28 January 2023

"Pessoa, Pessoa" (Rosmon Tuazon)


Pessoa, Pessoa
by Rosmon Tuazon

                               Sou somente o lugar
                               Onde se sente ou pensa.

1 Pessoa, Pessoa

Pessoa, you dispel the disquiet of strangers,

passing through, it looks like.
They wish each other an afternoon of quiet, Pessoa,

Pessoa. You pull the hat down the face
whenever you feel you will be trapped in the middle—

you were sure you will get away with it, Pessoa.

You were sure they will leave you be.

2 Persona, Pessoa

You goad them to their fake individual suicides,
a hand weighing down their hands, a manual

for jotting down their most courageous failures,

so that you can weave together the history
of your own demise, the end that did not proceed as planned

for you to be as one, again, to be you,

to be pure ambition and anonymity, Pessoa,

3 Pessoa, Persona
When the trunk of his writings was discovered
(verses, a love letter, a notebook

used to practice loops and lengths of signatures),
it was too late when they realized it was a casket

they opened. Because beneath the pile
of words, the corpses were gaping,

as if buried alive while giving their testimonies.

4 Mensagem

Not a casket really but a chest. Container.

From the pile of corpses emerged
the disturbed one, shaking off the dust, refusing to be assisted.

He left us alone who have found what we were looking for
and yet we are still excavating. 


The epigraph is from a poem by Fernando Pessoa (writing under the pseudonym Ricardo Reis) called “Vivem em nós inúmeros.” As translated by Richard Zenith, the lines read “I am merely the place / Where things are thought or felt.”

Translated from Filipino by Ryan Fuentes.

From Sa Pagitan ng mga Emerhensiya (Between Emergencies) by Rosmon Tuazon (The University of the Philippines Press, 2022). 


21 January 2023

Hoshino Tomoyuki's meme


ME by Hoshino Tomoyuki, translated by Charles De Wolf (Akashic Books, 2017)


"The power of thought" was how Ōe Kenzaburō described the "genius" of Hoshino Tomoyuki in Ōe's afterword to the novel ME, justifying Ōe's selection of ME for the prize named after him. In Hoshino's novel, Ōe was reminded of Kōbō Abe, even making the bold claim that sections of Hoshino's writing even surpassed Kōbō Abe in substance and prowess.

Let us restate that phrase into "the power of literary speculation". A clue was given in Lonely Hearts Killer, another translated novel by Hoshino, where the first anniversary of the Japanese emperor's death was commemorated on February 30th. The frame of reference in Hoshino's fiction was the reality of this world that is apart from this world. And with ME, he created a premise grounded in the reality of scammers and spammers impersonating someone else using a phone, then pursued a twisted fictional logic that was the territory of allegory. The same power of novelistic speculation pursued by Kōbō Abe and also by Kafka and Saramago.

It was the peak of the return rush. The train as far as Shibuya was relatively empty, but the cars on the Yamanote Line were packed. I absentmindedly looked up at the advertisements, when suddenly the slack faces of myriad MEs came surging into view. They were all around me. I found myself smack up against of an old fatso of a ME, buttocks to buttocks, who let off a fart that reeked horribly of garlic. In front of me was a ME about my own age. He boarded the now-crowded train wearing a large square backpack. Every time he fiddled with his cell phone, he would ram his burden into me. To my right was another ME, tall, slender, and prematurely bald, who was pretending to read his newspaper as he held onto the strap while in fact ogling the open blouse of a ME in her midthirties, who was standing in front of him and looking off to the side. His atrociously foul breath enveloped me. The woman was listening to music, with the volume loud enough to allow me to make out the words of the songs, sung by Yutaka Ozaki. It was all quite unbearable. To my left was a small middle-aged ME, who would brush up against me whenever the train lurched, whereupon she would glare at me. 

In ME, Hoshino created that dynamic construct or code word translated as "ME". Dynamic because the identity of ME shifted and multiplied throughout the course of the novel, operating under a principle governed by pure whimsy -- a spontaneous sequence of events and encounters that defied order and rationality. ME had become a mass: a collective of persons inhabiting the same identity -- the late capitalist society's lame underachiever. The method was purposive and performative.

With some effort I pulled out a large cardboard box, opened it up, and found bundles of tote bags, plastic bags, wrapping paper, advertising flyers, and empty boxes within empty boxes, like Russian nesting dolls.

"What is individuality?" asked a lump of fish roes in a serving of caviar in Gudetama, an existential Netflix cartoon. "What a drag," Gudetama the raw egg constantly intoned. In Hoshino’s novel of many MEs, the question is no less pathetic: “What does it mean to live as an individual? How does somebody learn to be one?”

