Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Tita Lacambra-Ayala is a poet who gets her inspiration from anything that she experiences, be it the environment, people, relationships, a trip out of town, or even Haagen Dazs ice cream. The word that we should take note of is “experience.” All writers, whether of fiction or poetry, are in certain degrees moved by the things that indeed transpired in their lives. As for the poet in focus, she only writes about things that she knows. The knowledge about things can be mined to fullness in the arts, as poets like Tita Lacambra-Ayala do. “One can write, strongly, clearly and comfortably on what is familiar, close and which you can feel.” (qtd. in Elizaga). This is precisely why she writes (and even paints) about nature and the domestic life. Living in Davao and encountering nature every single day, she is able to write several poems about the beauty and danger of the environment that surrounds her. Such qualities of nature were captured, for instance, in the poem Cactus, a poem chosen by no less than Philippine National Artist Jose Garcia Villa for inclusion in the landmark A Doveglion Book of Philippine Poetry. Being a mother of six children, she is also able to write about the everyday experiences of the youth, of domestic life, and of women. Apparently, she has lots of things to write about motherhood, being the mother of no less than performing artists Joey Ayala and Cynthia Alexander. All of these may be seen in several of her poems. They are a recurring theme in her poetry such that she knows the subject like the back of her hand. Change is a tricky subject to write, yet in Tita Lacambra Ayala’s poetry, it is seamlessly sewn in the poem’s fabric. This is a testament to her deft recognition of her poems' central concern: even change becomes a familiar subject to her. A touch of wittiness in her words brings about power yet subtlety in her poems, and this is what we will see in these five poems.
As revealed in the title, the focus of this poem is the cactus and the poem provides us a clear picture of the cactus and its situation. There is no mention of any other form of life in the poem. The cactus stands alone in a lake sand under the sun. Its characteristics were described as well. The thorns were thoroughly illustrated in the first stanza, as more exotic words were used. The second to the last stanza also states that the cactus is green, particularly “freshly green”, and it is even “juicy”. The whole imagery of the poem paints a vivid picture of the cactus and its surroundings.
The first thing that the speaker described is the thorns sticking out of the cactus’ body. Notice the manner of describing. The speaker tries to make us “understand” the situation that the cactus is in, by entreating us to pardon the cactus for its thorns. Also, notice the words used to describe the thorns (excuse, quills, attempt, and self-defense). The word choice was important at bringing about sympathy from the readers.
Observe the change in the choice of words for the second stanza. The words bleed, old, and fossil connote death. Instead of drawing sympathy from the readers, we are made to think that the cactus is of no use (we will notice later that this was refuted by the third stanza, as it says that the cactus is “not quite futile”).
The speaker’s choice of words for the fourth stanza makes her sound amazed about the ability of the cactus to live in a desert without any form of nutrition except for the sun. By adding side comments in parentheses, the astonishment of the speaker is further highlighted.
The speaker used “as if” in the last two lines. The catch of the poem in the last stanza is emphasized because of the repetition of words. Again, word choice and word order (having “as if” as the first two words of the two lines) create a different impact on the readers.
With the help of imagery and diction, the tone of the poem was further emphasized. We may actually notice that the stanzas were divided into the different tones in the poem. For every stanza, a prominent tone is seen, different from the tones of the previous stanzas.
There is a certain tone of politeness and pleading in the first stanza, again with the intention of grabbing sympathy from its readers. In the second stanza, the transition from a tone of pleading to a tone of melancholy surprises us. This shift in tone is like the act of self-defense, as if the speaker is trying to cover up the “guilt” of the cactus having thorns by mentioning its sad state. Another shift in tone occurs in the third stanza. After trying to convince us of the cactus’ unfavorable state, it tells us that the cactus is not that pointless. The tone of admiration in the fourth stanza surprises us, since we would not expect praises after signs of weakness, such as the thorns and fossil-like appearance. We can picture the speaker giving out a sigh if the last stanza was read aloud. The speaker feels that the cactus just tries to “deceive” by assuming superiority over the land, by being able to survive in spite of the desolate land it is in, even if in truth it does not live for anything else but just the barren desert.
However, the poem revolves mainly around irony.
The speaker uses “quills” to describe the thorns protruding from the cactus. This is ironic since the word “quills” is usually pictured as exquisite and gentle, while in reality thorns can prickle our skin and can hurt us easily. This irony was made to draw the attention of the readers, as it is also an attempt to draw sympathy from them. Again, this is ironic since no sympathy is needed. The cactus thrives in barren deserts where other creatures cannot. By using the word “excuse”, we can deduce that the speaker knows of the cactus’ thorns being undesirable.
