“Most of the tribes wanted to go to the moon but had to decide on which language”

 The eighth part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry

Compiled by Nathan A. Thompson
Illustrations by: Oliver Raw
May 20, 2014
“Most of the tribes wanted to go to the moon but had to decide on which language”
Illustration by Oliver Raw

These days, the poetry of the Philippines is composed in both English and Filipino. Under colonial rule, much literature was composed in Spanish, but that ended when the US seized the islands in 1898, and Filipinos have been writing a large chunk of their literature in English ever since. Just like the rest of the English-speaking world, the Philippines danced with all the major literary movements of the 20th Century.

Alfred A. Yuson is an acclaimed contemporary writer in his home country. In “Many Kings of One Language”, he examines language as a dynamic political force by recasting the events and the evolutions of his native tongue as affairs of language. After colonisation, the Philippines had to legislate for Tagalog’s official status (renaming it Filipino). This change and its effect on national identity is a theme of the poem. The fast evolution of language is another – the poem takes us into the sudden uproar of pidgin dialects, springing up against a background of racing change. The final lines are a peaceful end to the cacophony.

Our second poem is by new poet Nica Bengzon. It is a metapoem, a poem about poetry – the darling of Postmodernism. “‘Bookends’ is about the relationship between the poet and reader. When I write, l like to feel as if I’m addressing the reader personally. There’s an intimate exchange happening where I share not just the finished poem, but the struggle to articulate the most important things to me in words,” Bergzen says of her ideas. “When you present a poem for someone else, it’s an act of reaching out and trusting them, because the reader is just as important in the act of ‘making sense’ as the writer – they’re in a relationship. That’s why the poem is in couplets, to emphasise the idea of matched pairs.”

by Nica Bengzon

It isn’t the words we’re fighting

against – only the way they refuse

to be written. These unborn are many,

claws out, pressed into the flesh of the palm.

Silence is a gift; it gives us narrow

lips, and eyes like the new moon –

but too many words going unsaid

is nothing to smile about. You and I tire

of all the ink that blossoms

dark between our fingers. Tell me

about yourself. Write me a letter,

in exchange for poems

yet to be. You push a piece of paper

across the table: These things without

names are many. The strange sun that runs

its fingers through my mother’s hair. The cracks

in my roof, the rain that there collects.

How I shut my ears against the sounds

closest to me. I answer: A warmth.

Milk-clouds in coffee, the way fresh bread

breaks soft in my hands. A broken bottle –

the tide takes the edges off the glass,

leaves the sea’s green eye. The shapes

my mouth bends into, negotiating

names. I try to write, I come away

with a question for you – how heavy

are words, that we place them

so carefully in the lines in the

pages we pass to each other

across a table. These are the things I have

no names for, but if you read them

you may hear mine. The sounds

link arms. An imagined voice

rings in your ear, glass breaking

to disclose a real sound. That is the only way

we might become real, without

knowing, to one another

if not in the pages of books.

“Many Kings of One Language”
by Alfred A. Yuson

It was a difficult time for the islands.

Most of the tribes wanted to go to the moon

but had to decide on which language.

This led to many violent deaths, the rape

of fabulous dreams, so that only the elders

slept at night, while the young people danced

to keep awake, twisting their bodies this way

and that accent. At the bars they ordered

syntax at random, drank wildly, all tongues

in abandon. The bolder ones expelled grammar

as they did the smoke from pidgin tobacco.

Phonemes were murdered in the dark, contractions

extended while the most personal of pronouns

were roped up and beaten to an antecedent’s pulp.

Italics went out the window when phrases were written.

Nouns were emasculated, verbs cross-conjugated,

according to the dowry for protest. Divorce of lips

from hearts and homes forced the weakest into water,

there to struggle with moans before drowning.

The strongest made it back to shore, succored by kings

of one speech and one speech alone. Everyone, everyone

was led up many towers of perfect communication

until they reached that silent golden orb in the sky

they once called by many names, but now one and the same.

When they looked down past clouds of syllables with no shame

they saw their earth as a sad source of differences now faded

into echoes of swords brandished in utter defense of words.

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