I Revolve a Skull that Knows: On José García Villa

By | 1 May 2014

In 60 (HCAH), the poet and the Lord are brother rivals, pushing each other off ‘cliffs and mountains’ and catching each other below. Villa’s imagining of the poet’s relationship with the ‘true, dark, Hero,’‘Christ Oppositor,’ is homoerotic, and in this way heterodox. In the poetry of Christian contemplative mysticism – that of St. John of the Cross, for example – the Beloved is male and the human lover is female. In 24 (HCAH), the dark-footed divinity is not called Christ; he is instead Dionysian:

O Lovely. O lovely as a panther. O
Creation’s supremest dissenter.
Enter. Teach me thy luminous ire.
O jewelled, pacing, night-displacing
Fire. O night’s nimble-dancing, No-
Saying lyre. Embrace me. Defy me.
Reave me. None shall defend me.
Not God. Not I. Purify me …1

In Volume Two, this dancing god has become

‘Christ,upon,a / Ball: Saltimbanque,perpetual,in,beauty’ (141)

Here we have a transfiguration presumably suggested by Picasso’s painting of a young acrobat on a ball, one in his series on saltimbanques or circus performers.

There is no breaking out of the petty self without death, which makes sexual love – and Love itself – possible. In 7, the speaker looks out ‘between God’s eyelashes’, and ‘in this house without death’ he batters ‘God’s skull’, dashing ‘to Thy coasts, O mortal flesh’, to reach Eve, who in turn will break the poet. God without humanity is lifeless, a skull, without flesh: to break out of its deathlessness is – in this metaphor – to embrace mortality. Love, the poet says in 9, is ‘what the great deaths reveal.’ He declares triumphantly, ‘I revolve a skull that knows/ I make it speak God’s voice.’ Villa did not believe in an afterlife.2 Death, he thought, was a necessary condition of being human, and what he called immortality was the comprehension of the Eternal, not endless time, which is why the true self can be the ‘eye of Eternity,’ yet of mortal flesh. The moment of union of God and Human – the moment of their mutual recognition – is ecstatic, but it is a union of two who are incomplete without the other: two equals. This equality of God and Human is, of course, heterodox. Both God and Man must die to be completed (Villa had not yet thought this through in the Dionysian 24): in Villa’s metaphysics, God’s death is to be celebrated, as it is in 141 of Volume Two:





(On the commas: Villa applied them to every poem in Volume Two and after. Here and in ‘The Anchored Angel’ they confer a baroque stateliness. In 128 ‘The,bright,centipede / Begins,his,stampede …’ they are witty. I wonder about them elsewhere.)

‘[T]he orthodox conception of the Incarnation,’ is reinterpreted by Villa ‘in a personal manner,’ wrote the Tagalog poet Rolando Tinio in an essay from the 1960s.4 In fact, if his many poetic pronouncements that God is dead unless he is human are taken at their word, Villa interprets it in a highly unorthodox, not merely personal, manner. We don’t know how the poet came to think up his religious mythology, but the metaphysics behind it has affinities with the thought of the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. A former Marxist and a critic of Bolshevism, Berdyaev is sometimes discussed as a Christian existentialist. He writes:

Man penetrates into the meaning of the universe as into a larger man, into a mac-anthropos. And the universe enters into man, submitting to his creative effort, as into a small universe, a microcosm. Man and the cosmos measure their forces against each other, as equals. Knowing is a conflict between equal forces…

But in God there is a passionate and anguished longing for man. In God there is a tragic deficiency which is satisfied by the great gain of man’s birth in Him. The mystics taught the mystery of God’s birth in man. But there is another mystery, that of man’s birth in God.

An English translation of The Meaning of the Creative Act (1914), from which I have quoted, was only published in 1954, so Villa, who read widely, could not have been influenced by this book.5 But he may have come across translations of other works by the Russian thinker. God is irrelevant, Villa believed, except as the Divine Human. These apprehensions underpin his poetry. The poetry itself, however, despite its grand metaphysical armature, is narrow and obsessive. Villa’s poems accommodate experience only by assimilating it into allegory and symbol, and his interest in society and history – history with a small H – is anxiously constricted. The mystical Blake, one of Villa’s masters, wrote:

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appalls,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls …

but Villa felt the pressure to strip from his poetry any reference to the particulars of history and everyday life. The one specific reference to the Philippines in the Penguin Collected Poems is the place-name ‘Antipolo’, the ‘Bashful One preserved in the title of a poem in the collection Appassionata: Poems in Praise of Love (1979). This stripping of the altar was carried out in defiance against what I imagine was an American ethnicising condescension, which would deny his work any more than a parochial relevance because of the culture from which he came. (Jarrell’s gibe, unworthy of him, about Villa’s Southern accent invokes this condescension perhaps. The critic, a Southerner born in Tennessee, had somewhere further south in mind. The joke wasn’t the Filipino being Oriental, but his Hispanic way.) Villa saw the exclusion of empirical description as separating the poetic sheep from prosaic goats. (Jonathan Chu’sThe Critical Villa refers to the poet’s ‘erasure of nationality’as being related to what I mean, but neither necessary nor sufficient for the absence of observation in his poems.) The price of essentialising the poetic was repetition; again and again the poet re-arranges his verbal curios on the shelf, objects shiny or worn by age, perhaps returning one to the cabinet underneath and replacing it with a variant.

