Poems Singkwenta’y Cinco by Alfred A. Yuson
(Anvil Publishing, Manila, 2010)
[First published in Philippines Free Press magazine, April 10, 2010]
A Poet of Many Gimmicks
In his new book, Alfred A. Yuson runs the gamut from traditional to contemporary with literary aplomb, unafraid to mix it up and with an ear cocked ever so slightly at every peculiar throb of experience, every lexical oddity, be it fugu or Engalog, heliconias or plain old taratitat. In this as in his signature collection Trading in Mermaids, considered by many to be his best book, he is as wide-ranging as can be, but now he has fully extended his tonal range, impressively adding a bunch of Tagalog poems to his repertoire.
He starts off with three poems — "Pillage," "Under the Care of Tyrants" and "Plunder" — that form sort of a back story to the kind of political carnage endemic in a poor country, particularly our own. But no, these are hardly political in the way we understand politics to be, though they paint a pretty glum picture: "Better a nation of martyrs than shopkeepers./ Better one disaster after another, to polish/ the hand of mercy." Here he’s playing it straight and in black, untypical of a poet known for his wordplay and subtle oscillations.
Krip (we like to call him Krip, it’s so much more resonant!) is a serious poet but it should be crystal clear at first read that the proper venue for his poetry is a hedonist couch, or an Internet café if you will, with lots of time for texting and blogging, or just playing the game. Picture this: the poet smokes, e-mails, then takes a shot of his favorite single malt. He writes a poem entitled "On My Balcony After Rain, Green Around, Some Dapple of Sunlight...," and then with one pantoum down, another haiku to go, he whips up a poem in Taglish, flaunting the letter C, as in Cinco, with a possible nod to Wallace Stevens or is it Joyce’s pomes pennyeach (adjusted for inflation?). Yes, I’m remembering the jokester Stevens who wrote: "A poem is a café." ("Restoration")
Krip undoubtedly is “a man of many gimmicks,” to borrow a phrase from one of his poems. If he’s not free-versing, he’s traveling, teaching, attending conferences, souvenir-hunting, feeding on dimsum, pronouncing on the latest fads, etc. etc. And it’s all there, tellingly, wonderfully reflected in his writings — all his varied interests providing an erotic, oftentimes humorous, subtext to his poetry. He also writes knowingly of women, the worries and satisfactions of a family man, the grief of a son.
Interestingly, his books of poetry appear to group themselves, like a newspaper, into functional sections: 1) Current News; 2) Food & Booze; 3) Travel and Entertainment; 4) Family & Cultural Affairs; 5) Sex & Love Relationships; 6) Sports. There is something for everyone, and even outside those comfort zones, he finds a way to tap into deeper sources of wit, as he does in a poem like "Trading in Mermaids," which is no less than a surreal and artfully compelling invective against sexual tourism. To the tired subject of love, and the engaging it in strange places and even stranger commonplaces, he returns afresh, again and again, in his poems. He is a poet clearly immersed in his time, and if it‘s a bad time it‘s a good time. To be sure, his poems are layered in euphorias of pleasure or lust.
There is a playful immediacy of sensation, in his language and poetry, that hits a nerve, flutters the pineal glands, raises an eyebrow of a perfect storm.
Here’s his culinary poem, as quoted in full:
Quiver in the ears
at danger taste
just enough of the poison
hopscotching ocean’s perils —
there be dragons and blowfish
Or, go to page 45 and ponder these lines:
Excited, hair crying Allah,
you sail a hand
into the shallows....
Krip loves bright gimmicks in the manner of today’s poets, and I hasten to add — just as some of his contemporaries love and still doggedly cling to the knuckle-headed jargon of symbolism. (I‘m using, at this point what should already be obvious, ‘gimmick’ in the Nabokovian sense, of literature as an echo chamber of stylistic devices. Not that the Russian author used the term himself, but you get what I mean. Every new style once it has been effectively deployed becomes a genre unto itself, fit to hold another poet’s conjurings. That’s a fancy way of saying poets work off of each other, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Thus employing the power of artifice to project new perspectives, the virtuosic poet can write a la Frank O‘Hara, he can write a la Auden, he can write a la James Merrill or a la Ashbery, without losing his unmimickable voice.)
