Monday, May 01, 2006
While a few generations apart, American poet e. e. cummings and Filipino counterpart Paolo Manalo manifest in their literary works quaint English language use which may be dismissed as a mortal sin by grammatical standards. However, in cummings’ postmodern take at is 5 (New York: Liveright, 1996) and Manalo’s at Jolography (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2003), both were able to produce poetry whose agenda enabled the shattering of prevailing binaries of the universal/fragmented, truth/fallacy, elite/popular, conventional/postmodern, and colonial/postcolonial, all despite considerable lapses in grammar if only to crystallize the liberating context in which idioms, figures of speech, and language at-large were considered. The poems in question have identity (or lack thereof), in/significance of history and versions of truth for issues. Content analysis based on existing ideologies will provide the point of comparison for the poems under study.
First, there exists a similarity between cummings’ “this young question mark man” and Manalo’s “Yours, Etcetera”. The two poems have for a theme the failed assertion of one’s identity.
In the first piece, the persona refers to “this young question mark man” (line 1)—question mark being a punctuation that is always associated to openness to dispute, non-definitiveness, even doubt of existence. The reader is prodded into “question[ing] mark” (line 2) in order to ask him of his identity (yes, mark seems a play on word, a pun: it is the alluded guy’s name). Mark is only known for his sufferance “from/indigestion” (lines 3-4), a bodily process that shows incompleteness, a characteristic that extends up to M/mark’s personality. Mark, as knowing people “personally…tell” (line 7) the persona, “is a remarkably/charming person” (lines 5-6), but this account seems not enough for the author to recognize M/mark. Whereas many attempts are made to depict M/mark to the persona, at most “he’s a wet dream/by Cezanne” (lines 14-15). M/mark’s dream-like quality renders him too good to be identifiable or real and his Cezanne-like depiction manifests an identity that is tied up with a sweeping critique made on the French postimpressionist’s modern paintings: something that does not exist yet in time being, shrouded in mystery, an abstract.
The second piece’s first three lines present ways through which one may point out one’s existence, that one “[is] here” (line 6): tree etching (line 1), bathroom graffiti (line 2), meetings on the sidewalk whether or not it is the first chance at getting acquainted with another person (line 3). In all manners, one may give “a name,…a number/…[i]maginary or otherwise” (lines 4-5) as long as this opens up an opportunity at identifying oneself. In the Philippine context, certain people need the reassurance that they “are here” (line 7): they etch their name on trees, scribble their name onto public washroom walls, or, during chance encounters, mention their name to their new acquaintance.
However, the failure comes by the very purpose of mentioning one’s name: the necessity to be sure. In the olden times, it was believed that telling someone your name, which was deemed sacred, spelt your consequent submission to that person. Does the heedless tree etching or bathroom scribbling of “I am here” or “_____ was here” mean one fears a lost identity so one needs to reassure oneself of one’s existence that exact moment? What does this tell of one’s giving away his name only to be consequently overpowered by another individual? The last four lines are telling: in the bureaucracy, the same thing happens—“many forms [are filled] out/before [one] fill[s] in” (lines 9-10). One legitimizes one’s existence only when he gets acknowledged through his name. One’s identity is reduced to the squiggles of the ballpoint pen or marker or knife.
Second, there exists a resemblance between cummings’ “my sweet etcetera” and Manalo’s “Pusher.” Both poems have for a theme the reduction of history’s significance.
In the first piece, the persona is surrounded by his immediate family—aunt lucy (line 2), sister isabel (line 7), mother (13) and father (line 15)—whose very presence and words remind him of the greatness of participating in a national affair, say defending one’s country at war (lines 3-6) or making comforters (lines 8-12) for such defenders. His “mother hoped that/[he] would die…/bravely” (lines 13-15 in such an interesting time for one’s nation, like his father who will take the “privilege” (line 17) of becoming a soldier “if only he/could” (lines 17-18). This historically significant event is lost on the persona because all the while, he was stupidly daydreaming of his beloved (lines 22-26). What is more, he dismisses such a national affair’s importance by interspersing the word “etcetera” nonsensically along the lines. He downgrades history and chooses to channel patriotic love into romantic love.
The second piece, in its commentary on the decadent state of Philippine education, sweeps into the denigration of history by virtue of highlighting its facts (lines 19-21) and in the process neglecting the implications of such. The mention of [Gregorio] Zaide (line 14)—a Filipino historiographer reputed to have written in the colonialist’s perspective instead of the native’s—affirms the doom in which Philippine education languishes. The lack of memories (line 22) or, in essence, of history, instituted the need for students to engage “only [in] memorizings” (line 22) in the misguided belief that being bookish renders them “ready for the world” (line 17) and that family or friendly connections (lines 5-8, lines 10-13) will work for them in “a country/where for giveness” (lines 3-4) may be had, as long as one can give (or maglagay/bribe). In loving the loser (line 1; one example is, the one who takes history’s significance for granted), one “spell[s]/Disaster” (lines 9-10).
Finally, cummings’ “’next to of course god America i” and Manalo’s “Colorum” are comparable in their thematic rendition of version of truth.
In the first piece, the speaker articulates his patriotism, that he loves this “land of the pilgrims’” (line 2) and then proceeds to rave about america’s sons’ “acclaim[ing] [its] glorious name” (line 7) across centuries of colorful history before it turned into a very powerful imperial nation, following its colonial mother, Great Britain. Practically everyone talks about america’s beauty (line 9) even the handicapped (line 6) but to the speaker, there is nothing more beautiful than those who gallantly fought for the country (lines 9-12) just so they may enjoy the “voice of liberty” (line 13). This version of truth is all the speaker wants to articulate for all time because even as “[h]e spoke[,]…[he] drank rapidly a glass of water” (line 14) in order not to stop raving about this beautiful america he loves. The time in which the poem appeared, the United States is gaining ground to become the superpower that it is today.
The second piece has a marginalized person, most probably a native for a speaker. He possesses “[t]he truth—light that fills me light…” (line 3) by virtue of having been allowed to see through the light despite the totalizing efforts of the privileged to dismiss him as a colorum or, in Filipino parlance, an illegitimate. He proceeds to mention “Bagumbayan. Aritao. Maragondon” (line 9)—the places where famous “colorums” like national hero Jose Rizal, the popular movement Cofradia de San Jose and great Katipunero Andres Bonifacio were all martyred. The colorum will not take demonizing against him sitting down,if only to liberate himself: he will not be bullet-riddled (lines 10-12) in the facedown manner all traitors die, nor give up his faith despite its being hanged/suspended (lines15-16) by the “legitimate.” The poem ends in an Amen (I believe), Cofradia-style, the last three syllables of which call to mind the name in which they were tagged.
It is noteworthy that in postmodern times, individuals are being liberated when they become their own person, someone not necessarily associated with an institution just to have an identity, someone whose assertion of identity will not fail unlike the addresses of the first pair of poems compared. Meanwhile, the postcolonial issue of retracing one’s significant history and reclaiming one’s truth, once resolved, will likewise bring about liberation; otherwise, one continues to be incarcerated in a colonial hegemony. The poem samples above which tackled such themes ruptured binaries to create poetry of liberation.