Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews Asia Pacific Writing Series Books 1-4

2 June 2014

By comparison with the youthful Vietnamese writers of the third volume, the three Filipino poets in this fourth anthology are of a much older generation, and generally the pieces in-cluded are not recent work. Rolando S. Tinio (1937-1997) was a theatre director who wrote poetry in both English and Tagalog, and it is possible to see the influence of the theatre in the deft characterisation employed in works such as ‘The Granny’, ‘Song for the Dead’ and ‘Af-ternoon Coffee’. Scene-setting and the disposition of objects illustrate person and circum-stance, as Tinio uses observation to shape the poetic voice. Consider the beginning of ‘After-noon Coffee’:

As if she grew fat on the cold and hardship,
Ensconced under a cardboard pergola and rotten iron sheet,
Ripened by the noons,
Turned grey-haired by merciless dust,
For years she was in my view:
Companion of boiled peanuts, papaya and jackfruit
Blowflies, too fastidious, weren’t tempted by,
Like her always in season.
The tragic Downstairs is tender in its disposition of discarded objects:
The day before yesterday was the anniversary of her death:
Bashed by the Japanese, mistaken for someone else they say.
I fixed a padlock to the drawer
And crazily 
Slipped the key
Into a lotion bottle.

In contrast, poems originally written in Taglish (a mix of Tagalog and English) celebrate a disrupted linguistic surface, both in performance and on the page. ‘Postscript’, with the poet’s own English language lines set in italics, is an example:

your star-spangled ideas
You made us idiots
No match for you
			                 CRAZY MAN
			                  I get so furious
                                we were put through school
and come out silly
Because we’re out of touch (chua chua)
Because we’re out of touch (chua chua)

Making up this volume from the Philippines are Jose P. Lacaba (b1945) and Rio Alma (b.1944). Their work continues this series’ trend to surprise us with its selection of poets and an exciting range of subject and style. Lacaba’s verse, with its subtle social observation, in-cludes the refinement, indeed artifice, of the lyric. ‘Letter from father to son’ is particularly moving:

We talk about a lot of things,
trivial things,
yet never talk about
what’s close to the bone ...

Still I know
when I’m plastered
from beer and tequila, 
you’re ready to drive,

and you can be sure
when those aliens land,
it will be over my dead body
when and if they get you.

In contrast to Lacaba’s spare verse, Rio Alma’s poetry tends to follow the trajectory of the emotion generated by the poem. This might be a meditation on a particular state of being, as in ‘On Loneliness’, or as an evocation on the melancholy and tragedy of contemporary rural life – a theme he shares with Lưu Mêlan – as in ‘The Returning Herons’. His poetry appears to be pitched at performance, with subject and image moving together in tragic and communicative unison. Of the meditative poems, ‘On Suicide’ possesses a mordant iciness while ‘On Loneliness’, with its haunting imagery, inhabits the dwelling place of loneliness:

... Loneliness will make its appearance
In the form of a green enchantress
With a circumspect and kindly smile
And an armful of dreams for the gash in your heart.
It will sing to you and while singing
Alter scent and the colour of its dress.
Now ruby, now silver or copper, now emerald
Until you fall asleep with cobwebbed eyelids.
When you make it to the dream’s noonday, however,
Again it will pull apart the wound in your chest,
Rub lime juice and salt into it
Till it has grown black pearls.

These volumes give the reader a snippet of the enormously various subject and style to be found in contemporary poetry from the Asia-Pacific region. By not focusing on one style, one generation or one singular vision or point of view, this series from Vagabond Press effectively disperses any idea of a singular regional canon and embraces diversity and inclusivity. In this way, the series does what is, perhaps, the key function of anthology: it encourages the reader to look further; to seek out the many poets currently writing work that is worthy of close reading and critical engagement.

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About Jennifer Mackenzie

Jennifer Mackenzie is a poet and reviewer, focusing on writing from and about the Asian region. Her most recent work is Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge 2020) which she presented in 2023 at the Ubud Writers Festival and at the Mathrubhumi Festival of Literary Arts in Trivandrum.

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