September 17, 2013

The atoll in the mind


One, Tilting Leaves by Edith L. Tiempo (Giraffe Books, 1995)



1 Giraffe on the shelf

The backlist of Giraffe Books has recently been lining up the shelves of the popular bargain store Booksale. I'm not sure if the publisher already closed shop or they were just downsizing volumes from their cluttered warehouses. But one could do worse than acquire some of the musty but must-have titles by eminent Filipino writers like Edith L. Tiempo (poems and novels), Antonio Enriquez (fiction), Linda Ty-Casper (fiction), Leonard Casper (literary criticism), Edilberto K. Tiempo (short story collection), and Eileen Tabios (poetry).

2 One, tilting leaves

The deceptive title of Edith L. Tiempo's 1995 novel, seemingly ungrammatical, was taken from the poem "The Atoll in the Mind" (1955) by Alex Comfort. The last stanza appeared as the novel's epigraph.

... the mind's stone tree, the honeycomb,
the plump brain coral breaking the pool's mirror,
the ebony antler, the cold sugared fan.

All these strange trees stand upward through the water,
the mind's grey candied points tend to the surface,
the greater part is out of sight below.

But when on the island's whaleback spring green blades
new land over water wavers, birds bring seeds
and tides plant slender trunks by the lagoon

I find the image of the mind's two trees, cast downward,
one tilting leaves to catch the sun's bright pennies,
one dark as water, rooted among the bones.

The poet at first compares the mind (brain) to varieties of corals ("stone tree") in the reef, including tabulate coral ("honeycomb"), branching black coral ("ebony antler"), and massive or brain coral. A couple more lines and the poet finally settled on another image, possibly that of a mangrove tree that colonized the sandy substrate. The canopies of coral and mangrove conjured the two hemispheres of the brain, pointing toward a duality or divided nature of the self: "two trees ... / one tilting leaves ... / one dark as water". Two contending qualities in a person: light and darkness, good and evil, civilized and savage.

For her novel, Tiempo transplanted the image of the submerged, rooted trees from underwater to land. She used the characters of twins as literal representation of duality. And the trees were made literal trees for the story surprisingly traced an ecological theme of forest loss and environmental degradation. Perhaps it was not that surprising since Tiempo, in her illustrious literary career, had been carefully mapping in her works the search for kindly habitat and habitation, a secure and peaceful dwelling place for humans.

The story centered on Primo Gutierrez, chairman of the Biology Department in a Christian college in a mountainous region in northern Philippines. Primo had an identical twin brother, Pascual, who was shot to death while doing research in a forest area in Mindanao three years before the present story. Pascual was a sociologist studying the mythical epics of the Manobo tribe. He was searching for an old chanter whose version of the Creation myth was "distinctly pagan, [with] no Christian influence". He wandered into a logged over area and most likely came into contact with illegal logging operators who may be responsible for his death.

The story's background of a new statewide policy banning commercial logging of natural forests was a significant national issue. In the early 1990s, the popular sentiment in the country was the stoppage of all forms of logging. The clamor reached a high pitch in 1993 when the Supreme Court handed a famous decision that practically terminated all permits issued to timber companies. The Court found that there was no impairment of contract on the part of the companies since the continued logging operations posed a threat to public interest and ran against the constitutional provision on the public's right to a "balanced and healthful ecology". It was a victorious moment for environmentalists as the Court established a precedent in defining the legal basis for protecting "human welfare" in the face of activities that can lead to depletion of natural resources. Just last year the President signed an executive order that prescribes a moratorium on logging of natural forests.

3 Twins, trees

At the start of the story, a high-ranking environmental officer visited Primo's town to have a dialogue with university officials, businessmen, and the locals about the new government regulations and how the logging ban will be implemented. Conflict ensued between logging concessionaires and a populace who were sympathetic to the environmental cause and who believed that forests need immediate protection. Meanwhile, a fellow scientist and friend of Primo asked if he can capture a local species of a river snake to be displayed in a museum. (Legend has it that one of these snakes went on shore from time to time to meet its human twin.) Despite the unusual request, Primo consented to grant his friend's request.

