What to make of him, I do not know really. Maybe, he is all that I do not think and none that I do. Maybe not. Or who knows?
He is broad of forehead and with small, round eyes that are at once bold and bashful. Bold because he looks at you with such sharpness as to seem to impose. Bashful because he doesn’t seem to mean to look at you at all. He carves in the space rather what he says and you wonder what it is that is being carved and finds no sooner that the space where the carving has been is in between your eyes. You almost become him. Bold, bashful.
When I first saw Professor Bautista, I was a young student at PNU. He lectured then, I believe, in the library theatre about poetry and commented on some poems he wrote. He told the audience a little of the history of his Pedagogic and how it came to be. I listened with amazement as he narrated how, in a foreign land, he walked through the woods in autumn and saw the leafless branches stretched their brown, flaming fingers. It was that among others that I recalled vividly. The solitary walk in the woods, the sight of bony branches, the fingers of trees—were images I carried with me as I wended my way to the door after the lecture.
I taught at Adamson University after graduation and followed fervently since that meeting his columns in Philippine Panorama. A poem or two appeared in the magazine’s pages which were my source of delight. I remember alighting in Blumentritt many years ago to buy in one of the decrepit stalls lined up in the pavement some back issues of the Sunday supplement. Ten pesos afforded me ten copies at a peso each. The poems were my escape from hunger and saved me from the blows of everyday toil.
When Prof. Librada Penaranda, then the head of Languages and Literature, assigned me to get someone to lecture on the poetic craft, I snatched Cirilo F. Bautista who at that time was a professor in De La Salle. He waited for me at the window along the corridor in the 4th floor of the William Hall building when I went to fetch him. His gaze seemed to wander among the houses in the nearby area that now luxuriated in the desire for a shade of affluence by propping their walls with concrete. He wore a light-blue barong or what seemed one, and a black pant neatly pressed. When we drove, I told him that I did not find his Talambahay/talambuhay in Sugat ng Salita, a poetry collection in Filipino. It eased my awe a bit to say something and break our enstrangement ( I only knew him by his poems and there was nothing by which I could be known ). I wanted to flatter him a little by praising his poems. But knowing how poets of his stature hate such excesses, I kept silent. The comfort of his CRV, a car he procured through a poetry contest prize, cushioned my awkwardness. Meanwhile, the lines of Talambahay kept intruding persistently that I momentarily forgot about the great poet beside me:
Ang buhay namin sa Balic-balic ay baku-bako
Nalalatagan ng bubog at tinik ng siphayo.
I ushered him to the 2nd floor of the St. Theresa’s building to meet the chairperson when we arrived. Then, we proceeded to the Media Center where the lecture would be.
It was something we already knew, the lecture. But somehow, we seemed to fail to grasp the virtues of the figures of speech that they sounded greek. There was indeed much to discover about the stunning effects of oxymorons and paradoxes that seize us and direct our attention to the mystical beauty of the poetic art. Or about the arresting enlightenment of an irony in a poem’s conclusion that restores the logical balance among the varied elements therein.
Among the pieces, Douglas Dunn’s A Removal from Terry Street impressed me. The lines went:
On a squeaking cart, they push the usual stuff—
A mattress, bed ends, cups, carpets, chairs,
Four paperback westerns. Two whistling youths
In surplus U.S. Army jackets
Remove their sister’s goods. Her husband
Follows, carrying on his shoulders the son
Whose mischief we are glad to see removed,
And pushing, of all things, a lawnmower.
There s no grass in Terry Street. The worms
Come up cracks in concrete yards in moonlight.
That man, I wish him well. I wish him grass.
The idea seemed familiar to me and the circumstances looked as though they were right in my backyard. And why not? The poverty of the family was too much to ignore. Their makeshift lives, I’d call it was sharply suggested by a catalog of stuff: mattress, bed ends, cups, carpets, chairs, paperbacks. This was even heightened by a seemingly absurd account of a surplus U.S. Army battle-jackets. A poignant irony, I thought. A stark contrast between the explicit adventure in western and battle and implicit excursion of their impoverished existence. Misadventures both, anyway, a burden much heavier than the mischievous son on the father’s shoulders. To make things worse, the father pushes a lawnmower, the most ridiculous object to possess when no grass can be found. That man, I wish him well. I wish him grass, says the speaker whose heart must have been torn between pity and helplessness. What more can he do than wish anyhow?
It was not difficult to figure why Cirilo Bautista chose that poem for discussion. It was much too familiar for him to ignore. I learned this when I ventured into his more socially-relevant pieces. In his To Define Is To Know, he scribbled:
Because we are poor,
my father warned me against
politicians and policemen.
They live in big houses, he said;
they will shoot you down
if they don’t like your look, he said.
We ate brown rive and dried fish
roasted over glowing coal.
I swallowed even the burnt scales
and the little stones in the grains.
We sat on the floor while eating,
and ate with our hands
by candlelight. There is not much
to see to eat, anyway, my father said,
and I would laugh and chew.
My mother grew old each day
and each day weighed us down
with the burden of living. Even
the mangy dogs pondered
their fate, walking slow and sad-eyed,
as if to their execution. This was all
long ago, you understand,, when
I was young and happy. I did not know
the meaning of poor until one day,
at election time, the politicians
and their policemen descended
on our hovel bearing gifts of food
and money. Look, my father said,
they are giving us back some
of what they took away from us.
He almost told the same thing in one of our classes to make me think that he knew the circumstances by heart. That poverty which stabs an incurable scar in one’s consciousness, and which is fostered by greedy people has disgraced our puny adventures. Indeed, there is no denying the all-too-familiar-sights of hovels festooned with all sorts of sheets—plastic, paper, tin, and what-have-you—that make for a wall and whose occupants feast on crumbs and lick their fingers salted by dried fish and eat burnt scales and crush the crispy bones between their angry teeth. It is, no doubt, thrice difficult in this country, compared to Dunn’s, to make sense of one’s existence. The lines my mother grew old each day// and each day weighed us down// with the burden of living have the resonance of the struggles of the downtrodden who are stunned each moment by the weightlessness of an empty stomach.. Look, Prof. Bautista told us, it is as it was when I was young. He was narrating to us at that moment the politicians who doled out what they had stolen. What surprised me was that we were not discussing his poem. It was only years later when I read it in his Believe and Betray, a recent poetry collection that I recalled such instance in our class.
Prof. Bautista’s inclination to sing of his country’s woes carved in us the virtue of a generous spirit who constantly writes of things beyond personal concerns. I think now that maybe, he wished too as we do that like Dunn’s persona, these ball-belied, Barong-clad leaders would descend one day in the poor’s makeshift houses to say:
These people, I wish them well. I wish them meal.
And mean it.
Radney Ranario teaches Creative Writing and Literature at the Philippine Normal University. His essay first appeared in Touchstone, the Adamson University magazine.