Saturday, April 27, 2024


E. SAN JUAN, JR. presents a poem and essay on the poem.




When Magritte's lunar migraine

                                    drifts into the blue dragon's lair

--“What time is it?”--

   mired among mermaids, lost in the karma of fallen sparrows


What tentacled machine behind those ivory horns

unleashes such fury of discriminations?


Sussurus of mourning

            elipses Artemis' blues

                                                rending the veil of appearances--

 “Is it time now?”


Who will risk murdering the murmur of immemorial bees?  Who will risk

            recruiting Isis and Ishtar for the profit-less Apollo mission?


Border-patrols of imperial terror, they float

            seducing Li Po, unmoored mariner, who drown

                unmindful of the azure undertow

                         Magritte's migraine at long last migrates beyond borders


“What time….?”

Who will then map the cadavers of fallen sparrows?


What ghostly marauder drifts with white parasol, demarcating

            under coral boughs,

                                    dividing the continuum of transmigrations?

Unleashing what tiger desire

            leaping across mermaids lost among beehives

                        and striped starts where the solar cyborg's willpower

                 spreads out its pallid tentacles....


Now is the time to demarcate

            the aura and penumbra of this lunar migrant

            risking all chances, 

                                    dreaming o deliverance

                        from unrelenting terror--

                                                greeting the azure presence of what appears

the spoors of dragon and tiger, 

with migrants prowling behind.....


For reference, a LINK to Magritte's "La mémoire" (1948)



            Allow me to append a note to verses entitled “Magritte’s War on Terror." The poem ostensibly mimics a mode of surrealist rendering of experience. Sparrows, mermaids, tiger, dragon, motion all around—a potpourri of allusions! But this medley seems anachronistic at this late day when millions are dying in the Gaza genocide, while millions more are victims of disaster capitalism. Reality, indeed, is more complex and bewildering than fiction/imagined artifice. Are we in the same space-time conjuncture?  This disorientation is itself a symptom or signature of the surrealist style if not of philosophic wonder.


            Surrealism as an artistic trend might have been surpassed a long time ago by conceptual and postconceptual poetic praxis. According to David Macey in the Penguin Book of Critical Theory (2000, p. 371), surrealism’s death was announced in the Parisian paper Le Monde on 4 October 1969. But its ghost or ravenant seems to have returned among Situationists, deconstructionists, and other postmodern incarnations. No need to be alarmed. As Kierkegaard said, we live forward while trying to understand life backward. It is analogous to the play of light and shadow in Magritte’s painting, The Empire of Lights (Marcel Paquet, Rene Magritte, Taschen 2000, p.7).  What else is new?


            A personal contextualization might be useful here. My own inquiry into this cultural phenomenon began with my postgraduate reflections on Joyce, Yeats, Brecht, and other modernists in the last quarter of the last century. Its residue might be discovered in my essay on “Cesaire Aime’s Poetics of Fugitive Intervention” (Third Text 53, Winter 2000), translated into German in the Marxist journal Das Argument 252 (2003). From this foothold I elaborated on the theme in a longer essay entitled “Surrealism and Revolution,” a special issue of Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 2000, Washington State University). This was translated into French by Alice Boheme for Sorbonne Prof Henri Bejar’s webpage on surrealism. The essay finally appeared in Surrealism, Politics and Cuture, a valuable anthology edited by Raymond Spiteri and Donald LaCoss (Ashagate 2003).


            Subsequent to my inquiry, I received from my friend Penelope Rosemont a complimentary copy of her pathbreaking volume, Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (University of Texas Press, 1998). Since the 1970s, I have been corresponding with the American branch of French surrealism led by Penelope and Franklin Rosement. So it might have been from their support that my interest in surrealism picked up. We also made contact with the late Filipina-American poet Jayne Cortez concerning whose surrealist experiments convinced Rosemont to say that Cortez was compelled to be “a revolutionist or cease to be a poet” (1998, p. 358}. Despite claiming to be an international collection, no Filipino poet with a distinguished cachet such as Eileen Tabios was included in the Rosemont anthology. Surrealist aesthetics reached the Philippines via the paintings of H.R. Ocampo, Vicente Manansala, Jose Joya, Rod Paras Perez, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, and myriad epigones.


