PATHOLOGIES OF ILOKANO POETICS, 2
A. Solver Agcaoili
The trouble with Ilokano poetics is that no one is telling us that something is wrong with our art and craft and that something needs to be done with urgency.
Like Philippine literature in general, if the awards were to be the gauge, the verdict of literary incestuous relationship is quite clear: in most of the award-giving bodies and organizations, we have a constancy of almost the same names of judges going on a merry go-round, like a Russian roulette.
Many of the aesthetic biases of these judges—biases that were seldom rethought and revisited—were those of the 1950s and the 1960, and some, veritably, have not progressed beyond those years since year-in and year-out, the same topics are being discussed at the annual literary conferences, the topics seldom going beyond the question of craft, the eternal but now mindless, ‘how to’.
In saying this, what we have got is a difficult and terrible case of in-breeding, a case which almost always results in having the same rehashed ideas about what is aesthetically redemptive for our people.
In-breeding among people results in abnormality.
In-breeding in ideas results in ‘sumilasu’, a term culled from a poem of protest written during Martial Law and published on the pages of Bannawag when then Gen. Hans Menzi was still the publisher.
‘Sumilasu’, of course, is the same kind of sordid sameness.
If it happens that a new name crops up and is added to a list of judges, that name would be suspect if his or her name has never seen print as Exhibit 101 on the pages of Bannawag.
We forget that there are students of Ilokano poetics out there that may not be writers of Bannawag but serious students of the kind of writing that we produce and consume.
But this constancy of the same names and their proteges is a prime suspect here--that constancy a main actor in the liaisons that result in 'Ilokano literary incest'.
With Ilokano writers reading only each other in a backstroking technique of “Read me, bro and I will read you, bro”, we are developing some kind of a partnership of aesthetic sensibilities grounded on the truths accepted by the Mafia with their code of honor of complicity, silence, acquiescence, and loyalty to friends and compadres and comadres.
The end-result is this: we are creating a vicious circle, so vicious that the only way to redeem the results of this circle from perdition is to prick open the cocoon that we have kept our poetics for so long, the covering that insulated that poetics from the surprising entanglements of brilliant and challenging ideas a thinking mind could bring, entanglements that offer us polylemmas so that in the search for what is right and true, we could have an informed judgment.
True, poetics is not supposed to be telling us how to conduct our lives the way patriarchs and zealots and moral bigots in the past had done.
But it is also true to say that when a work of literature does not heighten our awareness of the human condition, what is it for?
The critic Leopoldo Yabes did not have kind words for the kind of Ilokano poetics during his time time.
Operating from the framework of Western canon and Western literary theoretical approaches as all those trained in English studies during the 30s until the 50s were wont to follow for their guidance in the understanding of any literary text, he branded Ilokano writing—and hence, Ilokano poetics—as ‘melodramatic.’
The label is an honest but a harsh judgment of the kind of writing Ilokanos produce when using their own mother language, a judgment that is not applied to Ilokanos during his time who were writing in other languages, notably, in English, Tagalog, and Spanish.
Compared with the innate elegance of the epic “Biag ni Lam-ang”, the writing that marked our encounter with America followed the exaggerated, the ham, the histrionic—characteristics that could perhaps be said of the works of writers during the last part of the 19th century, when Spanish supremacy was about to bow down to the upstart military occupiers that bought us from our former colonizers for US20 million.
The critic and Ilokano teacher Noemi Ulep Rosal and I did not totally agree with Yabes’ position precisely because we wanted to pursue the academic and political agenda that Ilokano writing deserves to be taught and promoted at the University of the Philippines where we both taught for a time, until I left that University with only her taking up the cudgels of developing a critical awareness of what Ilokano poetics can offer to inform what we, in the academe, were dreaming of: a ‘national literature’ or ‘literature of the nation’. There were two other academics that dabbled in Ilokano literary and translation studies, but one left eventually for good upon retirement, and another also left the University when she joined me at the University of Hawai’i as a faculty of the Ilokano Language and Literature Program.
Rosal and I thought that Yabes was using an etic perspective, with an outsider looking in and trying to make sense of what we are—what the Ilokano people are as producers of a literary culture.
But Rosal and I understood that Yabes was right: that the only drama we can afford to portray in our works is the ‘melodramatic’, with the poetic vitality that informs an obra maestra lost in the mind of the writer and in the kind of words he uses to infuse life into his work.
This is where we need to distinguish two things: sentiment and sentimentalism, the last one the vice of many of Ilokano works, the first the virtue that it lacks because the moment any of the works invests upon it, any touch of ‘sentiment’ always ends up as an extravagant, even redundant, expression of sentimentalism.
The acknowledgement of human emotion and the passion that goes with such an act can only be guided by the logic of truth and the meaningful—and the context of the human drama informing such logic.
An exaggeration would let loose the virtues a good work might have as part of its offering to make a work speak its truth.
But with sentimentalism, there is a falsity involved since what we have got is an artifice of what matters, a facsimile of what could have been, an imitation of an imitation without acknowledging that art, of any form, is already by itself an imitation.
One example of a well-knit narrative that is so sparse with its word use but is so rich with its gaps and silences is Manuel Diaz’s “Rice for the Moon.”
In my years of teaching Ilokano literature in both the original and in English translation, this piece always sees the light of day in my classroom before students who always what on earth did make me choose this piece and include it in their reader. I would go cryptic in my defense of this piece by invoking the kind of power that love in the time of war has, love that is faithful and yet it is fragile because broken lovers come to haunt the broken memories.
Seen through the eyes of a young boy, in the early grades and impassioned more by ‘kudisi’ and ‘sunay’ and the summers of wanton gallivanting in the fields where fighting spiders abound, “Rice” brings us to the second World War and the difficult choices a family has to make to survive, just to survive, with the subplot talking about a certain don Gaspar, named after a magus, lusting for Coring, the maiden whose lover had to respond to the call of his homeland so he would serve the homeland, after promising Coring that he would come back to fulfill his love for her in that final tryst that the young boy witnessed.
Add the tragic symbol of the story—the ‘warsi’ for the ‘darudar’ (the rice-throwing ceremony of the Ilokanos) event and you have a whole cultural and social history of the Ilokano people dramatized in that sparsely worded story you hope it was you who wrote it.
If we are looking for a work that resonates, a work that deserves the honor we all could be proud of, this “Rice” is one example of the not-so-many we have around.
Now comes the honor we accord to our writers, with their Leona Florentino and Pedro Bukaneg. Who, among those who were given that honor, deserve the accolade? Do their works resonate like “Rice”?
Or, in the giving of the awards, the melodramatic was involved, with a Committee of One responsible for arguing the case of some because these writers were plain and simple evangelists of the ham?
Our accounting must begin now.