There's not a lack of clues in the novel pertaining to the metaphors of twins and trees. The river snake, finally caught and caged and taken away from its natural habitat, would acquire a symbolic meaning in the story. Image association (of trees and twins, habitat and shadows) was deliberate.

Just now she was looking up at the two acacias standing together, at the intermingling branches where the lights were softened by the thick foliage.... "They remind me of that Classical myth. The old devoted couple turned by one of the gods into two big trees, and their branches still embracing and twining together."

The novelist's pursuit of poetic imagery jived well with the way the mind could be seduced by a novel idea. It certainly mirrored Primo's obsession with finding out the truth behind his brother's murder. What happened to Pascual three years ago was consuming the living twin. It was like an itching in Primo's being, a worm wriggling inside him. An atoll colonizing and taking root in the mind.

He was shaking his head, "you don't know what I feel about it. I will retrace the events that ended in the Manago forest. I can't as you say, let it lie. The way I feel, it's as if I've left my cut-off arm somewhere and I must find it before it festers beyond helping and I'm lost."

The story was driven by this obsession with uncovering the identity of Pascual's killer. Its pace and momentum, however, was broken in several directions whenever the story digressed into the situations of other characters. It was rather jarring how undue attention was given to minor characters who were dealing with their own dark secrets. It was as if these characters also began to take root in the story too and it was now hard to uproot them, their identities now a resilient part of the novel's ecosystem.

There was a logger who could not forget an incident in the second world war when he fought as a guerrilla. There was a sideways focus on a teenage son of one of Primo's co-teachers. Baffling scenes and moments intruding on the plot. It was narrative diffusion, stretching taut the novel's boundaries. On the plus side the various concerns made for a dynamic story. The thread of the patchwork vision frayed in unpredictable directions. Moreover, each intrusion was distinguished by a display of small compassionate gestures, small acts of generosity and kindness of the characters.

It was as if in certain places the shafts of light ("the sun's bright pennies") were allowed to penetrate the thick canopy of leaves. The shifted story trained a revealing light on the novel's dark recesses, and the patchwork vision was nevertheless a vision whole and intact. Tiempo's other signature works were similarly built on the rough edges of haphazard plot and imagery, similarly compensated for by the pervading mystery and unpredictable texture of the narrative.

In her late novel The Builder (2004), Tiempo unravelled a murder underpinned by motives to displace indigenous peoples from their ancestral domains. The reluctant detective was a physics professor who was in the middle of building a house for his growing family. Tiempo's characters were often adrift in an exiled or homeless state, as if some meaning was wrenched out from their existence and they were trying to locate or build a traditional home where they can rest their weary, sinful humanities. The image of the house was also conspicuous in her first book The Tracks of Babylon and Other Poems (1966). The collection contained a sequence of five sonnets called "Five Homes"; the first of which was called "The Mason":

Down in the pit, the sanctum, the mason's eyes
Lift to the quarry wall as he taps at the wedge.
From the crumbly blocks jut slowly the edge
Of the sweet sharpness he knows as muscle throes.
Yet it is purpose, too, the astuteness of a rite,
To wield the rod by which a dry stone flows,
To cut his wedge-forms on the towering white,
To pile the bricks of passion and surmise.

Men's rages, his own, he would understand,
A craftsman, he confines them by his hand.
But fashioning his schemes, picking at the stone,
Gouging truth's niches into the echoing walls,
He sees something long since carved: his house of bone,
Where daily his breaths wheeze in the dust-choked halls.

The "house of bone" that harbored "men's rages" was resurrected in "Banhaus", in Marginal Annotations and Other Poems (2001).

Before the furnishings composed the rooms:
Before the bed and the couch conceived
A soft, a warm for the skin and bones,
Before the oven and the freezer cooked up
The hot and the cold
Before the pulled drape let the stray beam
Splatter the shapes and colors,
Would the house then really be?
...............................................................
Old Time, with bell unclappered, may not
Toll old Saxon's house of bone; but
Can never divine it while
The house defines, defiles,
While it confines us.

