The Anchored Angel, Selected Writings by José Garcia Villa, Edited by Eileen Tabios
(Kaya Production, New York, 1999)
Expectations can’t help but run high when it comes to a book that seeks to re-introduce the Philippines’ most-prized poet to a wider audience. A good book review, I’ve had to remind myself, deals with a book for what it is and not what the reviewer thinks it ought to be. The Anchored Angel, according to editor Eileen Tabios, was not intended as a comprehensive introduction to the late poet’s life and work. Still, many a reader will be left wanting exactly that, as each entry in the volume whets the appetite for more of Villa.
The Anchored Angel features poetry selections from each stage of Villa’s career, a sampling of his short stories and essays, and a selection of critical and biographical essays on Villa written by other Filipino writers.
Among many other things, we learn that Villa was a good poet, an arrogant poet, an experimental poet, but mainly a poet who, since achieving critical fame in the U.S. with the appearance of Have Come, Am Here in 1942, wields great influence in Filipino literature and literary criticism. This last fact must surely account for the curious tone of the book, which, in parallel to Villa’s own antinomian tendencies, arises from simultaneous urges to revere and demystify.
With intermixed horror and fascination, the contributed essays recount Villa’s bravado, vulgarity, eccentricity, and oftentimes scathing literary standards (“That’s not poetry, that’s diarrhea,” Villa once said when asked his opinion about a local poet), all lending credence to the arrogant proclamation in Divine Poem 76: “God must begin His ascent/To me the Created.”
While frequently funny and endearing, the mostly biographical accounts, perhaps because unbalanced by more rigorous critical analysis, seem to verge on the caricature. Exploration of new, exciting readings of Villa’s works ends up taking a back seat to fascination with the poet’s public persona. The strain to recall every trivial detail (including Villa’s preference for gin martinis, his childhood dog named Sheba, his habit of feeding neighborhood pigeons, and his penchant for asking women if they were virgins) and the accompanying tendency to stretch its significance as though it were a deciding clue with which to unlock Villa betrays the much too underdeveloped body of knowledge and criticism on the poet.
Still, The Anchored Angel is important not only as insight into Villa’s life and overview of his works currently available in print, but also because it contains the essential seedlings for further research.
Most salient among critical conundrums surrounding Villa involve two main issues. First is how to reconcile his submergence in Western canon and avowed distaste of political themes on the one hand with subversive readings of his work within the rubrics of Asian-American and postcolonial literature on the other. Second is what to make of his disappearance into obscurity after unprecedented success and of his failure to follow through with the promise heralded by earlier literary accolades.
Relating his experiences in poetry seminars led by Villa in “Villanelles,” Luis Francia describes Villa’s insistence on form and lyricism, and his admiration of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, and the Metaphysical poets among others. Such influences can perhaps be surmised from Villa’s most anthologized poem below:
Between God’s eyelashes I look at you,
Contend with the Lord to love you,
In this house without death I break His skull
I ache, I ache to love you.
I will batter God’s skull God’s skull God’s skull!
I will batter it till He love you
And out of Him I’ll dash I’ll dash
To thy coasts, O mortal flesh.
He’ll be broken He’ll be broken He’ll be broken
By my force of love He’ll be broken
And when I reach your side O Eve
You’ll break me you’ll break me you’ll break me.
At first glance, Villa’s heavy borrowing from Western tropes of the mythical and the individual seem difficult to reconcile with modern, subversive readings. “He would have hated the tag ‘Asian American,’” Francia writes. When asked why he did not explore socially significant themes in his writing, Villa replied:
Because I am an artist, and in the kind of art I believe in and to which I have given my whole allegiance, there is no place for anything that has to do with social, economic or political problems. The whole function of the poet is to arouse pleasure in the beautiful. Propaganda does something else.
Francia’s offers an alternate reading of Villa in his essay’s concluding paragraph:
[Villa’s] obsessive grappling with God… might also be viewed as commentary on his exile abroad: might not his literary struggles with “God” have been a recasting of his life in America? A parallel, however unintended, to Carlos Bulosan’s take of a mythic America as a potential new Eden…
Francia’s reading of recurrent references to “God” in Villa’s poem as exilic ambition sheds a dimension of labored deliberateness beneath Villa’s bravado. Lyric Poem 25 particularly stands out because it reveals the proud Villa in a rare admission of vulnerability:
–But if being God has made
you fear and taught you terror –
if in this very deepest final mirror
Time has concentred the horrible shade
of extremest Tree under extremest Sun:
O Burning Laurel –
if in this most
deathless altitude comes the ghost
with the sure, well-levelled gun–
Nay do not bend. Be mostly tall–
arise to thy perfect height, be
equal to Terror’s proud solemnity
that, aiming for thy fall,
pulls her trigger but proves her bullet
blank against an unconquerable Target.
Almost biblical in its desire to give inspiration, the inclusive second-person address here contrasts his elsewhere elitist attempts at prescribing stringent definitions for what he considered to be “refined.” Here, Villa calls for a drawing from inner, rather than outer, dictates. This prescription in the face of struggle affords allegorical readings applicable to postcolonial writers writing against cultural and historical amnesia.
In “Colonialist or Critic,” Chua argues that the lack of ostensible political exploration in Villa’s works does not preclude a reading of resistance. Two particular instances -- the use of Villa’s success in the 1930’s by the nationalist movement to strengthen the case for Filipino capability and self-rule, and the use of Villa’s style by protest poets to disguise their messages from censors during the Marcos dictatorship -- function for Chua as support for subversive readings: “Villa played the part of the good colonial expertly, but could not this good colonial have served the interests of the colonized as well?”
