Memory Is All We Have Got: A Critical Introduction

Memory Is All We Have Got

Aurelio Solver Agcaoili, PhD

In the end, we become memory. But the important thing is that we resist—we keep resisting—so that the power of forgetting will not lead us to perdition. Instead, this power of memory leads us to eternity, this power of memory that is living, this power of memory that has life, this power of memory that has no end. 

This is what I see as one of the central themes of this collection of Delia. This is the reason why I gave this same kind of title to this collection when she gave me the freedom to give a name to this first-ever collection of her poetic works.

But let me return to the nature of memory and its one of its antonyms, forgetting.

Simply put, memory is bifurcated.

The first of this is memory that comes off in an instant, gets into the mind for a moment, and in its surrender to the tick of time it becomes a faint outline of a strange reality like the fading away of the mist when the rays of the bright sun comes and the mist disappears from the mountain top.

The second is the memory that is present in all the time of mortal life, in the finitude of that which makes us human, in the boundary of all that a creature can do to resist the authority and power of forgetting. This is the memory that counters every extinction of things that are important in the life of people, in the meaning of that life, and in the ways that make everlasting that life in the matrix of the finitude of that life, of its having an end, of its having a telos.   

Many people say that it is man’s moral obligation not to accept, and thus resist, forgetting.

The reason is that in forgetting there is the extinction as well of personhood, of the creative power of thought, and of that freedom that goes around the universe. In that act of freedom going around comes the discovery that there is a promise that is hidden from the experiences that come to our understanding, from the segments of the past that come to us, and from those small stories we keep so that because of these and through these, we become ready in recognizing the landmarks that guide our journey. 

When I went on a journey to Madrid because of a research for the data for a book that I was planning to write, I had the chance to shake hands with Delia and to also know her more personally. Before that, we got to know each other through one of those social media sites, our way of getting to know each other prompted by my search for possible informants for a book I was planning to write. 

Before our personal encounter, I have seen a true poet, true to her craft, and in our meeting in Madrid, in the city of memory of the colonial experience of the Philippines and its many citizens, whether these citizens are in the country or have gone abroad like me, I have mixed feelings in reading her poems. 

There were many heroes who had long passed on and who stayed in Madrid, and in my treading on the avenues they trod on in the spring time, like that one splendor witnessed by a poet when he went to Heidelberg, for instance, I witnessed too the hidden sorrows in the lines of Delia’s poems.

I am well aware of the need for sadness in a person who is a poet: that a poet must be sensitive and that a poet must have that elevated sense of things when she begins to take notice of the familiar and look at this again in a new light. 

I am well aware that in every true poet there is that activist of life, a protester in the classical definition of that public person who broadcasts and denounces those things that are not right but nevertheless are happening. 

I am well aware that in every true poet there is a person who reflects critically of the many layers of events in the life of a person that continues to remember the things that are past-qua-present and are present-qua-future.

The settings in the poems of Delia are clear: the city of many challenges, a Balungao that gave her enough sense of consciousness, and the foreign country that opened to her a door and where she could see the possibility of hope. 

I became a wanderer in Madrid and the other places in this nation state in Spain, but I was given the opportunity to get into a more intimate relationship with the many Ilokanos of that old city, the reason why I became a witness to the texture of life of the immigrants there. 

Becoming an immigrant is not a new experience to me: I left the Ilocos, and then I left the country. For two times, I became an aimless wanderer, and I used these experiences to get to know better the discourse in the poems of Delia.

It is not easy to paint a picture of experiences like these. More so, it is not easy to paint a picture of the ethical situation where the ethical agent must make a decision, and in his decision-making, its twin, grief, is there.   
Delia, for instance, has painted that event in life, in a poem dedicated to her husband who has passed on to another life: 

To be alone is not easy to accept.
Doubts get to become twice.
And in your absence, there you are
In the sadness. 

And she begins to narrate of her many tribulations by remembering her fundamental experience: 

We were poor
But in the midst of uncertainties
With you there was nothing missing. 

Your touch in the early evening hours
Is a bonfire that gives off warmth. 

The joys we gave each other,
Mine I give to you alone. 

Delia sums up her sorrows, and while looking at the children who are the fruits of their love—she and her spouse who has gone to the beyond—she feels the presence of the absent spouse, and he is absent because he has passed away, because he has moved on to another life:

You counsel the children,
You teach that in your absence,
You are there. 

These thirty poems in this anthology have clarity of perspective. We see here a mother, a wife, a sister, a compatriot, and a daughter. We see someone who ekes out a life in another place, like the Metropolitan Manila where she worked, where she started her own family, and which she left behind to search for that other land promised her.

