I am a metaphor man and migrant. I write metaphors to live—and I have become a migrant of another land. Twenty years of higher education teaching, two years of EDSA Revolution, and the long and arduous decades of waiting for democracy to bear fruit have prompted me to move out of the country for a while. I now carry an OFW Card with the glowing morning sun on the left, the hero in his coat in the middle, and a white dove reaching out to the spaces beyond on the right. I am Bagong Bayani Number 03-4569525. And I am sad.
A former student in the radical movement once emailed me and asked me one question with the finality of a verdict meant for the dark chambers in the Munti: “Why? Why did you leave?” This could have easily been the ultimate why asked of someone who has committed a big blunder for reasons beyond the logic of the popular and the proper. And then that declaration of a double whammy: “I learned my metaphors from you and now you abandoned us.” I looked at the computer screen. The words were menacing, the sentence a real one—a sentence, indeed: univocal and singular,
It is not easy assuming a new position and negotiating a new identity after long years of living under the security of the academe and books, the certainties of syllabi and course outlines, and the prestige that go with getting that toga with the sablay and the insignia that bestow upon you some forced recognition from colleagues and the world outside the classroom. Professor this, doctor that, writer this, award-winning that. And more: this metaphor man of a poet wrote about the brutal mercies of Martial Law and he stood his ground. You bet: the resume of the metaphor man and now migrant gets to be richer each time as the recognition—sometimes from incestuous intellectual relationships—multiplied. The perks could never be inconstant. And so is the pelf, the power, the personal aggrandizement.
But when the metaphor man in a new land has negotiated his identity and has assumed the legal personality of an OFW, the honorifics end and nobody ever cares what his principles were as he formed minds, critiqued thought, and revitalized consciences. Who cares about what letters he now puts after his last name? These might as well look like the notorious SLN—sa lungkot namatay. Or the other notorious big L in the mind of the wild man on the furlough for what pleasure the peso can buy. Or the more morbid acronyms that you find in entrances of tombs, promising rest in the quiet and peace of the graveyard or some kind of an eternal sleep in the home of a muted and silenced creator somewhere.
In the state university, you got the psychic rewards teaching the committed and the non-committal but at the end of the day, you go back home and face squarely the domestic issues that have nothing to do with academic excellence and intellectual pursuit but concern you as you worry about the decreasing possibility of putting food on the table: crude oil and gasoline whose importers and commerce-men have forgotten the meaning of price rollback; the transportation fare that eats up more than one-fourth of the daily wage when the worker has the capability to cling on the jeepney’s extended parts during the rush hours and more when he sometimes takes the Metro or the mega-taxi to catch on some sleep between work and home; the eternal galunggong playing hide-and-seek games with presidents and housewives, the former declaring that henceforth the great GG would no longer suffer the dictates of market forces, and the latter endlessly complaining of the fish’s unpredictable freshness and price; the antics of acting leaders—the appellation stressed--and their factotum confidently announcing the coming of the new morning for all Filipinos who could afford to hold vigil before corpses and wax icons of salvation, in Honolulu and elsewhere, in Santo Domingo and elsewhere, in Batac and elsewhere. You get tired teaching the whole day, you get tired listening to the newscast on what is best for the Filipinos according to the wit and wisdom of those who have seen the fullness of revelation and you just sleep it off hoping that the dark would give you strength and love and grace and perseverance. Twenty years of the same and you get stressed out and you want out. One can only take in so much of the same—to justify your leaving the land of your birth, to rationalize in your mind that something has to give somewhere, to explain to your activist first child that you have finally called it quits with the land because you have to earn the tuition money so he can go on with joining his teenage and youthful rallies and exposures with the suffering masses in faraway villages where trees are logged and are never replaced. You couch that of course with polite metaphors and you say, with the cadence and the rhythm of an alleluia for the rising-to-life-again of the small messiah of the heart that bleeds because it understands the sorrows of going away from the nameless and faceless and numberless masses that have known nothing else but suffering throughout the ages: This is for you, son, a poet/ Of the people lost a long time ago./Evenings here come early in the autumn/ And I read your email announcing / Your coming into the dark dawns./ We are a people with no memory, I know./ We are a people with no story, you know./ Together we string the litanies/ Of failed tunes because hunger has/ Raped our throat with a singsong/ We borrow from the eclipse of moons./
