Monday, March 8, 2021

Book hunter and epic poet: Cirilo F. Bautista by Ramil Digal Gulle

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Poet Cirilo F. Bautista, way back in 1991, taught me his method of hunting books at a second hand bookshop.

As we walked from the Siliman University campus to the bookshop outside the university grounds, he told me, “Tingnan natin sino sa atin ang mas maraming magandang libro na makukuha [Let’s see which of us ends up with the most number of good books].”

So it was to be some sort of race or competition, then. This seemed strange to me but since I was the National Writer’s Workshop fellow, and he was one of the Lecturers, I went along with his plan. It was about four in the afternoon, and the workshop had already concluded.

I was 18 years old back then, a wide-eyed innocent when it came to what a writer—not just any writer, but a literary writer—was supposed to do. Naturally, Cirilo, who was about 50 years old at the time, became a default role model.

I had imagined that his book hunting method would simply involve being quick-eyed enough to spot good titles among the stacks of hundreds of books around us. Obviously, the stacks had been assembled with care by the bookshop’s staff—maybe just one or two people—and a lot of effort went into keeping these neat, man-high piles as orderly as possible.

There were shelves of course, but there were simply too many books inside. So I had to navigate cautiously through these stacks of books without inadvertently toppling them. I looked through the shelves and stacks slowly, hoping for literary treasures. Then, through my careful, deliberate pacing, I spotted Cirilo and couldn’t believe my eyes.

He was toppling book stacks all around. Books came crashing down with a chorus of thuds. Once he saw a book he liked somewhere in the middle or bottom of a stack, he would not bother to carefully remove the ones on top. He would simply swat the pile down and take the book. He was making a mess. A loud mess.

Growing up, I was a frequent habitue of libraries—and not just the ones at school: I was also a member of the British Council Library and the Thomas Jefferson Center Library. So I was used to having near-total silence when I’m surrounded by books—because it was the polite thing to do (Do Not Disturb the Other Readers) and because you don’t want Conan the Librarian on your back.

So the seeming violence and aggression displayed by Cirilo during our book hunting was quite a shock. I thought of a giant raiding a small village or kingdom, crashing through houses, farms, stepping on livestock, toppling towers and castles.

Cirilo seemed to be taking our book hunt competition seriously. He was demolishing those book stacks with dispatch, seizing books left and right, and taking them to the counter very quickly. In the end, he got quite a number of books. I just had two.

When we were about to leave the book shop, he showed me his best find for the day: a first edition hardcover edition of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. Clearly, my defeat in our book hunt was absolute. And until today, nearly 30 years later, I still want that book.

There’s one other occasion in that 1991 workshop that I went shopping with Cirilo again. He was slated to be a lecturer for a week, and the day before his flight back to Manila, he and his beautiful wife Rosemarie wanted to buy souvenirs and pasalubong. Somehow, I ended up accompanying them.

There we were, walking through the public market, bursting with handicrafts, colorful woven fabrics, wide-brimmed hats, native snacks, and innumerable other gewgaws–when Rosemarie whispers to me, with a sort of naughty amusement: “Tingnan mo yan si Cirilo. Naiinip na yan. Walang pasensiya yan kapag shopping [Look at Cirilo. He’s getting antsy. He has no patience with shopping].”

So I looked over at Cirilo and, sure enough, he gave off agitation like radio waves (or in today’s terms, like a strong WiFi signal). This was not obvious in his face, however. It was more evident in his body language. His movements had become stiff, and he looked like he was mightily fighting the urge to run away from that temple of tourism-based capitalism.

Finally, he did go away. He just disappeared. He had gone to the avenue outside the market, where he no longer felt oppressed by merchandise.

Master poet

None of these, however, served to humanize Cirilo for me. Through the years of our association, I always looked up to him as a genius. A master artist when it came to weaving words into architectures of beauty and philosophic grandeur. I loved listening to his lectures because I could feel my brain expanding—my biological hard drive getting an upgrade.

Eventually, as my own poetry progressed and I had also won an award or two (no shit, that’s nothing to the awards Cirilo has received throughout his career) and published three books—I was given the honor of an appointment to the UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies as a Fellow for Poetry in English.

Believe it or not, Cirilo was one of the other two Fellows for Poetry in English, with Lourd de Veyra completing our trinity.

I felt so gratified that along with Lourd, Cirilo and I had become colleagues—at least by position and title (but never by artistic talent or accomplishment, of course). This is something I treasure until today—mostly because Cirilo, Lourd, and I shared one office and I had a chance to converse with Cirilo (and learn more from him!) whenever he was there.

As a poet and professor, Cirilo will undoubtedly be remembered as a generous mentor. He was simply never selfish when it came to sharing his wisdom, his knowledge, his talent. Whether you were simply in conversation, or you attended his lectures, or you consulted him on how to improve your writing, he gave and gave lushly.

He was always, always humble and self-deprecating. Yet, he always looked like a Gibraltar of self-assurance. Sometimes, Cirilo would say something that seemed like he was puffing himself up. Something like, “Of course, major poets like myself should get the best seats in this auditorium” and he would smile slyly or start to chuckle. And of course, we knew in what spirit that remark came from and laugh along with him.

Epic poet

As a mentor, Cirilo taught me to value language—to consider the writer’s task as something closer to a sort of priesthood. He always reminded me to look for the exact words for the exact purpose for which I was directing my writing. Music is the highest art, he would tell me, and then join that with: so all great poetry aspires to music. Poetry does not have music. It has rhythm. But Poetry at its best aspires to be music.

