Edith Tiempo introduces Sea Serpent by Alfred A. Yuson
(Monsoon Press, Manila, 1980)
With this volume of poems, Sea Serpent, Alfred Yuson pitches a tone of voice to be noted for the elusive quality of being many things all at the same time. The spontaneity and casualness are covers incessantly pierced through by the furious introspection going on not too far under the surface; a remembrance of lyricism gentles the tough old-swage soliloquies; doubts collide with certainties. Awareness becomes poetry. And tone is all.
To be sure the authentic tone is never a haphazard consequence, but rather the flourish of the artist's hand itself, his unceasing vigil over his own ideas and over the words by which he limns them. The faithful labor shows in the tight sharp lines of these poems and in the pitch of their careful voices curbing the agony, sketching the sardonic shrug and the shadowy grimace; and everywhere the soft twanging disclaimer of the artist who strips and peels in readiness for the Coat -- for if the garb be found improper, he is prepared for Yeats' suggested alternative to any improper poetic raiment: "There is more enterprise in going naked."
For Yuson (as in Yeats), it is true that there is a sense in which reality is reducible to the bare and unsplintered source of it: "There was a fire, one fire only. There were a hundred selves, planted in the garden ..." And thus reduced, reality is "simply there, an oral/tradition, as birds calling evening/to a close ..." ("Among Many"). The rest of it -- "the hundred selves" -- is accountable to the dress of play and illusion.
Accepting the one source, however, we can therefore accept Yuson's insistence on a shifting and prismatic view of a world that is reducible, after all, to "one fire only." From poem to poem we see manifold splinters from the one reality become the crucial authority for the human being, who otherwise might find himself and his context mere "... moss and mold/ and mildewed light cut / up in palsied habit." ("Chameleon Years").
Although this view seldom allows for the luxury of permanence, it also wearies of invention and takes refuge in the little certainties it has acknowledged for itself, more for reference than for purposes of permanent anchor -- and always keeping a weather-eye out for the "everyday winds/ which for lack of design/ often force us to the angled magic of our corner." ("Icon Corner"). Note, however, that it is a corner, and it is angled. One cannot escape the rigid certainties of icons.
Such a view is inclusive and makes for richness and complexity in the poetic attitude. In these poems it raises the ironic smile, the playful astringent grin, the self-inflicted tight-tope peril of the man who chooses gentle alchemy, who prefers it tot he measuring rod and to -- well, the mess of pottage. Craft-wise, it breeds the quite, unobtrusive puns: "the bare wait of an unthinking scepter" ("Poem"); it elevates the tangible object to abstraction, yet without losing any of its thinginess (as with the catalogue of littered cosmetic ware in "Love Poem," which are "tools and potions of artifice ... struck off their level of ordered utility"); it transforms the wild nudity of pain: "the last light a feint/ that threw me off your sorry hint" ("Father") and even dignifies it as in the long poem for Emman Lacaba, "Poem For E". Whether in a dominantly lyric poem, or in a prosy symbol-statement, like "Filipino In Honolulu," the poetic awareness does not lose control but rides the dark depths of introspection with nonchalance demurring on its shoulder.
Tone is attitude, and Yuson has carefully leashed his insights so that when "levity does the perennial trick/appearing to carry a symbiotic tic/like a bouquet..." one likewise recognizes the "halo girdling the fat ideas" and the "angler who hooks his heart as bait."
Many of the lines quoted are not even from the best poems in the volume. For instance, I was happy to see that the comparatively early "Afternoon Gardener" has been included: as a feat of control, it, nevertheless, escapes the slightly manneristic spareness that marks much of recent contemporary poetry from the well-wrought urn.
With this volume Alfred Yuson pitches a voice that comes from one already well not the way to the major league.
Edith L. Tiempo (April 22, 1919 – August 21, 2011), poet, fiction writer, teacher and literary critic was a Filipino writer in the English language.
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