“I am about to sit down on the bench under the papaya tree when the shaking begins. It lasts for what seems like the longest time when the garden settles down, one of the boys who is helping me looks down into the well and notes that though the ground has stopped shaking the water continues to move. I finish my round of the garden and do not give it another thought.”
The above passage of prose from “Running with Ghosts” speaks of most of us humans: Locked in the moment, within a very small field of vision where external forces are not always felt at their strongest.
Poet and 2018 National Book Awards winner Merlie M. Alunan has a powerful voice, one that rings both true and lyrical. Her writing is so powerful she won two of last year’s NBA awards: One for the book I’m reviewing here, as the Best Book of Poetry in English for 2018, and another tome, titled “Tinalunay: Hinugpong Nga Panurat Nga Waray,” the winner in the Best Anthology in English category.
Then she launches into an expanded field of vision, one aided by technology: “When I get back to the house, the stories have begun coming in—from TV, from the Internet, text messages from friends. In the bare thirty seconds in which that quake lasted, unspeakable devastation has come to the islands of Bohol and Cebu.”
If the prose in this book is powerfully moving, the poetry is a hundredfold more impactful. It is elemental and raw, bearing only the scant polish of recollection that does not, in any way, blunt its sharp edges.
“Running With Ghosts” contains many pieces in Alunan’s native languages, translated into English or Filipino with great faithfulness. The book talks of the Balangiga Massacre and the resultant loss of the three church bells of that town which have but recently been returned. It chronicles in poetry the Ormoc Flood of 1991, the Bohol Earthquake on Oct. 15, 2013 and the passage of Typhoon Haiyan (locally named Yolanda) less than a month after the temblor, on Nov. 8.
It is a sublime read, if we are to look at the crafting of the poems. But, then again, the brightest threads of life come from the strongest emotions: Devastation, grief, denial, rage, and, yes, amid the desolation, joy and hope.
Alunan’s impeccable control of her imagery and her courage in recollection make of this book a precious record of those calamities and ravages of a place both she and my mother call home: The Central Visayas, where the strength of storms is broken at great cost.
Here’s a passage from the poem The Lost Bells: “He’s been in the business of looking for the bells/ these many years. Written hundreds of letters/ to as many people and offices./ His files grow, papers, photographs./ He’s memorized the special markings./ Their lineage and history are maps in his head,/ the village where they were cast in the old country,/ the ocean crossings that brought them to Balangiga/ centuries ago. The bells had been/ el voz de Senor Dios, God’s own voice to his people/ for many years, calling out the hours of the day,/ the seasons, the silver trill to announce weddings/ and baptisms, the stately cadence of the death toll/ the flourishes of the daily call to worship.”
The people of the Visayas are heralded for their musicality—the guitar is played there, and many guitars are made there, too—and Alunan’s poetry vibrates with the same sibilant and unbiquitous song.
“Running with Ghosts” is that rare book of poetry that carries a weight of meanings that exceeds the physical dimensions of its form. It is a tome that reminds us all of the oral tradition that was our birthright, now faded to mere recordings in some musty vault, with only a few scant living examples of it left. Alunan’s poetry comes to life best when read aloud, better yet chanted like prayer or old pagan songs.
She speaks of loss with an eloquence that merely sharpens the point she drives home: That loss is a human thing, something we all feel. That we are often pushed out of our little cocoons by pain and nothing else. That memory is paramount to continuing on our way with our eyes wide open, appreciating what we do have before we lose it and have to find ways to regain it again, in one form or another. That joy won’t die even after the many desolations the heart has to bear as one moves through life.
Let me end this review with more of Alunan’s prose from “Running with Ghosts”: “Each of us in our time has paid our fee of one thing or another to war of one kind or another, or to wind, water, fire, mountains melting under your feet, rocks falling over our heads and burying us alive, droughts scorching our fields and taking away the grain that would have fed us and our children. This should tell us that we are at the mercy of nature, yet many of us go on with our everyday lives as if nature had nothing to do with us.”
So we come to the point that rarely gets pushed front and center by a book as beautiful as this one I hold in my lap: Nature has everything to do with us, and we are interconnected to each other. Read “Running With Ghosts” and learn this. G