The Centre Cannot Hold: 6 Contemporary Filipino Poets

By | 1 November 2012

In so many ways – ways both fascinating and crucial – the Philippines is a microcosm for the world-at-large. It is a place without centre, a nation bound to no single language – for most Filipinos, the concept of having only one language is alien – nor to a central landmass, history or tradition. If the country has a ‘national identity’, then, it is an archipelagic one, requiring something like the ‘island poetics’ discussed in recent times by Bonny Cassidy and Peter Minter.

Even the simplest of communicative acts can involve crossing numerous languages in the Philippines – Tagalog, for example, is peppered with Spanish vocabulary and is often mixed with snippets of English – or it can require the speaking of a language second to your preferred, simply because your companion comes from a different island. Translation is thus one of the most basic facts of Filipino existence; speaking one particular language does not signify a sacred bond with the nation state as a whole. Indeed, many of the poets in this selection are concerned with the mutability of language, or, in the words of Cruz, with ‘aggressively treating words and sentences as singular units of composition, polyvalent and prone to different registers’. In particular, Marjorie Evasco and Ricky de Ungria are deeply preoccupied with the problematic cultural and political status of English in their poetry. Both poets have turned to writing in other Filipino languages as a way of speaking across traditions, or away from one, or from within another. Regardless of the fact that their work here was written in English, their writing always begins with decisions about which language to do it in, and why.

In this sense, Filipino poets are ambassadors of the future. Their poems are productions of an immeasurable, often maddening diversity but they also provide, as Evasco writes, ‘spaces for making momentary sense of the senselessness’. They deal with an already-present reality that many in the rest of the English-speaking world are anxiously predicting but are also happily deferring to the peripheries of their poetic imaginations. Contemporary Filipino poetry tracks the blockages, fractures and relentless flows of a globe steadily warming with an over-abundance of human heat. As Mabi David writes in her haunting ‘Sitting Poem, 18’, ‘the hot sheet of noon’ is ‘shivering into afternoons’:

The world turning 
white; no horizon. 

Breeze catching voices from afar [...]

Poems like this could reflect a much wider-ranging Filipino reality, an archipelago of astonishingly diverse ecologies, which are as fragile and vulnerable to exploitation and rising sea levels as they are packed to their edges with all manner of life.


As much as there are numerous intersections with these poets for Australian readers to enjoy, I didn’t want to run the risk of allowing their work slip into our own cultural streams as if it had never been anywhere else. For this reason, each poet included here has written a ‘statement’ about why they write, or why they wrote the poems that have been published. This will provide you with some useful contextualisation, and will ensure that the poems remain dense and nuggety as objects of cultural resistance and as invitations to share and enjoy.

This chapbook does not constitute an attempt to present a cross-section of Filipino poetry. What I’ve assembled here is closer to a photo album of my favourite poets than to any kind of comprehensive or representative anthology. I do this partly in recognition of my limitations – I only spent 14 weeks in the country, after all – and also to reflect something fundamental to the nature of the Philippines itself: there can’t be any comprehensive selection, such is the bulging, overwhelming, ebullient and/or frightening diversity of the archipelago. It’s hard enough to talk about ‘the writing’ on one island, let alone all 7,107 of them. ‘Sure, but that’s like anywhere,’ you might say. Unfortunately, our own obsession with producing ‘landmark’ anthologies of Australian Poetry suggests that we haven’t figured that out yet. Filipino poetry won’t make sense until we do.

Finally, I’d like to thank each of the poets involved with this issue for their kindness and patience. Thanks, in particular, to Marjorie Evasco and Kokoy Guevara, for their wonderful friendship and hospitality. And thank you to Ynna Abuan, whose beautiful piece serves as a fitting cover image for this selection, and to Kent MacCarter, for taking this thing by the hand!

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