Her leaving Balungao behind is with the condition that she would return at the appointed time, and in her returning would be the renewing, again and again, of the living memory, of the memory that has become an ingredient for working so hard, of the sad memories of poverty so that all of these would become a well of mental strength, a well needed to search for the ways to have a better life. She speaks to Balungao, her hometown:

It is in the midst
Of time’s moment moving slowly
Where there I wait for that caress.
Memories come flooding.
There is typhoon in the chest
On the landmark of a mountain
Of how far away I am, there
I reach for the heaven.

In the living spring,
There, joy knows no death.

My thirst is quenched
By the scenes produced by the water.

Here we encounter what Salma Rushdie has said about the role of a poet’s work: ‘A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.’

It is not easy going back to the hometown one has left behind.

It is not the case that the door of the house we turned our back to is open all the time.

It is not the case that each of the sea we need to cross is calm all the time or it is peaceful in all of the nights and days. There are relationships that are destroyed because of one’s departure, and in the meditations of Delia about the nature of leaving—like leaving behind one’s own children in order to take care of other children and other families—there is that choking quality of this experience, that choking that when one does not know how to address it, leads the one who left to catch her breath. 

I remember Delia’s personal story to me—that first time that she left her homeland. Her youngest was still to young at that time. She was drowning with sorrow. She felt her whole body was melting each time she took a step farther away from her home, from her son. But she had to remind herself to be mentally strong. That she needed to stand up so that in her standing up she would be able to rebuild her family that was challenged by the serious sickness of her husband. 

Her children were still young in those days—a stage of life that reminded her they needed her presence.

But that was the time when she needed to give her obligation to her husband who was then recuperating from kidney transplantation. Her youngest, her only son, told her: “Mother, when you come back, we are going to build a second floor of our house, yes?”

 “Yes,” Delia replied. And she never turned her head to look at him one last time. Instead, she walked fast in order for him to not see her tears profusely welling on her cheeks.

We read these raw and fresh feelings in these poems. There is no sophisticated technique to hide these domestic experiences. In her treading the path to the memories of her leaving to go far away, but going far away only to return at the right time, there are sorrows that come to roost, and there are wandering hurts that are sometimes outside language. That is the reason why sometimes the topography of the language deployed by Delia is not even. Instead, you see in that topography clods of earth, the wetlands, the small ponds that at an instant could become the native drum or the native trumpet that reminds us of the collective ceremony of emotions, of a re-gathering to meet up one more time, of communing in order to remember, in order to re-member or become a member again of that human community we have not know for a while.    

In this topography is a mixed bag of feelings.

In there is a faint complaint.

In there is the laughing that springs from the comedic way of looking at human experiences. 

In there is the delicate way of summoning nameless loves, the recalling of an intimation of the heart, an intimation understood only by another one, the beloved. 

In there are the numerous complaints of a mother against her child, complaints that are common because these are everyday in the life of a family, and despite its being everyday there is the plain fact that the experience of a domestic help in one place is the same experience of a domestic help in another place—an experience that does not discriminate one’s identity but makes the condition of an OFW all the same: like a slave, indentured, at the mercy of the rich bosses.

We see in this excerpt the hopefulness of a worker of the fields:

You firmly hold the cut rice plant
And its stalk surrenders, wilts
So that to you is the gift of grain,
You harvest with persistence,
Hull removed with desire
That lives beneath the sun
So that in the paddies are the furrows
There the seedlings
Of a dream multiply.

And the disposition of a beloved:

But the music that is you
I shall listen
The tune that is you
Is a gift. 

In a number of the poems of Delia is the power of instructing.

It is possible that a number of critics who follow the ideology of writing patterned after postmodernism and post-structuralism and a number of readers schooled in another ideology of writing and reading might not approve of the texture of these poems. But this we say: didacticism as a form has a role in a literature anchored on the oral tradition. 

The truth is this: since 1620, with the publication of the Doctrina Christiana for the first time so we can see the Romanized form of the Ilokano language from its native form of a script, the ‘kur-itan’—a syllabary and an abugida form—this form of literature has not gone past its audio form to inaugurate a fixed form of the visual and intellectual. The written for has just begun for the Ilokano language.

The competency and literacy requirements of these two forms of language are not the same, and thus, didacticism as a genre of literature is always based on the oral, on the sounds, on the lips. These kinds of poems are a warning, a caution, a reminder. In this way, Delia’s works are grounded on the nature of the orature. We see the following, in her own way of discoursing about the life of a person who grew up poor, and continues to face the challenge of the field, the daily form of wretchedness, the weight that is ever-present in poverty. 

In the early morning hours
You rise, and quickly move like time. 