Krip well knows that he can sound out the tones of just about anybody contemporary, and still retain his edge. Just to cite an example, he wrote a poem, "Dream of Knives," reminiscent of Borges’ "El Puñal," which nonetheless is original and moving. He also wrote a knockoff of Cavafy which is unmistakably his own. There is a poem in this book, "The Deaths, The Deaths," that cannot have been written without O’Hara but for all its faddish cross-referencing of Hollywood celebs the poem sticks out as an original poem. Again, as in "All too blasé and all too whiplash," "Rejection," and “Aqui Sila Tumba,” he can be as cuttingly satirical as Auden; or, as in "California Kings" and "Hypertelorism," as stunningly dramatic as Merrill, with no lessening of his inventive persona. The last poem is one of the many good things in the book, candid and evocative.
Another quick observation. Somehow poets run through the rigmarole of generational cycles where elegance of style is alternately despised and embraced, so the mere trend of omitting rhetoric in favor of quiet particulars is not without its own risk. In any case, poetry is not poetry without the flourish of completed thought. The poem “Possession Arrow” is a good illustration of what I mean. It is consisting of 16 irregular lines shaped to the likeness of an arrow, but that is not what is so cool about it. Here we have a carefree and yet a perfect blending of a casual object, that provides a sentient hardness to the poem, and a thought, that renders it significant:
Where it points
is where the ball goes
forward, with team or any
entity or self that deems it to be
their own, spheroid warm to the touch,
sometimes errant, but often going the way
it’s directed, to the hoop, through the net, clean
as a whistle. Or maybe not exactly following one’s wishes
or skills, but possessing a mind of its own, and having thus established
milestone of sovereignty, would then careen so willy-nilly
this way or that, to heck to hell with whatever the fans
prayed for in their moment of unity, or cheer, or sad
moment of loss. In any case, whatever the source
of fate or destiny of a thing, an object, of love
and devotion like an idea caressed, handled
with much care, whatever, whatever, pow!
There are other poems in this book that are notable both for their brevity and their breathtaking eloquence, like "If This Be…," and "Half Moon Over Durban." The book’s title may be frivolous-sounding and unprepossessing, but don’t be fooled. There are vipers and snakes and tortured savages aplenty in Krip‘s backyard garden.
In a recent review, Manila critic Juaniyo Arcellana puts Krip in a triad with two greats, Jose Garcia Villa and Jun Lansang. Juaniyo, a skilled poet in his own right, understands the mystique of triangulation, and so does Krip who once wrote a funny piece in Veritas called “Of Three I Sing”!! More than a numerical kinship is at stake here. Two of the poems contained in Krip’s book — "Ana’s Song" and "Vow" — are certainly among the best lyrics he has ever written, and to be better appreciated they must be read side-by-side with the acknowledged lyrics of the other two poets.
Krip’s poems are nothing like JGV’s, and nothing like Jun Lansang’s. Villa's "I can no more hear Love’s voice," Lansang’s Ur-lyric "Though Lucretius Bid Me" and Krip’s "Ana‘s Song" and "Vow" may be said to resemble each other in that obviously they are all love poems, but there the parallels cease. Where Villa and Lansang seem to connect to a distant Muse, Krip insinuates a very personal motif into the proceedings. Villa’s lyric is a touchstone and yet it is very much a period piece, adhering to the same musty, outmoded, soon-abandoned poetics that fueled the love poems of Angela Manalang-Gloria and Trinidad Tarrosa-Subido. Poets of their generation wore their heart on their sleeves, with classical boldness. Supply the appropriate commas to Villa’s poem and you get Villa in a nutshell: unique verbal agility with nothing new to say.
With Lansang, the break is complete. The simile is the poem. It‘s like with a few key words ("caves of Altamira," "Arakan-yoma," "Great Russian Novel"), the poet’s anguish is palpably linked to a phenomenal universe of sexual astonishment and disgust. With Krip, and this is a quality peculiar to his love poems, we are made to breathe in the actual aroma of a woman and to vicariously feel a shiver of blood on her face. This is not to say the poems of JGV and Lansang are lacking in any element of personal recall, but the actual characterization is adroitly withheld in a way the authors intended.
I can tell you that Jun Lansang, whom I got to know well from when I was writing back in the ’60s, worried more over the mechanics of the poem than over the enchantress who inspired it, whom he casually met in 1958 or so, in one of his youthful stalking binges in New York. The engine driving Lansang’s poem is far from a direct emotion but for all its remoteness is just as powerful. I can’t say the same for Villa, but in his case, life too may have preceded art, though in any larger study of the origins of his work the reverse would I suspect tend to hold sway.
Krip published his first collection of poetry, Sea Serpent, in 1980. He has subsequently published five more poetry collections, including the current one, which taken together firmly establishes him as one of our leading poets. In the '80s, Krip co-founded the Philippine Literary Arts Council (PLAC), along with Gémino Abad, Cirilo Bautista, Ricardo de Ungria and the late Alfrredo Navarro Salanga. Through their journal, Caracoa, they provided a constituency of poetic talents an appropriate forum to showcase their work.
