E. San Juan Jr.’s
BALIKBAYANG MAHAL: PASSAGES FROM EXILE
A Critique Paper by Charmaine Bramida
E. San Juan’s poetry collection, “Balikbayang Mahal: Passages from Exile”, as suggested by the title, was birthed through the many travels of the poet. This work is a collection of old and new poems and also includes a long essay on exile and diaspora entitled “Sa Loob at Labas ng Bayan Kong Sawi: Emergency Signals from a Filipino Exile.” It gives the impression of a travelling journal of some sort, especially with some of his poems entitled like a journal entry (Tag-sibol sa Den Haag, Nederland, 25 Marso 2007; Biyernes ng Hapon, Oktubre 1, 2005).
The author’s sweeping knowledge of geography, history, politics, religion, and literature blossoms in this poetry collection. Most of San Juan’s work, including his poetry, is political and looks outward upon the world (most evident probably in his poem “Spring in Den Haag, Nederland, 25 March 2007”, among others).
As you go along, page by page, his poems are explicitly and implicitly suggesting different places. The poet, in his exile, somehow finds himself in these places and comes to an almost nostalgic state of his homeland’s history. Wherever he goes, his country seems to follow him. It almost appears like it pays (an ironic) homage to the Greek epic, Illiad, where Oddyseus sailed for a homeward journey yet ends up in a twenty-year exile. But, instead of being lost on his way home, the poet, in his exile, meets his homeland somewhere along in his consciousness.
The diversity of language used in translation of the poet’s poems in this collection emphasizes not only the journey he is going or have gone through but also reflects him as a person. Someone who speaks an array of foreign languages impresses us that this person must have done a lot of travelling in his lifetime, or have lived in different places, or is simply well-versed as product of a privileged education. The poet is in fact all of the aforementioned. However, the bevy use of language does not exactly celebrate the multilingualism of the poet in exile. The variety of language may as well serve as a mapping device as to the whereabouts of the poet. However, it may primarily be that, although the majority of the poems in the collection were written in Filipino, but their translation into English, Chinese, Russian, German, Italian, and French underscores the universal dimension of the struggle in the homeland of the poet. The poet might have intended to have his poems translated and transformed, to make the vernacular international, not particularly language wise, but the things addressed by his poems, the content–-his motherland. The poet wants the world to experience whatever it is that his motherland is going through, and this want makes him consciously or subconsciously think of the Philippines wherever he goes.
Travel, Diaspora, and Double Consciousness
The first poem of the collection, entitled “Voyages”, is very fitting as an opening for this collection. It conditions our sensibilities that we are about to set sail on a journey across lands through the pages, a poem steeped in classical mythology which starts in a memorable line: “To exile I ride on the bountiful surf. And foam-flowers/ of her dreams gather to waylay my anchors.”
The form of the poem at a distance mimics the waves through its enjambments and indentations. The image of the poem is relaxed and it gives us the experience of being in the middle of a sea on board a moving ship. Although travelling is the first thing that may come to mind once the first poem is read, the collective work is not necessarily a travel literature, but focuses more on the history and the going-ons of the poet’s motherland.
As one reads though most of the poems, you can encounter conflict between locations. W.E.B. Du Bois coined the term double consciousness, which is defined as the two-ness of a person’s identity. Double consciousness describes the individual sensation of feeling as though your identity is divided into several parts, making it difficult or impossible to have one unified identity (the conflict of being African and European/American discussed in Dub Bois’s book, “The Souls of Black Folk”, written in 1903). The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as the removal or conveyance from one person, place, or condition to another.
The poet, with the juxtaposition of his thoughts, most evidently found in his poem, “Balikbayang Mahal” (which could be identified as the main piece of his collection), we come to this idea that the poet is not really from that place but comes from or lives elsewhere and is very nostalgic and is internally coping with his chronic travels from one place to another. The epigraph chosen by the poet for this poem is from Dante Alighieri’s reputable, “Paradiso”: “You will leave everything you love; this is the arrow first released by the bow of your exile….” Excerpts from the first part of the poem shows the idea of this epigraph: “You’ve flown to Rome and London…You’ve flown to Riyadh and Qatar…You’ve flown to Toronto and New York…You’ve flown to Chicago and San Francisco…You’ve flown to Hong Kong and Tokyo…You’ve flown to Sydney and Taipeh…” The lines under these statements of the (seemingly) itinerary of the poet expresses a sense of longing for what he is about to leave behind at that moment: “You’ve flown to Rome and London/ Anxiously looking back to clouds loaded with dreams wandering/ Sunk in memories of tomorrow slowly drowning” … “You’ve flown to Hong Kong and Tokyo/ “I’ll never forget you”—the temptation of a farewell unclenched/ soars”.