By comparing the cactus to a fussy fossil, the comparison becomes ironic. A cactus is green and plump, and it would be very unlikely for anyone to compare it to a fossil—something dead and brittle. Because of this comparison, we realize that the speaker is dropping hints: the cactus is not exactly as hale and hearty as it seems to be.
The stanzas after the eleventh line are supposed to prove how the cactus is not so futile. However, we realize that that stanza did not prove anything about the cactus being beneficial to its surroundings. That long stanza only describes how the cactus can manage to survive on its own in a desert that has only “sun” and “sand”. This line was placed in the poem but there was no proof for it, making its presence ironic.
As the speaker personifies the cactus, we see irony in the lines “as if inspite of/ as if in fun.” After describing the cactus as strong and thriving, the tone of the speaker suddenly shifts as these lines conclude the poem. By creating this irony, more emphasis is given to the message implied by these last two lines. Contrary to the picture created by the poem in the second to the last stanza, we are told that it is still not “fun” to be in the desert even if the cactus is in good condition.
“Home is Where”
The long “I” sound in “wide” and “mind” in line 2, when pronounced, is always prolonged. This long sound gives us a sense of vastness, just as it describes love as wide as mind.
The very basic words “of”, “lost”, and “on” placed in one line to create assonance simply add beauty to the poem, and creates a smoother flow of the poem.
The two words, “feathers” and “bird”, can be very much associated to one another. This similarity of sounds in the middle creates an even closer relationship between the two words as it links not only their meanings, but also their sound.
We find two different sounds of one letter (I) in one line. The four words “binds”, “like”, “in”, and “skin” with two different “I” sounds are arranged alternately for playfulness and continuity to the line.
Even if the assonance of the poem may be detailed, this poem uses simple vocabulary. This is very appropriate because the poem is about the home, and at home no extravagance is needed. The home accepts you simply for who you are, without pretenses. However, there is one word that is not as elementary, since this word is needed for its message to be seen.
Of all the words to describe the situation, the speaker uses the word “illusion” and not fantasy or deception. After reading the subsequent lines of the second stanza, we realize that illusion should be used because indeed, an illusion is simply a mistaken idea, whereas fantasy is something that is not possible and deception is act of fooling. Illusion is the word most suited for this line.
Aside from the simple language used, there is a word order present in the poem. Each stanza aims to continue the “incomplete” title. Home is where—then what? Each stanza answers the title by giving its own visual interpretation of what a home is like.
The strength of the poem’s word order is complemented by the images provided. There is intensity in the first stanza as it provides us with strong statements. By having this stanza ahead of the other two, the speaker draws the emotion of passion from her readers at the very start of the poem. The imagery she used in this stanza shows the vastness and power of the love we experience at home, while it is from the imagery used that the similes are created to precisely show the extent of the lines.
The speaker of the poem emphasizes that it is at home where we experience love like no other. By using “quick” to describe love, we are immediately taken by the “quick” appearance of this word in the poem. As the speaker compares quick love to the mind, she is trying to say that love at home has no boundaries, just as the mind is free to explore.
These third and fourth lines are very powerful. It provides us with a concrete image of boats being sucked in by the sea. This imagery strengthens the description of love we experience at home. It is saying that this love is unconditional, as it “drowns” all the boats that are in it, so the home fills with love all those who occupy it and does not choose.
We notice that the next stanza’s imagery shifts from an intense picture to a fragile and delicate one. A bird that has not learned to fly is still young. It is only time that will give it the opportunity to have more feathers so that it can fly. Similarly, this imagery suggests that home is where we start and learn to build our dreams, so that when it is time for us to leave our homes and “fly”, we are already more capable of achieving these goals. As we are compared to the weak bird, we notice the importance of the home and its role in our formation.
The last stanza gives us a picture of safety and assurance. The imagery provided makes us visualize home as a safe haven. Having it bound to us like skin suggests that we will always feel safe in the boundaries of home, and that anywhere we go, we can still feel home is near. The last two lines feature nature. Just as home serves as our sanctuary, it is a place that we can always go back to, as naturally as flowers and green sepals. The speaker also used the image of a flower to describe the person because she is showing that we are delicate and that the green sepals (our homes) will protect us from being hurt.
“Poem for Veronica Grown Older”
As the speaker described what they used to do with Veronica, we are able to picture the two old friends that used to have the time of their lives by doing the most superficial things. The imagery produced by the words “bare feet, hair unset and de-banged” gives us a carefree feeling. By describing the scenery—roadless mushrooms, singing trees, and rusty trunk), we can imagine them being unconscious and unmindful of the people surrounding them, simply enjoying what they were doing.
There was no formality in the way the speaker addressed Veronica. She used conversational words in the poem, and we find out from line 8 to the last line that Veronica was the speaker’s childhood friend. They used to be very carefree and they actually shared their personal lives with one another. Evidence of this can be found in lines 8 to 12 and lines 15 to 16. This is why she was able to address Veronica very casually, using simple words that they both can understand. The choice of words (scented letters, mildewed diaries, and bandanna) also showed the close relationship they had before.
