What Passes for Answers by Mikael de Lara Co (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2013)
What passes for answers is a book of poetry, conceived in the mind of a poet, held in the mind of a reader. It is a quiet type of book, and the answers are withheld by careful writing. So careful it is that it never trips even if abstract concepts are animated into being.
The young poet, Mikael de Lara Co (b. 1983), has already arrived. His first collection is an instant collectible. The lines register a vision of kindness and humble reflection and yet the feelings evoked are palpable, heartfelt. The main thread of his discourse centers on silence and its variations. The title poem – or poems, there are four of them – already hints at plural approaches to understanding the mystery of existence. A question is asked in each of the title poems' first line: "What is true?"; "Where will this path lead?"; "Whom should we believe?"; "What disturbs the trees?" The answers are more hesitant questions. Nature is revealed as the bearer of answers; the seeker only needs to commune with her. The last lines of each of these title poems may provide an answer. The declarative nudges at the interrogative mood:
To dig for roots and breathe along
to the crackle of wood
as the water lies waiting.
What passes for radiance
in this shadowbound space
is the sound of a river
singing not far from here.
I would like to speak to you now
in rustles and twig-snaps.
Please hum with me.
Let us forget the way
out of this forest.
The berries keep me full,
and I have taken nothing from the forest.
My clothes dampen from sweat and dew.
Two birds flit past, answering
each other's caws.
My heart quickens. I am warm.
What passes for answers is the warmth and generosity of people. The selfless offering, the gift giving. A poet's recognition of the saving power of listening.
... If only [the walls] had fists
they would know how a hand
is defined by its unclenching.
By opening. Some day listening
will save the world.
What music is is five fingers
pointing outward. A palm
facing skyward. Asking
for nothing. Receiving.
Listening (to a choir singing, to someone) saves the world, if only because in the serenity of listening we can recognize another generous point of view. This poem reminds me of Edith L. Tiempo's dual image of open hands offering and receiving.
True that life is given,
And received. But truer still:
The single-act of giving
Makes the offerer the beggar, too –
For when down on the knees
The man (or god) stretches the arms
It is no accident the hands
Are curled like bowls or cups,
For he offers self, yet
Begs it back again,
[from "Guru Puja: The Offering" by Edith L. Tiempo]
"Now I desire no more from poetry than silence," the poet declares in a prose poem, humbly requesting its (future) reader not to consider his book as a work of poetry: "These are just lines. This is just a gift, not even wrapped, its silence the only thing of value to anyone."
What passes for answers is silence. Perhaps the silence of a night, so deep one can hear the soft stirrings of sleeping living things. It is a type of silence that allows sufficient space for rumination of pregnant meanings.
Metapoetry is another manifest element in this collection. The self-questioning metapoet is already building an aesthetic position that will inevitably measure his future outputs. In "The Doomed", the poet acknowledges the difficulty of writing beautiful lines when the subject of the poem is terrorism.
One word for lily is enough;
there is enough beauty in flowers.
I want to find beauty in suffering.
I want to fail.
Even if, as the poet writes, "The task of poetry / is to never run out of words", in the face of terrorist attacks the poet asserts that it is his ethical obligation not to find appropriate synonyms and for his poetry not to be beautiful. It is a reflexive contradiction and yet a compassionate position. The poet's success lies in his failure to be poetic.
A kind of poetry
that does not need poetry
to speak it ...
What passes for answers is a grasping for words. In "Pith", the open fruit with its pith of seeds is the essence of poetry itself. The poem is so short and yet the main idea is already compressed in it. The last lines read:
What other truth is there
than this broken fruit?
Its seeds peek from inside
a fist of pulp. Once
I had a word for this.
It is not lost. Look.
One need only look. One looks back at the title ("Pith") to recognize the word. But this is not only looking at a title or a fruit visually. One looks inside, at the essence of a thing.
One way of discovering the pith of things is to give them a right to exist and an opportunity to express their innermost thoughts. Two poems in the collection have this unique approach of personification. In "Archipelago", "the horizon, lover of light" and "priestesses rummaging through their rucksacks" – two entities introduced early in the poem – are suddenly privileged to communicate with each other. In "Pastoral", the inanimate "mossless cheek of a boulder" and "knife" suddenly engage in a conversation.
MOSSLESS CHEEK OF A BOULDER:
Too much shade
stunts the saplings.
Do we wait for the trees
to fell themselves?
MOSSLESS CHEEK OF A BOULDER:
Upon this brittle pile of leaves.
Upon this fading patch of light.
See me poised to gut you.
See my [serrations], blessed by time.
MOSSLESS CHEEK OF A BOULDER:
Examine the canopy.
Brother, who called us here?
From which technique we can glean a direct confrontation with ordinary things often neglected in life. Much like Pablo Neruda's odes to common things, the poet here celebrates common nouns to find their proper place in the world. He awards them the right to self-determination in a universe continually challenged by disequilibrium such as deforestation, the felling of trees. In this collection, the balance of nature depends on every component part of the natural and built environments, an all-inclusive eco-poetic worldview.
I am glad to finally read a full length poetry collection from Mikael Co. I have only read his four poems appearing in Crowns and Oranges: Works by Young Philippine Poets (2009). His first poem in that anthology already signals his affinity for certain thematic areas described above. The first stanza already announces brooding silence:
We begin with a house.
The spaces we inhabit
or used to inhabit. The silences.
There is the turn into metapoetry: "But this is not a poem about return / ... / This is a poem / about a house." There is the appeal to the pith-essence of a poem about a house: "See / the pith of an orange sits hardened, // orphaned on the kitchen counter."
For his poetry, Mikael Co has already received three grand prizes in the Palanca. As a translator, he has equally built an impressive résumé. He has translations of a section of poems in Shockbox: Ang Butas na Kahon ni Kulas Talon: The Complete Posthumous Poetry (2013) by Kulas Talon [Khavn De La Cruz] and couple of contributions in Under the Storm: An Anthology of Contemporary Philippine Poetry (2011). His co-translation of the novel Eight Muses of the Fall (2013) by Edgar Calabia Samar is a finalist in the 2014 (Philippine) National Book Awards, where this book is also in contention in the category of best poetry book in English. One other finalist – To the Evening Star by Simeon Dumdum Jr. – I read last year. It is a strong bet. The other finalists – Luisa A. Igloria, Ricardo M. de Ungria, and Allan Popa – are seasoned Filipino poets. It is a tight race; it is a particularly strong field of poets. What Passes for Answers is in fine company, and they are in his.