One of the concluding lines of the first part confirms that feeling of nostalgia of the speaker: “You’ve flown, O beloved sweetheart, but on whose bosom/ will you land?” Wherever the poet is headed or has been, he feels that he have been set free, that he has the freedom of being a citizen of the world through the power of travel and is able to pursue his ambitions, but this question connects us to his feeling of uncertainty as to where he will end up at the last league of his worldwide journey. The last line of the first part shows how the poet have invested himself into every place he has ever been: “My soul cut up and scattered to all the corners of the planet”.
The above mentioned excerpts come from the first part of the poem. Obviously, it speaks of departure. However, in the second part of the piece, it offers a parallel, yet opposite and contrasting situation, thus, the double consciousness that is being shown in this piece. The lines directly show a mirror of the first part of the poem, that instead of departing, someone is: “Late, they said everything is late. It’s gone, that train loaded with/ memories and dreams,” … “Late, we’ve been left behind by the airplane headed for Tokyo/ and Los Angeles”, … “Already departed/ So distant now is the ship sailing toward Hong/ Kong and Singapore”. Throughout the second part of the poem, the speaker is expressing his feelings of regret over lost time, “Taking a chance that the telegram will reach—what a pity, no/ kidding, a terrible waste”.
Apparently, the poet is addressing someone which is confirmed in the line: “You’re late—your promises rotting with anxiety and doubts…/ Finished!” The unnamed persona that the poet is addressing in these statements is confusing. Is he addressing himself? Is he speaking for a wider demography? His countrymen, maybe? The proceeding lines of the poem presents us the image of the persona that the poet is addressing: “Wilder than desire struggling to escape—where did you come/ from? Where are you going?/ Hoarse, exhausted, starved, elbows and knees bruised, crawling/ on all fours from the abyss…” These lines seem to give us an image of the struggle of what the Filipinos underwent through the different colonizers and how they battled for freedom. Yet, with this freedom, the poet continues to question where they are headed.
Basically, the most evident issue that the poet is embodying in his poems in this collection is his homeland. Despite him being in other places, or in “exile”, he cannot tear away from the reality of where he come from. However, one may also think that the poet is addressing the colonization of the Philippines. The line, “My soul cut up and scattered to all the corners of the planet,” also seems to suggest that the Filipino identity has become a mixture of the different countries that have colonized the Philippines, or rather, it gives us the idea of the Filipino people inhabiting (almost) all places in the world.
The concluding line of the poem enlightens us and confirms as to who is the addressee of the second part of the poem, “Beloved foreigner, let’s catch what’s left inside, waiting for joy in/ abeyance, nothing ahead or behind, endless….” As confusing as it may seem, but the persona that the poet named as a “Beloved foreigner” may refer to his countrymen, the Filipinos. The contrasting idea given through this label shows us the reality of the Filipino lifestyle. We travel. We migrate. We build our homes not in the lands of our mother country. The Filipinos have become citizens of the world. The home of Filipinos have become “endless”, so to speak.
The above excerpts embodies diaspora. Diaspora in the Philippines is very much palpable. His essay that concludes the collection ratifies that fact. This may be the reason for his double consciousness because of bilocation.
Allusion and Free Verse in a socially driven poetry
The most consistent features of the poet’s poems are the use of free verse and allusion. Some of his poems heavily use allusion as a device. The poetry reminds one of T.S. Eliot in its overflow of allusions. This could be expected since his theme is very historical and political. An example of this is his poem “Spring In Den Haag, Nederland, 25 March 2007”, where the poet alludes to Arroyo and the socio-political happenings in his country. It commemorates the Permanent People’s Tribunal’s verdict of “’Guilty!’ for the U.S.-Arroyo regime”. The poem also mockingly contrasts the peacefulness of the Dutch city of The Hague with the “murders and abuses”, still found in the Philippines despite the findings of the Permanent People’s Tribunal, the subtle point being that the sense of satisfaction the speaker receives from the verdict does not translate into action in his homeland — the verdict does not stop the suffering half a world away. Although, the poem ends with hope: through continued and renewed struggle, justice will be found: “Your lips breaking apart the chains binding the morning’s/ sunburst —”, suggesting that The Arroyo regime will be defeated, and peace will prevail.