The words in the poem formed sentences, but the stanzas were not formed sentence by sentence. In fact, the sentences were cut irregularly. We see that it looks like it was written in a notebook, and that when the speaker reached the end of a line in the notebook, she would continue the rest of her sentence in the next line, and then the next again, and so on. This makes the poem look like a journal or diary entry.
The tone of the speaker also makes us conclude that the speaker is older than Veronica. It was emphasized that they were “like unpaired shoes worn by one pair of feet”, and by this she meant that the generation gap was not a problem when they were young but has become a problem now that they are adults already. The last line of the poem shows us that she is disturbed by how they drifted apart. The experiences that they had were very different, and this is largely due to the generation gap that they have.
Overall, there is an underlying tone of sadness and yearning. The speaker is sad that Veronica has outgrown the simplest things that used to make them happy, and their being carefree. Veronica is attached to the norms created by society, wherein women have to go to beauty parlors and dress up. The speaker is left behind to recall their happy moments together. She misses the old times they had together and actually wished that Veronica would look back on those times. The speaker continues to hope that Veronica will recall the memories that they had together. However, the speaker knows that it would be nearly impossible for this to happen.
We see this from the vivid description of Veronica, how she was before, and how she is now. She was once a very sweet and expressive girl, happy with every smile she saw and heartbroken with every sadness. However, she changed as she put more importance on her physical appearance, going to the beauty parlor and caring only for what she looks like.
We are given a vivid description of the dragon in the poem. With the conversation between the dragon and the speaker, we find out a lot about their personalities. We are also given a detailed picture of what is happening in the poem.
However, we do not see any description about the speaker of the poem. This is because happenings in the poem are told from the speaker’s point of view (a first person point of view). The only part of the poem that can give us details on the speaker is the answer she gives to the dragon. From these lines, we can deduce that she is a domestic woman, a wife with children.
The dragon is sitting in the basket chair, curling its tail, and smoking. His actions are also described. He tells the speaker to lower the volume of the radio, puffs out smoke, flexes his toe, and then begins talking. From this description, we know that the dragon is not literal and that it must be a representation of a man.
We are made to wonder why of all the representations the speaker could give to the man, she used the dragon. He offers to bring her to a place that she would surely enjoy, but then she calls him a dragon. We will be able to understand all this when we read the whole poem.
A dragon is a kind of monster. Ever since the olden times, people consider a dragon to be dangerous, since it can breathe fire and destroy things in a matter of seconds.
This is how the speaker sees the man to be. Through his speaking lines, we are able to paint a picture of his character. He tempts the speaker to leave her household duties for the pleasures that he would give her. He tries to convince her to go to some beautiful place with him. The words he used to describe the place make it very inviting and convincing.
The woman is of course tempted to join him, since the offer is very attractive and she is obviously tired from her duties at home. She wants a life different from what she has. However, she declines the invitation because she knows that her obligations are more important than the temporary pleasures the man can give her. Her way of answering the man makes us realize that she knows her priorities.
We can also see the contrast of the two characters in this poem. The man is seated comfortably in the chair, and is smoking lazily, puffing smoke as he observes the woman. He does not think of the obligations the woman has towards her home, but thinks only about what he wants. The man is selfish and apathetic towards her. On the other hand, the speaker is a stressed domestic woman burdened by the chores she has at home. The man is carefree and selfish because he just wants to satisfy his own pleasures, but the woman sacrifices her own desires and comfort for her home.
“The Flowers of Youth”
The whole poem gives us three kinds of images, separated by stanza. First is an imagery of nature, dying and withering. Second is of things collapsing and shattering. The third and last stanza provides an imagery of the act of mailing a letter. We shall go through these images one by one so as to be able to visualize the poem better.
The image of a young flower is provided in the title. We read the title of the poem and assume the poem will talk about a beautiful blooming flower. However, the first line of the first stanza immediately changes our impression of the poem as it gives a disturbing picture of a young flower wilting. The following lines even mention of buds not blooming, and of leaves falling. It is an unpleasing picture, and moreover there is a hint of irony. The adding of “of youth” to the title but associating it with wilting—gives the readers an unexpected change in the mental picture of the poem.
Personification is present in the second stanza, which emphasizes about loss of bearing in a bridge. The pieces of wood that make it up are split into pieces. They are “caught” by the rivers, and they are left to float and be carried by the current. This stanza mentions having the splintered wood like the boats drifting, only that we know boats always have a direction while the splintered wood doesn’t.
