate Filipino as poet. It is not uncommon for Filipinos who have not seen their birthland for decades to consider the Philippines first when the word "Home" is uttered. Once, bearing in mind the global dispersal of Filipinos, I joked that the Philippines is a "state of mind." But I was also serious: poet-scholar E. San Juan, Jr. writes that Filipinos have an incurable ache to return to the homeland or to stay connected even symbolically with Filipino-ness because the Philippine diaspora has been, for the most part, an involuntary sojourn. Thus, I √ěnd it logical that so much of Luis Cabalquinto's poems would be one of searching for connections among all elements in the universe. For his position is often that of being outside his "Morningland."  In his search, all the more evocative by providing the metaphor for the diasporic Filipino, Luis Cabalquinto achieves poetic grace through compassion, another hallmark of the great poet. It is a lesson the reader also may observe simply by reading Luis's poem, "Giovanni"-how, before the poet walks away, he shares a drink with a "drugged or drunk" stranger on the street, and "did not/ resist when I felt his mouth on my face."

And because his poetry is his life, the manly Luis cares about making love and sex-the theme of the book's third section "Break Into Blossom." Yes, he knows the difference between the two; he "makes love" in a poem like "Five Weeks":

For five weeks
I've carried you
in my mind's cupped hand:
the world's
only water.

Nevertheless, read the sexy "Pasta Puttanesca" and spend days
chuckling to yourself:

Now insert the whole fist and,
surprise, even the fist can still move,
with room to spare.

Finally, shove both hands in
and try to clap them, as if
applauding at a performance.
Now you see, you can't. And you
hear a voice, the noodle tittering
and whispering, "Tight, eh?"

In his poetic approach to sex, Luis sometimes displays that-to me-very Filipino combination of prurience and prudishness as a result of religious upbringings. For Luis, this can result in a certain obliqueness, as in his poem "The Night Bobby De Niro Went Down on His Knees and Blew Air into My Bellybutton." With his special brand of glee, Luis charms with his approach to sex-also evident in poems such as "Quality Shopper" and "Seafood." …

The fourth section "Outer Reaches" continues the theme of finding connections. Several of Luis's poems provide more direct displays of the poet feeding his muse, such as through his trips to Disney World.

Said our native guide
(when asked what EPCOT means): "Each
Person Comes Out Tired."

At the Polynesian Luau
The girls' hula moves
deliciously in my head
but not the dinner

In Frontierland
In the noonday street
they stage a gunfight while a
boy, in the shade, pukes.

In "Web," Luis writes: "It is the spiderwork of the brain, weaving/ silk to entrap the evening's nourishment." Luis sometimes writes his poems at night. "Web," like many poems in this book, reiterates again: Luis must live fully-including seeing as lucidly as he can, that nothing is irrelevant to his vision-prior to beginning his writing. Only by maximizing lucidity can Luis achieve the "outer reaches" of his potential as a poet.

Finally, in both a conclusion and beginning-that invisible point where a line might join itself to form a circle—Luis Cabalquinto asks himself-and us—in his poem "Passenger":

A poem got on this bus at the last stop.
Now it sits across from you.
It looks you in the eye, asks about your job.
Your spouse, children, what you've done with your life.

Luis Cabalquinto's answer-the fullness of his life—lies partly within this book, such as in the ending poem "Bliss" where he replies:

Hands for the pillow
Gazing at the August moon
I've no enemies.

But this book only provides part of his answer. Luis's total reply would have to encompass his life of being a devoted husband and father, a loyal friend, a hard worker, an open-minded traveler, and a compassionate citizen of and in the world. This allows him to say in the book's opening poem "Depths of Fields":

Beauty unreserved holds down a country's suffering.

Disclosed in this high-pitched hour: a long-held
secret displaced by ambition and need, a country

boy's pained enchantment with his hometown lands
that remains intact in a lifetime of wanderings.

As I look again, embraced by depths of an old
loneliness, I'm permanently returned to this world,

to the meanings it has saved for me. If I die now,
in the grasp of childhood fields, I'll miss nothing.

Poems, however, are also about their readers as well as their authors. Luis Cabalquinto's poems reveal a way of achieving grace through the daily living of seemingly mundane realities, thereby allowing him to anticipate feeling no regrets when death approaches. For you, Dear Reader, when the poem asks "what you've done with your life," how will you come to reply?

Eileen Tabios
Editor, Galatea Speaks
St. Helena, California
January 2001

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