Tuesday, April 03, 2007
Federico Licsi Espino’s “Manila” presents an interesting, hurting metaphor of the country’s premier city as a hermit crab. Written in 1965 when the sixth Philippine president just inherited a twenty-year-old independent but relatively impoverished nation, “Manila” uses the crustacean comparison to show how certain inevitable factors bring disastrous effects to an otherwise pitiable creature.
First, the speaker locates the crab “beside the tides of times” (1), not moving with the tides which means it moves along with or is carried along by the tides of progress, or moving against the tides which means it defies the current mainstream if only to secure its identity. There is no movement whatsoever—just the preposition “beside”—and the suggested stagnation means the crab is helplessly assigned to the margins whereas the tides of change are raging according to the requirements of the times. In the same vein, Manila is immobile and is set aside because at the time of the poem’s writing, two decades have passed but no real development was brought about by the colonial independence.
The “traces” of the crab’s “former homes” (2) refer to the old animals’ shells which the crab uses to protect its rather soft body and which render on the growing crab enduring marks that not even a larger home-shell can erase. The additional description of these shells as ones “of foreign cultures” (3) completes the reason for the lasting marks: the colonial experiences are still recognizable long after one colonial master after another has been dispensed with for a safer home—a stronger mother country—to depend on. The “slime” (3) is but another description of the colonial experiences: it is thick, sticky and disgusting, as befits colonial experiences that are relatively great in extent, painful and offensive to the colony.
The crab’s inability to find food (6) is a regular happening in the crab’s daily existence: there is no unlimited source for both shelter and food so crabs often resort to rioting for what scarce resources are available if only to survive. In Manila, the same thing occurs: with the limited resources after having experienced depleting colonization, people have to struggle for a living, with struggles against each other being highly probable.
The mocking cry of the seagull (7, 9) is a ridiculous reference to the recurring fate of the crab being unable to find food. However hard the crab tries to find food and however hungry it gets, the fact that there is a scarcity of resources will never be changed. As a result of colonization, Manila’s resources are depleted and its independence becomes dysfunctional, and much like the crab, no amount of persistence or hunger can alter the fact that resources will always remain lacking.
The allusion to Filipino poet Nick Joaquin (epigraph) means the crab, being foodless, can literally and figuratively bite the dust: literally because all that is left for the crab to eat is dust, and figuratively because its debility in both movement and foodhunting has left it biting the dust of, say, the mocking seagull. This experience is not unfamiliar in Manila: all that is left to eat is no more than the value of dust, and Manila’s stagnation has left it biting the dust of the colonial masters that made off with Manila’s wealth. Meanwhile, the allusion to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (11) means the “sidewise movement of the hermit crab” (10) is neither advancing nor retreating, hence undeveloped in terms of mobility. By comparison, Manila moves sideways, too; its failure to move forward is fatal to the much-needed realization of progress, while its failure to move backward is fatal to the retracing of history that is crucial in preventing the past mistakes from being committed in the future.
The crab’s "creeping, crabbing" movement along with "all its tragic flaws" (14) is a mockery of the sideways (thus, unprogressive) mobility of the crab that is the very tragedy of its inherent characteristic. It is nature’s doing that the crab should crawl sidewise but the crab suffers this natural fault. In the same way, Manila is criticized for its slow progress that is not wholly its own doing but mostly due to its colonial experience. Colonization rendered Manila’s creeping way to progress, but now that it is independent, this predicament seems to be Manila’s own fault.
Owing to the lamentable condition of the poem’s central image, “Manila’s” tone is sympathetic. Details suggesting the compassion being invoked in the poem include the crab “bear[ing] the traces” (2) of its past, “look[ing] for food” yet “finds nothing” (4, 6), hearing the mocking shriek of the seagull (7-9), and “crabbing with all its tragic flaws” (14). All these details show instances in the crab’s existence; they arouse pity because despite the hardships the crab puts up with, difficulties do not let up, to think that the crab’s persistence does not deserve being repaid with mockery.
Regarding the poem’s structure, Espino chose the conventional sonnet form to depict a modern subject to go with the poem’s point that the attempt to live out of context—just as the crab moves sidewise when it merits to move forward or backward and as the crab bears its natural flaws—results in tension. This tension between tradition and modernity mirrors the contrast of abiding the old ways in the face of modernity and of tolerating natural flaws in the face of capitalizing on these disguised opportunities, i.e. learning from colonial experience to achieve a semblance of progress.
Regarding the poem’s substance, the hermit crab’s central image invokes ideas such as crab mentality, a flaw said to be characteristic of Filipinos, and crabbing, which is synonymous to criticizing, complaining and ill temper. Crab mentality is a metaphorical reference to a crab trying to spill out of a container full of other crabs that, wishing to follow suit, drag the climbing crab back into the container, in such a way that no crab gets to escape because of the eternal pulling down. This rather short-sighted notion that is made an alibi for the lingering poverty in the country (instead of helping one another toward moving ahead, Filipinos allegedly pull down each other) appeals to the emotion for the much-needed positive change. Instead of opportunism, the crabs that we are must work as a team in order to facilitate development. On the other hand, crabbing, with apologies to the crab, is an image-bashing. Just because the crab has a pair of claws that it uses to protect itself from danger and to help break down its food, it is already unfairly associated to the crab’s capacity to pinch and hurt. Pain, of course, finds familiar domain in criticism, complaints and bad temper. This unjust portrayal of the crab appeals to the emotion that humans project to animals their own faults. With the divisiveness that generates poverty and related issues like starvation, unemployment and illiteracy, the right crab mentality should be to pull one another over the container’s side in order to escape the crisis. The difficulty of fending for oneself only to emerge empty-handed is an everyday reality for Filipinos; “Manila” should remind the well-heeled among us to help and support the needy. Anyway, the crabs that we are inhabit a commonly shared shore.
 Espino, Federico Licsi. “Manila,” A Native Clearing, ed. Gemino H. Abad (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1993).