THE POET REBEL IN EXILE
Review of Punta Spartivento & Other Mobilizations for Our Time By E. San Juan, Jr. (Chicago: Locofo Chaps, 2017)
by Prof. Paulino Lim, Jr. California State University, Long Beach, CA., USA
This chapbook is a good introduction to the author’s poetry at home in both English and Filipino, and more accessible to the general reader than his ponderous prose. Collected for Lococo Chaps, an imprint of Moria books, “dedicated to publishing politically-oriented poetry,” the poems display common traits: the motif is travelogue, the subject is political, and the tone ranges from hopeful to despairing.
As travelogue, however, the poems name the place or tourist spot but do not describe its wonders as much as the tangled emotions of memory and foreboding that it evokes. The title poem “Punta Spartivento,” literally the point where the wind divides, offers a magnificent view of Lake Como, one of the many lakes in Italy that inspired the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley to write poetry. (Shelley drowned in a boating accident in a storm in Lake Spezia.)
At Punta Spartivento the traveler sees how “the waves encounter each other and separates,” and feels the unease about the future caused by tidings “trumpeted by the turbulent winds.” He reveals this sense of foreboding to an unnamed Beloved: “But what wings of the past sneak in . . . splitting the unity of desire, dividing our tryst?” The tryst consummates the desire, but the bliss is ruined by memories of “violated victims,” forced into sex that consummated in death.
The Wordsworthian strategy of past events interjected into a present experience is a case of diplopic consciousness split between memory and perception. It typifies the poems in the chapbook, subtitled “Mobilizations for Our Time.” This can mean putting the chapbook into movement or circulation, or in military terms gathering and preparing troops for war. When San Juan left the Philippines to study in the U.S. nearly half a century ago, he left behind a war, but he did not turn his back on the country. It has become the consuming subject of his numerous writings impelled by his devotion to the country, an invaluable resource for future histories and encyclopedists. His absence from the county, however, is a voluntary exile. His fellow activist at the University of the Philippines, Jose Maria Sison, remained and reinvented the Communist Party, updating the goals of the Hukbalahap led by Luis Taruc and activating its military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).
The war between the NPA and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) still rages, but has become more conflicted. The jihadist group Abu Sayyaf has entered the fray and linked the Philippine conflict to the ongoing wars in the Middle East. The chapbook betrays the anguish of the poet, saying, “How could we sing God’s song in the quarantine of exile?” The poet’s exile is a double distancing–aesthetic and geographic. The aesthetic distances his emotions from the raw feelings of an event, while geographic distances him from the actual happening.
The poem “Parable of the Struggle” tells of the narrator’s escape from the barricades and bombing of the Plaza (Miranda?), and now stalked by a masked figure. The fugitive can’t tell whether the stalker is a “man, woman, gays, lesbian, transgender, aborigine, alien . . . .” This figment of a guilt-ridden imagination crystallizes the unease of the past stored in memory.
More than anything else, as a call to action the chapbook mobilizes the imagination of the reader who shares the dilemma posed in “The Poet’s Predicament in a Time of Terror.” The reader also knows the odds, such as, being jailed, salvaged by the military and assassinated on the airport tarmac. A response to the predicament is the elegiac “Remember, Always.” It is a eulogy to Felix Razon, who co-authored with San Juan in writing Jose Maria Sison: Filipino Revolutionary Fighter. The poem affirms fidelity to the memory of a fallen comrade, with the hope that its metaphors etched “ironclad and diamond-hard” shall serve as epitaphs for his tombstone.
As poetry, the verse is free and the imagery surrealistic, juxtaposing creatures arising from “memory’s fissure,” e.g., “snake slithering through the cracks . . . birds’ in the sagging branches (italics poem).” Allusions link disparate rebels, e.g., Salud Algabre killed by Spanish conquistadors and the poet’s “mentor” Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned by Italian fascists. Others recall victims of military terrorists, e.g., Rebelyn Pitao, daughter of an NPA commander, who was raped and stabbed to death, and Maricon Montajes, a U.P. student who was imprisoned in 2010 on the charge of conspiracy and illegal possession of firearms, released on bail in 2016 for lack of evidence.
San Juan pays tribute to the Belgian surrealist painter in “Magritte’s War on Extra Terrestrial Migrants.” The opening lines of this homage is a dazzling display of poetic surrealism: “When Magritte’s lunar migraine/drifts into the blue dragon’s lair . . . mired among mermaids, lost in the karma of fallen sparrows” The travelogue poem satirizes space travel carried by “the profit-less Apollo mission,” adding, “What tentacled machine behind those ivory horns/unleashes such fury of discriminations?”
Strong and powerful emotions churn the chapbook, but the last poem, “Friday Afternoon in October, Willimantic, Connecticut,” the imagery is realistic and transparent, the emotions muted. The “travelogue” features the iron Frog Bridge in Willimantic, famous for its four bronze sculptures of frogs. The poet, while watching the traffic headed for the Indian casino in Foxboro, “interred” his cigarette stub beside the bridge. But, as in “Punta Spartivento” that bookends the collection, memories ruffle the poet’s twilight ruminations: the Abu Sayyaf and the feeling of apprehension and terror on the eve of his journey to America. “How could we sing God’s song in the quarantine of exile?”
The poet already does the singing in his art, evincing love for the poor and country, commiserating with families and victims of oppression, and paying tribute to fallen mentors and comrades–in the name of love, and the “Redeemer’s canción” after all is a song of love. #