NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Verses Typhoon Yolanda Edited by Eileen R. Tabios
(Meritage Press, St. Helena & San Francisco, 2014)
Typhoon Yolanda made landfall in the Philippines on 8 November 2013, as a Category 5 storm. It laid waste to the Visayas group of islands, the country’s central region and home to 17 million people. It was the most powerful storm that year and one of the most powerful typhoons of all time.With wind speeds sustained at more than 150 mph, Yolanda was classified as a . Leyte Island alone was buffeted by sustained winds of 195 mph and gusts of up to 235 mph. However, its massive storm surge was even more destructive. Local officials estimated that Tacloban City on the island of Leyte was 90 percent destroyed.
Some 6,300 fatalities have so far been confirmed but the true death toll remains unclear, being claimed to be at least 10,000 by some victims from . As many as 22,000 people still remain missing. The scale of the damage was unprecedented. Yolanda destroyed 1.1 million houses and 33 million coconut trees, the latter being a major source of income and livelihood.
This anthology is a counterblast against Yolanda which “jackhammered the living and the lifeless.” It is a testament to the resilience of a nation fighting against the forces of nature and finding the will, against all odds, to survive. The word “Verses” in the title is a sonic pun: “Verses” and “Versus”. Most of the poems are in English but Filipino languages are represented by poems in Filipino, Cebuano, Waray, Hiligaynon and Bisaya with English excerpts to give readers a flavour of the content of each poem. A series of poems written in California by students in Skyline College’s English 103: Applied Skills for a Cultural Production – which is part of the Kababayan Learning Community - are included as a coda. These students value the unbreakable spirit of the Filipinos affected by the Typhoon and their poems are their way of connecting with them in an attempt to build a global community. Short biographies are given at the end.
The cover image, “Sun. Flower. Storm” (2013) by G. Mae Aquino, offers up several interpretations within its title. There is warmth, there is compassion, beauty and fragility and grief. All of these facets are to be found in abundance in this anthology.
Unsurprisingly, the content is raw with emotion: a hopeful father awaiting the safe return of his daughter, the plight of children who are now orphans, the plight of animals, the destructive force of nature and the destructive force of man, descriptions of the typhoon before it landed, when it landed and what it left in its wake.
In these poems there are “windows blown to shreds,” “storm-licked quail bushes,” “a raging chocolate river,” “diphthongs of air.” They speak of “a country hard hit in the guts,” “careworn rage,” and a people “scarred beyond recognition.” These are eulogies delivered from the pit of grief. Because it is both an individual and collective experience, grief is defined and handled in both different and similar ways. Joel Vega in his poem Namesbegins by asking and then answering his own question on this subject:
What is grief but a form of disembowelment, guts on the streets
for garbage trucks and stray dogs to pick.
Many of these poems are full of questions. F. Jordan Carnice asks “has the hum of nature changed its tune?” and Jose Lorenzo Lim says “Some will blame God and some our Administration. But, who’s really to blame when Yolanda came?” Others set out various coping strategies for those who have been left in the wake of the disaster. In his poem, tahimik, Von Torres finds ways to quieten the spirit.Some who mourn for their loved ones look into the clouds and into the sea for a fond remembrance, some write imaginary letters that will never be posted or received, Gracele Canilao-Nieva pitches her anger at the President, Miguel Cortez writes an ode to his child and Julienne M. Urrea tries to dance everything away. In Refraction: A Lesson in Compassion, Rina Caparras gives us this nugget of wisdom:
But let me remind you:
love is like sunlight,
singular in appearance,
but capable of splitting into many colors
when refracted by rain.
Do not waste your love on one.
As with him,
let the storm split your love into
a thousand pieces,
ready to be offered.
Many poems ask the question “Why?” Why did this happen? Leny Mendoza Strobel, in an incredibly restrained and brief statement gives us the answer in her Decoupled Couplet:
the earth isn’t savage
we have savaged her.
Quite apart from the strength and power of this statement, it is a beautiful poetic construct. The content is reflected in the title which suggests in itself a vital link that has been broken. The use of the word “savage” first as an adjective and then as a verb is masterful.
Strobel’s statement is articulated in greater detail in these words from Emmanuel Codia’s poem Sunshine:
For natural catastrophes like this, we are the ones to be blamed
If we had not lit a fire, it would not have flamed
If only the resources in the environment were used wisely
Perhaps, there wouldn’t be this number of casualties.
Poems of encouragement, resilience and hope are also to be found here. Alain F Razalan exhorts us “never to give up” but to “live and try to overcome.” Brylle Bautista Tabora writes “we will go on with our lives, our feet breathing at the same time with the ground, now with the promise of rain.”
Poetry as an art form can fulfill many functions. In this collection, Filipino poets have used it as an act of remembrance, a channel of communication, a means to raise awareness, to vent anger and despair, to articulate grief and loss. Above all, they have used it as a strategy for survival and a source of healing. Fully recommended.
Neil Leadbeater is 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.