30 January 2024

Almost an interpretation


Pasalubong (Presents) by Maria Rilkë Arguelles (Philippine High School for the Arts and Grana-PH Book Publishing, 2022)


"Real art has the capacity to make us nervous," said Susan Sontag in her essay "Against Interpretation," where she expressed her displeasure at interpreting (or taming) works of art to conform to how one apprehends this world. "As if there were any other", she scoffed. Sontag viewed interpretation as an impoverishment of the soul, a depletion of the world by establishing a shadow world of "meanings". For her, interpretation is a trapdoor. It makes art manageable and comfortable. Some writers (Sontag called them "overcooperative" authors) would "be so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install within the work itself ... the clear and explicit interpretation of it." 

And here I come to write about a book of poetry that made me nervous. Here was a collection that resisted interpretation, that was always on the verge of interpreting itself but did not succumb to reviewer-friendly posturing which exposes hidden truths and hidden secrets and desires.

Poetry books like Pasalubong by Maria Rilkë Arguelles are what tempt me to make a deep dive into Philippine poetry. Maybe a reading challenge of reading Filipino poets for a year. Pasalubong did not fall prey to easy categorization and self-interpretation. It did not relieve the reader of his itch to explain things away. The poems stood their ground; the poet was adamant. The poems might have tried to delineate a self or an identity, zooming out time and again to the collective, the masses waiting in the train stations of urbanscape. However much the lines try to unclothe meanings, the puzzle remained unsolved, the mystery unresolved:

Ganito mo sya hinuhubaran:
paisa-isang salita,
paisa-isang linya.

[This is how you strip her:
one word at a time,
one verse at a time.]

The compactness of ideas, the fleetingness of frozen images kept the vitality of emotions vulnerable yet intact. Seesawing images were the units of discovery behind the words and verses. One image at a time: that was how the feelings unfold in the pages of the collection. Arguelles's short, crisp poems accommodated a pile of images colliding against each other. The puzzle pieces were at the brink of being fitted on the board, only for the reader to discover mismatches in the metaphors.

To be sure the poet doled out images like bread crumbs but did not make them a subject of intelligibility or palatability. Cards on a table, the poems were transparently laid out on the page. But each one appeared to be unfinished moments in the history of a young artist, the mystery at the center revealed only by tentative interpretations.

Sa aninag sa salamin ng nakakuwadradong larawan, iba na ang inuusisang hitsura. Hindi ko lubusang masabi na ako ang nasa litrato.

[In the mirror's reflection of the framed picture, the image being examined has changed. I can no longer be certain that I am the person in the picture.]

Like any search for a final identity or a final consciousness, the self remained unfinished and a work in progress. Narratives were better left unfinished because selves were never definitive, always incomplete. Life goes on long after the wisdom teeth broke out to the surface.

As in the poet's namesake Rainer Maria Rilke in the Duino elegies, we could detect in Arguelles's lines a questioning of the burden of interpretation.

Matapos ang biyahe, matapos maglapag
ng samotsaring danas at lumbay

sa pahina: magpatangay
sa hangin, hayaang mailibing ng pagkakataon.
Damhin, sa lupa, ang sigaw ng sinukob at sabayan

ang pag-angat ng alimuom na unti-unting
kukumot sa kilala nating mundo.

After the journey, after setting down
the wilderness of pain and sadness

on the page: let the wind
convey you; let chance bury you under ground.
Feel, in the earth, the clamor of the world and join

the rising petrichor slowly enveloping
this interpreted world.]

Because interpreted, the world was all too familiar, and yet it was being blanketed by the haze of petrichor, the after-scent of rain. The familiar was becoming unfamiliar; the uninterpreted world became an interpreted one, the source of Rilke's anxiety in the first Duino elegy: Not Angels, not humans, / and the sly animals see at once / how little at home we are / in the interpreted world.

Is Pasalubong representative of Philippine poetry collections? No, definitely not. 

Is it representative of the best works in Philippine poetry? Yes.  

Can it stand alongside international poetry? Yes. So then let it be tested. "Let it be translated," as Roberto Bolaño exhorted, plagiarizing or paraphrasing Borges. A creative (non-literal) translation that did not presuppose mere literary interpretation.

In Arguelles's debut collection, a pragmatic and observant voice laid down her thoughts about everyday stuff. A breakthrough poet was starting to notice more deeply, however much she tried to suppress the metaphor from spreading fully its wings, however much she muted the colors of perception. The collection already had the cavalier attitude of a seasoned poet, the discipline to sustain a singular voice and be restrained, despite some unexplained, undefinable source of pain or loneliness. 

"What matters in [the film Last Year in Marienbad]," said Sontag, is not its suggestiveness but "the pure, untranslateable, sensuous immediacy of some of its images." The arresting imagery in and compact form of Pasalubong protected it from what Sontag called "the arrogance of interpretation" and contributed to the recovery of the senses.

The collection was co-published by Grana Books. In its Facebook page, Grana Books called itself "a small press devoted to publishing exciting and challenging contemporary works that expand the possibilities for creation." This vision was already realized in this book.