At this juncture of life in a modern city, where Big Mac becomes the default meal and McDonald's is the perennial meeting place of characters, the novelist opted to work around collapsing identity and bleeding individuality. From the explosion of nuclear families (if you'll pardon the explosion) and the attendant familial and societal burdens, the regimented life of consumer capitalism, including the defined roles in a bureaucracy, it was hard enough to live against an expectation. To be an untethered self, free from the universal role of a cog in the wheel, the novelist made a freewheeling improvisation of a self multiplying like a tumor or a radioactive substance. The novelist must be free to speculate, bend logic, and embrace absurdity. 

At the novel's end, Hoshino would reenact the history of civilization from cave dwelling ME to the formation of agricultural ME societies to the Anthropocene, the age of personal and historical traumas and (collective) pining for suicide.

In fact, the reader needed only to substitute the word "human" or "person" or "human being" or "human species" to every instance of the word "ME" (and "WE" and "US") in the novel and the narrative would still operate soundly and proceed logically. This was the shared allegory of the first person object as having no human agency. The shared destiny of ME was hiding in plain sight. 


03 January 2023

Tanizaki's slow reveal


Devils in Daylight by Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, translated by J. Keith Vincent (New Directions, 2017)

I don't know who's going to kill whom. And even if I did, I wouldn't tell you the details over the telephone. What I can tell you is that this very night, at a certain location, a certain person is going to put an end to a certain someone else's life. This is all I have been able to get wind of so far. Of course I am not personally involved with the crime, so I am responsible neither for preventing it, nor for reporting it. But I want to watch it happen, in secret, without any of those involved knowing that I am there. And I would feel a lot better about it if you came with me. Doesn't that sound more enjoyable than staying home writing a novel?

Sonomura was not pulling the leg of his friend, the novelist (and the novel's narrator) Takahashi, although the latter had a suspicion the former might be imagining things, might be becoming a bit unhinged. Takahashi also admitted to the reader that his mental constitution was not all there at this time of year. It's murder we are talking here after all.

We are talking here about the premise of Devils in Daylight, Tanizaki Jun'ichiro's 1918 novel, with its surprisingly modernist treatment of a murder mystery that was also a kind of commentary on the nature of fiction. Tanizaki directly referenced Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Gold-Bug", borrowing the cryptography and secret code element from the American writer.

Tanizaki's strain of detective story was as viral as the American's. His amateur detectives (and witnesses to a crime) were witting voyeurs of murder. J. Keith Vincent's translation provided a consistent tone and voice that kept intact the pitch of anxiety and wild humor in the proceedings. Because we are reading a murder mystery patterned after or at least influenced by Poe, we are in the realm of infinite possibilities for moral and ethical degradation. Combine that with Tanizaki's cinematic and voyeuristic treatment of murder, we are assured that what we are about to witness is up to no good, in a good way.

What Tanizaki displayed in the actual act of murder was, of course, the power of the novel to withhold and dispense information at will—the slow reveal. Because the novel, unlike the film, could only reveal the situation one word at a time, we did not have the full view of the crime. We were just looking at the aperture of the camera one letter, word, sentence, and paragraph at a time. We did not have a full view of a crime in cold daylight. But as with the film, the murder proceeded one frame at a time, such that the violent procession of images were described in the text a scene at a time. But the novelist could also frame the shot and withheld the view of a certain image until the right timing.

I was so transfixed by the sight of this beautiful woman that until then I had failed to notice the enormous metal tub that sat on the right side of the room. The presence of such an object in the room was in fact even more mysterious than that of the camera, and I would surely have noticed it long before if the woman had not been there to distract me. It was the size of a Western-style bathtub, an oblong container, narrow but deep, covered in enamel, and it sat there, hulkingly, next to the veranda and the reed blinds.

The metal tub had to be introduced later, after the woman, after the murder accomplice, and after an (actual) camera in the lighted room. Everything else is filler, a distraction. Had we seen it in a movie, the bathtub might not have easily escaped our attention, with its "hulking" enamel presence. The gradual reveal had yet to introduce the murderee.

There was no doubt about it. No matter how you looked at it, the man's gaze was hovering on the woman's body, between her chest and lap. And not only that, the woman herself, who was also looking down, seemed to be staring at the same area on her own body. From what I could see at my angle, she extended her elbows outward and brought her hands together over her waist, as if she were sewing; she was in the process of fiddling with some kind of object that was resting there. Once I had noticed this, I began to discern the vague outlines of a black lump-like object on her lap. It was stock still and seemed to extend quite a ways forward in the shadow of her body.

