Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

November 5, 2014


Antipoems: New and Selected by Nicanor Parra, ed. David Unger, tr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Edith Grossman, et al. (New Directions, 1985)

Antipoems: How to Look Better & Feel Great by Nicanor Parra, antitranslation by Liz Werner (New Directions, 2004)

The antipoet's persona(lity), as relayed in his antipoems, was of one grumpy extraordinaire. He was frank and tactless. He was absolutely cantankerous. He was not sentimental. You wouldn't want to cross paths with him.

I'm Not a Sentimental Old Man

a baby leaves me absolutely cold
I wouldn't take a baby in my arms
even if the world were caving in
every man scratches his own itch
I can't stand family get-togethers
I'd rather be horsewhipped
than play with my nephews
my grandchildren don't move me very much either
what I mean is they set my nerves on edge
the second they see me come back from the coast
they come running at me with open arms
as if I were Santa Claus
little sons of bitches!
who the hell do they think I am

[tr. Miller Williams]

If this is not "antipoetry", then I don't know what is. At 100 years of age, Nicanor Parra is the immortal founder of a decidedly anti-poetry movement. He is the Satan Claus of Chilean/Latin American/world poetry. He was an evil old man. He had a soft spot for chickens.

A little friendly advice:
they have as much right to fly as anyone
certain housewives
indulge in this diabolic practice
it is better to lose a chicken
than commit the unpardonable sin
of believing ourselves capable
of improving on the plan of the Creator:

if He in his infinite wisdom
provided them with wings
he must have had a powerfully good reason
even if it seems ridiculous to us.

[tr. Sandra Reyes, from New Sermons and Preachings of the Christ of Elqui (1979)]

This brand of poetry called antipoetry was more a worldview than a movement. On its surface, it was more like personal stuff than philosophical slash political stance. More myth than legend. If there was a guiding principle to it, then perhaps it was the anti-establishment position. A show of bravery and bravado, it knew not serious pretense nor preternatural seriousness. It was a show of freedom more than anything else.

I don't understate nor exalt anything.
I simply tell what I see.

["Nineteen-Thirty", tr. Miller Williams, from Nebula (1950)]

"I call a spade a spade", the antipoet wrote elsewhere, in "Letters from a Poet Who Sleeps in a Chair". Words to live by. How not to take oneself seriously. How not to take the poet himself seriously. Tell, don't show.

Generous reader
                         burn this book
It's not at all what I wanted to say
Though it was written in blood
It's not what I wanted to say.


Listen to my last word:
I take back everything I've said.
With the greatest bitterness in the world
I take back everything I've said.

["I Take Back Everything I've Said", tr. Miller Williams]

The disclaimer, most definitive, was the order of the day. Say something with conviction, then take it back with conviction. Bite the dust! The antipoems maximized the use of maxims. And since we were in the realm of self-empowerment, the antipoet was preaching to the choir and atheists both. The genre was as much self-help nonfiction as antipoetry.

Young poets
Say whatever you want
Pick your own style
Too much blood has gone under the bridge
To still believe—I believe—
That there's only one way to cross the road:
You can do anything in poetry.

["Letters from a Poet Who Sleeps in a Chair", tr. David Unger, from Emergency Poems (1972)]

The Christ of Elqui, based on the real life Domingo Zárate Vega, was perfect stand-in for the anti-Christ Parra. The "sermons and preachings" mode of antipoetry was custom-made for the mad, apocalyptic ravings of a peripatetic messiah-like figure wandering the streets of Chile in the 1920s. "Even though I come prepared / I really don't know where to begin", the Christ began rather self-contradictorily. The resemblance of his Christian ideas with those of the antipoet's was uncanny.

you have to call a spade a spade
we're a step away from the Apocalypse

["The Christ of Elqui Defends Himself Like a Cornered Cat", tr. David Unger, from Recent Sermons (1983)]

let's cut the crap
when you stand at a wide open grave
it's time to call a spade a spade:
you can drown your sorrows at the wake
we're stuck at the bottom of the pit.

["Rest in Peace", tr. Edith Grossman]

In "Memories of a Coffin" (1975), the spade in the graveyard made way for the personified coffin whose life in the showroom "took a 180˚ turn" when the coffin was purchased by a widow. Then came the "most glorious day of [its] life", when it was paraded and it believed it was receiving solemn respect from "all the pedestrians [it] met along the way". Until it was buried. Six feet under the ground, the coffin was "under a ton of flowers" and now waits for things to happen to it. Tragic.

