30 January 2015


Pesoa by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles (Balangay Books, 2014)

The spelling of the title was not wrong. Pesoa, as in Ernando. A letter subtracted was a new word gained. The poet Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles was a connoisseur of found meanings. His latest collection featured what was called "blackout poetry" or "poetry of subtraction" or "erasures" or "redaction poetry." Portions of a text were redacted, leaving out words or phrases that formed new contexts and new reading experiences. An altered book.


The text in this case was a book by the late playwright Rene O. Villanueva's memoir of childhood called Personal: Mga Sanaysay sa Lupalop ng Gunita (Personal: Essays in the Territory of Memory). Villanueva traced a portrait of a young man developing his artistic sensibilities. Arguelles traced the portrait of a self discovering his other selves, his heteronyms.


The ghost of the Portuguese poet haunted the spaces between words. But Pessoa and I might as well be Borges and I. We did not know which of the two – the poet or his persona (or even the persona of his persona) – wrote the page. And which of the two was imploring the other.

Hindi ako nakasisiguro
kung nakakasulat siya
at nakakabasa. Habang
kaharap ko siya,
nakakaharap ko rin ang
aking sarili: na kung
bakit hinding-hindi ko

[I am not certain
if she can read
or write. While
facing her,
I also face
my self: whom I wonder
why I never ever

The poet's (or her persona's) existential crisis led to an attempt to excavate her one true self from the confusion of words in the text. The forcefully imposed words (only) served to reinforce the quest for the poetic identity.

Matay ko mang tingnan ang sarili ko sa salamin, hindi ko makita yung nakikita
ko sa hindi ako. Hirap na hirap akong magpakuha ng retrato. Hindi ko makikita
sa retrato ang ako sa retrato. Iniaangat ko ang mukha na parang lumang mukha.

[However much I gaze at myself in the mirror, I do not see what I see
in what's not me. I find it so hard to get my picture taken. I will not discover
in the photo the I in the photo. I turn my face up as if it's an old face.]

Her confusion leads to a profusion of selves. Many selves. The crisis was not resolved until she embraced her multiplicity.

Sa kabuuan, palinga-linga ang mata
ko kung saan-saan. Minsan, wala
namang kadahi-dahilan. Sa kauna-
unahang pagkakataon, natuklasan
kong iba sa sarili ko ang pinag-
uusapang ako. Hindi lamang ako.
Marami ako.

[In sum, my eyes wander
around. Sometimes, for
no reason at all. For the very
first time, I found out
that the I they talk about was
not me. Not only me.
I am manifold.]


The "I" was legion and determined. The self was the many true selves. The poetic persona was liberated by her mystical self. She was who she was.

Marami ang ako o hindi ako. At kulang ang sarili.
Pero ako, ako! Siyempre hindi ako lang ako. Maya-
maya, ipagpapatuloy ko ang paghakbang, tatawirin
ang labirinto, maglalakad.

[The I and not-I was manifold. And the self was lacking.
But I, I! Of course I am not merely I. Later,
I shall continue my journey, cross
the labyrinth, and walk.]


Day by day, according to the poet, her list of selves was getting longer and longer. She lost her way into the words. Her world was deleted, captioned. Yet she endured.

The process of redaction was here accepted without question. What emerged from the disappearing words was not a character but a multitude of characters, of selves. The erasure expanded the coverage of identity to embrace other characterizations, other labyrinthine ways of expressing one's selves.

The reader, however, could only see the clean and clear lines of the poetry, not the physical evidence of erasure, of blacked out words. It was all to be taken on faith. The product was shown but not the process. The short short poems were set out in clean, wide margins. The self must be evident.


What is a review but an abstraction of reading, a subtraction of the author's intents? And is not the translation of erasures another set of erasures?

* Translations are mine. I used the feminine gender in the translation although the gender of Tagalog pronouns (panghalip) is indeterminate or neutral. This is to highlight the distance that separates the male poet from his creation, the writer from his heteronym.

With thanks to K.D. for a copy of the book.


  1. Fascinating, and what a great Pessoan image to accompany your post (is that from the book's cover?). The redacting of the text reminds me of what British artist Tom Phillips did with a hardcover copy of a Victorian novel in his A Humument, drawing and painting all over the book, redacting words, phrases, sentences, whole paragraphs and pages to create a new work. Interesting that Arguelles took somewhat the opposite approach by hiding his process.

    1. Pessoa sure travels to the least expected places.

      Scott, you beat me to it; I read erasure poetry and thought of A Humument too. Sometimes I think about making my own humument, turning an old book into another art object.

    2. Scott, that is indeed the book's cover. It was a beautiful looking book from an indie press. (Kudos to the designers behind the cover and book - Apol Sta. Maria and Bolix.)

      I've heard of A Humument before. Something to behold physically. The hidden process here was both convenient (it must be costly to reproduce the pages) and mysterious.

    3. Miguel, the word humument should already appear in dictionaries, no. The spirit of this particular humument has travelled well from Lisbon.

  2. I first glanced at this thinking Pessoa, before reading on & discovering a really fascinating post. Loved this.

  3. Maraming salamat sa panahon at pag-iisip na iniukol mo sa librong ito. - Ayer Arguelles

  4. Hi Rise, I love your book reviews so I thought I’d nominate you for a Liebster Award :) Here’s the link – https://josephinelitonjua.wordpress.com/2015/03/13/liebster-award/