The journal carries the emblem of a primitive war vessel plying off the Southern coasts, with the suggestive if somewhat spurious figure of the poet as navigator. There’s nothing revolutionizing about PLAC’s aesthetic agenda. They had none, and that’s a good thing. To their credit, the PLAC poets seemed completely attuned, and yet unattached, to the poetries of America and Europe, and the value of nativeness, strongly combined with a social conscience, prompted them at one time in the same direction as our homegrown feministas, whose breakout period coincided with theirs.
It would be instructive to place Krip in the context of what others of his contemporaries are doing, principally the aforementioned “Caracoa” poets maturing in the troubled '70s and '80s. Jimmy Abad is a superb anthologist but I regret I don’t know enough about his poetry to profitably make an assessment of it. From what I can gather it’s too cerebral and a little way over my head. Salanga may have been a good proselytizer, but he is a non-poet and therefore does not belong in this discussion. On the other hand, the works of poet-professors Bautista and de Ungria are well-known and much-admired.
Nobody much can quarrel with the fact that Bautista writes with gravitas. In fact he has written a grandiloquent three-part epic called "The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus," the last part of which is demonstrably better than the first two. Two reasons: it is not as repetitive and disorganized; it is more controlled, strict-syllabled and yet rhythmically varied. In it, however, he continues to bravely hang on to his masturbatory fantasies of a Great Philippine Nation gone awry. For that is what his epic trilogy is all about. They’re all greased spokes of the same wheel. There is a compulsion to allegory in his work, some teachable moments, a lot of unearned violence trembling on the surface but unable to draw blood. There’s no plot to follow, just a thread of characters speaking out of turn, sometimes with baroque profusion and grace but all too often with studied candor and hopeful naiveté. Bautista excels when he’s speaking as himself, in his character as a poet; not so much when he’s doodling around with a bundle of dead personalities, where his faint and feigned rehabbings of history put him at a disadvantage. In any case, for all its shortcomings his epic touches greatness in a way that Ricaredo Demetillo’s Barter in Panay does not.
For his part, in his tear-jerking narrative Waking Ice de Ungria has produced a marvel of lyrical eloquence. But, of course, it went largely unnoticed, and how damning is that! It goes without saying that Krip, about three years younger than Bautista, five years older than de Ungria, is as much a major player as these two. Like Bautista, he can write with gaudy exuberance, or like de Ungria, with lighthearted gusto. But admittedly he likes his poetry stewed on the soft side, with a dash of playful mockery and tender remonstration. None if he can help it of Bautista’s pious histrionics, more akin to de Ungria in their mutual distaste for the solemn and the occult for occult’s sake.
Now I’m not saying Krip is the better poet, for they’re all good sophisticated poets, with differing excellences. However I’m more interested in the perfect poem rather than the big imperfect poem, and I can honestly say that Krip has written more perfect poems than any poet in recent memory. Just to name a few off the top of my head: "Midlandfall," "Far Away," "Trading in Mermaids," "Andy Warhol Talks to His Two Filipino Maids," "Craquelure," "Yogh," "Mothers Like Elephants," and of course the Ana poems (recalling his earlier Sagada poems) where he definitely reaches a new high.
Of course Krip has been in the poetry racket for some forty-odd years (nothing but impressive in a country where nobody can make a living out of it!), and at sixty-five he continues to write at full throttle. Although there are a lot of things to like in his books there are inevitably some lowlights as well. I like his poetry less when it‘s being merely newsy and chic instead of joyously focusing on everyday subjects, places seen and felt, the fetishes of childhood, loves lost and found.
In this book, for example, he gives us a double dose of "Circuito de Poesia Mundial" and "World Poetry Circuit (The Public’s View)," which is a viral knockoff of a knockoff, the kind appearing in journal after journal of new American verse. Other instances of this, from previous books, are his Ali and Jordan poems, "Larry Bird Smells the Flowers," "Sandra Dee, Natalie Wood, Romy Schneider, Annabelle Morelos…”
All these poems, anecdotal and sexy as they sound, may make him more accessible to the general reader but are likely to have limited shelf life. When he starts writing in this self-deflating mode, part of me wants to be entertained, but another part leaves me wishing he’d steal a page from Cirilo and start getting serious! But the truth is, his distaste for the serious has a serious side to it. He has become quite expert at lyricizing the trivial, and that isn’t so easy to do, even from a pure technical sense.
