Tuesday, April 13, 2021

South Africa must be good for the soul

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South Africa. A place of raw, untamed beauty. Its cities, Johannesburg and Cape Town in particular, rise from the burrowed ground at once splendid and modern. Everything this side of the Cape of Good Hope stands as a fitting chrome and steel backdrop to an Africa most people know only for the continent’s wildlife.

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Since 1994, this slice of Eden had been home to prize-winning Filipino poet Jim Pascual Agustin. South Africa must be good for the soul, as here proven by Agustin’s latest book published by San Anselmo Publications, How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & Other Poems.

The salagubang is the stuff of many a Filipino’s childhood memories. Also called the May Beetle, this genus of the New World scarab reminds Filipinos of their humble beginnings, their non-aggressive character.

Palayan, Nueva Ecija is one of many homes to these gentle creatures. Here, a dish called kinamatisang salagubang hogs the table. The red-skin earth-crawling species of the May beetles are first captured and later sautéed in tomatoes, a gastronomic treasure of the adobo variety.

The tree-crawling genus, on the other hand, has other “uses”. The 1970s saw children in Manila capture these beetles to make “helicopters”. The salagubang were spun around while one of their hind legs were tied to a thread, and then rotated by hand. The practice had since stopped with the dwindling population of the beetles.

One has got to hand it to Jim Pascual Agustin to reacquaint readers with their near-forgotten introspection as only this poet could do. His poems are timely in that it brings us back to where, for some reason, we digressed. Faith. Hope. Love. How to heal a broken heart.

His poems are a hundred and one carousels finding their way out of the loop. In “Breathing Hole,” Agustin builds an escape route for the broken hearted:

To speak to her again / would mean learning / a new language, / finding your way / out of the dump, negotiating / with people until your trust / your nose once more. / But first you have to tumble / out of that suitcase. 

Agustin’s ecstatic and sardonic shifts, at once easy and calm, puts him in league with the country’s unique voices. His words bring to bear upon the reader a kind of introspection too deep for words.

His mirages thrill. Even the mundane, everyday images captivate. A favorite, “Hope is not the same as dawn,” sets the stage for profundities both huge and small, using the complexities of scale to shock the reader into thought.

 So says one who sees ants

only when they bite his skin.

 

The world spins on an axis

that has nothing to do with him.

 

One star dying and another

being born will have no bearing

           

on the cup of coffee he stirs.

The beating of an insect’s wing

 

might as well be a watch

warming on his wrist.

 

Agustin’s attempts to ruffle feathers and unsettle the powerful—from across thousands of miles of ocean—are nonetheless worth looking into. Distance, it seems, poses no problem for the poet. His vision of the darkness is as clear as day, his senses in full throttle.

In “Duterte’s Dead,” Agustin writes:

Hope leaves no trace

in their hallowed skulls.

Only the living carry

 

the weight as they navigate

the mute streets, the dark

alleys, the witnesses

 

to the carnage.

Is there really

no memory in heaven?

More so, Agustin refuses to make amends for lines both scathing and necessary. If only to nail the criticism shut in its place, he braces for his roar. To scoundrels in power, Agustin throws the gauntlet:

Now a thousand deaths mark

each month of your reign.

 

I wouldn’t mind the pain

from bleeding hands, piling stone

after rough stone over you.

San Anselmo Publications proudly writes of its author: “San Anselmo Publications, Inc. published the 114-page volume of over 80 poems by Agustin whose work has appeared through the years in major Philippine publications such as Midweek Magazine, Ani (Cultural Center of the Philippines literary journal), and the Philippines Graphic. Agustin’s poetry, including some that appear in this latest book, have also been published in prominent international literary journals like Modern Poetry in Translation (UK), Rhino (USA), The Johannesburg Review of Books (South Africa), Cha (Hong Kong), Rusted Radishes (Lebanon), New Coin (SA) and World Literature Today (USA).

“Highly respected poet and editor Gemino H. Abad included a considerable body of work by Agustin in the landmark anthologies A Habit of Shores (1999) and The Achieve of, the Mastery (2018).

How To Make a Salagubang Helicopter & Other Poems is Agustin’s ninth book, hot on the heels of Wings of Smoke (2017) published by Oxford-based The Onslaught Press and his second National Book Award shortlisted Sanga sa Basang Lupa at iba pang kuwento (UST Publishing House, 2016).

“San Anselmo Publications publisher Marvin Aceron decided to release Agustin’s book in order to promote Filipino poetry and inspire the youth. Aceron says, “Jim Pascual Agustin is a fine poet and his skill and integrity are unmatched in Philippine letters. To give justice to his poetry, we assembled a good team around Jim to produce this book.”

“Aside from Palanca-winning fictionist, Sasha Martinez, who wrote the book’s foreword and edited it, San Anselmo Publications also commissioned celebrated visual artist Alex ‘Bugsy’ Sibug to create the cover and book designs. At the core of the book are photos taken by Paul I. Tañedo, a Filipino photographer, cinematographer and film producer who is based in the US. Tañedo shot and produced Lav Diaz’s Urian Best Picture film, Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino.”

Agustin has won international literary awards, such as the Gabo Prize for Literature in Translation & Multi-Lingual Texts; the DALRO—Dramatic, Artistic and Literary Rights Organization Award (second prize); the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award (third prize in 2014, 2015 and 2017).

The reading of How To Make a Salagubang Helicopter & Other Poems is an adventure in poetic composure: raging, but never wanting in tranquility; deep, but hardly obscure. There are many irrefutable monuments—strong, immovable.

The book’s most fascinating feature, however, is its quiet service to the aesthetics of truth and poetry. Here, Agustin proves distance is of no consequence to this poet of time and timelessness. G

 

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