To end this anti-post, more words of wisdom from the Christ of Elqui.

POETRY POETRY it's all poetry
we make poetry
even when we're going to the bathroom

Christ of Elqui's own words

to piss is to make poetry
as poetic as strumming a lute
or shitting poeticizing farting,
and so we'll just see what poetry is

Prophet of Elqui's own words

["Apropos of Nothing", antitr. Liz Werner]

To piss is to make poetry. How sublime.

Art happens every time we read a poem, said Borges, paraphrasing the American painter Whistler. What happens when one reads an antipoem? In his "Note on the Lessons of Antipoetry", Parra would only acknowledge that: "Poetry happens—so does antipoetry". Artful or not, Parra cuts the bullshit.

The reading of Parra is made with Richard—Caravana de recuerdos—and Tom—Wuthering Expectations. Richard's post is found here while Tom's are here, here, and here.

November 3, 2014

On The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus

The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus by Cirilo F. Bautista (De La Salle University Press, 2012)

In his foreword to the three collected volumes of his poetic trilogy, Cirilo F. Bautista, recently elected as National Artist of the Philippines, explained his motivation for his undertaking the writing of an epic poem.

In 1967, I realized that I could not be writing poetry all my life. Not only was it impractical for me to engage in a profession patronized by a negligible sector of society but I also had other interests in mind. But before I ceased writing poetry, I had to finish a project that would justify such a stoppage.... I decided I would write an epic trilogy about the development of the Filipino soul from the very start of Philippine history to the twentieth century. I would call it The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus, Saint Lazarus being the original name the Spanish colonizers gave our country in honor of the worker-saint. For it was on March 16, [1521] the feastday of the saint, that they sighted the Archipelago.


The story in the trilogy builds upon the discourses of various [historical] personas—their cogitations, explications, justifications, and interpretations of the significant realities that affected their time and milieu in connection with the nation's struggle for selfhood and freedom. The events and circumstances that connect them are told not in chronological sequence ... but in psychological sequence, the focus being the passionate retrieval of national memories. Each of the voices in the plot relates a story or several stories, and these stories merge and submerge with each other in interrogative and confirmative moods.

1. The Archipelago 

Of Malacca, the Portuguese wine bowl in Ior,
Cramped with cloves and nutmegs kings bent maps for, moving
The sun by Papal error higher and lower
Than the fish, amongst waterlilies and metals,
How shall I sing the blood? Ruyfarelo lost in
His islands which like chesspieces lynched their mover.
Serrano gone. Caño, Loaysa, Saavedra:
Gone. If it is a virtue polishes the sword and
Denies its teeth, I am rock who this dark island
Coveted, and am weeping. The ship we rode, the ship
We cut the whales with when powder and prayer would
Not blind their nose—to know how much my foreparents
Stamped their limbs in the vineyard, crushing the olives
And the light to put as by magic chocolated
Bread on a square of table, to hear the clang of ax
That broke butter, will show how lumber rules the high seas,
How salt is the price of sceptre. Gone. Olive. Onion.

The first part of Cirilo F. Bautista's famous lyrical epic is called The Archipelago. It contains some very good lines of poetry. In terms of scope, theme, and stylistic flourishes, the trilogy is a truly national epic. The entire work is obviously a labor of love, having been constructed over a period of years: over three decades! Bautista clearly wanted to display his talent through the use of different poetic registers (sometimes narrative, sometimes dialectical like dialogues in a play), various line lengths and divisions (long lines, short and clipped lines, lines cut at various indentations), and various points of view. The use of lines of various lengths creates a kind of symphonic diversity and makes for a dynamic rhythm and cadence. Like all the good poems, I think this was meant to be recited. It could certainly be adapted as a musical or play. I would have liked to listen to the varied sounds of this poem and see how it will be interpreted on stage, complete with costumes by Spanish conquistadors and native peoples. Some of the speakers are easily identified and recognizable. The voices are dominated by historical figures like Ferdinand Magellan, Miguel López de Legazpi, Limahon, and Rizal. The quotations from historians Antonio de Morga and Pigafetta, etc., in the epigraphs provide a clue as to which historical sources were consulted in the writing of the poem.