He was of course, one of the greatest Filipino poets to ever use the English language. His poems are imbued with katana-sharp intelligence; they have powerful rhythms running through their lines and phrases like a thoroughbred’s hot, rich blood; his poems are philosophical, Orphic, apocalyptic, and epic. To my mind, he’s by far better than Jose Garcia Villa.

That bit about being epic is literally true. Cirilo wrote was is arguably the greatest Filipino epic cycle in the English language: “The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus”. It took him 30 years to finish it: comprised of three epic poems: “The Archipelago”; “Telex Moon”; and “Sunlight on Broken Stones”.

He submitted the third epic poem “Sunlight on Broken Stones” to the 1998 Centennial Literary Prize of the National Centennial Commission. It won first prize in the Epic Category. When the complete Trilogy was published as a single volume edition, it won all the major book awards in the Philippines.

Cirilo loved his wife so much and devoted himself to her completely. He would always tell us how beautiful she is, and how, upon catching sight of her for the first time, he thought he was seeing an angel. His very best love poems, of course, were written for her:

Woods: For Rosemarie

Perhaps the woods intended us to stay

And see its wisdom in another way,

We could not tell what it was thinking then,

We had no ancestry by which to know.

 

We ignored the lone horse in the grass when

It would not raise its green head and go;

The pines needed trimming, the rocks water,

The winds blew as if we did not matter.

 

And what monarchs are we that woods to blame

If it recalls not our number and name?

We intruded in its private feeling

And had no password to protect our lie.

 

Perhaps there was no use in our stealing

Its secret wisdom why it cannot die;

Nevertheless we laughed as best we could

Because we are helpless while we are loved.

Orphan

As I write all this, naturally, I am grieving. Cirilo was my literary father. As for my literary mother, everyone knows about Ophelia Dimalanta. She died in 2010. With Cirilo’s death this past weekend, I feel like an orphan.

Maybe timing has a lot to do with this. I met Cirilo and Ophie when I was 17—very impressionable and in search of something meaningful to which I could set my time, attention, and energies. I needed direction and purpose. When they introduced me to poetry and the nuances and possibilities of language, I simply could not turn back.

I feel privileged and grateful to have those two geniuses mentor me when I was young.

Nowadays, I get flashbacks of moments with Cirilo. I remember how starstruck I was when I attended his very first lecture. I remember being struck by his mane of long black hair, swept back, and giving him—at least in my perception– a sort of leonine aura. He was an expert in classical poetic forms and semiotics.

Cirilo recited poetry like no other. He had a baritone voice—not so rich and not so deep, but it gave tremendous authority to him whenever he recited a poem. He had a unique accent when he spoke English—something unmistakeably Filipino, and his voice had a tone that sounded like he was speaking through vast reaches of history, of time itself. Yes, he was epic and mystic in both speech and text.

Cirilo even turned pop songs and folk songs into aural marvels. Who could ever forget hearing him recite Don McLean’s song “Vincent” as a poem?

I remember that he only ever drinks one bottle of beer. That’s how disciplined he was. And he could never wait to go home. He slept early—by 8 pm, foregoing writers’ social for sleep. The rest of his free time, he spent writing. The only times I saw him stay up late was when he was at a workshop in Dumaguete, or the workshops we organized for UST in Baguio.

During one of those UST workshops, Cirilo and Ophie even had a karaoke showdown with a panel of judges tasked to choose a winner. Cirilo won, besting the classically-trained—well, in piano—Ophie.

Chronic disease

Over the years, Cirilo would mention interesting tidbits from his life—I was always all ears because I could never bring myself to ask him anything personal. He told me that he never liked writing about poverty. He did, but he said it was never a pleasure.

“I grew up poor. In a small, ramshackle house. We barely had food to eat. As a child, I remember going hungry for days. It was a very traumatic time. That’s why, as much as possible, I don’t want to remember that,” he said.

Then, perhaps darkly, he would hint that he had a chronic illness. He never named it, but only said that there was something wrong with his muscles and that his body was slowly deteriorating.

Only lately did I learn about his affliction: muscular dystrophy. It’s a genetic disorder where muscles degenerate because the body is not producing enough proteins to build muscle.

In the latter years, Cirilo became progressively weaker and had to be confined in a wheelchair. He lost his leonine mane. Eventually, the dystrophy would weaken his diaphragm and the other muscles that controlled his breathing.

As often happens when the illness gets worse, Cirilo developed pneumonia after a month’s confinement at the Philippine Heart Center. He died at 6:40 a.m., May 6th, 2018.

Testimonial dinner

On September 30th, 2015, the University of Santo Tomas through the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, gave a testimonial dinner for Cirilo in honor of his career as a poet and fictionist, as well as his becoming a National Artist for Literature a year earlier.

I would not have been present at that occasion if not for one thing: he had personally asked that I be invited to read one of this poems during the program.

I was in the list of people that Cirilo specifically requested to read his poems before the audience. The other readers were Alice Sun-Cua, Lourd Ernest de Veyra, Marjorie Evasco, Marne Kilates, and Gemino Abad.

So, Cirilo, let me thank you for that honor and privilege. It was something I never, ever expected. I presume you liked my reading because you didn’t complain about it. Thank you for everything you taught me.

Most of all, thank you for giving me the two things—and you and Ophie gave me these, in amounts more than I deserved—that I really needed when I was 17: faith and respect.

Your faith in me, and your respect for my efforts—even when these fell short of your standards—made me a writer more than anything else.

Thank you. Forgive me if I stop here. To go on with these recollections would hurt too much already. Please continue to watch over me, along with Ophie.

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