The first four lines of the third stanza provide us a break from imagery as abstract concepts like strength, weakness, memory, and time (hours) are mentioned; however, the last four lines have a very clear imagery—a small photograph like that of a stamp is on an important letter and is mailed far away. By showing a set of abstract concepts at the start of this stanza, and then shifting to a very concrete image of the act of mailing, there is a stress created on this action.
The “flowers of youth” do not only serve as an image. In fact, more than that, it serves as a symbolism not just of young girls, but of adolescents in general. A familiar theme of aging is de-familiarized by Tita Lacambra-Ayala by associating it to very almost completely unrelated images. Flowers of youth being linked to aging, the collapsing of the bridge personified, and the act of mailing as a symbolism for growing up are unusual and unexpected.
These young people are delicate, innocent, and carefree beings. They do not realize how fast time passes. Their unrealistic hopes and dreams soon decay, and this is when they realize that life is not a bed of roses. From having an idealistic view of life, these young people live just a little longer to become conscious of the challenges they have to go through to be able to achieve their goals, and they then realize that they have to face the harsh realities of growing up, and eventually, of adulthood.
Nature in the first two stanzas shows easiness, however, the last stanza provides a formality and sense of maturity as it talks about abstract concepts and sending of mail. Abstract concepts can be linked to the complicated philosophy of the real world, while the act of mailing represents the business world.
Notice that assonance was very helpful in bringing out the symbolism of this poem. The assonance is obvious and abundant in the first two stanzas (brown and around; grow, no, and unfold; their and bearings; float, so, and boats), but purposely omitted in the last stanza. The speaker provides a little playfulness in the start, as the poem shows a transition from adolescence to adulthood. By the time we reach the last stanza, we find no more trace of the playfulness of assonance. The finality of the last stanza and the omission of assonance create an impact on the message of the poem, and this is that young people will inevitably have to face the difficulties of adulthood.
These five poems of Tita Lacambra-Ayala speak about nature, life and realities for survival. With the organic characteristic of nature, indeed there is a time to live, and a time to die. The poems exuded this natural cycle of beginnings and ends and everything in between, with the poet using powerful imagery that point to nature as inherently recurrent—it dies, only to live. As a set, it speaks of its different aspects and phases of life. Nature may be organic, but it really depends on its capacity to survive to prolong its life, or the lack thereof to cut this life short. Also, these poems give a glimpse of core Filipino values and characteristics—that of love for the family, the important role of a home in preparing the young in its quest for independence, the realities of friendship, adaptability, survival skills, and self-sacrificing characteristics of Filipinos. These Filipino themes run Tita Lacambra-Ayala's poems because this is the way the West's Other may write back to the mainstream. It is already enough to use a colonial language for the poet to communicate her experience creatively and in her unique worldview; she feels it is her duty, through her passion for poetry writing, to convey the Filipino experience the way Filipinos understand themselves. It is, in a certain way, a reconstruction of the Filipino identity fragmentized by cyclical and violent colonization of the Other's Other.
In the poem “Cactus,” the author was actually talking about nature and its struggles of survival. It is being fertile amid the bareness of the sand and the mercilessness of the scorching sand, but that is more of an allegory for life. No matter where we are placed, we should know how to “live” by adapting to the environment and becoming useful, although doing so requires us to defend ourselves to survive. “Home is Where” depicts the reality of a home. It is where love is, where dreams are formed, and where we feel safe, so that when we are ready to fly, we can. The home is always there to welcome us anytime. As for the “Poem for Veronica Grown Older”, it speaks of a childhood friendship gone cold as the two characters matured differently, lived life differently, and had different priorities as compared to the simple joys and activities they both used to enjoyed. This again is a reality of friendships and of human nature. “The Flowers of Youth” speaks about the fleeting moments of youth. It is just another phase in life, an aspect of human life, a period of transition as we mature physically and emotionally. The lure of carefree domestic life in “Dragon” contrasts and conflicts with a young wife’s domestic troubles as opposed to a man’s less complicated life of not having to worry about kids as much as women do. This also personifies the opportunities and temptations in life. We need to make decisions that are difficult to arrive at, as it is about survival, choosing priorities, our wants (like a grand beach holiday), vis a vis our roles and responsibilities in life. In the end, it is the moral foundations and the convictions we have that guide us as we make our strong-willed decision of what we stand for.
All these poems and the themes they communicate are a testimony of the genius that Tita Lacambra-Ayala is. She may not be as well known as the major poets of the Philippine canon, partly because of her marginalized gender and the minoritized location of Philippine poems in English in the English-speaking Literary world. Nevertheless, the sincerity of her poetic reconstruction of human experience and her truthful rendition of the Filipino sensibility capture images of life in a refreshing manner. Her emotional strength capitalizes on her capacity to show worlds in miniature, and five examples of such worlds are found no less in her five poems.