2. Telex Moon

The middle part of the trilogy is a departure from the first part's diverse form. In place of variable lengths of the lines, varied indentations, and varying stanza lengths is a strict sequence of quintains (stanzas of five lines) all throughout this second book.

The multiple voices in the first part give way to the single voice of the national hero. The epic shifts from many perspectives and places to one quiet and intimate sojourn in Dapitan, right before Rizal's death in Luneta. Rizal meditates on religion, on love, on armed revolution versus pacifism, on the "house of memory", on life in the city.

The internal rhymes and alliterations are sustained for long stretches. Brilliant really. But rather than staid, straight lines, the rhythm is often broken by punctuations—e.g., by a series of em dashes, or long passages in "quotations"—and sometimes lines within poetic lines are signified by slashes ("/").

The image of the telex is elaborate and complex, but it is playfully introduced.

The sex of telex brings the grex an ax,
tells exactly the factly lack of lex
though in electric stockrooms it is rex;
its shocky hair that shakes the air mirific

connects the coin machines to the dreamers
in the stars, twenty-one ladders to Mars
with no crossroad in the main, and every brain
pulsing to the monetary tune....

I don't completely understand the image of the telex moon but it is quite curious.

... Slowly—electric nervure—

once embossed in cornfields and banana groves—
chiselled in emblazonry—coaxes now
to bloom the telex moon! The rooty galax—
the rootless galaxy—the telstar legion

all flow magically to coax the telex
moon! And out of the escutcheon jumps
the telex moon! The fecund—the fictive—
the florid! Telex moon! Pollex moon! For

from afar it measures a finger long—
a finger song—from side to side/ It contains
the techniques—the tactics for clarity
and form—but none of the erotica

the City drags its bones by/

Bautista luxuriates in wordplay and fancy word combinations here. Telex is the prototype of mobile phone. It can represent the modern city, its technology and its evils. It can represent modern progress through faster communication. It is an instrument that can bridge the past and present. Sort of like telepathy through time, or time travel. The past and present can coincide through memory. In this section, the story of Rizal still has relevance to the present and still communicates something to us.

The moon's classical meaning is death. And death is constant in the same way that the moon is always out there, a satellite orbiting the earth. Telex moon is the enduring witness to Rizal's despair while in exile in Dapitan and also the same witness to his death in Bagumbayan. Right now, above us is the telex moon, beaming a silent message through light: time is eternal, history is a cycle.

3. Sunlight on Broken Stones

With Sunlight on Broken Stones, it becomes obvious that Bautista is concerned with the political trajectory of Philippine history. This final volume is an ethical poetic sequence describing the challenges faced by the country in instituting good governance. It describes the "broken" condition of the country in the aftermath of colonialism (Spain, America, Japan) and neocolonialism characterized by endemic corruption in government (at all levels!), endless hunger and poverty, oligarchy, and military abuses.

The epic has become a little closer to current events, spanning the period of Martial Law right up to People Power Revolution and the years under Cory. For the Marcos babies, the references to Marcos, Imelda, Cory, and Cardinal Sin are recognizable.


... Why then should I hide
anything when I have nothing to hide? Look
at the medals that fill my chests, and the bright
citations embracing my walls—are they not

the categorical imprimatur on
my legitimacy?

We also hear the first person monologues of national heroes Bonifacio and Rizal and, also from beyond the grave, the dead Marcos despairing over Cory's refusal to allow his corpse to return home from Hawaii.

There's Imelda vs Cory (+ Cardinal Sin); + their dead hubbies:

... "Revenge is mine," says one, and will not
permit homecoming for a corpse. "Must I mourn
till the close of doom?" says the other, and oils
the gearsprings that feed her money. How many
times must memory mock their bright peacock pride?

Tarmac-hero? Christ-like tyrant? Their husbands
are dead weights now though the cardinal with some
crazy name would canonize the first, condemn
the second, as if Virtue resided in
his fingertips.

