PERHAPS the most wonderful gift ever given to mankind is the gift of memory. It allows us to remember things past — whether it be about the crisp air or a love lost — to hold them close, and to never let go.
To never let go. This is how award-winning writer Rofel Brion described the way he pays homage to the ordinary things — his family, his travels, his loves — dedicating them to memory, waiting for that urge that “comes with loneliness, other times with great joy,” and finally, slowly and furiously, capturing them in words.
It is with his poems, beautifully detailed, at times ambiguous, but always sincere, that we begin the podcast series of local poets reading their pieces as part of i-Report’s current Literature and Literacy issue. Brion, who usually writes in Tagalog, chose “Wari (I Think),” a short poem prompted by one dreary morning during which he passed by a brook and yellow blossoms. Spontaneously written like most of his works, it tells his story of that moment as he saw it and felt it.
Listen to Rofel Brion reading “Wari [I Think],” with his short introduction, “Kaninang Umaga [That Morning].” See the English translation below.
File size: 2.3 MB
In his book Story, Brion said his writing reflects that of the early Filipino poets who wrote stories in verse, much like the ambahan of the Mangyan and the lajji of the Ivatan. Then in the precolonial times, in the richness of the oral lore, tribal Filipinos told stories about the village life — plain and straightforward, its language “(no) different from talk.”
It is from these times that Philippine literature would find its roots, its spirit and thought passed from one generation to the next even with barely written records of it. Many of the poems were preserved in songs, with children hearing them when folks “rowed, worked and feasted, and mourned their dead,” as National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera put it.
Poetry in the Philippines has indeed come a long way — evolving and taking on dramatic turns as it journeys with history — from the ancient times, the monarchic rule of Spain, U.S. colonialism, the birth of the Republic, martial law, to Edsa and present.
Brion and critics alike say that poetry is as alive as ever, albeit with reduced readership, with contemporary writers taking on varied experimental approaches. Thus works like Jolography (from the word jolog, which originally referred to Pinoy hip-hop), where poems by Paolo Manalo are in “textese” or Taglish (Tagalog plus English), written in the premise that, in Manalo’s words, “the language that we’re using is flawed, damaged, corrupted, sold out, negotiated… and yet it’s still beautiful.”
Jolography, which won First Prize in the 2002 Palanca Awards, has apparently sparked interest, where other young writers even attempted to follow suit.
But while works like these have a captive audience in the sense that they sell, Brion notes sadly that there are now fewer avenues for poets to present their works (although there are still poetry readings), with prose writers dominating the market. Brion himself admits that his first book, Baka Sakali (Maybe by Chance), took 15 years before the last copy was sold, even with only 1,000 copies printed. Gone, too, are the days when poetry was a regular reading fare, published in regional magazines like Liwayway and Bannawag, although a number of exemplary works in the vernacular have managed to land in the mainstream. But what’s really popular or what sells today, Brion says, is lyric poetry (read: Parokya ni Edgar, Brownman Revival, Eraserheads etc.).
Ateneo de Manila instructor and poet Lawrence Ypil remains more optimistic. Indeed, in this day and age of multimedia, the possibilities are endless. In the United States, for example, the Internet has opened doors to varied and new types of poetry, drawing interest from a global audience. This might perhaps curb what Ypil noted as dwindling interest in poetry among students, with more and more enrollees taking up creative nonfiction (essay) as their major.
Ypil says he tries to draw the interest of his students by sticking to the basics — teaching them how a poem works. “A lot of disinterest or lack of interest in poetry is maybe because it’s not explained for what it is,” he says. “It’s a matter of realizing that language is powerful and fun to stretch or test. It’s not a matter of thinking deeply or having wise insight…it’s an issue of pleasure. Masarap ang salita (Words are pleasurable).”
Like Brion, Ypil says that poetry is really “just a matter of paying attention to your day.”
“You don’t need to look for something splendid. Poetry is in the ordinary — look at it with your own life — you look at it and you pay attention,” he explains. And as Brion likes to describe it, “each poem is, one way or another, its poet’s biography.”
Both observe that these days, poets — especially the younger one — still tend to write about a variety of things, from urban concerns to romance to gender issues. But in the end, whatever one may write about, in whatever theme or format it may take, the poem, to borrow the words of National Artist for Literature Edith L. Tiempo, “thus liberated” remains “firmly, undeniably poetry.”
By Rofel G. Brion
I didn’t feel like going to work that morning. Everything would just be the same, I thought — I’d be trapped in my office, doing things that had to be done immediately. If my office window had a good view, maybe I would look forward to work.
As I walked to the university, I thought, again: I always think about my destination; I forget to savor the path. It’s an old refrain, I know, but that morning, it felt very true. So I stopped at the short bridge and gazed at the end of the narrow brook that crossed the grounds, lined with plants that had white and yellow blossoms. And I saw, maybe a dozen paces from me, a tiny bird pecking on the rocks under the flowing water. Then, nearer me, a rat sprung from the grass, and very slowly crossed, back and forth, the brook.
By Rofel G. Brion
In this city wrapped
in smoke and oozing with filth,
and drowned by muck
at every storm and flood,
I think that there is a corner
where a tiny brook runs,
lined with trees
where mayas live.
And each time a shower
falls in very fine drops,
a tiny maya pecks
on the shallow water,
and, over and over again,
spreads ringlets of waves
that can never be erased
by even the finest shower,
and can never be stopped
even by the fiercest storm.