Sunday, November 3, 2019



Returning A Borrowed Tongue: An Anthology of Filipino & Filipino American Poetry edited by Nick Carbo
(Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 1996)


Nick Carbó is a Filipino-American author, poet, essayist and critic from Legazpi, Albay in the Philippines. Now resident in the United States, he has devoted much of his time to developing Filipino-American literature as a genre in its own right and is credited as having played a significant role in its modern conception. This anthology, together with its two successors – the anthology Babaylan (co-edited with Eileen R. Tabios in 2000) and a collection of essays, Pinoy Poetics (2004), have helped to consolidate the Filipino and Filipino-American experience.

It is hard to believe that this anthology was published nearly a quarter of a century ago. One of the reasons I have chosen to review it now is because, with hindsight, it was such a seminal work: the first substantial anthology of its kind that brought together Filipino and Filipino American poetry. Prior to the publication of this anthology, only a handful of anthologies, almost all now out of print, existed of Filipino poetry, let alone Filipino-American poetry. The other reason is one that is more personal to me – to discover, in many cases for the first time, the rich seam of writing that has been left to us by these writers. Full credit should be given to Nick Carbó and the staff at Coffee House Press for bringing this anthology into the public domain.

In his introduction, Carbó provides the reader with a very accessible and informative account of the geography, history and culture of the Philippines. Filipino writers were already accomplished in Spanish and Tagalog. American English and its poetic tradition was a later add-on. Eventually this imposed language, “the borrowed tongue”, became assimilated into their work. From the beginning, Filipinos have followed closely the different literary movements in U.S. poetry while retaining their own unique literary heritage. 

Carbó traces three waves of Filipino immigrants moving to the U.S., the years in which these happened, the reasons for their happening and the areas where these people settled. He gives an account of the poets and writers associated with each of these three waves and gives a separate account of Filipino-American poets and writers who form a separate category. A brief description of the major themes to be found in their work, such as a longing for the land of their birth and struggles with “the borrowed tongue”, follows on.

The 49 poets in this anthology were, at the time of its publication, all contemporary. That is to say, they were all alive in 1995. The number of poems per poet ranges from one to four with most being represented by four poems. Brief biographical sketches with reference to published works are included at the end of each poet’s work.

As illustrated by the title of this anthology, language is a recurrent theme in this collection. With an estimated 175 indigenous languages and new ones in Spanish and American, Filipino authors have a range of languages, literatures and cultures which they can draw upon for the purposes of expressing themselves both orally and in print. Returning A Borrowed Tongue grounds Filipino-American literature in the English language but is enriched by many words and phrases from other languages that make up the literary tapestry of the archipelago.

Fatima Lim-Wilson’s "Alphabet Soup (Mimicry as a Second Language)" is an alphabetum in thirty-six lines (A-Z) in which the line itself often contains some inference to the opening word:

Angel of letters, feed me.
Beat your wings till I remember
Cardboard cut-outs of ABCs. Why
Does my memory hobble, lift
Empty pails from an English castle’s dark well?
Fill me with the welter of vowels,
Googol of consonants, tender French
Hearts, dead Latin roots from where words grow,

Michael Melo’s "Unlearning English" takes the form of a stanzaic alphabetum. It describes the difficult process of unlearning English in order to assimilate back into a society where Tagalog is spoken.

In "Word Gifts for an Australian Critic," Merlinda Bobis presents readers with a chant-like poem using Tagalog words which she pitches East – West, West - East against her newly-acquired Australian homeland:

Oyaiiyaiiyayii, oyayi, oyayi.
Once, mother pushed the hammock 
away -oyaiiyaiiyayii,
the birthstrings severed from her wrist
when I married
an Australian.

So now, I can laugh with you.
Halakhak! How strange.
Your kookaburras roost in my windpipe
when I say “laughter!”
as if feathering a new word.

Alongside language, symbols of Filipino and Filipino-American life, such as references to jeepneys and cuisine, are used as vehicles to explore issues related to identity.