As with these poems, the novel One, Tilting Leaves was concerned with the teasing out of a metaphor. This project the novelist carried out with the obstinacy of a poet, her single-minded pursuit of organic meaning in the understory of possibilities. The reader is presented an image, deconstructed through several image associations. He is left to ponder the narrative, to see it through (like a craftsman "gouging truth's niches").

In using the image of twins and intertwined trees in the same breath, the writer was guilty of mixing metaphors. Comfort's poem on the split in the mind was also a mixed metaphor of corals and trees. It was in some ways a poem about mixed metaphors (i.e., the divided self). Investigating how the metaphors can hold together or cohere was somehow an act of  reading into, or making sense of, narrative estrangements. The builder of words creates spaces in the text, allowing the reader to recognize the forest from the trees. Perhaps the very reason the other half of the title was withheld was to let us decipher the hidden face of the other.

"Every creature alive is the product of a unique history"—the words of a great naturalist who honored every individual creations.... At what point in my evolution did my twin-nature merged into one? ... Who ... had expunged the secret sharer? In our yoked complexity what was there in us to bring each one to the truth? The spiritual element?—Wasn't this a softened shadow now, the shadow of the old heritage? Risk and harshness and the hungers and drives of the human's evolution. Why else would a man kill, why else could he kill? ... The genetic engineers, should they unscramble the solid intermix to say, This figment is me, this blot is my twin?

Tiempo had defined her ecological ethic from Loren Eiseley. The turn toward evolutionary history as the basis of the animal nature to kill added dimension to the idea of duality. The novelist also hinted at one other habitat from which the characters—all humans, in fact—cannot escape from. The house of memory which either gave man ("the house of bone") the strength to move on with his life or imprisoned him in its insane embrace.

The right metaphor has an insidious way of seizing broken minds. The mind selfishly seizes ideas and owns them. Processed by memory, the mediated images have now a hard time of being erased. Tiempo took upon the task of finding ways to dramatize the force of poetry in a novel. She produced a work which coiled around precise natural images and cultivated the tension between homegrown civilization and primate savagery.

4 Postscript: Black pitcher

When, in 2010, a team of scientists first saw the black pitcher plant in Shumkak Peak in the mountain range of Victoria-Annepahan, they were easily convinced it was a new record species. Spectacular and unique, it evolved for years no human memory can recall; only the genetic memory of plants and animals passed on through the generations could explain it. It nestled in the upper reaches of the mountain, in the central portion of the island shaped like a folded umbrella. Its pitcher was uncommonly black, but its soul, no less innocent, was colorless. It harbored the guilt of existence and the hermetic value of its evolution. For its own sake it curled up to catch the rainwater. Whatever extraordinary medicinal powers its juice possesses, nobody knew for now. Yet it was a novelty ware, occupier of an ecological niche in the news. At another time it will be a desiccated museum piece, or a minor attraction in herbaria and botanical gardens. (Whether it will succumb to future calamities masterminded by Cain’s tribe, nobody could say.) The enlarged vessel was a threat to insects and other small animals. Once they slipped down the cavity, it will only be a matter of sunsets for their components to dissolve and be consumed by the plant. Doubtless, it was guilty of preying on unsuspecting organisms, entrapping and incarcerating them down the food chain.

The name of the black pitcher plant was leonardoi, in honor of the botanist who was killed three days after it was found. While doing field work in the forests of Leyte, Leonardo was allegedly trapped in a crossfire between government troops and leftist rebels. Perhaps it was destiny that led his fellow scientists to encounter this carnivorous pitcher in the mountains. The black deed could not taint the blood of killers but their political hearts were impaled in the color of this plant. The human courts may hold tilted scales, but in the courts of nature there lie the balance of poetry. The always objective systematics of ecological memory.


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