EILEEN TABIOS Engages
Mangyan Treasures on The Ambahan: A poetic expression of the Mangyan of Southern Mindoro, Philippines by Antoon Postma
(Mangyan Heritage Center, Mindoro, Philippines, 2005)
DRAGON LOGIC by Stephanie Strickland
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, ID, 2013)
ACTION SCORE GENERATOR by Nathan Walker
(if p then q, Manchester, U.K., 2015)
Antoon Postma is a Dutch anthropologist, linguist and former missionary priest who was assigned (by the Society of the Divine Word) to the island of Mindoro, Philippines, in 1958. A year later he met the Mangyans, fell in love with their culture, and began researching and writing about them. He would come to leave the priesthood to marry Yam-ay, a Hanunuo Mangyan. In his 80s now, he still lives in Mindoro. It’s no surprise then that the love for his adopted culture shines through in his wonderful book, Mangyan Treasures on The Ambahan: A poetic expression of the Mangyan of Southern Mindoro, Philippines. It is clearly a labor of love as Postma “compiled, translated and explained” the poetic form of “ambahan.” Postma defined the ambahan as:
- a set of poetic expressions
- with a measured rhyme of seven-syllable lines
- having rhyming end syllables
- vocalized as a chant without a determined melody or too much melodic variation
- without the accompaniment of musical instruments
- recited for the purpose of verbalizing in a metaphorical way certain human situations or characteristics
- with the possible challenge of matching answer in dialogue fashion, and
- in the presence of an interested audience of various size.
In his lifetime, Postma collected over 20,000 ambahan which are now digitized, transcribed and stored at the Mangyan Heritage Center’s Library. The book Mangyan Treasures presents 261 ambahan divided thematically among 13 chapters with themes spanning a life’s categories, from “Birth and Infancy” to “Marriage” to “Death.” Here below is an example with its English translation. I note that the Mangyan poem can be read phonetically, thus enjoyed, by readers not fluent in its language. And do imagine for what it may be a metaphor!
Kang ka-ubi guhayan
Dag paribo yahudan
Kawo may hulong divan
You, a yam, called Guhayan,
climbing many is not fun!
You should only climb on one!
Postma has provided an invaluable service to not just the Mangyan culture he adopted but also to poetry. Through his studies, he is able to present a useful presentation of a poetic form that is charismatic enough to attract a global and not just Filipino audience. Some of the most compelling aspects of the ambahan are its history and philosophy as regards authorship.
As regards history, the ambahan poetry of the past was scratched into the surface of a piece of bamboo with a sharp pointed, home-made knife, creating a memory aid for remembering the poetry. The bamboo pieces were used as containers, and the text relied on an old writing system that originated in India about 2,500 years ago. As Postma explains, “Once written down, it would be of help to many others, because another Mangyan, when in need of lime and tobacco, would use this bamboo container covered with writing, and might notice the ambahan engraved in lines on the outer surface, and eventually copy it on another piece of bamboo for his own repertoire, to be used at the proper occasion.”
As regards authorship, Postma observes that “new ambahans are still being composed today by Mangyan poets, although no one would ever take credit for that. After all, the most important thing is the poem itself, and not the one who created and/or presented it.”
Through the ways the Mangyan perceive authorship and the role of reading, I would remember this book when I read two other books that, on the surface, would seem very different: Stephanie Strickland’s DRAGON LOGIC and Nathan Walker’s ACTION SCORE GENERATOR. Both books are among poetry collections released in recent years to (partially) manifest the “poems” made possible with the use of computer code. That is, the poets input various data and modes into a program that then, without additional authorial intervention, create or generate poems.
