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New Poems, New Voices

This lockdown is doing good art great things. Art cannot be stopped by afflictions. Artists are warriors and survivors. They fight, they struggle, and create.

Last week, Arnel Eclarinal, alerted me of a project, a competition involving poets writing poetry in isolation. Taking advantage of the quarantine, the Sir Noel De Luna (SND) poetry competition was launched online, with poets using the pandemic and its consequent change in lifestyle and economics as an overarching theme.

Whenever I sit as juror for any competition – literary or film – I write notes about my decision. Any competition is always a learning process: for the participants and those who were given the honor of judging them. With the SND Prize, I made copious observation knowing that social/physical distancing will not allow me to be with the other juror and the organizers.

As a juror, I always favor a long discussion with other judges about my decision. I like to listen to what the other jurors say about the entries.

In the case of a literary competition using any of the Bikol languages, I operate from some assumptions and contexts. These are the following: (1) Language is alive. While those creating orthographies have a responsibility of documenting languages at a given time and space, it is their duty to respect any shift in the same languages; (2) A vital or living language like Bikol can and should accommodate, borrow or adapt terms, vocabularies or concepts from other languages – declared dead or alive. (3) There is no pure language.

Uppermost in my mind when I started reading the poem was the search for the original voice. The online and Free-TV newscast have made the pandemic very common. The acronyms pertaining to the phenomenon of Covid-19 and its spread are well-known and need not be part of the province of poetry. Thus, in my winnowing the harvest, I made sure to skip poems that mention the details attending the Covid-19 crisis, i.e. SAP ECQ, virus, etc. For those concepts and terms, I would not look to poetry but to public newscasters. I was looking for the new way of looking at the phenomenon, a skill that good artists, poets and writers are able to show.

I like poems (and poets) that allow me to look at the text and look through and beyond it. The latter act does not mean I leave the poem; rather, the poem is so keen that it enables me to look over and within and outside its words and lines. This freedom given to me as a reader makes the poet and his poem superior vehicle confident enough to accept acceptance and rejection, denial and deconstruction, understanding and criticism.

Nap Arcilla’s Manungod sa Pagtungka took my breath away. The poem or rawit-dawit speaks about the isolation and the waiting, the endless waiting for relief, cure and solution. It makes use of the device of enumeration, which comes in the form of a long journey: Halabang biyahe ining/pagtenir.

In that short line, the word biyahe is followed by “pagtenir,” or “pagpundo.” Stasis and movement in the metaphor of travel. This is a strong opening that demands we listen what will follow next, and what follows that noble introit are the a graphic – if not vulgar lines – that may shock the reader: Agom sinukol mo na lamang an rayo na saimong inabot/Sa kun pirang bikat, burikat, asin pagdupa-dupa sa saimong labahan

In that question to the wife, the poet maintains the metaphor of journey – an rayo na saimong inabot (the distance you covered) as a woman who in the tedious labor of washing splays and displays her body.

Without repeating the images and words that we see and hear on TV and radio, the poet says: Buksan na an pinto, dai na/Maghalat pang may mag magtuktok

The lines are both brave and sad: When we open the door, will the relief come?

Then the poet asks that we listen intently: Maghimati/Puminundo ang mga buhay/bako an Kagadanan.

There is silence in our being and comes the next frightening truth: the lives have stopped but not Death. Dying continues because Death remains.

He looks at the TV, the source of news: Madiklom an iskrin kan TV./Gadan

He separates the word “Gadan” and transforms the word into a description and a sentence, a judgment in the double meaning of the word “sentence.”

The poet nears his conclusion with these terrific lines: Punan na naman an bagong pag-abang/Maglakaw kita sa katibaadan

Then ends it with: Bako gabos na katoninongan, kamurawayan ((Not all peace is bliss). This is poetry!

There was another poem that got my attention. It bore the title Corazon del Vidal: Tawong Lipod.

The poet who goes by the name of Joel Jimmy Monserate is a good one. He is grounded, not in the old school of being universal. He is able to address the particular aspects of life and death, the sociology and politics of its site properly defined and yet open to being transited.

The poet compares the disease to a Taong Lipod. The poet is in awe (naghahanga) and anxious (nakukubanan) about the disease that is about to come.

Using the device of personification and metonymy, the poet addresses the Covid 19 as person. He talks to the Virus by telling the entity how he has heard of it before when it was still overseas: Namidbiran taka na/Nasa balyong dagat ka pa.

There is stateliness in how the poet talks to the virus. Without a warning, he shifts his tone: Wow, bongga/ano baga an igwa ka.

But the poet has more tricks in his sleeves – faith, social ills, and hypocrisy. He is relentless as the Disease scares the people back to religion: An mga buratserong ama, mangadyi.

But is the virus evil? The poet makes a revelation: Wala y too takang nararaway/Idto palan, kasangkapan ka ni Gugurang.

Interesting enough, a few days ago, CNN Philippines called Covid-19 a “sumpa,” or a curse.

The closing lines are about the duplicitous nature of calamities: Kami na lang an malikay/Ipag-arang na mag-abot na/an tambal sa samong mati.

There in that line is the fatal Bikolano but also the Bikolano learning about paglikay, of creating a space between this disease and the humans.

Completing my three top voices is Repleksiyon sa Kinaban. There is something old-fashioned and romantic in the rawit-dawit of Albert S. Asanza. The language is measured and the words that run across the lines are about stars, heaven, darkness and that act of “painting” or “drawing” them to capture their beauty, their magic and charm.

The poet marvels at Nature and about the Stars. He observes how the stars are “suhay-suhay” or separate from each other. Without mentioning it, the poet provides a sad solution to our crisis: the world is so big, each one of us can be made separate from each other.

Thus, of the stars he writes: Mapapangirit, mangangalas ka/sa physical distancing, tuod sinda.

This is a daring act for the poet because a lofty, serious line is interrupted by two words that are so prosaic, “ordinaryo. “

The insertion of the words, “physical distancing” works. The universe has been giving us lessons, an insight that is discovered by the poet.

But what can stars do? The poet now looking at the Heavens begin to list down the uses of the stars – he will make from them alcohol, food and medicine. He dares again to be contemporary by creating this line: Gigibuhon ko sindang/peysmask sa kalaban madaog

The lines make us smile not because they are incredible but because they speak of our faith in the world, in the universe. It also points to man’s eagerness to solve the pandemic in that he will do anything, do everything, even it if means manufacturing solutions from the stars.

In the case of this rawit-dawit, form and content work in harmony. The lines follow a beat and the words are soft and engaging. Very much like those lyric poems of the 19th century English poets.

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