May 5, 2013

Music of fire in the forest of darkness


Himno ng Apoy sa Gubat ng Dilim by Arlan Camba, Pia Montalban, and MJ Rafal (Aklatang Batlaya Publishing Collective, 2011)






Three young poets met in a book launch and gradually became close friends. They found common grounds on political issues, proletarian causes, and advocacy for social justice. They eventually decided to collect their poems and publish them independently. They called it Himno ng Apoy sa Gubat ng Dilim (Music of Fire in the Forest of Darkness).

The music of the poets' lines were indeed set on fire. They were so intense they glowed, creating a wall of forest fire keeping out the wild animals of the night. Their voices were raised loud from deep within the tangle of vegetation, making readers feel not only the heat but the light of day.

I spent the better part of the first of May listening to the music of these poems. The occasion couldn't be more auspicious. The book is dedicated to "the tillers and toilers of our land" ("para sa mga magbubukid at manggagawa ng aming bayan").

The selection of poems here displayed an uncompromising stance against those in power who perpetuate oppression and human rights abuses. It essayed not only the harrowing condition of marginalized farm workers and ordinary people in a cruel capitalist society. More importantly, it boldly called for immediate action and social reforms to resist that untenable condition.

Some pages of the book were like downsized placards containing the sentiments and exclamations of protestors and demonstrators in the streets. Yet the raging voices were often tempered by compassion for human struggles.

Arlan Camba opened the book with an invitation to the collection's rhythmic, fiery singing. His poems usually began with lines and chants heard in street demonstrations. Some of these may already be familiar gripes, tired and overused, but at the end of his poems, the final lines realigned the familiar protestations into a literal call to arms. The poet was crafting his novel protest through the fortification of his previous litanies of disenfranchisement. By reconstructing the street protest in a poem, it enacted its own galvanizing protest. The electric atmosphere of his protest poems secured empowerment through the power of words.

Here's the final stanza of "Gusto Kong Tumula" (I Want to Recite a Poem). It consolidated the poet's plan of a violent revenge on the bourgeoisie:


Gusto kong tumula,
sapagkat gaano man kapurol
at padaskul-daskol ang pananalinghaga,
gaano man kapudpod
ang mga pananaludtod,   
sa tulad kong nagmamaka-makata
may sasarap pa ba sa pagpatay
gamit lamang ang salita?


         I want to recite a poem,
         however feckless
         and reckless the act of composition
         however clichéd
         the imperative to create
         to the likes of mepoetaster
         is there anything more satisfying         
         than to kill using words?


And here is the final stanza of Camba's "Saan Patungo ang mga Alitaptap?" (Where Are the Fireflies Going?):


saan patungo ang mga alitaptap?
makapangyarihan ang lagablab
ng apoy sa nagliliyab na kaluluwa; 
tutupukin ang 'sang uniberso
ng mga berso't talinghaga    
   ng pakikidigma...
hahalakhak ang makata,
luluha ng dugo ang mga salita,
lalatay ang hagupit ng mga taludtod 

sa isip, kaluluwa at katawan;
sapagkat...
 
bantayan man sa magdamag
   ang mga alitaptap
walang pagsisidlan sa kasaysayan
ang katapusan ng lahat-lahat...


              where are the fireflies going?
              forceful the blaze
              of fire on combusting soul;
              it levels one universe
              of verses and the war's   
                 metaphors...
              the poet screams in joy,         
              words spill blood,
              the lash of lines reddens
              the mind, spirit and body;
              and...
              even if the flights of fireflies
                 are closely monitored
              the death of all
              has no place in history...


The direct target of the poems was the the ruling class who erected a "forest of darkness" to strangle the poor "weeds", robbing them of sustenance, depriving them of air and the light of sun. The images were necessarily violent as they explicitly dramatized an all out war against the oligarchs.

Pia Montalban, the second poet, continued to fan the flames of the fire that will guide the way for those languishing in the dark prisons of poverty and powerlessness. She did not shy away from depicting contemporary issues that bedevil the present national administration. Issues like agrarian reform and the displacement of the poor were explored through the introduction of female personae, perhaps the poet's own. Her identification with the national body politic, as "Pi(lipin)a" for instance, was an inventive way of communicating a personalized vision/version of reality at the mercy of capitalism. The latter was a threat to sustaining the things that make humans human, like love.

In "Tunay na Sining" (True Art), Montalban probably described the three poets' unified ars poetica, their collective aesthetics of resistance. Here's an excerpt:


Patay ang manunulat 
sa simulang maglakbay kanyang mga akda.      
 
Ni hindi ito makapagmumulto
sa bawat mailalathalang
misteryo, buhay, kathang-isip
o katotohanan
kaya't mawawalang silbi
mga hinabing salita
kung mensahe'y nakasulat
sa diyalektong wala nang nakauunawa.