Let me make one more case contra Krip. In his 2000 book Mothers
Like Elephants, published under the same Anvil imprint, he comes out savagely punching with a poem called “Suite As Cycle: Captives of the City,” but the whole thing just crashes into a screeching halt towards the end. Granted it’s a lot harder to get your teeth into a longer poem, but this one regrettably is a narrative failure; the ending, for one, which sinks this otherwise exciting drama of urban abduction, is hectic with a sense of moral falsification. I say that because if the poem is freighted with class implications, beyond a few animating slides of the city it fails to persuade us. Into this long poem, consisting of nine sections, you can cram in a whole other city poem like “Your Part of the Gridlock” without affecting the outcome. I think the drama is long-winded and forcibly contrived, and the diction could use a little scrubbing ("Your breasts are billboards I chomp/ on like Aga. Like Sharon you smile a moan so mega.")
Contrast that with "Hypertelorism" which, despite its slight fractional exterior, is a much more effective poem, dramatizing as it does the same theme of emotional rupture, but with no smidgen of self-pity. It is an informative part of the Ana poems, all five of them (all independently good but not equally delectable!) written from experience, the knowing of which in its least detail is not necessary to unraveling their meaning; but this one specifically, based on versed e-mail exchanges and digital jottings, using together the images of visual disorder and the heliconia ("the lobster claw") as a unifying conceit to very poignantly describe the miscommunication between the lovers and its undeniable aftermath.
What about Krip’s poems in Tagalog? Not a few of our writers in English have written in Tagalog, Bautista and de Ungria included, and just recently Marra Pl. Lanot came out with an admirable suite of poems, Riding the Full Moon, written with trilingual ease. Most have switched to Tagalog for sentimental reasons, some to more directly communicate with their readers, others in a lofty attempt to "spawn a marine renascence."
Whatever his intentions, Krip I’m sure is not in it to pad his resumé (he has done some scripts and plays in Tagalog before). Even so, wittingly or unwittingly he delivers a poke-in-the-eye on the puristas, some of whom may scoff at his flamboyant vocabulary or at his weird employment of the letter C. C, as you may have guessed by now, could stand for Comic Relief! One poem begins: "Huwag mong iismolin/ Ang aking kalalakihan." (Do not belittle my manlihood (sic). Another begins: "Sa pagitan ng tonting at barurot..." (Between a screw and a bang...). The last line of the last poem in the book is "OO NA!" and it’s no accident, we can assume that.
Not surprisingly, all this is fair game to a poet whose preferred dialect is the dialect of the tribe, as vibrantly spoken in the streets. Krip's goofy brand of Engalog is addictive, spontaneous, incendiary.
Sa katotohanan ay medyo masikip
pa nga kung derecho ang suksok.
Ngunit maari ring ikurbada
tulad ng iyong kurbata o
nauna mong dila, Tagalog —
Yagalog, pp. 98-99
Compare the above lines with, say, something from "Hypertelorism" where the narrator speaks, in a skittish fashion, of "touching myself where your lips lingered longest," and you can see the difference in tone, or overtone, right off the bat (no pun intended.) Note that both poems are just a hair’s breadth apart, gabulbul-ita, this side of sexual innuendo. And just to juice it up an extra bit, let me throw out another not-so-flippant aphorism from our man Stevens, which is this: “The tongue is an eye.”
Much of Krip’s poetry has to do with language, and his incursions into Tagalog are a logical offshoot of his preoccupation with the way language can be heterogeneously accommodated to present-day actualities. A constant in his poetry is the theme of linguistic dislocation. It is the subject of "Yogh" and "Talk Story" from previous books, and it is the subject also of some of the poems in this book like "Many Kings of One Language," "Linguist Deciphers…," and that fabulous poem "Speaking in Others’ Tongues" parodying the duplicitous character of language:
Therapy onstage. 'Tis. Applause
greets the chaos, the babel, the angels.
Sunrise pockets the remainder
as shadows crawl towards tonsils
far removed from the truth, the wound,
the words lisped in lapse of judgment.
Trumpets! Chariots roar past vowels
of delight, in laughter and rage. Mage
squeaks as castrato, the only boy
amidst the field of gory utterances.
Dunces prance through eye of needle
in haystack of silence. We are you.
That contraction "’Tis" (Syana, in Tagalog), placed in the middle of the 6-stanza poem, is an inspired device. Here is Krip at his best; the poetry carries forward with lyric energy, the imagery is intact, and the emotions in check, not shoutingly in the open but coyly contained. This is what makes this poem, and the Ana poems, fluid and fulfilling.
