ALFRED A. YUSON Engages
At the Drive-in Volcano by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
(Tupelo Press, 2007)
Passages: Poems 1983-2006 by Edgar B. Maranan
[First published in The Philippine Star, Manila, February 18, 2008, Ed. Millet Mananquil]
Explorations, for the nonce
We continue our serial report on poetry books we received last year....Now let's see how many of the backlogged titles we can fit into this space.
Tough, since we start off with a poet we greatly admire: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, born of a Filipina mother and Indian father, raised in the USA, and presently teaching at the State University of New York-Fredonia. Her first book, Miracle Fruit (Tupelo Press, 2003), was eminently wondrous, providing us with poem after poem to share as exemplars in our Ateneo workshop class. It won major prizes in the U.S. as well as the Global Filipino Award from Our Own Voice, a global Pinoy e-journal.
Aimee (her surname is often truncated to Nez by friends) visited in November 2006, spending weeks with her American husband among her mother's folks in Pangasinan. She would have done readings in Ateneo and Mag:net, as arranged by this fan, but morning sickness turned into a 24/7 travail for her. We now hope the promised rain-check means she'll return with her baby girl.
Meanwhile, we laud her continuing success as a poet of deliquescence, whose effortless language and casual tone provide gauzy raiment for supple modern verse, wherein a keen mind's eye also constantly unveils vivid surprises. This is all too evident in her second book, At the Drive-in Volcano (Tupelo Press, 2007).
How can we help but adore this 30-something poet when she actually manages to use our favorite 45-letter word (pneumonoultramicroscopicsilico volcanoconiosis) as a line in her poem "Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia: The fear of long words" where she assures students:
"... Don't be afraid of me. I know/ my last name on your semester schedule// is chopped off or misspelledâÑ/ or both. I can't help it. I know the panic/ of too many consonants rubbed up/ against each other, no room for vowels// to fan some air into the room of a box/ marked Instructor....//
"... But don't be afraid of me, my last name, what language// I speak or what accent dulls itself on my molars./ I will tell jokes, help you see the gleam/ of the beak of a mohawked cockatiel. I will// lecture on luminescent sweeps of ocean, full of tiny/ dinoflagellates oozing green light when disturbed./ I promise dark gatherings of toadfish and comical shrimp/ just when you think you are alone, hoping to stay somehow afloat."
Wow. If we had had a teacher like her in college, we would have been inspired enough to march through the sun-scorched fields of ROTC just to gain a fisheries degree.
Aimee savors science, botany, the names of things and creatures, flora, fauna. She mentions many insects and birds and fish, and also often ruminates on food, the delights of fruits, and eating soil. Her themes and topics parallel those in her first book, or rather uphold a continuum of wide-eyed exploration, inclusive of travel poems, that uncovers marvels of insights exuded or evoked.
Her excellence as a "page poet" manifests her mastery of form, which she occasionally tweaks in concrete fashion, with serpentine arrangements of staggered lines, a two-column poem in "Why I Crave Ribs Tonight," and employment of the Japanese poetic form of the haibun that combines prose poems and haiku.
She eulogizes River Phoenix and "Marie Laveau, Queen of Voodoo": "In the St. Louis cemetery, her tomb is easy/ to find: all the scratchings from bits of red brick./ The one with packets of beans, roses snipped// at the bud, small stacks and rolls of hoodoo moneyâ€”/ gifts for love-wishes...// ... Oh Marie, I don't believe in all this nonsense,/ but they say you're the best. I've a love-wish/ and it's come to this: I'll bring a black rooster// spin three times and mark three X's at your door./ Just say the word and I'll leave an extra knot/ in the tignon around my neck. Say the word// and I'll bring jelly from a fish. Give me a powder,// with glitter and crushed fang. Show me how much/ to sprinkle on him, exactly what part of his beautiful head."