            The real inspiration for the poem, I surmise, was my visit to the surrealist gallery in Brussels where Magritte’s masterpieces were displayed. Those artifacts were inspiring if enigmatic testimonies against what David Roediger calls “miserabillism” as the product of capitalist oppression and domination (History Against Misery, 2005, x). We might quote Dawn Ades’ description of Magritte’s argumentative art: “…they question one’s assumption about the world, about the relationship between a painted and a real object, and they set up unforeseen analogies or juxtapose completely unrelated things in a deliberately deadpan style, which has the effect of a slow fuse” (Concepts of Modern Art, ed, Nikos Stangos, 1994, p. 133). Perhaps this explains the method of the poem addressed here.


            My exposure to Magritte’s art coincided with my Fulbright lectureship at the Katholiecke Universitat Leuven, Belgium in January-April  2003. It was during that fateful  Spring 2003 when the U.S, invaded Iraq and I (with my partner Delia Aguilar) joined thousands of people who came out in the city square of Leuven protesting the war. The fire of rebellion spread all over Europe. The monstrosity of 9/11 had cast a deathlike spell on the empire, repressing all dissent.  And so it was life-renewing to witness, and participate in, such mass resistance to the very same imperialist power that devastated the Philippines from 1899 to 1913 in the Filipino-American War. That horror has now been forgotten by almost everyone, including those whose ancestors were massacred in the “first Vietnam.”  Few today know of the “howling wilderness” inflicted by U.S. troops in Balangiga, Samar; in Batangas, Laguna, and Mindanao, in the first decades of the twentieth-century. 


            And so, far from the canonical definition of surrealism (by Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, and others) as pure automatism and non-conformism to bourgeois reality, I submit that the quasi-surrealist outburst of universal condemnation of imperialism in 2003 was not irrational or automatic. One can describe the popular outcry as a reasoned, morally committed response to the war of “white supremacy” against people of color, against the colonized and exploited millions—called by Frantz Fanon as “the wretched of the earth” around the planet. It is proceeding with gusto today, in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as in the “belly of the beast” since the murder of George Floyd, among others. 


            We thus live forward and try to comprehend backward. In retrospect, one can detect in the poem oblique references to the the marvellous explosion of communal energies witnessed in the unrelenting insurgency of the Moro Bangsa guerillas, various feminist and LGBTQ groups, Lumad organizations, and the New Peoples Army in the Philippines. There is no freedom or liberation without struggle, as Frederick Douglas reminds us. In between the carnivalesque imagery of the poem, one can detect indices to those groups cited earlier. The reader may also apprehend a symbolic gesture to the massive migration of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), now over ten million, to all parts of the world as cheap labor due to the backward and bankrupt semi-feudal economy of the neocolony—the persistent legacy of over a century of domination by Western finance-capitalism and their local oligarchs. The Filipino diaspora is an unprecedented mobilization of a potent proletarian force scattered around the planet. How long will this miserabilism persist without evoking its convulsive, hyper-real contradiction? Not for long, one suspects, as signs of deliverance beckon from the margins and the interstices of everyday lives.





E. San Juan has taught English, Comparative Literature, and Ethnic Studies at several universities, among them, Washington State University, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, University of Connecticut, University of the Philippines, and University of California, Davis. Among his recent books are: US imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines (Macmillan), Between Empire and Counterinsurgency (University of the Philippines), Balikbayang Sinta: E San Juan Reader (Ateneo University Press), Lualhati Bautista, Nobelista (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House), Carlos Bulosan (Peter Lang), Peirce's Pragmaticism (Lexington Press), Sisa's Vengeance: Rizal's Sexual Politics and Cultural Revolution, and The Subversive Reader by E. San Juan (both published by Vibal Publishing Co.). He is completing a book on the work and life of Apolinario Mabini, the foremost revolutionary thinker of the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggles of Filipinos against Spain and the United States. He won a Philippine National Development book award last year for his book FAUSTINO AGUILAR: Kapangyarihan, Kalayaan, Kasaysayan, published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House.



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