I Revolve a Skull that Knows: On José García Villa

By | 1 May 2014

In 1972, in first-year college, I took down his 1958 Selected Poems and New from a shelf in the Ateneo library. Villa had not written a new poem since 1954, having given up verse, apparently, after ‘The Anchored Angel’. At 55 lines, this is his longest poem. It was published by the Times Literary Supplement. Villa had long since stopped commenting on the local scene in print. He had given up writing verse, but not poetry: childishly narcissistic, fearless and entertaining, he was spiritedly teaching it in New York, alternately seducing and tyrannising his students. He was also jotting down hundreds of aphorisms. Favoured Filipinos visiting New York called on the Poet, drawn to the flame of his self-love, expecting to be singed. Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in October 1972, and the following year Villa was made a National Artist; granted a stipend by the Philippine government, he gave up teaching at the New School. He died in 1997, when his work was just beginning to be rescued by young Filipino-American writers from almost total neglect in his adopted country. Musical and seemingly occult in content, some of his poems passed my teenage test for poetry: a tightening of the chest (not, as in Housman’s case, a bristling of the skin). I had read Blake’s songs and his wonderful The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, had struggled through Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry, a study of Blake’s metaphysics and mythology, in third- or fourth-year high school in Cagayan de Oro, and so was prepared for Villa’s gnosticism. I seem to remember also a small, locally printed volume – in the Ateneo library – with some of his concrete poems. ‘The Bashful One’ was a single comma, off-centre on the page. The concrete poems aren’t included in the Penguin Classics Collected Poems, unless ‘The Emperor’s New Sonnet’ qualifies as concrete. It’s a blank page. (Jarrell mentions ‘a poem made of 476 commas, a poem made of 132 repetitions of the letter O’ in the original Volume Two, as well as ‘The Emperor’s New Sonnet’. These concrete poems lose their humour without their title: Jarrell was determined not to laugh at Villa’s jokes.)

After he stopped writing poetry, Villa fell into a critical hole in the United States. (Getting panned by the most admired American reviewer of poetry must have helped keep him there.) Later, he failed the ethnic preconceptions of multiculturalism; Asian-American anthologies ignored him.1 He stopped sending reviews to the Philippines after the ‘40s. In 1972, his legend was already an old one. He was referred to by left-nationalist critics only to be denounced. But given the surprising dearth of published discussion of what his poems mean, the current revival of interest in his work among Asian-American writers seems as groundless as his Marxist execration. Villa’s work is highly uneven; in many of his best poems there are embarrassing lines – pretty much all those about roses, for example. The once well-known ‘Be beautiful, noble like the antique ant’ is ruined by its last line, typical of bad Villa: ‘Essential but secret like a rose’. (Except for this poem, the entire section Lyrics: III in Have Come, Am Here is composed of silly ideas inflated to grandiosity.) One poem has this second and final stanza:

Creatrix of the austere fire
Death has a sensuous skull:
Peerless, merciless Beauty rare!
She is the Rose Original.

Nothing in the first stanza indicates what that austere fire is, or its connection with Death’s sensuousness, or what it is to be the Rose Original.

Some of Villa’s poems flourish abstract predications while failing to give them adequate contextual definition – large claims that are hollow despite their conviction: ‘His two wounded hands / Are shadowless / And this unshadow is Love.’ The verse has other faults. Rather than charming, some of it is merely coy and cute or worse, as in some of his erotic or love poetry, but also elsewhere. The fault is in the intention to charm. ‘To make icecream chrysantheme / Mix Christ and chrysanthemums,’ is cringeworthy. This stanza from Poem 27 of Have Come, Am Here (in the Penguin Collected) is inadvertently comic:

there where her night begins
there be her goldest rosest rose
that in her deep wisdom knows
boygrace will knight her Rose2

Funny, because men are knighted. Coyness and cuteness are not merely occasional accidents of Villa’s verse, but are constantly risked by the poems in their knowing moral or religious unorthodoxy because the poet can’t help playing the faux naïf. Jarrell was right to point to the self-indulgence in Volume Two, where the ratio of embarrassing to decent or good poems is higher than in Have Come, Am Here. In the second book, the most disappointing verses are the short sprightly Aphorisms, which are vacuously self-congratulatory.

But enough said about Villa’s faults. Much of the poetry is not vacuous. Now that we have his Collected Poems, the difficulty represented by Villa’s metaphysics and theology can be pieced together and examined. When we read beyond the poems in anthologies, we find an unexpected philosophical coherence and depth. An example of this depth can be found in the apocalyptic Poem 122 (HCAH), untitled, like most of Villa’s verse.

A wall is History.
I say, Illuminate this
To see Who hang there.
Their Instantness never will cease.