DRAGON LOGIC includes a six-page list of Strickland’s data and conceptual sources and inspiration—or, to use her term, “codemakers”—which show an impressive diversity. The list begins with Al Farabi, “10th c. mathematician, musician, philosopher; studied in Baghdad” and ends with “Z” and that “the z-axis represents getting up off a 2-dimensional plane or down onto a complex one; a z-plane is a conventional representation of complex numbers established by one real axis and an imaginary ( z ) axis perpendicular to it.” In between are references to Celan, Darwin, Hendrix, Lucretius… and so on. Strickland’s generator is brilliantly effective in creating a wide variety of poems. It’s a challenging result as one’s way of reading a poem also shifts from one poem to another (this is a compliment, btw). The results are wide-ranging but, intriguingly, the rub of words against each other make more often than not for a poetry in which it’s easy enough for a reader to invest meaning or significance. For example, these evocative excerpts:
unruly interactions between forming fields
it goes off-patent
factoid : leeches make shocking comeback
—from “Hunger Dragon of Unstable Ruin”
In terms of explanatory information, ACTION SCORE GENERATOR doesn’t (like DRAGON LOGIC) present a list of data sources so much as an explanatory—and usefully explanatory—essay by Mark Leahy on how Walker was interested in creating a generator that explored the poet’s philosophies regarding reading and other elements related to reading (e.g. action and time). Before the essay which held the place of an afterword, numerous poems were presented; most are short, which fit the project’s intent to only reveal the poems for a short period of time before going on to the next generated poem. That is, when the generator was running short poems appeared on screen at a relatively fast pace. The pace of appearance and disappearance has to do with several concepts including challenging the “reviewable aspect of print” (since the texts appear so briefly and rapidly), as well as, intriguingly, facilitating “reading [as] action”:
An action (as a functional term) can be extrapolated across digital, linguistic and performative modes. It has both continuous and discrete qualities, each banner is ‘an action’ and ‘action’ is generated by the passing text(s). The title ‘action score generator’ names the engine, the machine that is at work; what are evident on the screen are the action scores, scores that are being or have just been generated. The machinery is the code processing the verbal material, which is hidden, held in waiting until selected, until called forth for output. This action, acting, removes the pressure to act on the scores, to carry out the instructions. The pressure to perform an imagined future or possible, external other act, is suspended; focus is brought to the action occurring on the screen. Reading is an action.
Here are a couple of examples (chosen by opening the book at random) that are presented as they are on the book page: all capitalized, large font and centered:
The text are the type that ordinarily would make a reader pause to consider what they mean (so to speak). But that consideration is dropped as there’s no time for it—via the generator, the texts are appearing too fast and the generator facilitates a “forward expectation” by the reader as, along with reading what’s on screen, the focus is on what’s next. Hence, by Walker’s standard, “just the reading is an action.”
Leahy's essay was a highlight for me. It presented intelligent philosophical ideas, and was written in a lucid style. The all of it allows the reader to see clearly a proposition of the poet’s intent. Thus, one can judge the poems by also determining whether the poems effectively manifest these intentions for the project. By such a standard, yes, the poems are effective. For example, the claim in the essay that the effect is like “silent cinema” is believable—it’s quite eerie as, as one keeps turning the pages onto these short texts in a very long book (the book is unpaginated but about 1.5 inches thick), a sense of soundlessness surfaces. It’s like being presented with a face moving its lips but not hearing anything because the focus is so brief and is in an anticipatory mode.
I wonder, of course, if reading is really reading (versus, say, scanning) if there’s no time to consider what is being read. I’d like to offer an example of a normative reading of one of the texts (normative in the sense that I can pause to think about what I’m reading instead of being pushed onto the space of another text). Opening the book at random, I see
For me, “nails beside eye” bespeaks danger (a nail can easily scratch the eye). In this situation, focus is on the nail and everything else falls away. Thus, there would be the effect of a situation that “speak(s) against room” in the sense that the focus has narrowed because danger often narrows focus to the threat (nails). Yet there is a “room” that exists. So the danger is dual: there also is danger in, to lapse to another metaphor, ignoring the forest for the tree(s). What’s interesting to consider is whether I would have thought all this in the seconds of the words’ appearance before the screen presents another poem. It would take a highly-focused reader, I think, to be able to do so … and do so for the next poem … and the next. And perhaps such magnified lucidity is another goal of this project; if so, it’s an admirable goal befitting the experience of poetry.