Perseverance was my clue to having stayed put for twenty years as a teacher, writer, father, husband, socially-conscious advocate of human rights, non-government organization leader, book writer, storyteller, a poet of some sort—a metaphor man, if you so wish. It was a result of a conditioning in the brain of what was needed to survive religious life—a life I tried to entertain, with much anguish, for a number of years. Persevere, persevere, a grandaunt of a nun who was mistress of novices would always tell me, sometimes would write to me from her convent secluded from the burdens of the everyday. Persevere, persevere, some other relatives in the religious life would tell me. Persevere, persevere, friends of friends would tell me. Each day of perseverance became weeks; the weeks became months; the months became years—and then in one full sweep, one day after Ninoy Aquino got assassinated by falsehood and ambition and the dictatorship of unreason and delusion of grandeur—I finally called it quits. In convent wall, I could not speak of metaphors, I could not catch the metaphors, I could not create the metaphors, I could not seize the metaphors. The mind was regimented, compartmentalized, fragmented. The mind was in a kind of a limbo, a reclusion perpetua, a Gulag, a monastery of dying to your senses so that the sensuous could be seen as evil, earthly, mundane, and transient. That is why poets are killed in monasteries and seminaries—or they allow themselves to be killed. In my getting out of my walled world, I resolve to be a migrant of this world and to will to create metaphors from words to create a renewed world.
In the twenty years that I kept my footing in the land of my birth, I have talked of some form of a gospel from within when, in the finality of that inspiration coming from some light, we would soon realize where we were and therefore project where we were going. That was neat—and it kept me grounded, rooted, rational. Or so I thought. So each day I formed metaphors of being rooted. And I thought of metaphors of being grounded. And I created metaphors of helping save the land that was now about to collapse. I would scribble on my notebook some metaphors that soothed my wandering soul—and then the thought of wandering would lose its novelty and its capability to incite me to rebellion: David sashays before Alvarez/ And the putschists/ Laugh the numbness of prophets. /These are the doomsayers of smoke./ The harvester’s final act,/ He who makes burial plots out of planed furrows./ This is also the gift of life/ To the harbingers of apocalypse at Libis./
One time, and this haunts me now as I read the accounts of the wars in Iraq, an incident of salvaging hit me hard. I was a young instructor in a college seminary and the euphoria of the first EDSA was still at its height. A few months back, Kris Aquino before she become the Kris Aquino of the showbiz industry, cut the ceremonial ribbon for the opening of that center of formation of the metaphorically castrated and figuratively celibate Filipino young men who would dedicate themselves to the cause of social justice and freedom and liberty and equality—big words that they read from Thomas to Rawls and the other political philosophers who meant well for all of humanity. Kris Aquino cut the ribbon and I put her on the cover of that magazine that announced the center’s slogan of serving the poor and the sick. It had not been a year after the People Power revolution and the word coup d’ etat was just becoming familiar until eventually it became fashionable when some soldiers who laid siege on our rights during the mayhem of the regime of the then dying dictator arrived at the conclusion that the liberation of the inang-bayan from the hand of the communists and red warriors depended on them. Some even said that the gods spoke to them, the gods commanding them to end unbelief and return to the ritual of fear and trembling. Before sunrise, before the first bells announcing the matins and the lauds were rung, a series of shots pierced the silence on that hillside in the enclave of the elect. The shots were quick, punitive, and metallic. In the investigation afterwards, the celibates would tell police, they heard the roar of cars navigating the steep incline that reached the foot of the sierras where the Katipuneros once passed to take part in the Malolos constitutional convention, a foot trails away from the prying eyes of the civil guards and traitors. But now, a little bit less than a hundred years after, the rat-tat reminded the celibates of what was happening outside their walls, outside their chapels, outside their convent security. They only peeped through the heavy drapes, the celibates, fear possessing them in the dark hours. And then they saw the small fire starting off from the flicker of a lighter and then the fire engulfed the hillside and the dry grass and the banana grove perhaps planted by a kaingero when the hillside was still a lonely possibility of a presidential promise to the landless for them to own a corner of the country and keep it and guard it. In the face of that fear, even the prayerful and the fiercest of believers could lose sight of their gods and they can succumb