There’s a couple more points before I wrap up. First, it’s worth emphasizing that Krip, though on occasion he likes to downplay the seriousness of the poetic process, by opting to make it fun (unlike planting rice!) has yet been a dedicated mentor to a younger generation of poets, through his role as a teacher and through his sheer productivity as a poet. Alongside Abad and Cesar Ruiz Aquino, a.k.a. Sawi (a nickname bestowed by his mom), Krip has orchestrated a number of literary workshops over the years. ("No more scribblings, no more poetry workshops!" whines the pondering weak and weary Cirilo, and I would agree. However… )
Krip has written: "In effect, poetry is migration, from one plane of perception to another level or levels of elliptical appreciation. The more layers of understanding that are opened up by crafting a mode of expression that is unique, the more successful is the portage into wonderful new territory." He has been quite vocal about cautioning his students to avoid using the word "soul" and other indelicacies like "armpits" and abstractions like "interdependence." The fact that nowadays we have seen an outpouring of poetry sounding so much like a bad karaoke, as Simon Cowell would say, doesn’t seem to have deterred Krip a bit.
I’ll drag in Sawi at this point, who is in a race all by himself, in Samarkanda. He is an eyoter at heart; that, coupled with his ignorance of the practical, makes him a singular poet. His poetry is pedigreed on cultic myth; that makes it so much unlike Krip’s, but even so they share the same hyperbolic fondness for acronyms, puzzles and private jokes. Sawi offers a countervailing influence to Krip’s for-the-nonce approach. If it indicates a healthy clash of opinions, it should also put to rest the idea, discomfiting to a mistrustful public, that what goes is anything goes inside a modern poem, so its core meaning is not exactly apprehensible even to the poet who wrote it. Neither Krip nor Sawi, modern poets both, could I think be bothered to teach poetry anymore if that were the case. The question is not which tactic works better but which more appropriately matches the subject of the poem. One thing they can agree on: To debar "soul" from the modern
poetic vocabulary is one thing, to not have it is another.
Here’s an objectivist gem, a Krip con alma:
Questions of how
we held together
or after a round
of love and words
raise observers’ brows
all the way to nether.
Stone, clay, papyrus
record our prayers
over a table with bowls
of evening water.
Redeem now the islands
of our orphan-ing.
In fading light.
Fading Light, p. 54
In 2009, Krip was awarded the Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas for "lifetime achievement." He was cited, in part, for being a writer with a contemporaneously cosmopolitan style while remaining "still distinctly Filipino." And this brings me to my second and final point. What makes a writing or exactly what makes a poem distinctly Filipino anyway? Apart from language, the catch-up-while-you-can attitude, the typographical references and localized jokes, there is vaguely something else that marks the poetry of a Bautista or a de Ungria or a Krip distinctly Filipino.
Certain Cordillera poems of Luisa Igloria, and all of Edgardo Maranan, stick out as excruciatingly Filipino as a Hufana poem. On the other hand there are poems, those by Eric Gamalinda or Luis Francia come to mind, which can be construed as American poems even if they are not. Possibly it’s a serious mistake to draw any kind of baseline distinction, except for
convenience, and just simply argue that any poem exploitative of mere ethnicity is likely to fail.
Krip is the writer he is, ultimately, in the way he expresses himself, in whatever language, with unwavering gusto, with reflexive wit and epiphanous humor. These of course are qualities not exclusive to his work but they do project his considerable strengths as a poet, and that is good enough. The poems in this collection are proof positive that there’s nothing wrong with flouting the tricks of the trade, those anyway that Krip the consummate game-player is lucky enough to have mastered. Nobody that I know of is more concurrent with poetic trends and more interactive with other writers than he, and his example should have a robust impact on the future of Philippine poetry.
Wilfredo Pascua Sanchez, long-time businessman and poet, was born in Victoria, Tarlac, Philippines. He grew up in Manila, and was educated at UP Diliman. He began to publish in his mid-teens, and first came to national notice with his story, “Moon Under My Feet” which won a prize from the Philippines Free Press in 1962. After a spell of writing, acting, teaching, scripting for a tv series, and door-to-door selling he left for the U.S., where he worked as a clerk and later as an executive with various air freight forwarding companies. As a businessman he founded and ran two family-owned corporations in Illinois in the late 80s. His first collection of poems, New and Later Poems, was published by The University of the Philippines Press in 2003. He currently lives with his wife, Maria Teresa Quijano, in Hoffman Estates, Illinois.