An interesting passage is one attributed to Tolstoy, from a section which contains one epigraph after another. It perpetuates the cliche (especially among our national writers) about the "collective" imaginings of a race, contained in so-called "national literatures":

However important a political
literature may be, a literature
that reflects society's passing problems, and
however necessary to national

progress, there is however, still another
type of literature that reflects the true
eternal necessities of all mankind,
the dearest and deepest imaginings of
a whole race, one that is accessible to

all and to every age, one without which no
people has been able to grow powerful
and fertile.—L. Tolstoy, 1859.

As to the title, the "sunlight" signifies hope after a long period of shadows and darkness hovering over the "broken" spirit of the Filipino people.

"And what language must rise out of broken stones
that serve as landscapes for a people's desire
to relight the fire of harmony and strength
Where are they now, the words Jaena splattered
at Barcelona and Madrid in splendid

"subversiveness? Where are the contracts for death,
or for life, that rich men and poor men inscribed
with the blood of their faith in reckless pursuit
of a common rule?"

In terms of geography, the Philippines is a pile of "broken stones" because of its archipelagic nature. In historical terms, the country is broken by colonization of three imperial powers and later (up to the turn of the twenty-first century) by the rule of the oligarchs and the elite, the often corrupt leaders who, with impunity, plundered the country of its resources. Notwithstanding the reign of these modern-day conquistadors, Bautista's elegy ends with an unqualified hope derived, in part, from embracing the lessons of history.

          Keep the books now
the won patrimony
all letters not fetters
to announce the anthem
           to the four winds

          Keep eternal
account of our shared griefs
and pains   gaiety and goals
gold lost    now recovered
           birthright returned

October 6, 2014


Bullfight by Inoue Yasushi, tr. Michael Emmerich (Pushkin Press, 2013)

Prior to the bullfights that culminated this Japanese story, Mr. Tsugami, the bold editor-in-chief of the Osaka New Evening Post who risked to organized the event together with a gambling showman Tashiro, hosted a pre-tournament dinner for the owners of the bulls and his reporters. During the feast, he and his guests "found themselves witnessing a startling scene":

The owner of one of the bulls regarded as an obvious contender for first place, a woman named Mitani Hana, suddenly started shouting hysterically, kicked over her tray, and got up from her seat. She was a plump woman whose clothes revealed a certain flair that was hardly typical of a forty-something housewife from a small farm.

"As if I'd drink from a cup you filled, Mr. Kawasaki—you of all people! I've put my life on the line for this! Right about now my old man and the kids are dumping cold water over themselves back home, purifying themselves and praying that we win!"

Her expression was pleasantly taut, her face slightly flushed from two or three cups of sake; she leaned unsteadily against one of the sliding, paper-paneled walls as she yelled, her gaze roaming over the faces in the room. She was not drunk. The fierce intensity of her desire to see her bull win had stretched her nerves to the limit, pushing her into a state resembling temporary insanity. The Kawasaki bull stood right up there with the Mitani bull as a potential winner, and when that other bull's owner had filled her cup she had been unable to suppress the gush of antagonism that welled up within her, all the stronger because she was a woman and he was a man.

The fierce competitiveness overtly displayed by the Mitani woman was emblematic of the Japanese competitiveness that characterized the country in the years leading to the second world war. (This competitiveness was also present in Kawabata Yasunari's The Master of Go.) The setting of Inoue Yasushi's 1949 Akutagawa Prize-winning story was postwar Osaka where the residue of violence and combat still hangs in the air, albeit in the form of ruins and destruction. An altogether different set of social norms was in place. The former middle class used to luxury items had almost  been decimated; they would now be buying third-tier seat tickets in the bullring. Ringside seats would now be taken over by the “new salaried class.” As one character saw it: “Times had changed utterly since the war ended.” There was not a hint of irony in his statement.

In these postwar days, perhaps this was just the sort of thing the Japanese needed if they were going to keep struggling through their lives. Set up some random event for people to bet on, and everything would take care of itself: they would come and place their bets. Just imagine it—tens of thousands of spectators betting on a bullfight in a stadium hemmed in on every side by the ruined city…. In times like these, bull sumo was as much as people could manage.

Bull sumo or bullfighting. Just imagine it. A distraction for a people still hurting from their defeat in the war. Any story could easily take advantage of the economic realities and psychological downturn of a ruined city. Bullfight was a portrait of a society picking up the remaining pieces of lives scarred by firebombings. The reality of war hovered in every scene, haunting the air like a bad hangover. The city was charred in places. The inhabitants were in low spirit. The war was over. Japan had finally embraced pacifism. It may finally be an opportune time for some hard-earned entertainment.