to impotence in the mind and soul. And I wrote that and I remember now what I have written even as I impotently watched the homeless on Skid Row down on Fourth and Los Angeles Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles. This impotency that visits us sometimes is not a fiction; it is as real as the desire to live life to the full in the country of one’s birth or outside it. Terra firma is the same everywhere. It is the same earth that will receive the body that turns into dust when the time comes. As did the salvaged victims on the hills—their bodies charred beyond recognition even with the early morning sunlight. The police came many hours after. That was usually the case in these parts—and that was normal. The leaves of trees and the cool mountain air wore the smell of burned skin and human flesh—and the smell made you vomit till there was nothing more left to throw up. No one among the clerics did anything to save the lives of the nameless that were now faceless. There were three who died that early morning hours before the prayer began—and they became a number: three, as if it were a trinity of woe and despair and hopelessness. With that incident, I was beginning to be a migrant of my own land—this incident becoming stranger and stranger to me until I had nothing else but hope for the best days ahead. But I kept on with the metaphor writing thing and I scribbled again: The innocence of the blade/Put an end to your adolescent daydreams and cheers./ The pain that came after/I could only imagine, child, brother, cousin,/ As you welcomed the depths of aloneness defined/ By your celebrating executioners on that moonlit night/ That was also theirs by might./
Speak now to me in aggrieved silence, I wrote, /You, nameless son of a betrayed land, also/ Now nameless in the silences of false springs/And April rains and fallowed fields and tilled gardens./
It is the beginning of summer here and spring has just said goodbye. The hillsides are still abloom with poppies and elsewhere there is that riot of colors. I see the salvage victims even here in the strange land that I have come to eke out a life from that metaphorical death we have in the old country. They are there in the hillsides, the sinews of their namelessness and facelessness fertilizing the welcoming and expecting earth. I see them in my mind and the metaphors come to capture the unnamed sorrows that I have kept buried: Stand up, rise up, rise again for us the living,/ We who will still have to see the fruitfulness of sins./ Tell us of an M-16 on a captain’s drawer/ Rusted by a song/ A 29 in the neighbor’s attic still shines/ And goads white-robed men to preach,/ Talk about the loving, giving act of bees/ As you lay there my son, my friend, my cousin/ Your body fed to the wild dogs of seminaries and convents/ And churchmen singing lauds and vespers/ And filling up their tummies with the sweat/ Of your father, your mother, your sister, your cousin./ Did the churchmen ever hear you wail/ And tell of the glories of dying for stories/ Grander than ourselves?/
On the twentieth year of my getting out of the walled life to commit myself to embark on a mission of coaxing word to become world, many things happened. There was Ground Zero in New York and the destruction was swift, immediate. The centuries-old Buddhas of Afghanistan were blasted off to smithereens. The United States with its allies voted to invade Iraq and finish off the terror of Saddam once and for all. In the meantime, bin Laden kept on with his metaphors of creating migrants of the faith with his promise of heaven and virgins to those who would be willing to kill themselves for his cause. Such was the frenzied history that I came into when I decided to look for metaphors from the land of my self-exile. In that same year, I went on a voluntary exile in the land where the guns and bullets and the metaphor of democracy was originating from. I had hoped to gather the narratives of migrants as they locate themselves in the fringes of mainstream society; I would listen to their stories, document their fears, given name to their hopes and aspirations, and verbalize their needs and wants. I would be the committed ethnographer of sorrows and sufferings of all migrants who were willing to allow me to enter into their secret world. And I would write about this world with the metaphor that would best capture their tenuous life in a new land; the metaphor of the hard place; the metaphor of the Promised Land that has been lost or about to be lost forever. And my notebook told me: We are all migrants on earth,/ This life too if you still remember./ Naked we were born and naked/ We will all go to the grave/ Here or elsewhere as we go on and on/ With the crooked lies and avenues/ The days and hours offer to us/ Even in our sleep./ We have come this far,/You have come this far/And there is no turning back the tales/ We leave behind as we all/ Splurge in sorrow, despair too,/ Loneliness sputtering, stopping/ Us on our tracks as we keep the song/ In our generous hearts, one of love,/ Solitude, as we nurse each pain/ That keeps us alive, the senses searing/ Our souls, making us marked by time./ Welcome, migrant, lots of good luck./
This I wrote for a new migrant. There was metaphor in the welcome—but it was for me as well, a metaphor man, a migrant.