This poem, once again, shows evidence of double consciousness as most of his politically themed poems are. Such as the discussed poem above, it is springtime in The Hague and the poet thinks of political detainees in Muntinlupa. Or again, as dusk descends, for instance, on the Italian town of “Punta Spartivento” (the title of the poem), the poet-exile is haunted by names of the dead — Juvy Magsino, Benjaline Hernandez, Eden Marcellana, Rafael Bangit, Alyce Claver, as shown by the following lines: “Souvenirs of the future—/ what tidings are trumpeted by the turbulent winds?/ They killed Juvy Magsino, Benjaline Hernandez, Eden Marcellana,/ Rafael Bangit, Alyce Claver…./ On the shores of Punta Spartivento, the waves encounter each other/ and separate—/ right or left, here and there—as if without any/ decision, pushed to the right/ or pulled to the left/ divided by fate or fortune?” His bilocation between where he is physically and his consciousness straying towards his motherland is shown. The poet-exile remembers the Moslem insurgency in Mindanao as night falls in the land of the Pequot Indians in his poem “Friday Afternoon, October 1, 2005, In Willimantic, Connecticut, USA” with the lines: “My cigarette stubb I interred beside the Bridge of Frogs while the/ traffic procession headed for the Foxboro Casino now owned by the/ Pequots./ But why does the Abu Sayyaf sneak into the mind”.
In his poem “Megamall in Metro Manila” (Megamall sa Metromanila), with the use of statements, it becomes evident that the poet is addressing the different problems of the Philippines; from commoditization: “Your vision is shrouded by Stateside goods galore even though you/ don’t know the signification of commodity fetishism.”; to politics: “No more barricades even though crocodiles continue to scavenge the/ shores./ The odor of Pasig River snakes its way up to the boudoir of/ Malacanang Palace”; to the Westernization of his countrymen: “We watch on the movie screen the fantastic rumbles of/ Schwarzenegger, James Bond, Bruce Lee and Sigourney Weaver.” The poem somehow exploits how dense the Filipinos have become, “Your dreams are now on motorcycles.”
In the same way, his poem “Wanderlust in Makat”i (Lagalag sa Makati) touches on the socio-political issues looming over his country, specifically, poverty. The poem set at the darker side of the streets of Makati–-the great metropolitan city of Manila, which is “Whirling in the maniacal traffic”. The person addressed by the speaker of the poem explains to us the situation: “…you’re still jobless and traipsing/ here and there./ Counting posts and stars, you arrive at “nirvana”/…” The persona of the poem is a representation of the many jobless Filipinos in the country, a country ran by “the machinations of capitalist society”, as the poet puts it. Jobless. No stable path. Hungry. The last line of the poem offers no hope. As in its original Filipino version – “kumapit na lang sa patalim.”
The poet’s poem also touches the subject of industrialization where he alludes to Valdimir Mayakovsky. Valdimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky was a Russian and Soviet poet, playwright, artist and stage and film actor. He is among the foremost representatives of early-20th century Russian Futurism. As it appears, Mayakovsky, being a futurist, adores and worships the age of technology and the speed, efficiency and noise that comes with it, which is evident in the poem, “Vicissitudes of The Love and Death of Valdimir Mayakovsky”. The poet uses strong images that creates the idea of the noise and chaos brought about by these advancements and the fascination of Mayakovsky towards these things. Even the form of the poem imitates disarray. It also appears the poet creates a fusion of the physicality of Mayakovsky together with a machine in order to heighten Mayakovsky’s regard for technology: “Your torso rocketed beyond the Eiffel Tower/ Now your lobster-red tongue spits Pentecostal vodka… / But neon x-rays from your submarine catacombs/ kicked them in the loins—…”
The poet’s use of statements
According to the principles of poetic content, a poetic idea is best expressed through the use of special images and situations that dramatize the idea. The poet, clearly, with his use of free verse and allusions, used statements in most of his poems in this collection. However, these direct statements were not used merely literal facts and assertions, but were used to embody the idea of the poem. His poems include situations, details, and characters that satisfies the conclusion (see: Wanderlust in Makati, Vicissitudes of the Love and Death Of
Valdimir Mayakovsky, Punta Spartivento, among others).