The better part of Inoue's story described the logistical difficulties and the bureaucratic wranglings as Tashiro, Tsugami, and his assistants tried to hurdle many setbacks in putting up an ambitious, expensive three-day bull sumo event for the people to shell out money for. What seemed at first a straightforward preparation for a straight entertainment for the masses became an enterprise more and more quixotic as everything seemed to conspire against Tsugami and Tashiro's project. Tsugami already had an inkling of the economic risks; his pride and ambitiousness were tested as unforeseen problems cropped up at the last minute. His team had to skillfully negotiate with various stakeholders, including some shady and ruthless characters, to see the bull sumo project through. In requesting permission to hold a fireworks display, for example, postwar circumstances again made the request likely to be denied:

The town authorities were hesitant because this would be the first aerial firework display since the end of the war, and of course rules governing the use of gunpowder were very strict; they would do what they could to help, but they couldn’t say for certain that permission would be granted as a matter of course.

The wartime setting of story and the quick character sketches made for a fascinating combo. The bullfight was launching pad for Inoue's exploration of Japanese attitudes after the war. Tsugami himself was a man of complexity, tinged by an “unsavory side” according to his lover Sakiko with whom he shared an unstable relationship. He had a cold, icy character, reminiscent in some ways of the character of Shimamura in Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country. Tsugami's relationship with Sakiko was a reflection of the lead characters in Kawabata's impassioned novel. But where Shimamura was presented as nothing more than a cold aesthete, Tsugami was cold-blooded and calculating. Tsugami and Sakiko's love affair was on the rocks; they could either make or break it, depending on the outcome of their "mental fighting" which could be as decisive as two bulls locking horns together.

The translator Michael Emmerich was able to convey Inoue's crisp descriptions of characters. To stitch together Inoue's efficient prose, he often maximized the power of semicolon, a punctuation that does not waste a stray conjunction.

The creases in his pants were invariably crisp; he was nimble both in his interactions with visitors and in the manner in which he disposed of his work, and sharp to the extent that he sometimes came across as unfeeling…. They said he was loose with money, or smug, or an egoist, or a stylist, or a literature boy, and to an extent the criticisms they leveled at him hit the mark; but these very faults lent him an intellectual air that set him apart from most city news reporters.

Inoue managed to pack a lot of human observations in this elegant novella. The bull sumo was almost a side event in his exploration of the ethical aspect of human transactions; the lead up to main event was almost an excuse to investigate human profiteering and shady deals of businessmen. The novelist shrewdly introduced extreme situations to generate the responses he want from his characters.

“I have an urgent need for three hundred and sixty liters each of rice, barley, and sake.”

The quantities Tsugami named were much larger than was necessary. He was using this request as a way to plumb the depths of Okabe’s personality, his badness or his goodness—to take the measure of this man who, though this was only their second meeting, he had already discovered was peculiarly difficult to figure out. Tsugami was curious to see how Okabe would respond.”

Tsugami's opportunism in this instance was the same as the novelist's. Inoue plumbed the depths of his characters’ personalities, their quirks and weaknesses. He tried to figure out how they would respond considering the possible consequences of their decisions, the risky choices they made. It was what made Bullfight a beautiful, nuanced, often intense observation of human nature.

A selection for the Japanese Literature Challenge 8, hosted by dolce bellezza. My copy of the book courtesy of Lines from the Horizon and Pushkin Press.

September 27, 2014

Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes

Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and Sean O'Brien (Archipelago Books, 2014)

"All of parting is power in death / And all return is a child learning to spell", wrote the Cape Verdean poet Corsino Fortes (b. 1933) in a selection of poems made available in English this year. These lines ended the poem "Emigrant" from his first collection of poems Pão & Fonema (Bread & Phoneme, 1974). The emigrant's homecoming and leavetaking were equated with learning her native language. The emigrant's own return perfected her learning through mastery of the language.

Go and plant
           in dead Amilcar's mouth
This fistful of watercress
And spread from goal to goal
           A fresh phonetics
And with the commas of the street
     and syllables from door to door
You will sweep away before the night
The roads that go
           as far as the night-schools
For all departure means a growing alphabet
     for all return is a nation's language

Language was the life-force that kept the emigrant moored in the world, her loyal companion and the educational standard by which she measured her adventures. The reference to Amílcar Cabral, the assassinated Guinea-Bissauan nationalist leader, made this poem a part of nationalist contemplation.