"Could this be someone—a man—making a pillow of her lap?"

Just as this thought occurred to me, I was startled by a sudden thud, the sound of a hearty object being moved. The woman had turned her body toward the camera. And there, in her lap, was the head of a man looking upward, a corpse slumped over.

Takahashi the novelist then went on to say that he was unsure how he felt at that moment—"the feeling had gone far beyond fear, reducing me to an insensate numbness that was close to ecstasy ..." [Tanizaki's ellipsis]. The slow reveal gave way to cardiac recognition of a one-of-a-kind mise-en-scène.

I knew the body was a corpse not only because the eyes were open wide despite his prone position, but because the collar had been torn from the elegant tails he wore, and his neck was wrapped tightly in a piece of crimson silk crepe that looked like a woman's undergirdle. His hands were outstretched, as if caught in the throes of death reaching out for his soul as it escaped his body, and had reached the collar-piece of the woman's kimono, which was covered in a gaudy embroidered image of wisteria flowers the color of celadon. She had inserted her hands in the corpse's armpits, and twisted her body around to reposition it as it lay there like a dead tuna.

The novelist and his friend were so affected by the murder that they had to endlessly talk about it, dissect its causation and machination, and seek the mastermind behind such devilish act.

The more I thought about it, the more the whole affair seemed mysterious, as if some phantom were at work. And yet even for a mystery it was too mysterious; and the lights were too bright for phantoms. I had witnessed it all with my own eyes, but I could not banish the thought that I had somehow been deceived.

We could not disabuse the narrator Takashi of his perception that he was just a fictive pawn in a fictional artifice: a morbid crime story created by the novelist Tanizaki to explore ways how detective stories, films, and novels overlap and subsume each other's forms and (malign) intents.

I heard the excruciating, heartrending groans as he flailed in desperation with the silk waistband wrapped tightly around his neck, as she squeezed the last breath out of his body. Then the cold, thin smile that lit up [her] face ... and the look of cruel scorn in the eyeballs of the man with the crewcut. I leave it to the reader to imagine how profoundly frightening these images were.

That last sentence there was the extra nail in the novel's coffin.



30 November 2022

So pleasant


So pleasant. Crystal waters, springs, shade and sun. Black-Ox Farm, belonged to an Eleutério Lopes — ways afore the Blue Field, on the way to the Scorched Desert. That was in February or January, in the time of the corn bloom. Moreso: what with the silver-tipped country-captain, which thrives in the cerrado; anise adorning its thickets; and the deianiras with tiny flowers. That marmalade grass thicks in fast, redoubling no sooner it sprouts, so sea-green, child of the slightest drizzle. From any cloth of woodland, from nigh-all two-leaves-touching, every colour of butterflies would spiral out. As you’ve never seen, here you see it. Cause in the gerais, the same breed of butterfly, which in other parts is trivial ordinary — here gets bigger, and brighter, you know; I say it’s the dryness of the air, the clear, this huge light. Long the banks of the Urucúia’s headsprings, there the handsome-beauty sings highly. And there was the whistling duck that chichirruped in the first sunblush of morn, the swamp sprite, the loopy-loo, the wee-saw, the striped cuckoo, the cow dove… and the you-I-see kiskadee, and raucous macaws. It was nice to hear the mer of the cows owing their milk. But, little sun-gem in the de-veil of dawn, for every glum thought your mind throws up, he asks again and fakes the answer. Then, in the afternoon, the flycatcher would tumbledive, in high low come go, peck-pecking from mid-flight every wee-winged critter; clever bird. It was going to rain late later. Dusk that fills the trees with cicadas — then, it doesn’t rain. Whistles that closed the day: the bananaquit, the blue grosbeak, the marsh wren, the kingbird, the rusty-thrush, the coconut finch… I was the whole time almost with Diadorim.  

- Excerpt from João Guimarães Rosa's Great Sertão: Meanderings, currently being translated by Alison Entrekin. (Source)

18 September 2022

A poet's abdication

Canopy by Mikael de Lara Co (Vagabond Press, 2017) 

This poetry collection was full of invocations, full of imagery so frail and fragile they could shatter at a mere whisper: a river singing its rapids, a string tethered to a wrist, the evergreen canopy, the image of upturned hands. The image of hands upturned as if praying or asking for restitution for specific crimes, or reprieve from extreme weather events, or extreme cruelty, like massacre or genocide. And the task of poetry was questioned continually or its ironic presence invoked to question its role in our lives.

