Delivered at De La Salle University, 20 March 2006
I have to give thanks to Dr. Marjorie Evasco, Marj to us who consider ourselves her goodfriends, for this chance to look again, with fascination and some trepidation, at the poetry of Dr. Cirilio F. Bautista. Cirilo, to us, too, and Toti, if we may presume a bit, as when another goodfriend, Felix Fojas—when he and I were still working in advertising and he hadn’t yet made one of his latest migrations—would call us for a lunch in one of the Chinese restaurants at Makati Cinema Square because Cirilo Bautista was paying us a visit, and I would have one of those rare occasions for a tete-a-tete with one of my idols. (The lunch would invariably lead to postprandial beer that would last the whole afternoon.)
I am not embarrassed to use that word, idol, knowing how informal and trivialized it has become in street usage, but, well, I have always been—a fan. But may be that kind of “easy” relationship with a poet one holds in high esteem, especially from another (relatively) younger poet, somehow ends when the latter is requested to make a formal reaction to a “serious” academic document such as a festschrift. I couldn’t refuse Marj when she approached me recently after a poetry reading at Alliance Francaise. It was a good chance to articulate my thoughts on a poet both of us admire and respect, but I never knew how unprepared I was for this assignment until I started looking for my favorite Cirilo Bautista poems. I wanted to immerse myself once more in his works. I wanted to re-read “Lascaux” with its own Platonic reading of magical primitive art, and that one about the Duke of Amalfi (or was it Bautista’s double) claiming possession, or at least the fiefdom of memory, over the breathtaking seascape off Capri. I couldn’t find in the jumble of my small library any copy of Boneyard Breaking, and I seemed to have lost my college copy of The Archipelago, a prized gift from an English teacher back in Divine Word College in Legazpi City, who thought I could use further poetic education upon seeing my first inchoate attempts at poetic expression. I wanted to go beyond a fragment of its first line—“the Portuguese wine bowl of Ior”—which is all that remains in my head but which sent me into a heady exploration of Cirilo Bautista’s epic vision of Philippine history. To my further dismay, I also found out I never acquired the middle volume of Dr. Gemino Abad’s landmark anthology composed of Man of Earth, A Native Clearing, and A Habit of Shores. A fair sampling of Cirilo Bautista’s poetry could have been had in that middle volume. I was flabbergasted. I was in a quandary. Alas, despite my protestations, I had been neglecting to read a pillar of Philippine poetry!
But of course there was Marj’s “A Lyric Sense of History” on hand, but I felt I had to have my own collection of sample and reference poems to adequately equip myself for a basically competent reading and reaction to a reading.
My first recourse was to reassemble “Ars Poetica” from Marj’s quoted segments into the original form that I could read in its wholeness. In the process I was also assembling or re-assembling my thoughts as I remember them when I first read it, from the unforgettable wizened figure of Robert Frost I saw perhaps in photo in Life magazine, and the impertinent remarks of the events team that sounded very much like the types I worked with in advertising. I had to take a cue from Marj’s most useful technical descriptions as to the number of lines and stanzas. But beyond that Marj’s guidance took me across the distinct textures and tonal registers of the voices of Galway Kinnel and Cirilo Bautista, into a meditation on the art of poetry as ineffable as the visitation from a “sonofabitch kitty” that came from nowhere to offer the poet its arbitrary, unconditional love. I did the same for “Bonifacio in a Prospect of Bones.” I was encountering the poem for the first time, and it was revealing itself to me stanza by stanza. I was familiar with the device well-used by Browning, but Bautista’s speaking in the voice of Bonifacio, and rendering perhaps in his own inimitable diction the kind of exalted Tagalog that Bonifacio used in “Ang Dapat Mabatid…” rendered me, in turn, as speechless.
The second recourse I kept postponing, owing to my lingering distrust for technology. But like the unrepentant convert that I am, I gave in and started to scour the Internet. As usual, Ian Casocot’s website, A Critical Survey of Philippine Literature, came to the rescue. Thus I compiled my own samples of Cirilio Bautista’s more recent lyric poems and preserved them in my own electronic files, available by folder and drop-down menu. I had rescued, by substitution, my lost favorite Bautista poems from the jumble of oblivion in my small library. But this was all leading to some sort of a further revelation. I opened the Cirilo Bautista website and (re-)discovered the poem “Addressed to Himself.” By glitch or design, I couldn’t download or copy and paste it on my own files. Then I found myself retyping line by line into my computer its terza rima stanzas. And it dawned on me that I had become like Borges’ “The Man who Wrote Don Quixote.” I wasn’t just reading and re-reading, but writing, Cirilo Bautista.
It was only then I could go back to Dr. Marjorie Evasco’s “A Lyric Sense of History.”
