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.