E. San Juan, Jr.’s excerpts from “Homage to José Garcia Villa” traces the poet’s fixation upon the self and the mythical as consequences of larger socio-political effects of the U.S.-Philippine encounter. Rejecting the utilitarian climate arising from the American re-appropriation of Philippine resources for market production, Villa flees to the metropolis, drawn by “utopian tropes of American avant-garde writing.” San Juan Jr. reads Villa’s exile as a search for the agency that U.S. domination of the Philippines repressed. San Juan reconciles polarized readings which view Villa either as canon-centered or Asian-American, metaphysical or modernist, and apolitical or political. Rather than seeing Villa’s penchant for elevation of the self as a buying into American or European sensibilities, San Juan Jr. sees Villa’s poetic development and innovative uses of the English language as a resistance against “hegemonic representation.” Rather than disavowal, Villa’s poetry and exile represented an attempt at recovery.
This recovery, however, came at the cost of celebrating Filipino revolutionary history. In “Excerpt from Viva Villa,” Nick Joachin reads Villa’s alienation from his father as representative of the rift between the revolutionary generation descended from Spanish imperialism and which fought against American colonization, and their sons who were steeped in the English language and American traditions. “The conflict is tragic,” writes Joachin, “because it meant the loss to Philippine literature of a re-singing of the Revolution. In Colonel Simeón Villa were the roots of our history, but they were not to flower in his son José.”
Villa was the first Filipino poet to gain mainstream success in the U.S. with the publication of Have Come, Am Here (1942) and Volume Two (1949). He published regularly in the most selective literary journals and magazines including the New Yorker, the London Times Literary Supplement, and Poetry. Villa’s success continues to be a great source of pride among Filipinos, and perhaps the fascination in the book with his personality and the move to uncover its motivations is a way for Filipino writers to somehow reassure that this poet, in both his sublime talent and human failings, was indeed, to borrow words describing one of Conrad’s messianic figures, “one of us.”
Quite evocative is one of only two photographs of Villa in the book, taken during a 1948 Gotham Book Mart reception where he sits among famous writers such as W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Tennessee Williams. This photo, aptly positioned between Villa’s writings and the critical essays about him, projects a bittersweet sense of both promise and failure. While herein finally is victorious evidence of Filipino talent so forceful that it overcame even the most orientalist determinations of his time, Villa’s truncated success also warns of the hurdles awaiting many a cultural minority writer daring to be heard today.
In “Gossip, Gossip, Gossip,” Nick Carbó details the trajectory of Villa’s celebration and eventual rejection by his Western peers. Of Villa’s earlier works, critics like Richard Eberhart and Marianne Moore spoke of “linguistic glories,” and “the raptness, the depth of concentration in these bravely deep poems.” Villa’s poems were “[A]s singular as the work of Emily Dickinson or Hopkins.” About Villa and his talent, e.e. cummings remarked: “and i am alive to see a man against the sky – .” Villa’s later forays into experimentation, however, failed to elicit similar praise, his comma poems described as “distracting” and Villa himself “forgotten a figure as the colorful, alcoholic, womanizing Tambimuttu.”
Alfred A. Yuson in “Villaesque” suggests that Villa’s own loyalty to his stringent standards -- his distaste for what he called ‘prose masquerading as poetry’ and his insistence on the metaphysical -- are what prevented him from adapting to changing poetic tastes. Added to this was Villa’s seeming preoccupation toward the end of his career of stirring controversy through his flamboyant eccentricity. “He had grown fat and old,” Yuson writes, “sated with his reputation, and now contented himself with dispensing chichi commentary.”
While his career was on the wane, Villa produced increasingly experimental work such as Poem 126 below:
As Yuson relates, even some of Villa’s once most ardent admirers began to view his comma poems aphorisms, and adaptations as mere “visual gimmicry.” (Such a view is challenged by Eileen Tabios in her afterword where she defends Villa’s experimental work as an attempt to better engage the reader in creation of the poem’s meaning. Luis Cabalquinto further suggests in “Remembering José” that Villa turned to more experimental work for fear of repeating himself. “That’s the most embarrassing thing that can happen to any writer,” Villa had said.)
Before he died from a stroke in 1997, Villa was named National Artist of the Philippines. However, he had long stopped writing poetry after the publication of “The Anchored Angel” and had taken instead to writing aphorisms, two-liner ‘Xocerisms,’ and adaptations -- the latter a way of getting “to the hard core of prose items,” as Cabalquinto writes. Despite having stopped producing poetry in 1954, Villa has left as rich legacy which The Anchored Angel has finally begun to revive.
The remarkably attractive physical layout of the book alone, bound by a cover set in shades of purple, red, and blue, reflects just how much Villa’s legacy exists among Filipino writers as a kind of delicate treasure -- rife with possibilities and yet still precarious in its somewhat incomplete, only partially discovered state. Villa’s upturned profile on the cover, dreamy and expectant, as though ready to break into his own lines (“Purify me. Consume/Me. Disintegrate me to thy ecstasy”), appears to anticipate the critical attention to his writing that has long been overdue. Perhaps in time, Villa’s importance will be illuminated within the corpus not only of Filipino literature, but of American literature as well.
Abigail Licad grew up in Antipolo, Philippines and immigrated with her family to California at age fourteen. She received a B.A. from UC Berkeley and an M.Phil from Pembroke College at Oxford University, both in literature.
[Editor's Note: Because I edit Galatea Resurrects, I don't allow my books to be reviewed in it, but I will allow the review of books I've edited as those books are likely to be more about their subjects than me.]