In Borges’s “El Hacedor” or “The Maker,” we encounter a man who is slowly going blind. In Borges’s manner of assembling and cataloguing detail after intriguing detail, item after item of cross-cultural knowledge and minutiae that would send the close reader into a frenzy of research, we find that this man, who has never “enjoyed the pleasure of memory” is precisely that way because he is an active inhabitant and consumer of the visible world overflowing with these, as we call them now, Borgesian details.
But his imminent blindness is erasing his “beautiful universe.” It is driving him into memory. It is this descent into memory that makes him once more into a creator, a Maker. Whether he likes it or not, he is visited by two memories: an insult he receives as a boy, and the bronze dagger his father gives him to redress it, and the memory of the first woman that the gods assigned him, whom he seeks along “corridors that were like nets of stone and on ramps that plunged into shadow.” We are never told if the insult is redressed or if he ever finds the woman, except that these memories returned “without bitterness” and that Ares and Aphrodite, love and risk, await him in his descent into shadow.
Some great men of art, at the height of their powers, are given tragedies that precisely undermine those powers: Beethoven going deaf before completing his 9th Symphony, Borges himself going blind even as he heads the National Library. We are fortunate that the poet Cirilo Bautista has all his senses intact. Our misfortune, I like to think, is that we are a society going blind, and the poets, the Makers in our midst, like Cirilo Bautista, are hard put, are falling into despair over our descent into shadow. And yet it is this despair that leads the poet to “reconfiguring the elements of reality into an ever-fresh world… the reconstruction of human values in a gaudy and duplicitous environment.”
Again, in the imminent blindness of our society, where awe and intrigue are not reserved for the beautiful universe or for the engendering of knowledge and meaning, but for the paltry concerns of commerce and wealth-building that leave others hungry and destitute, we need the creative impulse that drives poetry and art. Ah, that is music to the ears of poets and artists but perhaps we need all we can muster that will remind us of our basic humanity. And this, despite the claims of merchants and bureaucrats, is the concern not just of poets.
I have always thought that the poetry of Cirilo Buatista never strayed from history. The characters that populate his poems—Rizal, Bonifacio, Pugo, Henry Miller, Charlie Chaplin, other poets and artists—are the people of my history, my reality. In fact in each of his poems, I like to think, with the strictures of the sonnet, the self-imposed precision of the rhymed stanza, or the “glory and hexameters” (Borges) and the sustained prosody of the epic—he is constantly dwelling in and remaking historical (and contemporary) reality.
A particular example from the reading of Dr. Marj Evasco comes to mind. Comparing the two versions of “Athens, Ohio, One Winter Night,” Dr. Evasco traces the transformation of the poem from a 17-line first version to a 70-line one, and in the process treating on her subject’s techniques of composition. This section, to my mind, is a really astute exposition on the interior drama that takes place in the persona who overhears a lover’s quarrel in the dead of winter. The ensuing ferment in the persona’s mind—its invention of and intervention into the possibilities of where the lover’s quarrel might lead to, a car crash perhaps or that they would find each other again because “Athens was too small/ to get lost in…” and how Dr. Evasco guides the reader along and beneath the surface of the text, is for me a fine example of close reading that I would go back to anytime for personal instruction and enjoyment.
How Cirilo Bautista then goes back to the poem for what Dr. Evasco calls a “re-vision” or even a “re-version,” is all the more remarkable as she notes the introduction of the element of the persona’s being Filipino, transplanted into the American Midwest, and now painfully aware of or haunted by the “ghosts of his race,” the dire situation in the old country of his imagination. My own reading would suggest that this revision happens only when the poet is back home, re-viewing the memory of the poem and reinventing this memory while now keenly conscious of his “alien pigment.”
Dr. Evasco concludes her reading by remarking how Bautista has shown us the “long and short of lyric treatment.” I would add that this is now Bautista, in a re-creation or “re-version” of memory, confronting and struggling with his own historicity, and how the lyric development has altered with the interposition of the specific social reality of his being Filipino.
It is this landmark, as it were, of his Filipino reality that I would like to see more of in reading the topography of his poetic territory. Especially for the lay reader like myself, being Filipino is the last layer of Bautista’s masks—the naked flesh within which runs the single vein of his lyric and epic poetry. And despite, or perhaps because of, his constant anguish, we now see that the blood of our heroes and of the ordinary people that populate his poetry have always left their stains on the broken stones of our country.
Thank you, Marj, for compelling me to read again Cirilo’s poetry.
Bicolano poet and translator Marne Kilates is the recipient of the National Book Award in 2013 for his poetry collection “Pictures as Poems & Other (Re)Visions” (UST Publishing House). He was named Poet of the Year in the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards in 2012.