The two collaborating translators, Daniel Hahn and Sean O'Brien, evoked an English that must have wrestled with the poet's non-standard Portuguese. It seemed to be a methodical process: Hahn prepared a literal translation from which O'Brien crafted a final version. [For a glimpse into the delicate balancing act that the two translators follow in their rendering of Fortes's poems, see (or listen to) their version of and their illuminating notes to "Postcards from the High Seas".]

Fortes used Cape Verdean Creole in writing about African islands milieu. It was an organic language whose remnants in English was evident from powerful imagery, as in "Gate of the Sun", where African children are like the very islands they hail from.


From the straw hills
                     whose doors are the sun
Children descend
                      naked and thin
                                 like guitars
ribs showing under the strings
All of them
           the first-born
                      of the one belly
And daughters
           of the same volcano And of the same guitar
           Of the same rock and the same cry



The child does not
Always breathe
                     its lung was
                                 torn from the map

And thus
           like the islands themselves
At sunset
They are fed
                     on phonemes
Each child
Is a diphthong of milk
                     with blood in its vowels

[Nem sempre
A criança respira
                     um pulmão
                                 roto de mapas

E assim
           como as ilhas
Ao pôr do Sol
Se alimentam
                     de fonemas
Cada criança
É ditongo de leite
                     com sangue nas vogais]

The "diphthong of milk" denoted a dual or hybrid language or consciousness or race that marked each child's identity. Fortes was asserting his linguistic heritage using images that recognize the power to express one's cultural, dialectical spirit. The influence of geography ["its lung was / torn from the map"] in the makeup of a child was significant but did not make a complete breathing being. "The child" was once again invoked, for every citizen was a child of circumstances: the sum total of a child's life experience in an island was not only the island but her linguistic relations and transactions.

Fortes was a proponent of indigenous culture. His education abroad and occupation as diplomat probably made him an observer of cultures and a champion of his own chaotic tradition. As he declared in "Act of Culture"—a poem  from Árvore & Tambor (Tree & Drum)—culture and expression are intimately linked (by chaos, if you will). The "drum on a tree" was in fact the poetic image from which this chaos was mapped out.

Act of Culture

How the sound swells in the fruit: the drum
                                                    Is on the tree
And opposed to erosion: the politics of seduction


'If the destiny of man is ceaseless labour'


The word love has no mouth to its river

Culture! is entirely
Old chaos given dynamic expression

"Dynamic expression" was what Fortes was able to convey in his singular poems. "Old chaos" was visualized in the above poem itself where the swelling sound of the drum-like fruit, an auditory sensation, shared space with the "politics of seduction", a Sisyphus figure ["ceaseless labour"], and love that lacks a river mouth. This melange of seemingly surreal but actually organically delicate touches was a characteristic of the poet's output.

His description of the works of the artist Tchalé Figueira, in "Three Canvases for Tchalé Figueira", was not now surprising, considering the vibrant poetic strokes of the lines. Fortes painted his own canvas, as the conjuring of vowels from words, of letters or diphthongs, show:

The landscape was throwing stones at children
As ... if nature were
           A weapon to be aimed
And the children were stoning life itself
As! If the 'lh' of 'ilha'
           Were the wound left
Between the coin of the body and the price of the soul


If Tchale is caught
                     Between jazz and painting
The children flow away
           over the 'L' of Landscape and the 'A' of the plain
And onwards
           Down the luminous highway of the salt-beds
To offer the faces that come to their doorways
                                the calm that comes after the storm

In Selected Poems of Corsino Fortes, the reader was given a well distilled, well calibrated version of an African/Cape Verdean/Portuguese poetic sensibility. "Between jazz and painting", the poems had this transporting sense of language and of place.

Book copy received from NetGalley. 

September 17, 2014

What Passes for Answers

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
In giving,
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.

Too much shade
stunts the saplings.

Do we wait for the trees
to fell themselves?

Upon this brittle pile of leaves.
Upon this fading patch of light.

See me poised to gut you.
See my [serrations], blessed by time.

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.

["A House"]

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.