Not to see is not to unsee them.
The not-seer cannot unmake.
Sweet, murdered stars 
Upon the solid black stake

Drift history immortalward.
Extension of the Wall
Is due in every Now.
Otherwise the Fire will fall.3

The influence of Laura Riding, most obvious in a section called ‘Philosophica’ – found in both the 1958 Selected Poems and New and the Collected – marks this untitled poem with her negatives. Its gnomic dialectical form was learned from her example. Time, this poem asserts, doesn’t flow; time is a wall, a solid black stake, its extension composed of instants or moments. The poet calls time history, denying that it flows. Its moments are ordered in terms of before and after, but this moment is not more privileged than any: each is a now. Because something has ceased to exist from this moment doesn’t mean its ‘instantness’, its being in time, has ceased. There is no evidence to indicate how Villa came to the conception of time expressed here, which recalls modern cosmology. In the theory of special and general relativity, the universe or space-time is a four-dimensional entity composed of events ordered in continuous series in terms of before and after: a wall. No event that has occurred ceases to be part of ‘Time-or-History,’ the poet says, though no trace of it may remain: ‘The not-seer cannot unmake.’ History is both death, the stake that murders the stars (whose light continues to reach us), and immortality. Every ‘Now’ is eternal. The true self lives in comprehension of this fact. From ‘A Composition’– a personal manifesto he published in 1953:

The I of Identity, the eye of Eternity, is the ore-I, the fundamentalizer I. That I cannot discontinue itself: the trufarer amazer I. The voyager, ransomer and parablist I: the I that accosts and marauds eternity – the covenantal I. This is the ‘I’ I write about, the true and classic I, the I of the Upward Gravity.4

Much in this ecstatic declaration needs to be elaborated. Piecing together the metaphysics of the poems will help us to make sense of it.

Something in the universe, an anthropological principle – God – draws us to the comprehension of the Eternal. God, however, draws individuals to Him, or rather to It, to realise itself: we give life to It as the Divine Human. From Poem 95: ‘God is instructed / In the ways of humanity. / God must humanize divinity / To be perfected.’ From 93 (HCAH):

So I have made God perishable
Finite, lean and homeless:
Till His need brave Him to merge
With Adam’s mortal beauty.

Let His eyes then be forever triste
In most agony of Christ!. . .

…That He arise in healment
Perfect and a Gem.5

Only by our participation in God does God achieve awareness of Itself, an awareness of Itself as human. From 78:

I saw myself reflected
In the great eye of the grave.
I saw God helpless
And headless there.

Until I put my head on Him.
Then He uprose superb.
He took the body of me
And crumpled me to immortality.6

The Divine Human is a latent possibility in the cosmos that orients us towards Himself and is discovered by human beings in themselves. We are drawn to Him to see as He sees. Villa had pondered the great medieval contemplative Meister Eckhart’s famous claim: ‘The eye with which I see God is the eye with which He sees me.’ In 140 of Volume Two, the poet refers to ‘a Mutuality of Eyes’, but in that poem it is the future that sees the present and, in seeing the present, is recognised by it: future and present co-occur as Villa tells us in ‘A Wall is History’. Villa calls the divinity Christ. In the culminating instalment of his metaphysics, ‘The Anchored Angel’, the universe is imagined as the sun, or as having the sun at its centre, the angel anchored at sunset: Christ, ‘Genesis’, unfissured, spy’ is in the ‘eyepits’ of the angel, through whose huge love Christ ‘bloodblazes.’ The poet discovers the divinity as his Poetic Genius, which he sometimes calls the Word. (To Villa, genius and divinity are always male, and to either the poet is always disposed as masculine.) Just as a poet only intermittently lives up to his (or her) genius, we only intermittently live up to our divinity. The individual is challenged to live beyond his petty self, which must be broken out of. The Divine Human is both a brother and a sublime antagonist, the terrible hero who (in 12, HCAH):

Dared my grovelling bloodscape,
It to a dazzeling diamond made.7
  1. Until Juliana Chang’s 1996 Quiet Fire: a historical anthology of Asian-American poetry(The Asian American Writers’ Workshop), mentioned in Luis Francia’s ‘Introduction’ to Villa, José García, Doveglion: Collected Poems, (Penguin Books, 2008).
  2. Villa, José García, Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Books, 2008), p.17.
  3. Villa, José García, Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Books, 2008), p.70.
  4. From Villa, José García, ‘,,A Composition,,’ first published in Literary Apprentice(1953); reprinted in The Anchored Angel: Selected Writings by José García Villa, ed. Eileen Tabios (New York: Kaya Press, 1999).
  5. Villa, José García, Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Books, 2008), p.55.
  6. Villa, José García, Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Books, 2008), p.47.
  7. ‘Dazzeling’ is in the original. Villa, José García, Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Books, 2008), p.8.
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