Her love poems are winsome snatches of subtlety: "... I have forgiven your lottery, yet I seem to glimpse you/ in every windstorm. Because of you, the heady periwinkle/ of sugar pains me; because of you, I again seek out/ the silence that precipitates deserts: shooting stanzas, falling octaves." (from "Sugar Pains Me")
Experiences in India, the Philippines, and other parts of the world offer remarkable sources for narrative extension. Here's part of a poem riddled with spaces in more ways than one, within the lines, and which we can only simulate:
"On the island of Negros there lived a widow/ & her greedy boy. They could hardly afford meat/ for the tinola & had to borrow waxy rice sacks to line the walls// of their home. The greedy boy slept in a nest of excelsior/ & had aphids in his hair. A hen wrapped in his coat.//..." (from "When the Mother of the Greedy Boy Has Enough")
We can go on and on singing the praises for Aimee Nezhukumatathil, but even as a greedy boy we realize we don't have space enough for avid gluttony, that is, for terrific poetry.
Edgar B. Maranan's Passages: Poems 1983-2006 (Bookmark, 2007) is a long-overdue collection by one of our most prolific poet-writers, himself only recently resettled back home after a decade of serving as Information Officer in our embassy in London.
As Dr. Gemino H. Abad extols, we should "rejoice that, after over 20 years since Agon, his first published collection in 1982, we have at last his own selection from all his prize-winning volumes in the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards. Most certainly, he has pride of place in our poetry in English."
Like an abiding Mormon sidekick, we confirm the laud. Indeed, Ed Maranan shows that being peripatetic need not lead only to prolix produce, but to enchantment of discernmenÑthrough all the stances of measuring distance, topography and history. Then, too, his lyricism brooks no boundaries, even as contemplation informs his choices of contemporary reference and mythic recall.
The poet reverences his country, among many charted destinations, past and present, as gifts of fast-forward retrospection. Thus in the poem "Tabon" he sings:
"Time-cowled, pile of memory upon midden/ beneath the silent laughter of constellations,/ this land breathed dire, its amber eyes/ lit up the western sea until the edge/ of waters, spilling into the nether stars/ beyond which lived dream-islanders...// At visit's end, in Brooke's Point, we saw/ a boat with two Manunggul oarsmen slice/ across a sun magenta on the Sulu Sea, halving/ the world into spheres of cloud and water,/ as quietly we drank a toast to the evening sky,/ guardian over Tabon, and all the loves we keep."
In "Lake of the moon" the rhapsody is instantaneously personal yet universal: "I may sing of the moon, full risen moon,/ tonight, yet somehow its sullen gravity/ pulls upon the tides of memory// that fills the sea, a sea of blood and fear/ around an archipelago of endless war."
Maranan is also adept at socio-political commentary couched as satire. In "Daedalus reports to the new President" he calls on the power of myth to unseat temporal reignÑportending the days of hubris and dismal plunge we witness presently.
"Behold, Madame,/ the Logic of Structures:/ The leading edge of wings,/ Whatever wax we use/ Is gutted by, not only heat,/ But also by the vultures/ Who, predatorily & out/ Of habit, make a ruse/ To join the Freedom Flight/ Of our Company of Hope:/ Airborne, they'll then unfurl/ Their standard of skull & bones/ And as before, escape the ax,/ The wall, the rope,/ Because they've come as Liberators/ For the nonce.//..."
Bravo, Ed! In your meanderings you've seen the writing on the wall, to which you add an extensive chronicle of depths foretold: the plumbing of history's course, as viewed from high, with eagle eye.
Oops, as it's turned out, we can only go through a couple of titles for this week's space. Half a dozen more wait in the wings. Only proper. With poetry, it is always with bated breath that we measure anticipation.
Alfred A. Yuson, nicknamed Krip, has authored 22 books: novels, poetry collections, short fiction, essays, children’s stories and biographies, apart from having edited many other titles, including literary anthologies and travel and corporate coffee-table publications. His distinctions include the SEAWrite (SouthEast Asian Writers) Award from Thai royalty for lifetime achievement. He has been elevated to the Hall of Fame of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Philippines’ most prestigious literary distinction. Yuson contributes a weekly literature and culture column to a national broadsheet, The Philippine Star, and a fortnightly column to the weekly Philippine Graphic magazine. He teaches fiction and poetry at Ateneo de Manila University, where he held the Henry Lee Irwin Professorial Chair.