... how come there are always
enough blankets to wrap the bodies in,
always white and ready before the third day,
see, there is a form of empathy so cruel
only poetry can handle it. When
your friend told you about the twins
you wanted to ask him whether he saw
the clots being rinsed off their unripe
bodies, did he flinch, and later
could he name their ghosts. You must
have failed. And still you want to believe
that there is nothing more beautiful
than earnestness, that a human
throat can create a sound so luminous
it could engulf even the most private
of sorrows, that there is, perhaps,
hopefully in everyone, a secret pith
where grief comes from, or terror,
that there are tendrils that can wring
communion from the hungers
that shadow our silences, go,
ask him. Ask your friend now,
Did you see their hands? The twins,
tell me you saw their hands.
[from "Tendrils"]

We never really knew what happened to the twins in Sultan Kudarat, but their deaths were prefigured early on in the poem. This was in a place of perpetual conflict in southern Philippines.

"You [the poet, perhaps] must / have failed." Poetry was not a salve for the wounds. It was a helpless instrument. It could only tether stories of injustice and ask for facts—"Did you see their hands?"—not reparations.

Only the voiceless could count on poetry's compassionate side.

The Doomed

Poetry with lilies can’t stop tanks.
Neither can poetry with tanks.
This much is true.
Here is more or less how it happens.
You sit at your desk
to write a poem about lilies
and a clip of 9mm’s is emptied into the chest
of a mother in Zamboanga.
Her name was Hamira.
I sit at my desk to write a poem about tanks
and a backhoe in Ampatuan
crushes the spines of 57
—I am trying to find another word
for bodies. The task of poetry
is to never run out of words.
This is more or less how it happens:
I find another word for bodies
and Hamira remains dead.
Her son was with her when she was shot.
I didn’t catch his name.
I don’t know if he died. Perhaps
he placed lilies on his mother’s grave;
perhaps he was buried beside her.
One word for lily is enough.
There is enough beauty in flowers.
I want to find beauty in suffering.
I want to fail.

The task of poetry might be to never run out of words, but sometimes they did. In the face of senseless deaths, the artificiality of poetic construction crumbled. In "The Doomed", the poet wanted to embrace failure. Adorno's dictum lived on.

There was always a tactile quality to the poems of Mikael de Lara Co. The weight of his themes were unburdened by the lightness of diction and word choice. The tentativeness of his convictions, the self-questioning, was a hallmark of his humble poetics. He was aware that a false string of words was answerable to his subjects. He tried his best not to make the precious mistake of being too precious. He said as much in his open letter to the world.

Dear World,

I apologize for the many times
I used your suffering to populate
my poetry. To the children in the villages
I am now embarrassed to name,
to Hamira whose grave
I have yet to visit, I am sorry.
To the bees vanishing from their hives,
please understandd: I only wished to borrow
your tiny hearts because mine refused
to be still. Yesterday I read about
... see, here I go again. What does it matter
that the threads of our grief remain unwoven.
Already there are too many sons
hunched over the bodies of too many fathers,
too many daughters sweeping shrapnel
from too many streets. Dear world,
I abdicate my role as poet.
From now on I will dig bones from the mud
only if they are my own, pitch tents
to cover only this sky unshadowed
by bombs. I will make them high enough
to atone for this mouth
full of needles. Wide enough
so that when I am moved to prayer
no one will hear but you.

Perhaps a poet could only be called a true poet if he was not conscious of his role as such. So Mikael de Lara Co had to abdicate the royal profession in order not to condescend to his subject and his readers. Suffering was indeed a slippery subject in poetry. It risked implicating the poet in the perpetuation, or perpetration, of sufferance itself. The poet had to efface himself from the narrative. Words were only petty words, after all. When dealing with heavy subjects, a poet too clever for his own good was a writer of editorials.

Cleverness undoes my tracks.
Has the forest not shown that kindness
is the only map? ...
[from "Aimlessness"] 

If only poetry could be kind in a few words. Yet poetry too is a vision of kindness. It was gentle kindness in the periphery of the poet that absolved him of the guilt of using unnameable suffering as his materials. In a few paltry lines, poets could only strive for this value derivable from their perception of the world. 

A poet need not abdicate his role. Poetry’s task need not be to never run out of words. At the final punctuation, a poem literally runs out of words. A poet abdicates his role. A reader takes over, parses through the words and catches his breath and inhabits a measure of feeling. If he is lucky, he detects a living vitality, a tinge of kindness and sympathy.