The crystalline dew
Wets the thickened skin
Of the poor farming folk
Like my father
Like my mother
Like my sibling
Like my elder brother
Like my relative
Like me
In the same cycle
Of wretchedness.
In the level of language, we see here a calculated way of seeing, a prosody that is creative, and a phraseology that has an imaginative way of looking at the ordinary experience of people. But this ordinary experience of people becomes extraordinary because of the creative use of ordinary words, and of the pushing of these words to the limits of their magical boundaries so that they would bring you to the peak, in that swing of emotions coming into an ambivalence, and in the terror of the crevice of imagining: the hour rushes, she says, and this is the hour of the poor person who goes to the field to struggle, the poor rushing in the same way the hour rushes!

In the rushing—that act of running after time—is the everyday episode of the life of the poor, whether these are in Balungao or in Madrid where some of the Ilokanos have found a place to stay. But this is not a unique experience: in cities as in the barrios where there is that commitment to work, we do not need the tick of time to work diligently. As soon as we are awakened, there are the chores one after another, chores that need to be done in between rushing, chores that we repeat the following day in that wheel of a life of the poor people. There is no pillow to lay our heads on—there is nothing to lean on—except our own consciousness: strong, whole, and daring. Like this way of affirming: 

If they can do it,
I say I can do it as well. 
The mantra on my mind,
A thought I have for all time. 

I invest upon my own strength, industry, prayer
All the images in my head
I paint like all the scenes in the field. 

The poor poet is left with an ad populum for herself, a self-flattery that substitutes her commiserating with her sorrowful condition. In a complex situation like this—a situation forcing the poor poet to choose between extremes, we see her responding to the many situations that she comes to witness, her own situation, and a situation that she needs to overcome. 

The enchantment of memory—the magic of remembering that has its own autonomous life—this is the capital Delia deployed in creating these works.

In each poem is the act of remembering, and in each act of remembering is the seed of a poem that in the enchanting power of a pure plan becomes an insistent act, the act finding its realization in the words she summons at the appointed time. The insistent act as a reminds us of the many obligations a poet has, whether these obligations are to her personal life or to her life as a poet of her ethnolinguistic community. Gregory Maguire, through Candle in “Son of a Witch,” has this to say about memory, and the obligation of the writer to that memory: ‘Memory is a part of the present. It builds us up inside; it knits our bones to our muscles and keeps our hearts pumping. It is memory that reminds our bodies to work, and memory that reminds our spirits to work to: it keeps us who we are.’

We have many reasons to go on a journey
Even when there are thorny branches.

Far away, I recall what I left behind:


Home-grown remedies

To scare off the plates
Deprived of food then
And now.

I hear a vision that is a protester, a human thought that is a protester, and a poet’s pen that is a protester. But this protester has yet to be christened, still unnamed, still without a design. It comes to the mind at the appointed time to face the danger of waging war in life in the country or in other shores, but we gradually see the epiphany of the good plans, and these are good because these include the collective life. In this way, the entirety of memory appears like daybreak, the daybreak born of a memory that heals, a memory that cures, a memory that gives rejuvenation and invigoration to the four Ilokano souls.

In the poems of love, we see here the muted voice of Leona Florentino, the declaration of immaculate love, the ever-readiness to make sacrifices, the love that is forever. Here is a voice that knows full well the architecture of love, the telos of love that is creative, the apocalypses of love that renews the experiences that make one miserable, the story that ropes the foot and prevents it from stepping forward, the cantata of the early evening hours that announce the coming dawn. 

Some of the feminists might call that this kind of love is that of a martyr, with martyr understood in the negative sense. But isn’t that the aim of love is to give back the love offered by another, a requiting of that love that is beyond the political discourses on what and which is to be the priority, or who has more right compared to another person?

I whisper my hunger
Into your heart so you take from me
This container of tiredness
This bag of sorrow. 

And this:

I shall wait for your warm arms
Imprisoning me
And feel that you
Are life’s spirit, you who are a creator
Of sorrow and hardship,
You who are creator
Of this plentiful joy. 

The premises in the poems are premises that spring from a frank face-to-face encounter with the challenges of life. The speaker is a woman and mother and sister and wife and daughter. But at day’s end, this speaker is a poet, a poet beyond these categories, a poet that soars in the clouds so that in her soaring high and free and unbridled she becomes one of the theoros, one of the goddesses that look down upon the mortals of the earth. 

In our formal way of evaluating the merit of her work, this anthology leaves behind a promise, and that promise is based on a bold way of painting human experience that mirrors a poet who thinks, and she thinks because she continues to be reminded of a voice that tells her that to write is urgent, that it is a must that she does not stop writing. There is some unevenness in her work, but this unevenness is a natural deficiency for those who come face to face with the challenge of the page for the first time. No poet is ever fully dressed when she was born, to literally translate an Ilokano adagade. Only her experience and her memory will give her the garment that gives her warmth in the winter cold. 

This we know: that if Delia continues to write—if she continues to hone her skills in reining her ability to look at the world in a visionary way—she will launch other works that prove that both Balungao, her first homeland, and Madrid, her new homeland, have produced a good poet. 

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