Here’s my second column on holiday gift book recommendations – five poetry books in Filipino and English that will inspire deep thought and flights of fancy.
Why buy – and gift — a book of poetry? When people think about books, it’s usually fiction, and usually a novel or collection of short stories. Many readers like the flow of narrative that takes them outside of themselves and into another world created by the writer.
But poetry is also rich in narrative; the difference is that it packs the story in a few lines or maybe a page or two of verses. This is why writing poetry is more difficult – because it has to tell a lot in a few words. And these books are among the best of contemporary Filipino poetry today.
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Poet Rio Alma returns this season with Mga Póon, Mga Piyón, Mga Pusóng, Isang Púsong (148 pgs., pb, San Anselmo Press, 2022). ‘Rio Alma’ is the poetry penname (“pangalan sa pagtula) of National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario, professor emeritus of the University of the Philippines.
The book is a collection of poems sorted into four sections. The themes are corruption in politics, the machinations of the powerful, and the plight of the poor and marginalized in society. In particular, the third section contains poems recounting the poet’s participation in this year’s national elections, as he campaigned for Leni Robredo for president.
In “Ang Lugaw ni Leni,” he takes a derogatory term coined by Robredo’s detractors and recasts it as heroic and salvific, a missed chance, the road not taken: “Hindi lamang iyon, mga mare, pare/ Doon po sa aming isang bayang apí/ Nang minsang ilugmok ng gútom at peste/Naligtas ang lahat sa Lugaw ni Leni./ Ang Lugaw ni Leni pag inyong natikman/ Iibig ang puso’t rosas ang kakulay;/ Babangon ang patay at para isigaw: / Magkaisa tayo at maging marangal.”
In “Trabaho Lang Po,” he shreds a common excuse for abuse of power and authority: “Kailangang linawin na: / Ito ang pinakahamak na katwiran/ Ng tulad mong isip-alipin at utak-pulbura/ Upang manlinlang, pumaslang/ At yumurak sa karapatan ng iba.”
In this collection, Rio Alma shares sharp and pointed political and social commentary that aims to open minds to Truth (with a capital T) by speaking to power.
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Fans of Nicolas B. Pichay will be glad to know that his Palanca Award-winning collection of poetry is available in an edition that makes it more accessible to the rest of the world.
Translated into English by Rose King-Dominguez, Gerardo Z. Torres, and Romulo P. Baquiran Jr., the poems in Ang Lunes na Mahirap Bunuin (The Intransigence of Mondays, 146 pgs., pb, Librong Lira, 2019) were first published in Filipino in 1993.
The 2019 republication, with the English translations and introductions by National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario and writer/TV personality Lourd De Veyra, brings Pichay’s first book to a wider audience.
The poems are slices of Filipino life, that throw emotion, place, and cultural norms into sharp relief. Consider this part of “Kaklase ko sa Makiling,” written in honor of Zaldy Crispino: “Sinambit niya ang katagang ‘patay’/ na parang sumusubo / ng madaliang pananghalian,/ ang kanin umiigwas / sa kaniyang mga bibig, / nginunguya pati ang buto / ng adobong manok.”
Pichay translated it himself thus: “She uttered the word ‘dead’/ as if eating/ lunch with quick swallows/ with beads of rice spilling / from the corners of her mouth/ the crushed bones of the chicken adobo/ flying in splinters.”
With that crisp and immediately evocative image, I can see that character clear as day, and taste the salt-sour tang of adobo in my own mouth.
This collection is perfect for those who want to be re/introduced to the works of Pichay and savor a two-in-one for the price of one book.
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King Llanza pulls us into the brave new world of ecopoetry in All My Distances Point to Home (92 pgs., pb, UST Publishing House, 2022).
His examination of the human condition through a queer lens is juxtaposed with humor, longing, optimism, and an expression of the lyricism he finds immanent within humans, animals, and the natural world.
In “Before I Have Time to Grieve,” he melds the urban landscape with trees and porifera – “Coming here barefoot, my soles fully / imprint on the surface of moist soil, resonating / with the warmest sunset tones of Manila Bay. / Somewhere, a sponge is aching as it absorbs / everything like ears collecting the muffled sounds / that go past the tree-lined street.”
I find it amazing how he manages to layer different aspects of the world to create a complex image without losing the nuance or meaning or slipping into an inchoate mess of verbiage. It is soul-satisfying to read more about the natural world than we usually find in books of poetry. In this, Llanza’s first book, we are reminded of our own link to nature and the importance of recognizing and honoring that connection.
“Remember, before they turn into dreams.”
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Babeth Lolarga’s much-anticipated poetry omnibus Moon Hanging Low Over My Window and Other Poems (310 pgs., pb, UST Publishing House, 2022) is a rich and detailed consummation of the poet’s love of life and the writing craft over the year of her career.
Most of the poems were written under the nom de plume “J. Likha Yatco,” the reasons for which Lolarga explains in a brief foreword. The themes in this collection span lifetimes and worlds; there’s something in it for everyone. As literary critic Elmer A. Ordoñez puts it: “Her poems are rich in epiphany, irony, and imagery; musings on the arts, painting, literature, and the human condition. Add satire, social commentary, and advocacy which come from a sharp historical and political sense.”
Lolarga’s verses are rich in vocabulary, lyricism, imagery, and cultural nuance; even those written with the sparsest words convey depths of meaning. In “The Sharing,” she discusses how food is an integral part of our lives and deaths: (The sharing) “that goes on/ on Filipino tables/ is a trait / uniquely ours / even if there’s / a death / in the family / the grieving / still prepare / a feast / no Filipino eats / unless she or he shares / the food with someone.”
This is an excellent read, and at over 300 pages is thicker than most poetry books. This will give the reader hours of pleasurable reading and musing while curled on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate.
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James Prudenciado’s Made of Saltwater (116 pgs., pb, Isang Balangay Media Productions, 2022) takes us to the watery worlds of the island of Samar, the poet’s hometown.
He dedicates the book: “for mermaids, for us” and this makes sense when we learn that he is a young, queer, self-taught poet, and ‘mermaids’ is a reference to the term ‘sirena,’ a slang word for ‘gay.’
But while looking at the world from a queer perspective, his poems are universal to all Filipinos who are ‘mermaids’ and ‘mermen’ by virtue of being born on an archipelago. Wherever we live in the Philippines, we are never very far from water. And Prudenciado reminds us of that and our seafaring roots.
In “Apocalypse,” he writes: “In this poem, we are amidst the sea/ cradled by a small outrigger boat, I don’t know/ how we made it here but I’m guessing the / ice caps and glaciers have finally melted. Maybe, / this place was once a city before the sea desired / the beauty of its lights and took it as its own.”
Somehow, he packs a ton of cultural references in just these few lines – the voyage of the balangays, the end of the last Ice Age, Atlantis and the swallowing by the ocean of eons-old civilizations, and global warming’s effect on land and sea.
Prudenciado is an amazing talent and I look forward to his forthcoming works.
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Dr. Ortuoste is a board member of PEN Philippines, member of the Manila Critics Circle, and judge of the National Book Awards. You may reach the author on Facebook and Twitter: @DrJennyO