Enhanced lucidity is an apt goal because my reading of the sample tercet above could imply that perhaps the project is suggesting the need to slow down and focus on what the words are saying. But poetry is an imaginative act and such a didactic conclusion is not so stable when one reads the text visually, as can occur in poetry.
What DRAGON LOGIC and ACTION SCORE GENERATOR reveal through numerous, unexpectedly pleasing poem-results are the huge possibilities within the code approach. To me, the underlying philosophies to code creation are as important as the generated results. I’ve discussed above Walker’s thoughts about his project. Strickland’s conceptual underpinnings relate, to quote blurber Joanna Klink, to how “our material face-to-face world threatened from so many directions, slips into potentially infinite virtual spaces,” thus raising the question, “where have we gone?”
Klink continues about the pervasiveness of the virtual world, “We do not know whether it renders humankind irrelevant, serves as an escape from apocalyptic problems, or is to be welcomed as a new direction for human life.” Such is the “increasingly invisible dragon-in-the-room stalking our time.”
Speaking of dragon in the room, it’s worth noting here the effectiveness of Quemadura’s cover design: the front cover bespeaks dragon scales but modernized to give a sense of it being (whether or not it is) a computer-generated image.
But the circle turns and it’s the reader of the poems—the humans looking at the computer screens—who will determine the effect: “the new direction for human life.” Or as the other blurber Amaranth Borsuk says of DRAGON LOGIC, “…these are poems of emergent meaning: our fingers on the knots bring them into being.”
Klink notes in her blurb that humankind’s slippage into “potentially infinite virtual spaces” can be an “escape” or a “new direction.” Notwithstanding the cautionary notes inseparable from the book’s content, I find it somehow heartening to glimpse optimism in the book’s last poem. Technology, after all, is not necessarily the problem; it’s, as ever, what humans choose to do with technology. Thus, the book can end with these last lines from the last poem “Unsolved Problems”:
duration distance solitude
time obedience : not ten-hut
rather ob-au-di-re (hear . . . thoroughly)
then too endurance
Endurance: the engagement continues. Because, to paraphrase from an emphasized (viz epigraph) source, The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem,
Everyone knows that dragons don’t exist. But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the laymen, it does not suffice for the scientific mind ….
Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon : the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical. They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way ….
To return to what I perceived to be the links between these computer-generated poems and ambahan poetry, the approaches accept the instability of authorship as well as persona. The ambahan authors don’t see their individual authorial by-lines as particularly important; they are focused on the message and what benefits (e.g. lessons and advice) their poems impart. The code-programming poets also relinquish their subjective stances to the code; they don’t, I believe, erase the author since a someone still has to write the code (including conceptualizing the code) as well as determine the inputted data. But they’ve relaxed authorial control on the output; in turn, this facilitates focus on the readings (with its subsequent engagements, if any and additional) that occur beyond the “writing.”
While the benefits of ambahan poetry is narratively discernible, the computer-generated poems rely much more on reader-participation for the investment of significance or meaning. This difference, though, only emphasizes the unexpected linkage between this indigenous and radical poetries—how the experience of poetry is not individual but communal (the forest in addition to the tree?), and how open-ended poems facilitate such engagement.
Eileen Tabios recently released an experimental auto-biography, AGAINST MISANTHROPY: A LIFE IN POETRY, as well as her first poetry collection published in 2015, I FORGOT LIGHT BURNS. Forthcoming later this year is INVENT(ST)ORY which is her second “Selected Poems" project; while her first Selected THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, INVEN(ST)ORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form. She does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor (the exception would be books that focus on other poets as well). She is pleased, though, to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her work. Her poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Joey Madia in New Mystics Review and Zvi Sesling in Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com