Mahalaga sa tula ang tugma,
aliw-iw o daloy o alindog
pag-indak sa tyempo't kumpas
ng panitikang nakalipas,
metapora't talinhagang
magbibihis ng estetika
Ngunit aking igigiit
ito'y dapat na maging daluyan
ng nilalamang may kahulugan.

Nailuluwal ang sining
kapag ang salita'y nakapagpipinta
ng imaheng kumikintal
sa diwa ng mambabasa--
ngunit sining na walang saysay
kung imahe'y hiwa-hiwalay
at pagkakaugnay-ugnay
iilan lamang makapagbubulay-bulay

Lalo namang sining na walang buhay
sining na sa sarili lamang
at sa iilan iniaalay.

         The writer expires         
         the moment her works take flight.
         She will not be a specter
         haunting each posthumoous
         mystery, biography, fiction
         or truth
         and so words woven   
         become stale
         if the message is writ
         in a language no one understands.
         
         Rhyme in poetry is important,
         rhythm, pacing, charm
         dancing in time to the beat 
         of literatures of the past,
         metaphors and figures
         putting on an aesthetic
         But I shall insist
         it must be a conduit
         of words of substance. 

         Art is birthed
         when words illustrate
         images that last
         in the minds of readers--
         art is worthless
         when the images are disjointed
         and coherence
         only a few anticipates 

         More so the art that's lifeless
         art that is offered 
         only to self, or a mere few.


The poet argued for simple art, grounded in reality and abhorring the fireworks of obscurity. If resistance art is to speak, then it has to speak with the legibility of black letters on white paper. It has to be meaningful to the large segment of society, those who are many but vulnerable.

MJ Rafal, the final featured poet, was the most experimental of the three. His poems were diverse narratives of playful forms and subjects. He showed a gift for storytelling and a mastery in the deployment of particularized details, as with the daily struggles of low income workers. If I make him sound like a writer of fiction, that was only because his poems here had an engrossing plot and action.

Below is one poem by Rafal, a sample of the anthemic output of this talented poet. It was dedicated to the memory of Alexander Martin Remollino (1977-2010): the poet, journalist, and activist who was an acknowledged influence and inspiration to many poems in the collection.


Pananatili

kung isa ka nang hangin ngayon 

ihip kang nagpapaalab ng mga sulo
ng pakikibaka't pakikitalad
ihip kang nagpapaindak sa mga palay at tubo
ihip kang tumutuyo sa pawis
ng mga manggagawa't magsasaka
 
kung isa ka nang hamog ngayon

nakayakap ka sa mga talahib at dahon
doon sa kabundukan at nagmamasid
sa mga kasamang namamahinga't kasiping
ng gabi
butil ka ng hamog na kumikislap sa pagtama
ng liwanag ng buwan sa munti mong katawan

kung isa ka nang ulan ngayon
hinahaplos ng masisinsin mong patak
mga buhok at pisngi ng iniwang mga kasama't kaibigan
nagpapaunawa na ika'y hindi nawawala
at nananatili sa puso at dugo ng masa
na iyong pinag-alayan ng buhay at musa

kung isa ka nang apoy ngayon
tinutupok mo ang mga tanikala
ng pananamantala't inaabo ang inhustisya
sinusunog mo ang mga barong at saya
ng mga hunyango't elitista
lalagi kang tanglaw sa mga tahanang kaniig
ang isang pirasong kandila

at kung isa ka nang lupa ngayon
hayaan mong tumindig kami sa dibdib mo
bigyan mo kami ng tuntungan
na di matitibag ng mga medalya't trono
hayaan mong magtanim kami sa dibdib mo
ng mga binhi ng ganap na paglaya
na aanihin namin, natin sa nalalapit na panahon     

   
 

Abiding
        
if you're now turned into air
you're the gust that flares up the torches
of resistance and defiance
the gust that sways the stalks of cane and rice  
the gust that dries the sweat  
of tillers and toilers of the land
        
if you're now turned into dew
clasping the cogon grass and leaves        
in the mountain and observing
the people resting and enfolding
the night 
a piece of dew that shines when
the light of moon grazes your tiny body

if you're now turned into rain
your too fine drops will stroke
the hair and cheeks of friends and dear ones left behind
telling them you are present, abiding
in the heart and blood of the common mass
to whom you offered your life and muse

if you're now turned into fire
you raze the shackles
of abuses, turn iniquity into ash
burn down the suits and skirts
of elitists and pretenders
you are ever the light of homes holding
a sole candle in their midst

and if you're now turned into earth
let us stand tall on your chest
give us a steady foothold
that can withstand medals and thrones
let us sow on your chest
seeds of sustainable freedom
that we will, shall reap in the days to come
The three poets of Himno ng Apoy are rock stars in their own right. One after the other, one catharsis after another, the poems were building into a concert for an important cause: the fight for a just moral order. The music was enough to see us through the night. Hardcore.


Thanks to K.D. for the book. Translations above are mine.

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