I collect rare books not only for that old-world scent trapped between their pages, but for that splendid bit of humanity revealed in each story—all told in exemplary prose.
Three authors of what seems to be out-of-print books come to mind: Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas’ Flying Over Kansas: Personal Views (1st ed. 1998), Kerima Polotan’s Author’s Choice: Selected Works of Kerima Polotan (1st ed. 1971), and Rosario A. Garcellano’s Mean Streets: Essays on the Knife Edge (1st ed. 1991).
These volumes form my triumvirate of everyday cherry-picks: An essay here, a story there, like the vitamins that they are to the soul. Their words take me to roads less traveled by in our immediate history, complete with snapshots of daily life less likely to hit the front pages, but nonetheless enchanting.
Having been the introvert and loner all my life, essays like “Bolocboloc” by Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas brought me to this place where the smell and texture of “decay” in the air of her words (the village living up to its name) exists, where such “increments of decay are measured,” the author notices, “in terms of hope.”
“When will the mountain stop sending down its smooth, grey, petrified corpuscles from out of its stone heart? Will the trucks, one day, have to move even farther up the river, and the bend of the water make yet another incalculable change, surprising another unwary foot with its swiftness?
“The afternoon is filled with light; two or three women are rinsing out their laundry on the sunny bank upstream–the clapping of their washing-mallets hammers open a space in the bright air: far down the creek, in the thicket of carabao grass, a cicada starts its fine barb of chirring, stringing the green sound from grove to grove, all along the river.”
These virtual “paintings” of life humming ‘round the fringes of Metro Manila takes on lovely turns of phrases in the mind of Torrevillas, like some snapshot from out of a teal blue dream, and reminds us of our humble yet nevertheless proud outskirts marked by dreams and superstitions.
Writing about a Roman Catholic procession through the eyes of one reared as a Protestant: “The women’s feet–bare, in slippers, in scuffed black shoes–raised small clouds of dust on the dirt road and it seemed to me as they wended out of sight, endlessly walking, toward the seaside, that they were covered by a cloud of dust and incense and candle smoke, their painted martyr levitating triumphantly above, borne up by their tangled, mumurous cathecism: a visitation as fearful and amazing as that of a djinn touching down in a desert in Arabia only to disappear again in a whirl of sand.”
Kerima Polotan, while offering a journalistic profile of life up north–Ilocandia–reminds me of my own hometown down south of the metro–San Juan, Batangas–and its strong predispositions for the clanish lifestyle.
In her essay, “Town and Country”: “It requires a great deal of maturity for the Ilocano to outgrow this fealty to the clan, a fealty, by the way, which has undertones of the Mafia and the Ku Klux Klan. Marriage outside of the tribe may do it, or travel beyond the confines of Tobacco Land, getting thrown in the company of other ethnic groups. Out of either experience may come a growing realization that his country is inhabited by people other than Ilocanos, but neither method is guaranteed to release him from the shackles of blood and culture. An instinctive largeness of mind and heart is more likely to effect his liberation, and I don’t know how you get that.”
In the same vein as Torrevillas, the author Polotan, too, wrote of women. In “The Education of a Woman,” Polotan bravely traverses the “inexplicable” in and of humanity’s strongest and most versatile gender, its melancholy twists and turns.
Yet in the same breath she admits to these things as being necessary in the creation of a woman’s “climate of the heart” despite the fact that there is ‘no school in the world that prepares adequately for life, except experience…”
“There is a melancholy, says an authority, in the heart of ‘every woman past thirty’. It is a melancholy that no one explains sufficiently and against which she has no defense–life, one must say, has enough to do, teaching her how to face up to its many standard bad moments, but against this melancholy, nothing. Curled like a worm in the heart, it bestirs itself and brings on an inexplicable distress that one seeks to relieve in various ways: gossip, the whole works at a beauty shop, church, Marlon Brando, psychoanalysis, a love affair, a marriage, a divorce, redecorating the kitchen, buying a new dress, migraine, tears.”
Garcellano, herself a traveller, flew to Atimonan and re-lived a sliver of life which hung between the city and countryside.
“Always, always, this need for flight. Summer burns, a festering wound, and the traveller, landlocked, succumbs to the seduction of the highways to tread new terrain, to touch stones and ancient trees, to be like Kilroy and scrawl with a piece of limestone that, yes, one was here, on this day of the year, here on this mountain road where, on a clear day, there is no one but oneself–and Japanese tourists.
“The road to the sea is festooned with expectations. Hours before touching the mystery of sand, even as the traveller is still trapped within the city’s concrete maze, the soul comes to roost as though divinely magnetized, so that the traveller’s actual arrival is marked by the wind keening cries of startled recognition.”
All three authors wrote of the women of their era with eyes for depth, but never bereft of the empathy praiseworthy in all women. In the “Level of Madness,” Garcellano wrote:
“All night long, the woman one section down from the bleachers sustained the passion of the moment, swooning so incredibly as to almost weep (or perhaps she did) when the idol’s lover came onstage, beautiful and shapely and not averse to performing the coy ministrations required of the ‘showbiz love team.’ In the pandemonium, your remembered racking your brain to find a word in the English language that would do justice to the Filipino word ‘kilig’. You had to concede defeat.”
A book is a room full of mirrors, each page a summary of lives set in the motion of words. While these sketches may yet be complete at the time of writing, we are all given a glimpse of what is there and what can, by some miracle of the Fates, change over time.
Authors Polotan, Garcellano and Torrevillas command an exhaustive repertoire of nonfiction works which not only do justice to what they’d witnessed, but what they’d touched and felt in the heart.
These authors and their works remain relevant in our own time, and I even daresay, beyond and outside what is now. G