On the morning of May 6, 2018, after a riveting night at Wordello 2.0 at Casa Real in Taguig, I woke up to a world orphaned by a great Filipino poet: National Artist Cirilo F. Bautista.
I guess we all knew it would happen sooner or later.
I personally did not expect Cirilo’s passing to come so soon. Our beloved National Artist for Literature had been confined at the Philippine Heart Center for a month due to an illness he allegedly inherited from his father: muscle dystrophy, a disease which prevents the body from forming muscle mass, eventually leading to progressive weakness.
I had a kind of premonition the night before, at the Wordello 2.0. Of all the poets who shared their poetry for this fund-raising event, only one rose to the stage to deliver a poem by the National Artist–the poet Ramon “Rayvi” Suñico.
When Rayvi read Cirilo Bautista’s “The Vampire,” I was at the veranda enjoying a smoke and a beer. I remember closing my eyes and slipping into the gothic darkness of Cirilo’s lines to savor each word.
The first two lines, as Rayvi himself had averred prior to the reading, was to die for. “The more he loves me / the more I cannot die.”
The first two lines were much too vatic to be snubbed as mere poetic babble. I felt the words tug at the heartstrings, leaving me with a faint sense of what might come. And death did come for Toti (as Cirilo Bautista was fondly called by friends) as I feared it would, hours later, but not with the frail humanity often associated with Death’s visitations.
As fellow writers and friends paid tribute to this great poet, it occurred to me that writers of Cirilo Bautista’s caliber never really die. They live on in the respect and fondness of their fellow writers and readers, and the lines and verses which, in their reading and recollection, form a huge part of the vision–at once illumined and immortal–of what this nation ought to be.
Immortal—that about sums up the poet’s life and work. The more we love these poets, the more they cannot die. The ability to die escapes them. If at all it’s the curse of a poet to live on, it is only because their words were never time-bound, neither are they the prisoners of distance nor space.
Every poet remembered is honor regained. This, in my opinion, is truer than the faces we see in the mirror each morning. Poets are ill-fated to stand as humanity’s better selves despite the insanity often associated with the struggling bard.
Yet, it is exactly this heaping of strangeness on the poet that makes them immortal, if not simply different. For what are gods and angels but the bizarre, idiosyncratic sketches of what we could become, insane if we were to consider the Greeks, and if at all we could be worthy of such a pantheon.
Not only do poets of note come few and far between, alas, of the handful that’s chosen, fewer come to terms with a poet’s reality.
To this end, Cirilo paints a riveting photograph of the poet in the throes of creation: “Because they are often suspended between the anxiety and this backlash, poets never seem to be normal, even if they are normal […] In this depressed state, the poet has a very low regard of his self-worth and seems to invite punishment. Indeed, he may even initiate actions that may bring about such punishment, like reckless drinking, reckless driving, and many forms of anti-socialism. There is the other side to all this, though. No matter how punished they may be, some poets manage to strike a truce with their god and, in that twilight zone between madness and lucidity, provide satisfactory closure to their unfinished poems. They are the poets who matter…” (Bautista, Cirilo F., The House of True Desire: Essays on Life and Literature, “Understanding Poets,” UST Publishing House, 2010, p.224).
Anyone who is familiar with Cirilo Bautista’s body of work know the National Artist always wrote in favor of art for its own sake. But even while in this lofty seat, he makes amends as someone who was not a stranger to war:
In “Sometime in a War,” he wrote: “There are other wars, of course, to which I can turn. As a poet, I am almost always at war with words. There is excitement enough in linguistic conflict—metrical tussles, rhyme ambuscades, stazaic skirmishes—but they do not, in the least, approximate blood and the drama of real human conflict.”
Yet for all that he was swept away by such literary skirmishes, Cirilo never lost sight of the writer’s role in the here and now.
In his essay “Notes on Literary Life,” he wrote: “There can never be a ceasefire in the writer’s war with the irrational, the incompetent, and the corrupt…”
In “In Times of Trouble,” he offers a warning to writers: “How lightly the powerful treat freedom! They usurp the poetic language to convince the artists to sacrifice themselves for those who have cause the calamity in the first place. This is a despicable situation […] To save the nation from utter ruin, poets are forced to defend the bad people against the worse people, knowing that whatever results may be, evil and corruption will continue to dominate.”
Yet with the same wobble of his pen, as a foreword to one of his essays, “Full Circle,” he wrote (or quoted from another poet) these words: “I will write songs against you, / enemies of my people; I will pelt you / with the winged seeds of the dandelion; / I will marshall against you / the fireflies of the dusk.”
At no other time in our nation’s history is the poet much needed. Why? Because Cirilo Bautista, beloved National Artist, said so himself: “An artless society harvests the sting of its neglect. It will have few means to fend off the backlash of high corruption and gross bureaucratic ineptitude that slowly eats the foundations of our patrimony […] This has always been the condition of cultural progress, of imaginative advance–that is, the reconstruction from reality to language allows some degree of human salvation even from the most dehumanizing experience.”
With this issue, the Philippines Graphic celebrates Cirilo F. Bautista’s life and works. Read on. G