Thursday, December 1, 2022



Dancing Between Bamboo Poles by Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor 

(Village Books, 2019)


Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor is a Filipino-American writer, storyteller and creativity coach. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific Lutheran University in 2012. Her non-fiction, poetry and short fiction have appeared in print and online in several journals and anthologies. Her poetry chapbook ‘Pause Mid-Flight’ was released in 2010. She is also a performance storyteller specializing in stories based on Filipino folktales and Filipino-American history.

The title of her latest collection of poetry and prose is derived from a traditional folk dance from the Philippines that originated during the Spanish colonial era. Two or more people beat, tap and slide bamboo poles on the ground and against each other in coordination while one or more dancers steps over and in between the poles in a dance making hopping, jumping and turning movements while they do so. The dance, which is called tinikling imitates the movement of tikling birds as they run along tree branches or skirt round bamboo traps set by rice farmers.

The first part of the book consists of a series of redaction poems. Mabanglo-Mayor explains the methodology that she used for this in her introduction titled ‘The Art of Silencing’. According to the author, ‘redaction poems are similar to found poems in that they reflect the idea that art can be found in the most mundane, unexpected places.  Redactions, however, seek to show that a silencing has occurred; if you look closely enough, the missing can be found again’. There is something deeper going on here. This is not just about saving a few words on a page while blanking out everything else. There is the fear that the history of a people, of a nation, will be excised with black marks of denial and revision. Mabanglo-Mayor expresses the hope that things overlooked or unseen may one day be voiced again in a new light. 

Mabanglo-Mayor’s poems are largely concerned with cultural survival and the preservation of identity, socio-cultural pressures to conform and interconnectedness with the natural world. She draws her inspiration from a number of texts whose subjects range widely from math and physics to Filipino popular folk tales, and from cookery to environmental ethics and philosophy.

Several of the early poems focus on the word ‘landscape’ which moves in Mabanglo-Mayor’s hands from a picture that represents a view of natural scenery to how we interpret it on our own terms as part of our interior landscape, as we move from ‘sight’ to ‘insight’. Other themes that emerge include the trespass and conquest of territories, the nature of gravity, the dangers of exuberance, strategies for learning and the need to keep a check on our own personal bias.

The book opens with ‘muskeg’ a term for a peat-forming ecosystem found in several northern climes that is known more commonly in other places as a bog or any type of low-lying marshland. This area of shifting, waterlogged ground matches the fluidity of Mabanglo-Mayor’s poems as they move through a veritable quicksand of ideas from one line to the next. 

Two key poems in this collection are ‘Cultural Survival’ and ‘Memory Bank’. Both poems address the need for preservation, in particular, preservation of identity. Here is the final stanza of ‘Cultural Survival’:

The answer to “who are we?” is increasingly

the assertion of cultural identity,

an indigenism, an interconnectedness

predating common time

and reaching toward

an undetermined future.


In the first stanza of ‘Memory Bank’ the same theme is broadened out to take in the whole of the natural world:

We have to

preserve this knowledge

about our biosphere, our biodiversity to keep

going, to make sure it’s alive.



Some of the six essays contained in the second half of this collection return to the theme of cultural identity, most notably in ‘Falling from the Sky’ and ‘Kapwa Tao’. The former is a multi-layered essay where traditional Filipino myth meets present day reality through the lens of several generations. The symbolism invoked in putting down roots, sickness and health, holding on to ropes and slipping through them, experiencing loss and learning to let go is used to good effect. In the latter, some kind of resolution to ‘living the borrowed life of a person of color passing as a white’ is reached when attendance at a Babaylan conference fosters a sense of community as participants share their experiences and come together ‘with a mission to heal each other and to be healed’.


Another essay that caught my attention was ‘Gift of Plums’. Here, Mabanglo-Mayor gives an evocative account of being a child going on a journey with her parents in their ‘big blue Coronet 500 sedan’ before moving on to the subject of plums and how they become the common denominator in helping to bring back intergenerational memories.


Other essays focus on subjects as diverse as the Japanese attack on the Philippines on 8 December 1941 and the so-called ‘Death March’ (‘Chasing after Papang’) and, in ‘Hot Oil, Monsoon Rains’ attempts to make gluten-free spring rolls known in the Philippines and Indonesia as ‘lumpia’. 



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 books include Hoarding Conkers at Hailes Abbey (Littoral Press, 2010), 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); Penn Fields (Littoral Press, 2019) and Reading Between The Lines (Littoral Press, 2020). His work has been translated into French, Dutch, Nepali, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.


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