Although the poet’s poems in this collection is more evident of free verse and allusion, his poems such as Voyages, The Three Temptations, The Way Things Are, and Hail and Farewell, and others, show a lyrical side. Perhaps the most lyrical poem is “The Way Things Are,” which is made of five quatrains with images of birds hovering in old buildings; yet even here “We wait for miracles / With daggers to console / Us,” and a metaphor for circling birds — of angel droppings that “May nourish the exchange / We are possessed of and by” — suggests a vision to console “Every animal that dies.”
As discussed earlier, the poems begin on a lyric called “Voyages”, with the line, “To exile I ride on the bountiful surf”. The same as the collection is introduced, the poetry ends on a lyric called “Hail and Farewell,” with a closing quatrain still alluding to Mayakovsky: “But Mayakovsky is our kin — / We also reek / Of incense / And formalin.” wherein the poet sanctions the attitude of the Filipinos towards industrialization, Westernization, and the technology of the new age as he suggests that we are in the same fascinated consciousness to that of Mayakovsky.
Away from the political outlooks and looking inwards
Although most of the work is heavily political and looks outward upon the world, “Mask of the Poet” is one of the few poems in this collection that looks inward. The poet speaks of solitude: “No self, none at all; I exist alone”. The voice of the poem is the poetic inspiration itself. It’s paradoxical and metaphysical message being that in randomness and aloneness, we find ourselves connected to the world: “In one’s vision and hearing/ In the soul and love of every creature/ Moves and dances every organic being.”
Conclusion: Essay on Exile
The collection ends with an almost twelve-thousand-word essay entitled, “Sa Loob at Labas ng Bayan Kong Sawi: Emergency Signals from a Filipino Exile”. This essay addresses aspects of many types of exile and many diasporas, but it begins and ends with the complexities and consequences of what it means to be a Filipino far from home. In this sense, the diaspora of the Filipino race, which usually tends to gear towards the West, is an evidence of Orientalism (Edward Said, 1978). It may seem that Filipinos are still, hypothetically, colonized by the Westerners through political forces. Filipinos, being Orientals, are, in a way, seen as people who exist for the West. However, on the contrary on the thought that the diaspora of Filipinos towards these parts of the globe embodies a different kind of colonization, yet still a colonization in that sense, these migrations actually is a liberating moment for the Filipinos, that this time, they get to be the colonizers.
The poems and the concluding essay confront injustice—the ways, for instance, in which oppressors colonize even time and space. From labourers to domestic helpers, caregivers, entertainers, and professionals around the planet today, the Filipino, as a subject, shares the history of slaves, refugees, detainees, war veterans, and immigrants. These are the communities in motion that the poet-exile is addressing on behalf of Filipinos everywhere–-the kinship.
It seems that this collection of San Juan marks an important break in the Filipino literary tradition. From Francisco Balagtas to Jose Rizal, the homeland has been imagined as a bounded territory where people cannot go beyond their motherlands.
In this work of the poet-exile, a new conception of homeland is heralded. The poet may be dreaming of returning to Manila (as suggested by his poem Balikbayang Mahal), but the place is not a final destination for him. Instead, it is a portal to other places where homeland is without boundaries: “endless”. It is not an essential place, but a set of kinships that Filipinos everywhere and other people with similar fates can embrace and connect. The poet presents us that the planet has become the homeland of the Filipinos.
The poems in “Balikbayang Mahal: Passages from Exile” are mostly about the sorrows of migration and exile and the history and struggles of the poet-exile’s homeland, to be sure, but they are also about the hope of connections and with this, the poet-exile, E. San Juan Jr., of Balikbayang Mahal is, in the best sense of the word, the translator of the many Filipinos in the different corners of the world.R E F E R E N C E S
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Brown, E. J. (1973). Mayakovsky: a poet in the revolution. Princeton Univ. Press
Oxford English Dictionary. (1989). Second Edition.
San Juan, E. Jr. (2007). Balikbayang Mahal: Passages from Exile. Morrisville, North
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Said, Edward. (1978). Orientalism. Post-colonial studies at Emory. 2012. http://postcolonialstudies.emory.edu/orientalism/