Villa stopped writing, as he himself said, so as not to repeat himself, but he stopped so early in his life because his language failed to change or expand to accommodate contingency, to assimilate into poetic thinking those particulars of a life that make it uniquely one’s own. The poetic strategy to which he was compelled was, I think, a reaction to condescension. He saw himself received as a savage in New York of the ‘30s and ‘40s:

With so much death I shone, I shone:
Many could not look at me
But thought such beauty savagery:
The lesser stooped to pick a stone.

And cast it at this Savage strange.
And cast it at my Light.
But none could dim my bright
That from Death was her pure exchange …6

The death with which he shone was his displacement, the loss of a history that others around him had no share in, a loss that stripped him naked. But to him his nakedness was beautiful. In his ‘desire to be nude’, to be ‘unsheathed’ like a knife, Villa rejected the ambition of much migrant and postcolonial expatriate writing – that urge to bring into public language the migrant’s everyday life and the history of subaltern communities. He rejected an ambition that granted too much value to recognition by others of similarity rather than uniqueness, of anything other than the poetic genius in which he believed. And thus turning his back to the migrant’s American Dream, that form of submission, he celebrated the self he discovered in his solitude as an expatriate, the ‘I’ that cannot discontinue itself – existing in America as it existed in the Philippines.

Of Villa’s intransigence, one side is admirable: his total indifference to the obligatory desire to be recognised as American. This side cleared a space for poetry. He was unlike his American contemporaries in this way, and unlike most modern poets in his preoccupation with religio-metaphysical symbolism. Villa is an irritant to our sense of the contemporary, and intriguing because he is. The other side of his intransigence, less admirable, is the rejection of Philippine history and its milieu, a reaction to condescension, as I have said, but also a disowning of his father. In Villa’s mythology, Christ Oppositor was the hero his father would never be. This side of Villa’s of intransigence restricted the space for poetry. It became impossible for Villa’s imagination to make use of the history that marked both his desire to escape it and his acquisition of the English language, his means of escape. (In contrast, Borges wrote from within Argentinian history, while preoccupied by the metaphysical.) The culture of the West is ours, yet not ours. In this fissure Villa’s problem is rooted. Vicente Rafael reminds us of a scene in Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere that Nick Joaquín had earlier described as a comic masterpiece: a chapter in which Fray Damaso gives a sermon half in Spanish and half in Tagalog on the day of the town fiesta.7 Half-listening, his audience keep nodding off, then snapping to a bemused attention; bits and pieces of the sermon – on the life of Blessed Diego of Alcala – stick like burrs to a schoolboy’s socks. We half-listened, evasively. We half-listen now, between wilful indifference and credulity, to the foreigner. This ambivalence towards the West affects even Villa. Despite his Self-glorification, the voice in which he speaks in much of his verse is a channelling of other poets, a linguistic impersonation.

In Have Come, Am Here, Emily Dickinson, Riding and E. E. Cummings are the spirits by which he lets himself be possessed, and many of the poems are written by his taking on the voice of one or other of these masters. In Volume Two and in the New Poems, Dylan Thomas is added to the list. When Villa gets away with this – surprisingly often – it is because, one: he makes the skull speak a content that is peculiarly Villa’s and, two: revolves the skull with a mild effrontery that disarms his audience – disarms me, anyway. Tinio begins his essay by remarking that the section in Selected Poems and New he found most rewarding was the set of ‘adaptations’ – verse composed from found prose, either trimmed or cut-up and re-arranged. These are the only poems of Villa’s that mention contemporary artefacts and events. The results are almost all elegant, Tinio writes, and because they are deceptively casual and more sympathetically modern than Villa’s other work. They are admirable, I agree. But I am made uneasy by the number of the adaptations from writers whose prose doesn’t need Villa’s help: a lot from the letters of Rilke, two from the notebooks of Simone Weil, two from Coleridge, one from an essay by Mallarme, others from Gide, Cocteau, and Sartre, and so on. An embarrassment of burrs. Evidence perhaps of having walked across the field striped with the shadows of palm columns to the beach, dreaming of cities beyond the sea.

  1. Villa, José García, Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Books, 2008), p.16.
  2. As he told Luis Francia. See Francia’s ‘Villanelles’ in The Anchored Angel: Selected Writings by José García Villa (New York: Kaya Press, 1999).
  3. Villa, José García, Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Books, 2008), p.88.
  4. In Manuud, Antonio G., Brown Heritage: Essays on Philippine Cultural Tradition and Literature (Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1967).
  5. The first quotation is from p. 58, the second from p. 121, of the translation by Donald A. Lowrie (New York: Collier Books, 1962).
  6. 82 in Villa, José García, Doveglion: Collected Poems (Penguin Books, 2008), p.49.
  7. See Rafael, Vicente, Contracting Colonialism: Tagalog and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1988), ‘Introduction’, pp. 1-22.The scene is in chap. 32 of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere.
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