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. 

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