Noel Mateo’s poem "There Is No Word for Sex in Tagalog" forms a convenient bridge to move from language to sex and religion for these are also themes that are prominent in this collection. Vince Gotera’s poem "Manong Chito Tells Manong Ben about His Dream over Breakfast at the Manilatown Café" is a study in sexual repression.  Karina Africa-Bolasco’s "Sauna 2" and Michael Melo’s "Red Lipstick on a Straw" are openly erotic in their powers of suggestion.  Sometimes a poem will push at the boundary to fuel a debate about what is or is not acceptable in society. Rofel G. Brion’s poem "Love Song," for example, raises the issue of breast-feeding in public. In the new homeland, freedom of expression is like a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, subjects that were previously taboo are out in the open. This is especially apparent in Jessica Hagedorn’s ground-breaking "Vulva Operetta" which raises issues of transgender politics. Set in the context of a dream, the word “vulva” is substituted for the word “sweater”. It is hilarious and serious at one and the same moment. Word substitution becomes a code-name for gender substitution. Femininity becomes something that anyone can try on or wear at whim. No questions asked:

We wear these sweaters.

People say things like: “It’s hot. I think I’ll take my vulva off.”
Or: “It’s cold. I think I’ll put my vulva on.”

Foppish men and women ask each other questions like: “Where did you
get that BEE-YOO-TEE-FULL vulva?”

The subject of religion manifests itself in the titles of Gemino H. Abad’s poem "Holy Order" and Rofel G. Brion’s poem "Good Friday." The former explores Catholicism and its significance in the country’s history and the latter catalogues the experience of living in exile thinking back to the religious traditions of one’s native homeland. Religion is also very much present in poems such as Maria Elena Caballero-Robb’s "Dear Rosario," Patrick Pardo’s "untitled" and Regie Cabico’s "Check One" which opens with these lines:

The government asks me to “check one” if I want money.
I just laugh in their faces and say
“How can you ask me to be one race?”

I stand proudly before you, a proud Filipino
who knows how to belt hard gospel-songs
played to African drums at a Catholic mass –
and loving the music to suffering beats
and lashes from men’s eyes on the Capitol streets – 

The Philippines has long been dominated by the Catholic Church and its ideas of morality.

Longing for the birthland is another recurrent theme running through this collection. Gemino H. Abado’s "Toys" is a study in contrasts – not just between generations but also between cultures on the topic of children’s games. In "Depths of Fields," Luis Cabalquinto looks back with nostalgia to the house where he was raised (“If I die now,/ in the grasp of childhood fields, I’ll miss nothing.”) and Virginia E Escador’s  magical "Summer Nostalgia" brings all the senses into play in a short poem about childhood, contentment and beauty. 

Poems that focus on the new homeland are also present in this collection. "Dolce Far Niente" by Fidelito Cortes is ambivalent in its approach to its subject matter. Seemingly happy and accepting of the American way of life, there are built-in ironies (the mile-long strip of small shops with displays that have all gone ethnic and are not offering up the authentic American experience) and comments that hit where they hurt the most (“stuff we’d never buy even if we had enough money”) ending with the line “Nothing is rooted here, yet everyone wants to stay.”

Given the chequered history of the Philippines, it is hardly surprising that there are other poems in this collection that are, by their very nature, political. In "Waking Up," Yolanda Palis writes of bribery and corruption, elections and murder. Other poems, such as "Raising the Dead" by Fatima Lim-Wilson, refer to specific historical events. 

Family relationships are explored in Jaime Jacinto’s "Absence and Visitation" and in Bino A. Realuyo’s "The Sojourners" which also considers the baggage we take with us and the baggage we chose to leave behind. 

For readers eager to discover a rich tapestry of Filipino and Filipino-American poetry, this anthology is an inspiration. In the words of Carbó: “Filipino poets borrowed a foreign tongue to express their poetic voices. Today, with this anthology of poems written in English, we return this borrowed tongue.” Fully recommended.


Neil Leadbeateris an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His publications include Librettos for the Black Madonna(White Adder Press, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, 2014), Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, 2017) and Punching Cork Stoppers (Original Plus, 2018). His work has been translated into several languages.

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